How to Encourage Young
(and old too!) Writers
Writing wounded. What exactly does this concept mean? Many educators, as do I, look at writing as the inverse of reading. If you follow the Montessori method, you discover the fundamentals of writing are taught even before many fundamentals of reading. Writing also happens to be one of the subjects I was given the least guidance in during my teacher training. In my experience, writing is one of the most difficult things to teach effectively. At least, I feel that way at the upper elementary ages.
In the classroom, it has taken me many years to develop what I believe to be effective strategies to teach writing. For instance, you can never break a task down too small for a student to complete. Moreover, in the virtual classroom, it means you can break those tasks down even smaller still!
It’s wrong to make any assumptions as to what writing skills students might have ‘mastered’ at any age. By mastered I mean in the same way anyone masters anything: If you don’t practice it enough, you most likely will forget a few things. Don’t assume a 4th grader fully understands how to write a paragraph or what a paragraph is even used for! Subsequently, students need various reviews and reminders. My students and I call this “knocking the rust off.”
Another assumption I’ve learned to avoid is this: Just like with reading aloud, don’t assume because a student is a competent or a skilled writer they will feel comfortable sharing their writing or reading it out loud.
Even in my mid 40s, I continue to discover new insights into writing every single day.
What I Learned About Adults
during a Saturday Writers Workshop
Writing wounded is a term I picked up during a writers workshop I participated in about a decade ago. The workshop was designed to help teachers learn new ways to engage students more deeply into creative writing. It was a volunteer, all-day Saturday writing seminar consisting of about 50 teachers. The teachers consisted of various teaching levels throughout our school district. Writing wounded was that day’s buzz phrase.
Almost immediately, we were divided into groups of 5 and asked to systematically choose a writing prompt we would all be willing to write on. Each group member submitted 3 prompt ideas. The decision had to be unanimous. All three of my submitted topics were eliminated in the first round. Because of this, I was already starting out a little discouraged. We fussed and quibbled a bit. In the end, our group chose the topic Memories.
Barbra and images of cats flooded my consciousness. These memories were in the corners of my mind. The instructor went around and asked each group what topic they have chosen: Vacations. Spring Break. Alcohol. Places we like to go alone. Vacations. And ours.
What does it mean
to be ‘Writing Wounded?’
We began writing. To my surprise, three of my group members started crying almost as quickly as the activity began. Two of them cried because of the subject matter they chose (a dead brother and a dying father) and one because (we learned later) she believed she was a terrible writer. She had convinced herself she didn’t know what to write about. She also feared having to share her on-demand piece with the group afterward.
This is what the instructor referred to as “The Writing Wounded.” After watching an adult woman break down in front of strangers, I began to wonder. I wondered, compared to the others, why my group choose such a heavy topic to write about? Places we like to go alone sounded lighter and a bit more fun. I also began to wonder, how many of my young students have already been wounded by writing?
The Curse of the Red Pen
Like my discouraged group member, I too wasn’t sure what to write about. So, I started to write as if I was writing a free-flowing journal entry. Among the random memories I pieced together – mostly negative I noticed – here is a bit of what poured out onto my paper during the 7 minutes that followed:
There were some positive memories, too. My first bike. Being able to climb a tree highest among all the neighborhood kids. I believe that record stood until they bulldozed our favorite climbing tree down and built a house in its place.
Time is up. Seven minutes go by quickly! The Doors take over my train of thought. Break on through; break on through to the other side. Memories are like breaking through and peeling back layers. In the end, I was grateful that we chose such a heavy topic. After the writing and sharing session, the instructor asked us each to choose a group name. We toyed with The Breakfast Club. The Broken. Therapy Session.
In the end, the name our group unanimously chose was Playing Opossum. This name came from one of the memories I shared. I felt a little vindicated from earlier.
Why are we Afraid to Share our Writing?
My biggest take-aways from that day? Writing is a very intimate and personal activity. This is true whether you are an elementary student or a trained professional. There seems to be at least two extremely tall hurdles to overcome when writing: 1) Writing technically well according to our conventions (this includes handwriting) and consequently being judged for it. 2) Sharing our deepest inner thoughts and consequently being judged for it.
Some of us feel more comfortable sharing our private thoughts than others. Some of us don’t. We might carry writing scars with us, some from very early ages, for the rest of our lives. This is why it is so important to respect student’s privacy when it comes to writing.
As I learned in my Montessori training, never force a child to share work they feel uncomfortable sharing. There are at least two legitimate reasons as to why (see above). Gentle encouragement goes much further.
We were also taught to never write all over a child’s work with a red pen, as I remember from my childhood days. Once again, gentle encouragement goes much further. And it goes in a much more positive direction.
Tips to Help Young, Reluctant Writers
There is a time and place to talk about writing conventions and to check for understanding. This doesn’t mean pointing out every little thing a writer has “done wrong” in every piece of writing they have courageously submitted for judgement. Moreover, actions speak louder than words. Marking up a paper with a red pen is not showing respect to your young writer’s creative work. Instead, my trainers used post it notes when necessary.
Next week, I will talk more specifically about tips to help young, reluctant writers build confidence in their work. This can be applied to either the technical aspects of writing or the personal aspects.
I’ve also now learned you can safely apply these strategies to reluctant writers of every age.
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Read more: Writing Strategies Part Two
Who said the quote,
“Actions speak louder than words”?
This proverb came to be at the time of the English Civil War, by John Pym, the English parliamentarian. It was recorded in 1628: “A word spoken in season is like an Apple of Gold set in Pictures of Silver,’ and actions are more precious than words.”