Oak Meadow: At Oak Meadow, we take pride in respecting the developmental needs of children. At which age/developmental stage do you think it’s most appropriate to introduce writing skills? What are some ways parents can recognize that their children are ready to write? When is too soon?
Leslie D-V: The time to introduce writing varies with each child. The most important consideration in determining when a child is ready to write is to allow the process to unfold in a natural way. The act of writing often begins with a preschool child in the form of lines and shapes. This changes into random letters, then moves forward to include the child’s name, as well as the names of other members in the family. The interest in spelling words properly often follows soon after. One significant factor is how the child grips the writing implement (crayon, pencil, etc.). This is an indication of advancement in the fine motor skills, and if the child is ready to write. If help is needed in this area, then it is good to introduce activities that enhance the fine motor skill development. Simple exercises for inspiring and encouraging writing at a young age include stringing beads, working with pegged puzzles, playing board games with moving pieces, tying shoes, holding utensils, drawing and painting pictures, etc. A good resource for other ideas is Ready, Set, Read & Write: 60 Playful Activities for You and Your Child to Share by Marlene Barron. When the ability and the interest to write is present in a child, then it’s good to practice writing on a daily basis, even if it starts out in very small quantities.
Oak Meadow: You both have many years of teaching experience behind you. How have these years informed your teaching, and especially your teaching of writing?
Lesley A: My years of teaching (40 years this year!) have influenced my life in so many ways. I wouldn’t trade my career of teaching for anything! If I had to point to one thing, I’d probably say that my experiences have helped me to view learning as a creative experience that unfolds gradually. Learning is not something you do and you’re done with; learning is part of life that never ends. Instilling in students the lifetime love of being a learner has been a lifetime goal of mine!
Leslie D-V: I could write a book with a question like this! However, when it comes to the teaching of writing, the pictorial and storytelling introduction to the alphabet (and to the writing of words and sentences), which I learned as part of my Waldorf training, was a significant influence. I was also deeply moved by the Waldorf idea of creating of a beautifully written and illustrated Main Lesson Book that becomes the child’s first reader. I value the educational philosophy that encourages the teaching of writing before reading, and I also love the idea that students learn to read from their own written and illustrated material. I love seeing my Oak Meadow students’ Main Lesson Books!
Oak Meadow: Lesley, you teach many middle school students. What are some of the most fun aspects of teaching writing to middle schoolers?
Lesley A: Middle schoolers that really love to write improve quickly even with the smallest amount of help. That’s the most fun for me---seeing the improvement and great strides a student can make.
Oak Meadow: What are some of the greatest challenges in teaching writing to 5th-8th graders?
Lesley A: I think the biggest challenge is getting a student to understand that writing is a process that takes years to get “good” at. From 5th to 8th grade is a long time and each year the student improves. My hope is that students, and their parents, learn that this is a practice time! Just like soccer or painting or playing an instrument, the writing skills need practice and will get better with time.
Oak Meadow: Many parents complain that their once highly-motivated children become complacent or disengaged in middle school. Can you talk a little about how writing can be used as a tool to help motivate students and sustain engagement?
Lesley A: Variety is the spice of life! The Oak Meadow curriculum offers many different kinds of opportunities for diverse types of writing and projects. With variety, flexibility, and creativity in different assignments, a student will be able to find something to be engaged in.
Leslie D-V: I’ve also found that having students do interesting assignments, like writing a dialogue between historical figures or writing the journal of a child who lives in prehistoric times, really sparks their imagination. They start to run with the idea, and suddenly it doesn’t feel like work anymore. Keeping a journal, writing poetry or song lyrics, or writing comic books or graphic novels are also great ways to revive an interest in writing.
Oak Meadow: What are some of the most important habits to instill in this age group, especially as they approach the high school years?
Lesley A: Note taking, outline, first draft, second draft, final draft! The whole process should be a comfortable habit. I recommend spending time with reworking a rough draft. Read it out loud to check for punctuation and grammar errors. Then go over it again for spelling. Then again for content. Then read through it again and put in adjectives or adverbs that would add more detail to the sentences. I think that once a student can be comfortable and confident with reworking the rough draft, the final draft is easy!
Oak Meadow: In your experience, what are some of the most common writing challenges for children who are struggling with writing? What are some tips parents can use to help their children overcome each of these challenges?
Lesley A: Most kids will say, “I don’t know what to write.” I like to tell students, “Write what you see!” Writing is like painting with words. If you have an image in your mind, you can create it in words. If you can’t get started, then paint it, draw it, find a photograph, or talk about it and the writing will be much easier. For example, if you are going to write about a tree, what type of tree do you picture in your mind? Describe it so that others can “see” it too! There’s a great book that describes this process really well. It’s written for students by Josephine Nobisso. It is Show, Don’t tell! Secrets of Writing. The writing process takes time. Some kids need to spend a lot of time just jotting down ideas, or doodling, or walking around before they begin writing. Some need to spend a lot of time taking notes or correcting a first draft. Let each part of the process take its own time.
Oak Meadow: Are there any homeschooling strategies for teaching writing that you would caution parents not to pursue?
Lesley A: I have complete trust that when the tears start to flow or anger erupts, parents will sense that they are pursuing the wrong teaching strategy!
Leslie D-V: Good point! Don’t be afraid to try something new, or to let it go for a while and then revisit it a few days or weeks later. There’s no reason to push or rush.
Oak Meadow: Writing across the curriculum is an important focus at Oak Meadow. Can you talk a little about how you have applied this focus in your own teaching?
Leslie D-V: I teach a lot of K-4 students and in the early grades, everything they write is integrated across subjects! Students are writing about the tree growing in their backyard, or the snail they watched, or a dream they had, or retelling a story. All this writing relates to their science work, or their social studies, or their math. Writing springs organically from their experiences, which is the best way since it is always relevant and meaningful to them.
Lesley A: I have an 8th grade student who wanted to create a story about an immigrant coming into the United States from Mexico. She made the choice to do this as part of her Civics lessons on immigration. I told her that I had just been to hear Avi, the award winning youth fiction writer, speak about his writing process. I told her that he said that after he gets an idea, he spends years researching before he writes the book. I told her to do her research first and then her story would have a real foundation of facts that she could weave into the plot. She took up the challenge, did quite a bit of research, and came up with an excellent fictionalized story of a hardworking man from Mexico that legally came to live and work in the United States. She wove in the immigration facts and requirements that she learned in her research quite beautifully! She also integrated, with great sensitivity, the challenges and difficulties a person faces when immigrating to a country.
Oak Meadow: How can parents encourage the innate talents of students who love to write?
Lesley A: Read! Read! Read! As a librarian and teacher, I can’t stress enough the importance of reading in the development of writing skills. Choose all kinds of books! Explore the integration of the written word with all subjects. For instance, if your child likes books about cats you could suggest listening to the musical Cats, and next thing you know you will all soon be reading and sharing T.S Eliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It’s fun to choose favorite authors or favorite illustrators. My own children have enjoyed comparing and seeing how much an illustrator’s style changes over the years. Experiencing another person’s writing helps build a solid foundation for your own writing. Parents who read aloud to their children and have conversations about books or articles they’ve read are encouraging their children to read and write. If you like to read, you probably like to write.
Leslie D-V: Nancie Atwell wrote a great book called In the Middle that is all about how to encourage kids to write (Editor’s note: see a review of In the Middle in this issue of Living Education). She suggests that adults write with students as a way to encourage them in the enjoyment of writing and the development of more sophisticated writing skills. There are so many ways to write, so many reasons to write. Sometimes all it takes is offering a new idea and kids will run with it. Lots of kids love to make their own books, for instance. One of my most enjoyable writing experiences relates to my own family. My husband and I decided to write “The Great American Novel” with our daughter while we were driving cross-country. We each took turns writing a chapter and then reading it aloud. It was a great delight to hear what the last person wrote and how the new chapter would spin the story. It ended up being a lengthy project because it was such fun. We still enjoy pulling it out of our homeschool archives and rereading it!