Thinking About Writing

Willa had some interesting comments on writing in the homeschool setting recently. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot, but not taking much action on. (Plus, I can hardly keep up with all her posting lately!)

I often feel that I should be facilitating more, demanding more, challenging more, and just doing more formally with writing for Violet. She’s a very fluent writer, and she likes writing, so it seems logical to give some of our homeschooling emphasis to her strengths. If I could put into words what I think she ought to work on in her writing, it would have something to do with control. She just doesn’t seem to have that much control of what she puts on paper. It’s often clever or funny (though not always!). When she chooses to do what we still call a “history summary” (though it is not a summary at all) she generally demonstrates an understanding of the important points of the lesson. It’s always technically correct, with interesting vocabulary and vivid descriptions. Sometimes I find little scraps of writing on the computer, little drafts she’s left behind and forgotten, and they even sound a little profound.

Yet any efforts to get her to move in a different direction with her writing tend to meet a dead end. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve tried. This fall she’s in a creative writing class, so I haven’t done anything additional at home. I’ve looked at getting some of the writing materials from Royal Fireworks/Michael Clay Thompson, but I’m not sure where to start with that. The elementary materials seem too basic, but she doesn’t seem ready to jump into full-fledged essay writing either.

All this makes me wonder about the different skills and developmental milestones that go into different kinds of writing. In many ways, Violet has surpassed the average high school senior in the “language arts” areas, but her ability to put together a thesis and write about it in an extended way is — well, I’m not sure it exists at this point. (Which is not to say she can’t mount a great argument and defend it orally!) I am not big into the classical triviuum, at least as it applies to our kids, but I do wonder whether there is something about the “rhetoric stage” that relates to plain old maturity and life experience in addition to passing through the “grammar” and “logic” stages. Is there a relationship between the development of judgment and impulse control—which we know to be a physiological and emotional process that continues through adolescence—and the development of rhetorical control?

If so, that makes me wonder, like Willa, what an appropriate focus on writing would be in homeschooling, even when homeschooling a profoundly gifted child. As Adso of Melk and other bloggers have mentioned, it sometimes seems to those of us with kids who are really gifted in humanities areas that it would be much simpler to have kids who are really gifted in math or science. (I know, it is totally a grass-is-always-greener thing!) Profoundly gifted kids with math and science talents seem to be able to move through their fields without a lot of concern for emotional maturity, apart from the stamina to concentrate for long periods.

Writing is so much more personal, and seems–from my limited perspective–to involve so many parts of a person’s brain and spirit, that it is not possible to accelerate through the standard curriculum in the same way. There’s a lot of waiting to grow into your abilities, and a need for lots of interesting and meaningful detours.

What do writers think? I need to think through this more: what do young writers need to develop to gain a level of control in expression and argumentation?



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6 responses to “Thinking About Writing

  1. I agree with you, it would benefit her hugely to have support and guidance at this early stage, so she develops natural good habits. On the other hand, you don’t want to put her off, stifle her creativity, or block her authentic voice.

    In the case of my own child, I think about her art. She has an exceptional ability there, always has, and for years I have struggled with ideas about how to enhance this for her. But she wont let me teach her in any way.

    I feel the solution is to offer the child a whole bunch of excellent resources and give her the right to look through them herself, apply them herself. The very best resources you can give Violet are excellent examples of the sort of writing she is working on. Great speeches. Wonderful classic arguments. Quality literature. This is what I do with Rose in the field of art.

    Btw, there is a danger for those kids who are gifted in maths and science and who can move forward without concern for emotional maturity. They are at risk of becoming emotionally unbalanced, with too much nurturing of their intellect and not enough of their soul.

  2. I like Sarah’s suggestion of making sure she is reading and hearing good examples of the kind of thing you’d eventually like her to be able to do.

    Have you looked at Bravewriter (.com)? Julie’s approach is very much focused on nurturing the writing voice and I think it allows you to focus on the individual child. She has some helpful materials on stages of writing development that seem really different from other programs. And she also has ideas for getting from oral expression to written expression. We did her Kids Write Basic course last year and that gave a nice framework for really focusing on taking one piece of writing through some revisions.

    Tigger writes a lot but doesn’t want to have to revise much or work on her writing. From Julie, I’ve taken the idea that she doesn’t have to revise everything or even most things. And I’ve found that some external motivation that provides a deadline and a reason for it to be good helps. Like the course. Or publication. Or a contest.

    Otherwise, I just make sure she has enough notebooks (though she doesn’t think you can ever have ENOUGH notebooks) and encourage her to keep writing.

  3. shaun

    We did Arrow and found it kind of boring. It felt like we were imposing this weird structure onto our usual activities. But that was not really writing-oriented, and it didn’t seem to advance our discussion of literature either. I think the problem is we have our own writing/reading lifestyle so it seems artificial to adopt a different one. I can imagine in a home where the mom isn’t employed writing about literature there might be more of a need for specific direction on getting a lit-rich lifestyle.

    Maybe you could fill me in on the Kids Write Class — I can’t find much specific info on the site.

    I appreciate the input, but maybe I should clarify. I’m not really unhappy with what we’re doing now — minimal formal writing instruction. I’m just wondering about what, if any, developmental pieces fall into place to help a child move into that “rhetoric” stage.

  4. I’m just wondering about what, if any, developmental pieces fall into place to help a child move into that “rhetoric” stage.
    I’m not sure, but I would guess “age.” My eldest (not gifted) is, at 11.5, entering a distinctly different phase, being considerably more self-reflective. It’s remarkable, really. And nothing really preceded it. It just happened. Well, it coincided with him becoming far more self-reliant in his day to day activities. And maybe that slight shadow on his upper lip…

    So, no clear answers for you, other than that you’ll recognize it when you’ve already hit it.

  5. Angela,

    I am teaching a class in creative writing this year, after a class teaching writing skills last, in the co-op setting. I am finding that there is much more to being a good writer than ideas or even willingness to write. I have a few students who are wonderful technical writers without the ability to put an original, creative thought on paper. More frustrating, are those extremely creative teens who lack the basic knowledge of structure and literary elements, muddling down quality ideas in such muck that one can hardly wade through it.

    While there is a certain level of maturity that needs to be there to get into in-depth essay response, the basic skills can be developed with simple exercises that combine a sort-of narration/written response. Begin with paragraphs, then move onto the five-paragraph essay. The key is teaching kids both the structure and function, so that they may develop the habit of knowing (introductory paragraph, supporting ideas, conclusion). Teach the child how to do research as well, and introduce the idea of a bibliography. The topics can be child-led, and therefore the process less boring.

    At the same time, continue reading great literature and discussing it together. Do fun extension activities that help the child focus only on the writing assignment, as they already have the character, setting, plot etc designed for them. It is much easier to “write a missing chapter” or “move the characters to a new setting and share their adventures” etc.

  6. Shaun, I agree that the Arrow is kind of dull. Really designed for learning spelling, mechanics, etc through copywork. Tigger has also done Boomerang which includes a discussion though she is not enthusiastic to continue except where they are doing a book she is particularly interested in. (She joined for Jane Eyre in October.) And for that, a local group might be better. Our library runs a monthly book club for girls her age which she loves and is very well organized.

    I think the material in Writer’s Jungle (and the Kids Write Basic class basically walks you through that to produce one writing assignment) is focused on a bunch of activities that enable you to help your child develop their ideas and turn them into written things. Beginning with you writing down their stories. And including good ideas for revising work. I’ve not been good at incorporating it a lot but I think for some folks, this gives a whole set of things they can be doing regularly.

    I think Sheila might be right, though, and time is necessary for all that they have read and learned to take a jump to a different kind of writing. Jena’s recent post about her son’s first university essay might provide food for thought. (

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