Many homeschoolers are nervous about covering high school level writing, the moment when pen to paper gets real. WE MUST BE SERIOUS NOW. Essay format! Quotes! Citations! MLA! Or APA? Wait, what the hell is Chicago style?
So, yeah. We all start off with this emotional baseline: Crap, how do I do this?
However, if you have a rising freshman who still hates writing, your baseline is probably more like this: Hello, my name is Anxiety and I’m all jacked up on Mountain Dew.
Really, high school English is daunting enough your first time into it. But how do you teach high school writing to a teenager who detests writing? Other than through coercion and ruining your relationship.
It’s possible. I’ve done it. Writing was difficult for both of my high schoolers, but I found a way through it. And I’m pretty confident my kids still like me.
The other side to that happy ending is there is no yellow brick road that points an obvious way. Sorry. It’s individual and trial and error. Which I hated to hear as an inexperienced homeschooler. It’s vague and plain unhelpful. I want to help because I know the stress of figuring out how to work with a struggling writer. And a reluctant writer is a struggling writer; we simply don’t know the precise cause of the struggle.
So I’m sharing how our freshman year looked with my reluctant teen writer, which did not include writing a single essay. Nope! No essays were completed his entire freshman year.
(Spoiler alert! He learned to write essays sophomore year. He’s a rising senior now, and none of his outside teachers can tell it was 10th grade before he learned it. It doesn’t matter.)
STEP ONE: A personal narrative, interview style
I took a personal narrative from my son when he was fourteen years old, either the end of 8th grade or the the summer between 8th and 9th grade. I asked if we could talk about writing (and if I could take notes) so that I could try to figure out some ways to help in this area. He knew writing expectations increased with high school. I wanted him to know I was earnestly attempting to find a way to support his growth and not railroading composition onto him.
I recorded notes in my Scatterbook so I have a good record of our conversation. (BTW, if you don’t know of or keep a Scatterbook, I highly recommend it. Best tool to improve my skills as a home educator, hands down.) As I looked back at my notes, I saw the interview process had a theme: his past, present and future relationship with writing.
I asked questions that probed his memories and associations around writing. I didn’t record the questions, only his answers, but the questions could start like this…
Can you tell me about when writing started to go bad for you?
Can you tell me how you feel about writing now? Have things changed or stayed the same?
Is there any kind of writing you could imagine you might enjoy? Or writing that we’ve done that you didn’t hate? Is there something we could try to make writing the least painful as possible? Or, is there anything that might help writing not feel so hard?
The conversation isn’t meant to be scripted. These are ideas to get some conversation going. A good follow up phrase you can use in multiple situations with a teen is “Tell me more about that.” Stay curious about their story.
Jot down as much as you can during the conversation. The purpose here is to find themes and tiny bits of insights that might give you a place to start.
For example, in my quest to understand my son’s past experience around writing, there were a few key phrases that stood out as he recalled his experience of writing in public school 2nd grade.
“The stress of writing every day.”
“The volume of writing expected was a problem.”
What did I glean from this? Not to do writing every day of the week. To begin writing with bits and pieces rather than big projects.
“I still don’t like it much. One or two things a week is okay. But three freewrites a week bothers me.”
“It’s still hard to get my thoughts on paper. To think and write at the same time. I know I have things to say and I can physically write, but getting the two together makes it not fun.”
So much gold here! He lets me know how often he’s willing to write and that thinking and writing at the same time is still hard. I can work with that.
It isn’t uncommon as teenagers move into a new developmental stage of thinking that writing and thinking at the same time is hard. We think since they’re high schoolers it wouldn’t be an issue, but it is. They’re thinking more complex thoughts now, but their brain needs time and practice to build the neural pathways between these new advanced thinking skills and the writing skills. Completely understandable. And developmentally appropriate.
But what can we do about?
Don’t hesitate to be their scribe. Be the container of their thoughts, holding their ideas, jotting them down, while they get them out of their head verbally. You won’t have to do this forever. Only during this developmental transition stage. By junior year both of my teens rarely needed me to scribe for them anymore.
“I want to do more creative writing.”
“Literature freewrites are actually okay.”
This part of the conversation was the least “productive” in terms of articulating his inner experience and ideas. And that’s okay. When you’ve spent so many years in an antagonist relationship with writing, it’s challenging to imagine a better one. It means my work for healing a writing relationship is cut out for me, but that’s okay too. After all, I’m the adult and he’s not. I’ll step into my role as Chief Resource Officer and figure some things out.
Figure things out. It’s part of a parent’s job description.
The best I could synthesize from this part was to explore more creative writing, which led me to question whether academic and creative writing were mutually exclusive. We automatically assume they are. Because, time to get SERIOUS, remember?
But what aspects of creative writing are also in academic writing? Surely something because good writing is good writing. I might have just figured out an entry point here – exploring academic writing that isn’t dull and stale. Where are the creative essays?
Enter BREAKFAST ON MARS.
I blogged about this book before, so I won’t repeat a review, but this book, particularly the Bigfoot and Donkey Kong essays, were good bridges to see how creative and academic writing can blend together. Not to mention its personal narrative essay in graphic novel form.
To quote Woody, “If you don’t have one, get one!”
When we try to understand our kid’s inner experience of writing, it gives us insight to how we can go forward. Kids need safe places to be honest and we can give them that. Healing a writing relationship takes compassion and understanding, but it also takes a willingness to break the mold of how we teach high school writing.
I’ll continue this series with details of our actual school year. Stay tuned!
“For too long, we have held essays captive in the world’s most boring zoo…We’ve let the essays out of their cages, and we’ve set them loose. We’ve allowed them to go back to their roots.”Breakfast on Mars, page 3-4