Adventures in Teaching Creative Writing
Why is writing so hard for some kids, particularly boys? Have you ever thought of all the skills you need to have in place in order to be an effective writer? Let’s have a look, shall we? In order to be a good writer, you have to…
Have a good grasp of spoken language and be able to speak coherently – children who have speech problems often have writing problems.
Have full use of the fine muscles in the hand and arm, including pencil grip, wrist strength, and forearm position – many children have delayed fine motor skills or low muscle tone.
Have proper sitting posture in back, neck, shoulders and arms – poor posture causes quick exhaustion and may be a sign of binocular vision problems.
Have eye-hand coordination – the brain needs to have proper communication with the hand, telling it where to go on the page.
Have visual perception enough to align words on a page - some children misalign their words, starting at the center of the page instead of the edge, and slanting the words off to the side, leaving half the page or more unused (also a sign of a developmental vision problem).
Be able to read and understand written words.
Be able to organize a wealth of thoughts in order to convey smaller, concise ideas in a logical sequence (sequencing difficulties are the most common cause of writing delays).
Understand how words are spelled and the basic concepts of grammar and punctuation, which utilizes auditory and visual memory as well as major sequencing skills – punctuation is heard before seen. (You have to be able to HEAR a period, comma or a question mark or you’ll never understand where they go in a sentence).
Overcome perfectionism enough to take a shot at it, even if the first draft doesn’t look as good as desired (gifted children are most often the guilty ones in this area – they need it to sound like a professional wrote it and can’t forgive their own errors or amateur abilities).
Be emotionally and mentally engaged in the task of writing for sustained attention and motivation (in cases of ADD, just sitting still long enough to write is an agony in itself)
So, in short, to be able to write effectively, a child would have to have language, speech, fine-motor, gross-motor, visual-perceptual, sequential, auditory-processing, memory, and physical, mental, and emotional coping skills all strong and intact.
Considering all that’s involved in simply putting words onto paper, it’s a wonder any of us can write at all.
Of all the important skills listed above, however, one of them has the power to correct all the rest single-handedly. Can you guess which one?
When children are excited emotionally and mentally, they overcome all kinds of obstacles they never thought they could accomplish. They could have every single delay mentioned above – the process of writing could be a sheer agony for them, and they would still become great writers if their imaginations were on fire and their emotions were captured and engaged. When properly motivated, kids will do impossible tasks and not even complain about it. Learning disabilities require work, lots and lots and lots of hard work and practice to overcome. The only way to get kids to work at it is to motivate them emotionally.
I have found that befriending my students and engaging their imaginations has worked better for me than any formal therapy could (though I highly recommend a combination of both!).
The following is a compilation of experiences I’ve had in trying to motivate some of the most reluctant students to write.
The Story of the Kid Who Refused to Write
This middle school student came into my summer camp and told me in no uncertain terms, “I hate writing. Don’t even ask me to pick up a pen because I won’t. They kicked me out of my last two schools because of it.”
I said, “Okay, I won’t ask you to write.”
His eyes got wide for a moment and then he said, “You’re kidding, right? This is a writing camp, isn’t it?”
I flashed him a devious smile and responded simply, “We do things differently here.”
I kept my promise and never asked this child to write anything with his own hand. I discovered over time that his writing difficulties stemmed from a combination of learning disabilities, including delayed fine motor skills, horrible sequencing, ADHD, and giftedness with a healthy dose of perfectionism. He was brilliant. He had so many story ideas racing around his mind that there was no way he could possibly get them onto paper and do them the justice they deserved with his disabilities.
I started out by taking dictation for him. That’s how I discovered that he had great ideas and was very bright. It was also how I discovered that he had sequencing problems because the ideas were completely disorganized on the way out of his mouth. I had to ask him to slow down and clarify and explain things as we went so that I could make sense of it all. He really appreciated the fact that I took an interest in his ideas at all and was asking these questions of him. Most people in the past had tuned him out after the first few sentences. With a little help on the organization front, what was coming out as a jumbled mess turned into a fluid story that captured my imagination and excited him to no end.
Once we connected on an emotional level and I got him to loosen up, I managed to talk him into writing every 10th sentence on his own. Over the next few weeks, we worked our way down to every 5th sentence, then every other, until at last he was writing his story on his own with lots of praise and rewards in the Druidawn game.
Not long afterward, he picked up the art of keyboarding and did the rest of his work from then on using the laptop computer his parents promptly bought him.
Handwriting and organizing his thoughts are still hard for this child. They probably always will be, but that’s what secretaries and editors are for, right? The important thing is that writing no longer causes him anxiety. Now his wonderful stories can be expressed on paper and enjoyed by others. The last time I saw this child a few months ago, he was still working on his novel and was up to 200 pages. The new Eragon? We’ll see!
The Anime Fanatic
This girl came to my writing clubs a broken child. She was different from the other girls at her old school. Her imagination was on overdrive, she loved to draw and was an anime fanatic, the more violent the material the better. She was wonderfully outspoken, boisterous and tough. She loved to write, especially poetry, but rarely did so (because grammar, spelling, and writing structure were too difficult), and she hated to read.
In addition to the social isolation she had suffered, the teachers at her previous schools had been brutal with her, insisting that she focus on the surface details of writing (the basic mechanics) and ditch her own interests for ones the teachers deemed to be more “appropriate.” She was regularly punished and given poor grades for her writing mistakes and was never recognized for her vibrant imagination. Her self-esteem was so low when she came to our writing clubs, I could have scraped it off the floor.
Reading was a difficult task, and that was where I knew I had to start with her. As I read with her the first time, I saw the symptoms of dyslexia and sequencing deficits, and could easily understand why she didn’t like to read.
Taking advantage of her amazing intellect, imagination, and visual learning style, I turned her on to the wonders of comic books. Particularly the ElfQuest graphic novels, Volumes 1-3. I sat and read the comics with her, each of us choosing characters to read aloud. She became deeply involved in the ElfQuest books and was soon struggling through them on her own (skipping recess in the process) just to read more. When she had finished the first several books of the series, she discovered that there were shelves full of anime graphic novels at all the major bookstores. It wasn’t long before she was devouring one of those 100-page novels a day. Then it was an easy jump from that to real novels. She moved herself up three reading grades in one year with nothing but motivation.
In the meantime, the girl’s writing was taking off as well. With her reading confidence rising so quickly, she decided to write anime stories and comics of her own and spent hours every day doing so. Yes, they still needed a lot of editing for grammar and spelling and such, but they were making more sense than anything she had written before. All that reading had given her a feel of the organization and natural flow of words.
Currently, this child has written over a hundred pages, and her grammar and spelling skills have improved dramatically along the way. Most importantly, the content of her writing is superior in its maturity and eloquence. With a little editing, every word sounds like poetry.
Saved by Druidawn®
This child was one of dozens of boys who came to our writing clubs whose first words were, “Don’t ask me to write anything, because I won’t. I HATE WRITING!!!”
After investigating the causes of this attitude, sure enough I found a sequencing deficit, poor fine motor skills, low self-esteem, and little knowledge of the mechanics of writing. I did the same thing with this child that I’ve done with many, many others. I turned him on to the game of Druidawn®.
I started out by saying, “You don’t need to write to play this game. You can dictate to me or to my assistant. If you do choose to write for yourself, you will get double points for each word written. Words are worth money on Druidawn®. You can use them to purchase items and pets and magic powers for your character.”
The child did exactly what the others have always done. He chose to fill out the character sheet himself, since the form doesn’t require complete sentences or proper spelling. Filling out the character sheet for this game is a terrific icebreaker. What these kids hate most is a blank page staring at them. Then all the pressure is on them to put something there. But when they see the character sheet and it’s already crammed with words, and all they have to do is fill in small parts, some of which are only numbers, it takes all the pressure off. It changes from a writing activity to a gaming activity. Much better!
Many kids enjoy filling out the character sheet so much that they make several characters before they even start playing the game! It gives them power they would never have in the real world… to create a player from the ground up and exude complete control over him. Plus, the game comes with numerous lists of choices for personal features and magic powers – fun choices to make and exciting things to think about. Even though the character sheet requires a small amount of writing, it’s easy, and so enjoyable that they hardly notice it.
Next we play the game as if no further writing needs to happen. With all the pressure off, kids begin to write things on their own just so they can rack up points. Their words are worth triple points if they work on editing and spell-checking their writing. Parents and teachers can help them do this. This system is highly motivating. As they write more, they become better writers, especially if they get feedback on their work.
His story is the most common one to tell. But I have many others that aren’t so common. In fact, I’ve taught many one-of-a-kinds, and I’ll be posting more of their stories as the years go on.