Monday, October 10, 2011

What I Learn When I Write With Kids

Teacher man impression
First off, this is my inaugural post for Project Mayhem and I'm more excited than a bread-lovin' duck outside a bakery. One thing I've noticed about the Project is that Team M is very strong (Marissa, Matt, Mike W., and now me, Mike G), and we far outnumber Team D (Dee and Dawn). Now, if I can only convince Paul Greci to change his name to "Maul," we will be invincible!

Paul as "Maul"
But I digress, as usual. I mean, who cares about teams and such when the topic at hand is kids writing. I'd like to share an experience I recently had being the "writing instructor" for a group of kids and what I learned from these young writers.

A few days ago, I was invited by my good friend Corey S. to come and talk to the group he mentors, the Young Willamette Writers. (Background: Willamette Writers is our local writers' organization, named after the Willamette River that wends through Portland, Oregon.) During the group's monthly meeting, students in grades 5 through 10 are invited to come and write together. This month, 6 intrepid souls slogged through a wet Oregon evening to listen to me talk about dialogue in fiction.

We started off with some real-life dialogue, as I am incredibly nosey about kids' reading habits. In our introductions, I asked them to tell me what they were reading. Here are the results:

The Boys (both 5th graders): Percy Jackson
The Girls (all 7th graders): Scott Westerfeld's Uglies; Sarah Dessen's Dreamland; Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak; and Twilight.

Then I blabbed a bit about dialogue and told them to write a scene--any scene--as long as it incorporated some dialogue.

The results? MINDBLOWING. First of all, these kids didn't sit around staring at the wall and moaning about writer's block. Their pencils moved at warp speed. Occasionally, they made small sounds of satisfaction, gave quick bursts of laughter, or just plain muttered. I was on my second paragraph when I heard pages flip over. Yikes!

Now, I must admit I expected no great things from these speed writers, but when it came to sharing their writing (and let me tell you, these kids were eager to share), what they'd written actually was pretty good. Sorry, I misspoke. It was AMAZING. It had narrative arc, conflict, and imagined conversations full of sarcasm and bite. Hmm, no way was I going to share my own plodding prose.

The sweetest thing about this little exercise, though, was the change in attitude of one of the boys. He'd tagged along with his older sister and had told me at least a half-dozen times "I'm not here to participate, okay?" I don't know if the kid thought I was going to have them all diagraming sentences or something, but when I said "you can write whatever you want. Free rein," it didn't take but a second or two before he was scribbling away and calling me over to ask how to spell 'bazooka.' (He never did share, so I'm not sure whether the bazooka did any talking, but the kid did leave with a smile on his face.)

This was admittedly a small sampling of kid writers, and ones who are particularly motivated. But my experience with them mirrored the times I had several years ago when I taught a weekly creative writing class in my son's 5th grade classroom. Kids--before we drum it out of them with timed essays--love to write creatively. They write fast. They write fearlessly. And they write with breathtaking exuberance. I need to bottle me some of that.

Parents: Do your kids like to write? What kinds of stories excite them? Is there a young writers' group where you live, like the Young Willamette Writers, that they can join?

Teachers: What have you found when you let your students have "free rein" in their writing?

(Oh, and Rose Cooper, what d'ya think about joining Team M? You can be "Mose!" Got kind of a ring to it, wouldn't you say?)


  1. Awesome first post Michael. No, my daughter does not like to write and does not write creatively. But she has a really good voice in her nonfiction writing. I think groups like the one you were teaching are awesome for the kids who do like to write. We have a group in Ann Arbor where high school kids who are more literary and artistic can hang out and explore their art.

  2. What a fabulous experience! My son is just learning to write (and read), and he loves it. He comes home from school with a folder full of drawings with short explanatory sentences for each. They're supposed to be actual events, but he takes quite a bit of creative license. I love it!

  3. My fourth grader loves writing, and has been encouraged both at home and school. His teachers let him read his stories he brings to school to the class. We have fun publishing them on our computer. I don't yet know if there is a writer's group. Good idea for their enrichment classes at school though! The youngest writes pages and pages of letters. He's getting started, obviously, so as soon as he knows how to read, he'll be set!

  4. While I think the idea of getting Paul to change his name is funny, if there are too many Ms, I guess that means Dawn and I will just have to be the overlords of the M minions (DarthDee and DarthDawn, sisters of the big D, Darth Vader himself).

    I'm sad to report my older son does not like to write because his elementary school required a lot of journal writing, and he didn't want to do that sort of personal sharing.

    My daughter likes to write stories, but doesn't want me to read them, I guess because of the pressure of having a writer as a mom. As long as she's writing, I think it's great though.

  5. Fantastic post and what an amazing experience. All of my kids love to write. However, you've nailed one important factor. Kids (and adults) need freedom to really blossom. My son (10th grade) loves his English class becuase the teacher (bless him) encourages them to experiment wildly with their essays. I've seem him explode (son, not English teacher) this year as a writer because of this simple approach. Teachers who allow and encourage creativity should be applauded.

    Mr. Mike - it's good to see you up here. Well done, my friend.

  6. Great post, Mike!! I love watching kids get involved in writing projects and seeing where they go.

    In the past when my classroom was full of reluctant and struggling writers with school behavior problems, I've found fiction writing to be a great way to break through whatever barriers are keeping them from writing.

    Sometimes I would give them a prompt or first line like--It limped along, blood running down its hind leg. Its fur was wet and matted from hours of steady rain--or something like that.

    Over the course of several weeks, many kids who were not writers in the past would write their own stories with out the prompt. Based on how productive they were being I would schedule writing sessions specifically for their stories. I'd conference with each student. Some would eventually read their stories out loud or at least share them with classmates. Sometimes we'd revise and type them up. It just depended on the make up of the class.

    This year I'm teaching ESL students and we've done some fiction writing as well.

    Regarding names, for now, I'll stand tall, with Paul, although there are some advantages to being called Maul. :-)

  7. Great post! My students love to have freedom when they write. I try yo allow for some amount of freedom in even assigned topics. I love your dialogue idea!! :-)

  8. Go Team M! Well, I've been teaching junior high ELA for 12 years now and I can tell you, when you give students freedom to write creatively, they go off. It's great to see, and while the conventions might still require work, the creativity and voice with which they write is great. Problem is, the new APPR and all the standards-based hoops to jump through COMPLETELY cuts out the creativity and vitality from the curriculum. When it comes to the State, there is no level of priority placed on creative thought, let alone creative writing. Teachers need to work it in when they can, and that's a shame. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to public education, and I fear we're headed in the wrong direction.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments! I'm loving all this advice from real teachers. Next time I do a teaching gig, I hope you'll be on the bus with me!

  10. Those Willamette Writers kids are a great bunch to work with, and Corey does a great job leading them.

    I find when I'm working with students the two things that make the most difference in terms of getting them to write freely is to say, you don't have to finish it, and you don't have to show anyone unless you want to.

    Working writers don't finish every story they start or show their editors every draft and it seems counter productive to ask students to turn in every piece of writing for a grade.

    If you've got book loving kids in Portland, bring them to the Cedar Hills Powells Oct 14th at 4:30 for Book Fan Friday. We've got two middle grade authors talking about writing fantasy!

  11. TEAM M! TEAM M! :)

    When I taught 5th grade, we would have weekly writing time, and I would put on some inspiring music, and the kids could have free reign. This was probably my FAVORITE assignment to read through later on in the afternoon. I loved seeing the directions of their imagination.

    It was also very clear which kids were heavy readers as it showed in their work. All of the stories were very creative, but character development, pacing, and other story elements were tells for who read widely. I also noticed that some kids were very uncomfortable with having that wide open directionless space - that they almost craved someone to tell them what to write. I thought this was a shame, that perhaps years of schooling aimed at getting the grade had already squeezed that capacity for limitless creating out of them.

    I have very young children, and they are constantly making up stories. Admittedly, many of them are almost nonsensically fantastic, but the exuberance of the telling is delightful. My favorite is to hear my preschooler play act dialog.

  12. We don't have a local writer's group for children, but my twelve-year-old loves to write. Her sixth grade English teacher gave her all kinds of extra credit last year for turning in a novella, and then the teacher went through it with post-its and great advice. Some teachers are made of awesome, you know?

    Great post!

  13. Bazooka! Bahahaha :D Those kids sound amazing. I think it's fantabulous when I get to be in a room of like-minded people who all want to write. My sister and I are always making up stories for each other, too; that verbal aspect of stories hasn't been lost yet, I don't think.

  14. Kids! Love 'em. And happy, debut, Michael.

    I adore those times when kids think they can't write/don't want to write/or that writing is hard but when they have free reign and encouragement, they FLY AWAY in the fun.

  15. What a great first post! It's awesome to have you here, Mike. When it comes to kid's writing, my one daughter is a far more avid writer than I ever was, and I expect her to be far more successful than I. My younger daughter does not write as much, but she loves to read, and I expect the joy may come to her at some point.

    If not, that's fine too. I'm not an educator, but I completely agree that we have to give kids free rein to excel in whatever inspires them.

  16. Nice to see you jumped in the workshop game, Michael. I loved teaching Creative Writing in middle and high school. Most students can self-generate topics, but a few really desire some suggestions. I used to provide one or two topics, but most students liked coming up with their own. I found that starting a writers' club at each of my schools provided a niche for students who do not do the usual sports, drama, etc. activities. It was the most rewarding thing I did consistantly through my career.

  17. Kids can be SO creative if given the chance. I really wish our schools didn't educate it out of them.

    My younger son hates both writing and reading but my older son, the reader, has already written one novel and is starting another. We have a bet going about who will get published first (and sometimes I think it'll be him!).

    Great job on your inaugural post here, Michael!

  18. Great post! Some of my favorite poems are still from a collection I helped put together from neighborhood elementary kids when I was on college. Such amazing creative spirit and no hang-ups about what a "poem" should or shouldn't be.

  19. Hey, what about Team H??? Oh, I guess that's just me, so unless you count my many personalities, not really a team! Mike, this is a great first post, and we are so happy to have you on Team Mayhem. I beg and beg my 8 yr old son to read and write. He loves to draw comics, so I'll take that for now. He even invented his own character, "The Ugly Buckle". I'd say that's a good start! ;)

  20. Kids always amaze me with their creativity and their talent. I give my students free rein when reading. During writing, I don't have as much freedom, but they have free choice of topics within the form I'm teaching (narrative, letter, persuasive essay...)

  21. I need a tall cold bottle of that too. My daughters still see writing as a chore, I would love to start a creative writing club at their school...maybe it will inspire them (and me).

  22. Thanks, Mike, for your inspiring lesson, as well as for sharing your Young Willamette Writer experience with the world. The YWWs loved working on their dialogue and narrative skills with you, and they were taken by your fab English accent as well! I really connect with what Yahong says about how rewarding it can be when a group of enthusiastic writers get together: It's so true! Lucky guy that I am, I get to experience this writer's rush at every YWW meeting. Keep spreading the mayhem!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!