Home Education Magazine
January-February 1998 - Articles
Getting It Down - Ways to Encourage Reluctant Writer
Sue Smith Heavenrich
The problems I've been faced with over the past few years has been trying to get my non-writer to commit his words to paper. He's a creative child, full of fantasies with intricate plots and imaginative characters. But getting these stories in writing has been a struggle for both of us.
Beyond storytelling, writing is a valuable skill - for taking notes, organizing thoughts, communicating ideas. So how do we get our reluctant writers to write? Clearly the workbooks we were using weren't helping. "Write about being an astronaut on the moon" generated a short paragraph of sentences similar to what one might read in a science reader. This was not the sort of writing I had in mind.
"Let's have a poetry reading," I suggested one day, after lunch. I grabbed Shel Silverstein and Robert Service off the shelf, and served hot cocoa and cookies. I read a few of my favorites, then we chatted about poetry. We played with words for awhile, writing jingles for ads and sports cheers.
"Could we do this again?" they wanted to know. And so was born our weekly writing workshops.
How Leaves Fall
"Grab your sketchbooks and follow me," I said and led them up to the hayfield. It was past the peak of color, and we were off to watch how leaves fall. We found our favorite sitting log and rested a few moments, savoring the tangy autumn air, feeling the gentle breeze, listening to the rustling of the papery leaves all around us. One let loose and began its earthward descent.
"It spirals. Like a dance."
We jotted down words as we watched. Words to describe the motion, the drift. We became leaves, dancing and twirling as we moved from the hedgerow to the open field. Later, scrunching homeward, we talked about language, and how hard it is sometimes to capture what you see or feel in words. We sat around the table putting our words into descriptions, reworking them into short poems. When the children saw their poetry printed out as a finished work, they were astonished to realize that they had written it. It was, as they said, "real" poetry.
Games of Chance
Both my children are fans of dungeons & dragons. They can spin yarns and roll dice all day. So they were thrilled when I asked them to bring the dice for a workshop.
The night before I'd been gnawing my pencil, searching for ways to get them comfortable putting words on paper. I reflected upon some of the exercises I've used in the past to jump-start my own writing on those days when nothing seems to flow. Sometimes I look though the dictionary and randomly select a few words. Or I pull words from my "idea can" and build a story around those.
If only writing were a dice game... That's it! I thought. A game of chance.
When we gathered, I had three sheets of paper. At the top of one I wrote "The Setting". I numbered down six lines, and filled in six different settings: a forest, a school, a pirate ship, a castle, the ocean, and a cave. Another paper was titled, "Your Character". On this sheet I listed: an enchanted frog, a cowardly dragon, a giant, a clever spider, a boy, an inventor. On a third paper I wrote "The Problem" and listed six topics: hunting for lost treasure, stopping aliens from invading the earth, losing a favorite object, getting stuck in quicksand, overcoming magic, and getting lost in a storm.
"We're going to roll stories by chance," I explained. "The cast of your die will determine who your character is, as well as the setting and problem. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to use our wits to solve the problem.... and do it by writing."
Of course, they couldn't wait to get their hands on the dice. "A six - I get the cave!" Coulter carefully wrote "cave" at the top of his page. "A 4- that's the spider." He then rolled 2 for problem.
"How is a spider going to stop aliens from invading earth?"
"I'm not sure, but I've got my own problem to solve," I said, pointing at my notebook. "You've only got only 15 minutes to save the earth, so better get writing." For the next quarter hour the only sound heard in the living room was the scritching of pencils across paper.
"Mom, can I have more time? I'm at a really good part and..."
"Sure," I replied, somewhat astounded by this request.
"You know," he said later, much later, "that was fun. Can we do another?" Over the next few days my children created their own character, problem, and setting lists. They rolled one story after another, filling page after page.
Another day we used the dice to create mixed-up sentences. I wanted to introduce nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases. So I made four lists: "Who or What", "Action", "Where", and "When". Under each heading there were six blanks, which we filled in with the appropriate words. Then, using dice, we rolled to see how our sentences would end up. "A frog played computer in the kitchen at dawn" got lots of laughs.
Being A Nature Detective
the children were younger we used to play a guessing game that went like this. One person thinks of an animal (or plant or whatever). He then gives us three clues. The object was to describe the mystery creature so well that anyone could guess what it was. When we did this as a writing workshop we went outside and each found a "mystery object". We wrote three clues, and the others had to guess what it was. This led, of course, to looking at things more closely and before we knew it we were studying the various bees pollinating the forsythia.
The essential skills in writing is including detail. A good writer observes - his surroundings, how people dress, the way a person moves when angry. The more detail our children put into their writing, the better their writing will be.
I wanted to introduce adjectives, without calling attention to that fact, so I put a hand-thrown ceramic mug on the floor and said, "list as many words as you can describing this object without naming it."
Rough, smooth, dark, shiny, bumpy, grey, heavy. In addition to sharpening observation skills, this game allowed us to explore language. What do you call something that is both smooth and rough? What words do you use to express a characteristic?
It took some time for my children to get used to the idea that poetry was more than iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets. But later, when we arranged the words onto the page, we decided our poems were like black and white photographs. Our words captured images in a spare way.
Both of my children love to draw. They will fill pages with battles between starships and alien cruisers, or dragons, knights and fairy folk. Then they would tell me the story of each picture.
"Here's a baby dragon chasing a brownie (type of fairy) around a tree. His mother is saying, 'You can't have dessert until you've finished your supper!' "
"You know," I said one day when I was particularly busy, "if you wrote a caption, you wouldn't have to tell the story every time someone looks at your picture."
One thing that is often left out of children's writing is dialog. Lots of narrative, great plots, but the characters don't talk. Any good book on fiction writing will tell you to put in dialog. And to eliminate dialog that does not move the story forward.
The neat thing about cartoons is that the characters speak. They have these nifty balloons that hold their words above their heads. And by reading their dialog, you (the reader) know what's going on. Sometimes there are captions, but most of the story is moved along by dialog. So it was a natural step from illustrations with captions to cartoons with dialog. They created everything from book length comic adventures to editorial cartoons poking fun at local environmental agengies and politicians.
Along the way we discovered sound effects. Pf-f-f-t! Bla-a-agh! Boin-n-n-n-ng..... So I got to introduce "onomatopoeia" which, unlike sound effects, sounds nothing like the way it's spelled!
Alliterative Alphabet Books
One day my eldest son was stomping about the kitchen in a fit of pique.
"Why don't you express your anger on paper?" I suggested.
"I don't want to draw! I want to rant and rave."
"What about grouching and grumping?" I offered, trying to help.
"What about snarling and spitting?" He stopped stomping.
"What about making an entire alphabet book of angry words?" I suggested. So he began drawing outraged orcs, and peeved penguins.
Even my vocabulary is not extensive enough to come up with 26 synonyms for anger, so during one workshop we turned to a dictionary and thesaurus for inspiration. Not only did he get to rant and rave, he learned how to use two important tools.
I knew our writing workshops were successful when I went to check on the children one night. It was late, a couple hours past "lights out". I poked my head into Coulter's room and noticed a large lump on the bed, light escaping through the cracks and folds of a blanket tent. He was busy writing a story, already on page three, he told me.
"Let me read it in the morning," I said.
The biggest obstacle to writing isn't the inability to write. It's our attitude. If we can believe that our children can write, if they choose to, then we can look for ways to help them overcome their stumbling blocks. Sometimes it's fear. Sometimes it's motor skills. Sometimes we just need to play with words.
© 1998, Sue Smith Heavenrich
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