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Head and Heart to Hand and Page: Inspiring Kids to Write

There’s a writer in all of us because there’s language in each of us. Have we not all shared the same spark of joy in first learning to write our very own name?

Writing is self-discovery and self-expression. We begin with a spark.

To inspire a child to write we must reignite that very first wonder and delight, and we must hold the spark steadfast with the intention of kindling a long-lasting love of language within the child.

Psychology tells us that to inspire another, we must first be inspired. Inspiration is contagious! When you discover the power and process of writing, of how words create language, communication, and stories across generations, then you can always tap into inspiration, and the ideas you pass along will be born from a place of wonder and delight.

Forget magic “one-size-fits-all” formulas.

Writing is self-expression, like doodling or dancing or tinkering with our hands. Yet even the smallest creativity carries risk, and hence reward. Yes, writing starts with great daring: the courage to face a blank page as though it were an art canvas, and to extract onto it what we know and feel, jumbled as it may sound at first jot. Kids, spontaneous, observant and imaginative, are primed to play with words. So much about growing up can feel out of a child’s control. A blank page can be a safe haven, a place to experiment with important questions, to tell the truth and be understood, to ease your troubles with the power of the imagination. A notebook might be the first place a child learns that he has a voice and believes that what she has to say matters.

There’s a great hullabaloo these days about kids not reading books anymore and about the degradation of our children’s ability to communicate “properly” on actual paper, thanks to –what else? —Technology. But wait-- #Texting. #Media. In the name of all that’s sacred in a tween’s social life, the written word is practically topping the charts! What’s more, instant messaging has arguably made kids’ daily writing more “mind ready.” Researchers use this term to refer to spontaneous, conversational thoughts shared on social networking sites, which happen to be far more memorable than any polished content. Why? Mind-ready content is easy to consume, understand, and retain.

One seventh-grade student of mine, an avid writer, swears she can write stories better by text on her phone than on her laptop or spiral notebook. “They just flow in this spontaneous way that I can’t seem to capture when I’m censoring everything on a bigger screen or crossing out constantly on the page,” she explains to me. “And, I can get instant feedback from my friends.” No, technology is not to blame for a lack of writerly habits; it’s merely a tool that may just help your child learn how to tango with words.

Teaching Kids How to Play With Words

For a “spark” to trigger self-expression, it follows a hardwired path through the mind and heart.

First of all, to express ourselves, we must form some curiosity. Curiosity motivates us to make an observation or feel deeply about something, which expresses itself in communication: a debate or discussion, for example, or perhaps a written statement. Curiosity is both a mental and emotional motivator.

IDEA 1: ASK QUESTIONS

Don’t start with the answer. Lead with the questions, the deeper Why, How and What If kinds on a variety of topics, like the ones over at Newsela.com. Questions stimulate curiosity and cultivate fierce wonderings. Journalist Annie Murphy Paul, who studies the science of learning, recommends that students have enough background knowledge to stimulate interest and avoid confusion. “More learning leads to more questions, which in turn leads to more learning,” Paul explains. Asking questions is the single most important thing we can do to inspire children to talk and write because the more we know, the more we want to know. Questions get kids thinking and inspire exploration, play, and creativity. This process of discovery is the essence of a child’s personal development.

One of my favorite questions to ask students is, “Where do the best stories, true and fiction, come from?”

Adventures, Ideas, Experiences, Observations, Memories, are common responses.

I dig deeper. “So what makes all these things actually memorable?”

The question tends to make students wiggle and giggle. It’s funny. It’s shocking. It’s sad. It’s weird. It’s embarrassing. It’s frustrating.

“Oh, so these are moments that stand out from the rest because they made you think or feel. Because they stopped you in your tracks and you suddenly noticed what you noticed.”

They start to nod. They hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah, that’s what happened. They noticed, and the observation lodged itself in their head and heart.

The most meaningful stories we own are born in the moments, places, people, and objects great and small, familiar and strange at the center of our lives that have changed the way we view the world because they reveal some essential human need we all share: courage, acceptance, respect, love, safety, control, friendship, imagination, joy. Ask the questions that stimulate curiosity. Get kids to dig down deep. We all have the capability of generating what children’s author Ralph Fletcher calls “writing that scrapes the heart.”

IDEA 2: KEEP A WRITER’S NOTEBOOK

I’m a teacher by trade. My reluctant writers are those who don’t write fluently. They squirm in their seat and struggle with topics, quantities, and details. They fret over getting it right versus simply getting it down.

I get it. Even though I’m also a writer, I occasionally fall into the “reluctant” category when my daily writing time gets buried in my bustling life. Habit is everything to a writer. Not just one who publishes, but one who simply writes. Habit is the process that builds fluency, and fluency shapes significance.    

Well, if we want our ideas to spill over, if we want our fingers to fly when we hit the page, we have to prime the pump on a regular basis. And so, my writer self looks to my teacher self and remembers: the most important tool for living a writing kind of life is a notebook. It is, as Ralph Fletcher describes, “a place where words can grow.”

A notebook is a foundational element to living a writerly life every single day. Scrapbook, journal, diary, spiral, laptop – it’s all good. Here’s a handful of powerful resources I use with students age eight to eighteen that provide a wealth of notebook strategies.

·    A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher

·    Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer's Notebook by Aimee Buckner

·    Just Write: Here's How! by Walter Dean Myers

Be sure to save this blog post on 11 ways to dive into your notebook!

IDEA 3: READ…LIKE A WRITER

Next time you sit down with your child and a great book, read twice. Writers read first to enjoy and second to hone their craft. Read through a poem, picture book, article, or chapter once just for pleasure and the second time to allow for connection and conversation around special lines and moments. Encourage your child to “lift the line” onto her writer’s notebook so that she can churn up fierce wonderings, lists, memories, and story ideas of her own. Day by day, a two-minute jot will become twenty or more.

Picture Books: A Powerful Writing Tool

Ruth Culham, the educational pioneer behind the 6+1 Traits writing model, explains that, “picture books are short, carefully crafted, and the perfect example of what good writing looks like.” They are, in essence, the perfect mentor text for every age writer.

Be sure to save this blog post on exploring the fundamental traits of good writing through picture books!

IDEA 4: LANGUAGE EXPERIENCE APPROACH (LEA)

For children just learning to write, inspire them by reading their very own stories to them until they can do so themselves. Hearing one’s own language is an empowering experience for a child, and his spoken vocabulary is just a hop away from use in writing.

·      Step 1: Allow your child to dictate his story while you write it. Then read it aloud often.

·      Step 2: After several read-alouds, isolate language-building words from the story that your child can begin to use in his own writing (since it’s already in his spoken vocabulary)

·      Step 3: Extend the learning by teaching your child to read his own stories and to trace over the words, adding drawings. (Storybird is another fun way for kids to build stories inspired by world-renowned children’s art.)

Because the LEA is so interactive, a child will engage in reading and writing, even when he rarely seeks out opportunities to do so on his own. For more on the Language Experience Approach, visit our blog!

Write. Observe. Revise. Discover. REPEAT: Inspiring Kids to Keep Going!

Once we’ve captured a child’s attention, we must inspire him to keep going. We must, as the legendary educator John Dewey put it, “catch and hold” his interest by helping him to see the value of his ideas and writing abilities, again through casual conversation including “how” and “why” questions. Over time, with encouragement and practice, a child will sustain greater focus on his writing and reflect for himself on the value of his efforts. As Annie Murphy Paul explains, “Holding attention is about finding deeper meaning and purpose in the exercise of interest.”

A few more “catch and hold” techniques you can use with your kids:

IDEA 1: STARS & NEXT STEPS (OR WOWS & WONDERS)

Remember my student who cites “instant feedback” from friends as a huge motivator for writing her stories by text? Acknowledgement from others is a crucial part of building one’s identity as a writer. Yet during this process, the writer must first know what’s going right to motivate her to continue and show willingness to hear about improvements. “Stars” or “Wows” affirm aspects of a student’s writing, while “Next Steps” or “Wonders” focus on constructive feedback that will nudge a young writer forward. It’s important to provide an equal and manageable amount of comments, else risk overwhelming the student with too many writing goals at once. A good rule of thumb is to provide the same number of notes as is equivalent to the child’s grade level (1 and 1 for a first grader, 2 and 2 for a second grader, and so forth.)

Revision should be considered a mini process within the larger writing process, a repeated “re-visioning” of the same art canvas by adding layer upon layer of paint, one at a time. You might enjoy structuring Stars & Next Steps (or Wows & Wonders) around the 6 Traits of Writing, providing feedback on Ideas, followed by Organization then Word Choice, Voice, Sentence Fluency, and finally Conventions.

IDEA 2: PUSHING THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK

Writer’s Block can seem like a big bully or a scary beast standing on top of our paper, no matter what your age. Here are some ways you can help your child regain control of her own ideas:

1.     Listen to music. Drown the beast or bully out.

2.     Go for a quick walk.

3.     Reread the piece. Affirm what’s going right.

4.     Count and celebrate the words already on the page.

5.     Let your child draw what her Writer’s Block looks like and then name it, so she knows the face and can defend herself when it rears its ugly head the next time.

6.     Think baby steps. Break big tasks into littler parts. Come up with rewards after finishing every task.

Subscribe to our blog and discover 12 successful ways for kids to quiet writer’s block.

IDEA 3: KEEPING THE END IN MIND

When the going gets tough, help your child to practice visualizing that the end result has already been achieved. Writing, like art, must be messy at the start. Talk your child through the process as a whole so that they see themselves moving from prewrite to draft and through the layers of revision to final edits and publication. You may find yourself circling back to a technique used to beat writer’s block or to a “catch and hold” question that reminds your child of the value of their ideas and efforts. The bottom line is that a positive mindset sustains motivation and gives children permission to make mistakes.

IDEA 4: PROVIDE FUN OUTLETS

Kids need a place to tell their stories, a place to speak their mind with likeminded peers and feel validated by the work and opinions they’ve shared. Never before have so many safe, creative places and spaces been available for youth to hone their writing skills and publish their work! Knowing where and how to publish enables children to set goals for themselves that culminate in great accomplishments. Spring, summer and winter breaks offer the perfect timeframes to explore interests and develop writing goals.

W.O.R.D Ink is excited to offer innovative single-day, weeklong, and ongoing summer courses and tutoring programs for all ages such as:

·      Short But Sweet: Tell Your Story in a Tweet

·      Mapping Our Memories

·      Tabletop Moviemaking

·      Writing Skills Intensive

·      Complete Engineering & Technical Writing

·      Essay Coaching

Check out our full catalog of courses and tutoring programs!

Also save this popular post on 10 outlets for kids, tweens and teens to publish writing, along with important submission tips.

W.O.R.D. Ink stands for Writing Workshops, One-to-One Tutoring, Resource Specialists, and Digital and Print Media Services. We also stand for the greater motto that brings all those services together and infuses our approach: Write. Observe. Revise. Discover. These are the four essential ingredients we all need to embrace the writerly life, a life that’s filled with self-discovery and delight.

Founder of W.O.R.D. Ink

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is the founder of W.O.R.D. Ink, an education and youth advocacy enterprise dedicated to providing empowering learning opportunities and resources for kids and adults. Vanessa is a children’s novelist and former elementary school teacher. Now in her thirteenth year, she continues to develop LA-based workshops, tutoring programs, and editorial work focused on education, personal expression, mentorship, writing skills and literature.