Earlier this year I had the opportunity to serve as a writing coach for some 4th graders preparing to take a state mandated writing test. I worked with kids one-on-one during the planning, drafting, and revising portions of responding to a prompt. For the final week the school tried to make it fun, inventing a week long “Camp Write-Along”, where the kids could sit in tents with their shoes off, eat snacks, and write. For some kids, this specialized approach only added to their nervousness and dread. Others were so distracted by the extras that they barely got any writing done. I’m sure there were a few kids who reveled in the experience, but I was not assigned to work with any of those.
I have two children of my own. Writing is effortless for one and arduous for the other. As I’ve worked with kids, both my own and in schools, I’ve seen panic and dread when faced with the blank page. So, what was my approach? How did I push through the resistance and help the kids see that writing could be enjoyable, or at the very least achievable.
First ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I have the kids write the answers, but for the very timid, I’ll write the answers down for them. Then I’ll ask more specific questions. Or find a way to relate to them by answering the questions about myself, including the type of details that I want them to supply. If they continue to stare blankly at me, I’ll answer for them with silly or unusual answers or approach the questions from a different angle. Eventually the barriers will fall and I’ll get at starting point.
For a personal narrative about celebrating holidays, I asked one specifically what he liked about Thanksgiving. We went from “I like Thanksgiving because my family is together” to writing about how the holiday reflected the blending of his American culture and his Cuban heritage by listing the foods on the table that represented each country. I was able to relate to him when I shared that I had made black beans and rice for dinner the night before in part because of my husband’s Colombian culture. From another child, a bland “I like my birthday because of the presents” became a description of the family tradition of opening them in front of the brick fireplace. Through strategic questions, I saw the child in front of the same fireplace year after year, surrounded by family. Both experiences helped me to know the children in new ways and made for much richer writing.
Mostly, I found that these kids enjoyed the focused attention of an adult who could guide them through the planning stage. When the fear was too great, I asked them questions and wrote down their answers. When we finished I was able to hand them a sheet with their words, but in my writing. This gave them a starting place. Several times I was able to follow up and read what they had come up with. And sometimes those follow-ups came with a hug and a smile. Can’t beat that.