Getting it Down: Helping Homeschoolers to Journal Their Ideas
Traditional Writing Prompts
Write five pages on how beavers contribute to the ecosystem. Ready? Go! Not very inspiring, is it. This is how kids often feel about the writing prompts most curriculums supply. Most of the time, the child has no connection with the topic presented, and where there is no connection there is no desire to write, thus the dreaded writing struggle. Inspiration is the best place for writing to start, and the best inspiration will always come from within. Helping your kids find that inspiration is not as hard as you might think. Here are some simple ways to help your kids tap into their own inspiration when it comes to writing.
Free to Write
The first step in freeing your homeschooler to journal his or her ideas is by giving him permission to write what he wants. With her advice to young writers in Spilling Ink, Anne Mazer stresses the importance of giving yourself permission to write anything. “Spill some ink. Just babble on paper. Or write one sentence over and over. Or close your eyes and write.” (p.6) Even if your child feels that what he is writing is ridiculous or stupid, encourage him to write it out anyway. Before a child can write in a structured or organized manner, he or she has to feel freedom in writing. To make this easier for kids, Mazer suggests children fill out a permission slip for themselves. In her book, she prints an official writer’s permission slip. This gives the child permission to write anything. “That means she/he can write ‘This is stupid’ a thousand times over or…anything else you want to write.” When your child feels free to write, the pressure of grammar and organization lifts and allows creativity to flow.
Remembering to Write
Now that your child has permission to write freely in her journal, what comes next? As a writing teacher, I encourage three different types of journal writing in my students. The first type of writing I have my students do is remembering writing. Sometimes the start of a good writing sessions starts with the simple phrase “I remember…” Have your students write that at the top of the page and just continue writing from there. On occasions when I have done this activity, I have remembered getting my only dog when I was in seventh grade. I have also remembered what my childhood dentist’s office looked like and written a description of the waiting room. Today I remember my dad and how he ate cereal for dessert after dinner. If I were writing in my journal, I might explore this memory describing what he looked like and how he would sit at the table reading a book. Your kids remember many things from their lives. Some you might not even know about. Letting your child remember special events in her past enables her to write with authority and perspective.
It is possible to remember with direction as well. Where typical writing prompts may request that a child write about a particular event like her sixth birthday or what she did last summer, memory prompts that tie into emotions are much more effective. Instead of asking your child what she learned in math class last year, ask her to write about a time when she was angry. Instead of having her write about a significant invention, have her write about on object in her life that she loves. Our emotions are such an important of who we are, and the memories that are linked with our emotions are the strongest. In addition, when a person is emotional about a topic, be it angry, frightened, embarrassed, proud or scared, that person will have more to say about it. Are you passionate about learning how beavers contribute to the ecosystem? Some people may be but for most people, that topic is not engaging and will not stir up a passion to write. That disconnect with the topic is a major contributor to the writing struggle that too many homeschooling families face.
Collecting to Write
The second type of writing I encourage in my students is collections. Kids love to collect things. I remember the summer after first grade I collected rocks and then painted them. Everyone in the family got a painted rock, and I still had a large box left to keep. If you had asked me about that collection the following school year, I am sure I could have told you where I got the rocks, why I painted them the colors that I did, and whom I had given rocks to. Kids love their collections, so ask your child to write about an object in his collection. You will be surprised what a fourth grader can tell you about Beanie Babies or what a seventh grader knows about a Lady GaGa song. Let them write it. Then ask about an unusual item in their collection. Ask about how the collection is organized or how he decides what to add to it. There are many different facets to what your child can write about his collection, and once he gets started you may be surprised at how much he has to say.
A physical collection does not have to be the only one in your child’s journal. He can make many different kinds of collections on those blue lined pages. For one, he can start a collection of facts. In my journal is a collection of facts about hippos. This started because I caught a nature program on television about the great beasts. I found it very interesting, so I titled a page in my journal “facts about hippos.” I wrote down some things I learned from the program. They are not in paragraph form or even in complete sentences. They are simple bullet points about the creatures. As I learned facts about hippos from other sources, I added them to my collection. I now have a body of research that I did with little effort over a long period of time, and I am now ready to write that short story about Hubert Hippo, semi aquatic composer and inspiration for the swampless waltz all from one page in my journal about hippos. The next time your child shows interest in a particular topic, whatever it is, have him start a page in his journal to write about those things. Then allow him to add facts to the list as he learns them. Later, he may go back and read the list and find inspiration for a piece of fiction or a report.
Words to Write
The final type of writing with which I challenge my students, and it often is a challenge, is exploratory writing. This type of writing starts with words that your kids already like and deepens and expands upon them. The list can be simple. You can have your children keep a running list of descriptive words that she likes. It may be the way the words sound that is appealing. It may be the spelling or the meaning of the word. For me, I love the word “onomatopoeia.” First, I just love the way the word bounces around in my mouth as it comes out. Secondly, I like the meaning of the word. If you do not know, onomatopoeia are words that sound like the sounds they represent. They are words like bang and bark. I love this word, and so I wrote it on a page in my journal.
On that page, I have also written "cellar doors" (because many have said this is the most beautiful sounding phrase in English) and "moxie" (which means courage or pluck) because it sounds like the word itself has attitude. When I go back and read all the words on that page, I sometimes find inspiration from the vocabulary. Your child can find inspiration in her favorite words as well. Encourage her to start a list of words she likes and go back often and read them. She will be learning new vocabulary while she stores up inspiration for future pieces of writing.
Your children can also use creative language from their favorite authors as inspiration. In One Year to a Writing Life by Susan M. Tiberghien, one of the first exercises challenges potential writers to start with words of a favorite author. To challenge your child to do this exercise, have her take a descriptive phrase she likes from a favorite author and write it at the top of the page. For example, she might like how Beverly Cleary writes, “Ramona studied her crayons, chose a pinky-red one because it seemed the happiest color, and printed one more item on her Christmas list” in Ramona and Her Father Have your child start her writing session with those words and write. From the Cleary quote, your child might say, “Pinky-red colors are happy, but I still like green. Green colors are cool and wet and strong. But blue is good, too. I like the blue up in the sky. It feels like happiness and the coming of summer…” You can ask your child to write for a specific length of time such as five minutes or let her write until she has nothing left to say. When she generates her own creative language from those of a favorite author, your child uses the author’s words as a stepping-stone to increase her own.
Rules for Writing
Some parents may fear that giving their child freedom to write creatively and without grammatical constraints may weaken his or her writing abilities. This fear is unnecessary. There are appropriate times to correct grammar and organization in your child’s writing. In fact, these two elements are key to writing fluently. However, when your child feels these pressures up front, it can paralyze him into not writing at all. From my experience teaching children of all ages, separating creativity and inspiration from grammar and structure, at least initially, actually makes for stronger writers. I like to keep journals as a place of creativity and inspiration for students, a place for them to get their ideas on paper and explore words they like. I focus on writing technique in other pieces. I find that teaching children what it means to revise as well as proofread (and they are two different things) makes them better able to evaluate their own writing and does not generate the self-criticism that can come when grammar and style take priority over creativity.
When children are inspired, they will write. Often they will write passionately. The key to getting your child to journal freely is to grant him permission to write without constraint. This permission must come from two places: first from you, his parent and teacher, and secondly from himself. When he feels that he has this permission and then makes a personal connection with the topic about which he chooses to write, the writing struggle will be over. There is a potential writer in every homeschooler. Sometimes that writer just needs to know it is safe to come out and be himself.