Monday, July 15, 2013

Ten Lessons I Learned Teaching Writing to Children

Every summer I teach a writing class through the Young Writers’ Institute to children who will be entering third and fourth grade in the fall.  Here are some important lessons I have learned from them over the years.

1.       Writing is fun.

On the first rainy day of YWI, I ditch whatever else I have planned and surprise the children with a dark room full of (flameless!) candles, blankets, and soft pillows tossed on the floor.  I don’t have to give them any direction.  They curl up on pillows, or make tents out of blankets, and just start writing.  It is joyful.  Sometimes it is easy to forget that when things aren’t going well, and we are struggling with a writing project we are working on, but it is true.  If it feels like a chore, find a way to make it fun again.  Light a candle.  Write outside under a shady tree.  Work on something that inspires you to think or to laugh or to connect with others.  Rediscover your joy.

2.       Writing is hard work.

Writing is a skill, and my Young Writers are just starting to master the basics.  One thing I have observed is that there is often a big difference between boys and girls at this age.  Boys are still working on the mechanics of writing, on forming letters and holding a pencil.  They have wonderful ideas for stories, but can’t always get them onto the page.  This happens to writers of all ages, and the key is to keep working and find a way.  Writing stories in comic book form with illustrations is especially helpful for my younger boys, but when they come back a year later, I realize a miracle has occurred.  They have conquered the fine motor skill monster and can now write longer and more complicated stories.  Writing is a craft that we never can truly master, and progress is more apparent in a beginner than in an adult, but the only way to grow and improve as a writer is to keep writing. 

3.       Writers spend a lot of time staring blankly into space.

 Daydreams are where all great stories begin.  We need to take time to daydream, especially when we are children.  One of the best things about teaching a summer writing class is that we don’t have a strict schedule to follow.  When the children beg me for extra time to write, or think, or dip their toes into a creek while we take a walk outside together, I can allow them that luxury.  For writers, that time isn’t really a luxury, it is a necessity.  Writers need time inside of their own heads.  Most of my books are already written before I put a single word on the page. 

4.       Write what you are passionate about.

 Every year I have a child who adores haiku.  I usually have another child who wants to write nothing but limericks.  And I always have some adorable little blonde girl who writes dark stories about death.  I don’t know why, but it is always the littlest, blondest ones who love horror.  It never fails.  But these children understand a very basic rule – find what you love and write about what makes you happy. 

5.       Writers are born, not made.

 There is a reason my Young Writers must be nominated to join this program.  All children can learn to write, but not all children are writers.  Some children would consider writing camp to be the cruelest form of punishment.  My students beg for a longer session and cry when it is over.   That is something that cannot be taught, and the same holds true for writers of all ages.  Writers write because they have to, because there is something burning inside of them that must get out, and writing is the medium they use.  Painters paint.  Singers sing.  Writers write.  They are born that way. 

6.       It is important to write freely. 

The first thing I do is teach my students to free write.  I tell them not to worry about punctuation and grammar and all those scary things that are holding them back, and just write whatever thoughts are going around in their heads.  Every year, there is at least one student who lets out a huge sigh of relief when I say that and starts scribbling away.  The pressure is off.  Punctuation and grammar are important, but perfection is not.  We all need to write freely, and to write boldly, and to move forward.  Mistakes can be corrected later, but there will be nothing to fix if you never get anything onto the page.  

7.       No one else could write your story. 

I love using writing prompts in my class.  I begin with something like “The lights went out…” and then I watch the miracle of writing occur.  Each story the children come up with is completely unique and amazing, and no one else could have possibly written it the same way.  We need to remember this when we lose faith in our own writing.  There might be better writers or better books or better stories, but only you can write your story. 

8.       Writing is sharing part of your heart with others. 

Sharing what you write can be the hardest thing to do.  Others may hate it.  They may judge it.  I remind my children to listen when others share, and to respond with gentle words.  It doesn’t take many reminders.  They understand how vulnerable it makes a writer feel, how exposed and insecure.  But they also understand the wonder of it when others like what you have written and respond to it.  It is worth all the pain and suffering. 

9.       Inspiration is everywhere. 

A stick floating in a creek.  An old velvet hat.  The cool joy of ice cream on a summer day.  It doesn’t take much to inspire an eight year old.  We need to look at the world through their eyes once in a while.  A hole in a hillside could be a major landscaping issue, or it could be a secret passage to unknown worlds.  We can’t choose what we are looking at, but we can choose how we see it.  

10.   Kindred spirits come in small packages. 

I teach small children, but they are old souls.  We understand each other.  We share common interests, and we are passionate about books and writing and words in general.  I attended my first writing conference this year (Pennwriters 2013), and I had the same feeling.  It was a gathering of kindred spirits.  It is important to find people like that to connect with because writing can be a lonely and solitary profession.  Find others who share your passion, whether at a writers’ conference, in a writing class, or even with a writers’ group, and meet with them.  You’ll walk away a happier person, and a better writer.




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