by Dr. Wayne D. Lance
“The best of times, the worst of times” is the way Lucy Calkins describes the season of young adolescence in her book, The Art of Teaching Writing. Again in the final article in this series I draw from her knowledge and extensive experience in teaching this basic, essential skill. Thinking back on my own experience in teaching eighth graders, I heartily concur with her apt description of this vibrant yet puzzling age.
Students in secondary school can amaze their parents and teachers with both the total intensity of their involvement in a project and with the sophistication of their writing. I recall the pages upon pages our daughter would write in a journal and the lengthy letters she would send off to friends. (I was not privy to the contents, but I know it occupied hours of her time.) From the writings she did share with us, I was gratified to see her ability to analyze, describe, turn a phrase and, in general, artfully express herself.
On the other side of this coin, parents and teachers are often frustrated with what appears to be an almost total lack of interest by young people in things in which we would like to see them involved. We are hurt by the times their communication with us is so limited, and we are perplexed by our unsuccessful efforts to motivate them to do tasks we give them.
Young teens will be most apt to make appropriate gains in their ability to write well when the focus of their writing is on those experiences and topics which immediately concern them. This is not to imply that they only write about personal feelings and from an introspective viewpoint — although for many this may be the best point of entry into their world. But a keen interest in almost any topic — the life cycle of the honey bee, Carry Nation’s crusade against alcoholic beverages, an essay on cross-cultural living, a poem about a good friend, a fictional story about a soccer player — any topic can lead to improvement in writing skills.
Research tells us that “students become more interested in writing and the quality of their writing improves when there are significant learning goals for writing assignments and a clear sense of purpose for writing.” 1
It is at this age that young people need good models to whom they can look for affirmation and direction. To some extent, parents and teachers can fulfill these roles, but there is much to be gained from the development of mentor relationships outside the family. For families living in isolated and multicultural environments, mentors can play a significant role in helping adolescents define who they are and the kind of adults they are rapidly becoming, as well as serving as a major influence in literacy learning.
Written language may be the primary means of building and maintaining this mentor relationship, and it behooves the parent to help create and foster these ties. Spiritual maturity and character development, as well as intellectual growth, are important outcomes to be expected from good mentor relationships.
But it is not enough just to turn our young teens loose and expect they will become good writers merely by the sheer volume of their output. Our role as teaching parents goes beyond providing optimal situations to encourage writing, fostering linkages with good mentors, and being open and accepting. Beyond those important foundational conditions, we must also provide direct instruction in the various facets of good writing.
Parents teaching in the home have an advantage over the typical school classroom in their ability to provide immediate feedback, and to do it in a manner that builds up rather than tears down. You have the opportunity to sit down one-on-one and discuss the products your child has created. Your sensitive feedback serves as a major channel of instruction. It is here that the process of writing can be emphasized and reinforced.
As I have suggested in previous articles, the process involves rehearsal, drafting, revision, and editing. One of the best ways to teach the process is to model it in your own writing.
Most parents are involved in some forms of writing as part of their daily and weekly routines. Let your junior and senior high schoolers see how you write. Perhaps they can actually assist you in certain aspects of your writing: preparing a portion of a newsletter; doing research, notetaking, and summary writing on some topic; even helping to draft a foreword to a selection being translated from a foreign language.
During my career as an educator, I taught in higher education for fifteen years and had the opportunity to work with many undergraduate and graduate students as they wrote term papers and dissertations. I found many who did not understand that writing is a process. Some failed to do adequate prewriting or rehearsal and jumped into the task with a final draft (they hoped it would be a final draft!). Others planned well but failed to obtain feedback from colleagues and to attend to the revision stage; they moved too quickly to the final stages. Still others began well but gave little effort to editing.
These writing process skills are learned by experience and practice. As a teaching parent, you can both model and directly instruct in the process. And if given your attention, by the time your teens are ready for tertiary education, they will be well on the road to mastering the skill of writing.
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