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Home Education Magazine

July-August 2004 - Articles and Columns

Writing Group Strategies - Karen Kirkwood


The willing student: Nine-year-old Nathan is sprawled across the ping-pong table for a timed writing exercise. I look over his shoulder. On a wrinkled piece of notebook paper he is repeatedly scrawling in block letters, "I HATE WRITEING."

Conversation with 10-year-old Maria: "Didn't we talk about using periods?" She scrunches up her face and nods enthusiastically.

"Well?" I ask.

"Umm, I really don't think I need them."

"But it makes your stories easier to read."

She stares at me, and then says evenly and slowly, "I-don't-like-them." Conversation over.

Discussion skills: I watch Nathan use his favorite chair as a jungle gym. He participates in the discussion from underneath the chair, peering through the backrest, sitting backwards. Round and round he goes, like a snake, through and under and over, never missing a beat in the conversation.

The 50-yard dash: The most important thing to be able to write well is a comfortable chair. After break I call the kids in from outside, and they scurry with Olympic willpower and speed to nab the padded chairs.

The price of losing: Buying six grinning kids ice cream. I lost my bet that I could write more words per minute than they could collectively. Teachers will do anything to stimulate writing practice.

I taught a writing class to pre-teen and adolescent unschoolers from 1996 to 2002. Nathan learned to sit still long enough to write complete essays, Maria discovered the joy of punctuation, and I don't make any more bets. Teaching independent unschoolers was no easy task. I gave suggestions, discussed writing techniques and grammar rules, and offered writing exercises, but I never forced, demanded or required. It wouldn't have worked, and I wouldn't have wanted it to. Activities were always optional, as was sharing their work. Learning to write is about firing the editor within and letting loose creativity, which cannot be mandated.

I am a writer and a teacher, so at the request of several parents who had concerns about their children's writing skills, I started the informal group in my house. Later we moved to a friend's studio, and finally to our homeschool center, where we had more space. I had from six to twelve students, and most stayed in the group for several years. We met once a week for three to five hours. I covered writing skills, as well as other subjects, charging the parents on a sliding scale, and collecting enough to cover costs and pay myself as well.

I varied the content over the years so we didn't get bored, and we wrote stories, poetry, opinion essays, reports and journals. We wrote about our passions and our dreams, fantasies and utopias. We commented on each other's work and I shared some of my own writing. I discussed with each student grammar errors as they came up. I was always on the lookout for fun ways to write. For example, group story writing was a big hit. I gave a story starter and we wrote for five minutes going anywhere we wanted with our story. Then we passed our notebooks and wrote for five minutes more on our neighbor's story. We had to do some quick thinking and we ended up with loads of laughter. They also loved to write conversations between characters in a picture. Using animals, such as a picture of two seals, is especially fun.

I found ideas in a variety of books. Trust the Children, by Anna Kealoha, and The Creative Process, by Carol Burke and Molly Best Finsley are excellent resources. I read good writing to them--anything from Dylan Thomas to children's picture books. I wanted my students to understand the power of words. Is there a more powerful poem than "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"? Children's picture books are wonderful for the simplicity of the language. The Sheep in a Ship series, by Nancy Shaw, is rollicking fun and teaches alliteration. "Jabberwocky," by Lewis Carroll celebrates sounds and Langston Hughes's poems are full of metaphors.

From Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones, I learned the value of timed writing. The first time I used it with the kids, they were sure they were going to die. "Write for 4 minutes without stopping? We can't!" They soon became pros, and we worked up to 15-minute sessions. I used their ideas for subjects, so we wrote on everything from cows to Elmo. I also read them a section from Ulysses, by James Joyce, and we discussed the constant activity of our minds. Writing is an attempt to put that flow into words.

Our school district used the 6+1 Trait writing method, so I looked over the curriculum and implemented those ideas with the class. As a writer, I feel it is The most comprehensive methods for teaching real writing. (The program is protected under copyright, but information can be found at, or by searching 6+1 Trait on Google.) Traditionally, writing education has revolved around grammar and conventions. These areas together are only The six traits of good writing. I worked very hard to convince my students that real writing was about creativity and expression. I challenged them each time we met to leave at the door the persnickety little editors who lived in their heads. So often beginning writers are paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes in secondary skills such as spelling, grammar and punctuation. I encouraged them to just write, and we would clean up the piece later.

I asked a psychologist how to handle the violence and death so prevalent in some of the students' stories. He suggested that instead of ignoring it or making it taboo, to open those subjects up for exploration. So, when students used violent images, we discussed whether they were essential to the story. Put downs, prejudices, swearing--nothing was immune from our scrutiny as a group. We stopped writing and discussed the motives behind our words and actions.

I experimented with different teaching methods and styles. Sometimes in the beginning of the year I sent each student a letter with my expectations of them, what I promised to provide, and an inventory of subject interests. I didn't give grades, use a reward system or teach from a set curriculum. I did require respect, interest and effort. I encouraged, and even cajoled sometimes if a student was resistant to a particular assignment. As I got to know each student, I knew when to push and when to let it go. At the end of a semester, I usually gave a grammar test. It was always optional, but almost everyone took it for the personal challenge it provided.

The class was a helpful stepping-stone for students planning to attend school. It strengthened their writing ability as well as provided them with a classroom experience. It also gave students with learning disabilities a chance to write without the shame inherent in a competitive system. I tried to emphasize everyone's gifts to our group, rather than our individual difficulties. For example, one of my students with a severe learning disability wrote hilarious stories. Many words were spelled incorrectly, but when translated to correct English and read aloud, we rolled with laughter and marveled at his creativity. Self-confidence was the most important writing skill my students took with them when they left my class. They believed they were writers, and in learning to write, that is half the battle.

A large, sealed manila envelope is The treasures hidden in my file cabinet. In it are essays each student wrote in 1997 about what they would like their life to be like in 10 years. I am looking forward to sending them to my students, knowing their adult selves will smile with wonder at their former naivete.

Over the years, I walked out in frustration, fell asleep from boredom, laughed to tears at their antics and comments, and was astounded by my students' insights, self-knowledge and progress. Writing and our discussions about life were very personal, and I was blessed with an intimacy with each student that I would not have had as just another adult in the homeschool group. My students reminded me how difficult teen years can be, forced me to hone my writing skills, and taught me how to teach. I am grateful.

2004 Karen Kirkwood


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