Writing Lessons is an occasional series about teaching writing.
I’ve been teaching/coaching/tutoring writing for the past three months. I have five students in my charge, ranging from age 9 to age 15 and from 3 to 3,000 miles away. We communicate via Google Hangout and email. All my students could be characterized as reluctant writers, or at least not the enthusiastic type who loves to spend hours at the computer turning ideas into words on the page. But all are writing, and some are surprised to find out they enjoy it. I’m learning as I go, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
I know I’ve learned this: when possible, let them choose the topic. Let them write about what they like. While this seems obvious for the youngest writers, it’s easy to assume that the older writer should be writing about whatever topic is presented. Certainly that’s a skill necessary for academic and, often, professional success. I’ve never been asked at work if I wanted to write a note on a patient I’ve just seen or if I’d rather pick another subject. It’s not an option — for some reason, the family practice that employs me prefers me write about the medical encounter and not home schooling, Unitarian Universalism, or matters of the heart, all preferable topics. College was no different. The subject was given or was at least constrained.
But for young writers, especially the reluctant ones, let them write about what they like. I’ve received paragraphs about cats, essays about Minecraft, and stories about monsters. Each student’s first assignment was to introduce himself or herself, which provided me with both a writing sample, and per my instructions, a list of topics one would find not too painful writing fodder. Armed with lists including pets, video games, space, nanotechnology,the hate of writing, and more, I began to give assignments. Within days, my inbox contained with pieces about cats. A few weeks later, it was Minecraft. While I share an affection for felines, I’m not so enamored with Minecraft, a game my children talk about at length. But no matter. The kids were writing, and writing fairly well.
Cats and video games lend themselves to a variety of formal and informal writing. Cats can be described in appearance (descriptive writing). They can be given a voice (point of view). A pair of cats lend themselves to comparison and contrast. One can even give directions about how play with a cat. And while research is not yet on everyone’s assignment lists, I’m sure cats will serve well there, too. I can easily see persuasive essays about cat ownership or declawing. Creative writers can write about cats, too: I’ve read more than one student-produced cat-centered story, and my younger son is deeply writing his second cat novel. Cats, for some kids, work as interesting, comfortable writing material.
Minecraft (and any video game would work) lends itself to the same treatment. Writers can describe the creatures within the game and give instructions on dealing with those creatures without getting killed. A recent young writer drafted a fine essay extolling the virtues of relying on player-created videos to improve one’s game play. While it’s not a topic I’d have ever chosen as a writer or a teacher, it interested him. The writing technique we were honing was unity, and this could be accomplished with any subject. Doing it with one within his comfort zone made that a bit more enjoyable.
Writing about one’s own interests has a few benefits. First, it’s easier to pay attention to what interests one. Personally, I’d rather write about homeschooling or twice-exceptional education than about fluctuating corn prices or how to roast a pig. Just like me, when students choose their writing topics, they stay engaged and are often more eager to write (or less heavily resistant, which is on the spectrum of eager, right?). A reduction in the pain factor is always a plus.
Writing about what interests one can make a long assignment more bearable. When team-teaching a group of high-schoolers through a research paper, my teaching partner and I encouraged them to pick a topic with care since they’d be living intimately with it for a couple of months. Liking it makes that a more pleasant time. While most of the kids were thoroughly tired of the writing process by the end of six weeks, they were still generally interested in their topics.
Additionally, writing is a fine process for organizing previously learned information in new ways. Writing about a passion is far from just a recitation of what’s previously been learned. It’s a chance to categorize and recategorize what’s already been learned. New relationships are revealed, which can make one consider one’s cat or video game in a different light. A martial art studied for years becomes more sharply defined when held against a different martial art — what was taken for granted is somehow now new and different. These higher-order thinking skills can blossom through writing about the utterly familiar and ordinary.
Finally, when the subject is familiar and comfortable, the focus can be on the writing process rather than wrestling with new information about a subject. In the comfort of a student’s knowledge of his two cats, he or she can focus on the structure of a comparison and contrast essay about those beloved creatures. With the subject matter previously internalized, what to say is not as problematic, and the attention can go into how to say it. Experimenting with metaphorical language is easier when the objects for comparison are familiar, and learning to write an instructive piece is easier if the process being written about is familiar to the writer.
There will be plenty of times when a young writer doesn’t have a choice about the writing topic, but especially for young writers and resistant writers, turning over topic selection to the writer can make the project easier and more enjoyable for both learner and teacher. As many a homeschooling parent knows, writing can be hard enough to teach as it is. Give yourself a break. Whatever the next writing skill on the learning list is, try turning the topic selection entirely over to your child while focusing on teaching the techniques the child needs to know. If that turns into short stories about fairies, expository essays about black holes, or persuasive pieces about the benefits of video gaming for kids, so be it. You might even catch your young writer smiling.