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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Perspectives / A Mom's Writing Lessons

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    Instructional StrategiesCurriculum
      One cold February afternoon this year, my six-year-old son sat in our living room making valentines. I was amazed at his level of concentration and the level of detail with which he drew and wrote messages to family, friends, and neighbors. In his first 100 days of kindergarten, Dash had grown so much in confidence in both writing and reading.
      On car rides, he's more likely to reach for his sketch pad and markers than he is for his tablet—much to our delight—and our trips back and forth to the grocery store are peppered with shouts from the backseat like, "How do you spell 'Ghostbusters'?" or "What does that street sign say?"
      But as he's learning to read and write, I have found myself struggling with what to do to encourage him and strengthen his skills.
      Both my husband and I are writers and editors, and that is both a curse and a blessing for Dash. Often while he's trying to write, I find myself trying to balance my inclination to edit—"Nice! But your S is backwards there" or "Remember to leave more space because it's a long word!"—with my desire to see him explore his own creativity and thinking—"How do you think Valentine's is spelled? Sound it out!"
      Fortunately, as Dash is learning to write words and use context clues to read—as the world is slowly opening up to him in a brand new, wondrous way—he already has thoughtful teachers to encourage him. In preschool, Dash used to bounce into the director's office to chat with her each afternoon on our way home. One day, with Dash's help, she transcribed a story he told her onto a poster and hung it outside of her office, complete with pictures. This prompted other students to tell and write their stories as well. And in kindergarten this year, Dash's teacher has given her students plenty of opportunities to write and imagine. Currently, they are working on their own "how-to" books.
      I remember this enthusiasm for storytelling from my own childhood. I, too, was lucky to have teachers who inspired me to write and who made storytelling fun. I fondly remember the adventure tale I wrote and illustrated as part of a 6th grade project. And then there was my beloved high school teacher Mr. Jones, who drove me one weeknight evening to a Joyce Carol Oates reading at the local college. It was the first time I'd seen a "real life" writer in action, and though I was too intimidated to ask a question during the Q&A, I remember thinking, "I can do this! I want to do this!"
      So many of the educators featured in this issue are inspiring those same sparks of creativity and excitement in their student writers. Some of them are doing this by cultivating students' interests and passions, such as Yekaterina McKenney, who emphasizes ideas over rigid formulas, and Mike Miller, who allows his high schoolers to write research papers as short stories or screenplays.
      For others, it's about delving into the building blocks of writing and language, demystifying the idea of "authorship" by showing how the magic behind the curtain works. At Rowell Elementary in Fresno, California, for example, students play a "text jumble" game—actually chopping up sections of the text and moving them around to see how each piece works to serve the larger article (Spycher, Austin, and Fabian). Zachary F. Wright has inspired his seniors to become capable, effective writers with a kind of Mad-Libs exercise that breaks down the "how" of writing an effective thesis into something they can all grow from.
      No matter what approach the educators in this issue take, they all agree that the most important thing you can do for student writers is to help them find the power of their own voice. In my case, then, I suppose I'll better serve Dash not so much as an editor, but more as a coach and a cheerleader, urging him along on the sidelines as he runs wild with his imagination and gains new insights into language and expression, excited to discover where he might go.

      Tara Laskowski is ASCD's director of digital and editorial content.

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