Why do so many kids have trouble writing? They can spell (by and large); they know the grammar rules (mostly); they have plenty of ideas. What makes it so hard to get them to put their ideas on paper?
I have a kid in my creative writing class that can spend the entire hour-and-a-half thinking of names that sound "otherworld" for the fantasy he is writing. Then, he doesn't have any. That being said: I believe that kids (and adults) need to daydream. I don't even mind if they do it in my classroom - in limited quantities and at appropriate times.
At some point, however, something is going to have to get down on the paper.
Here's my favorite: mind mapping. They use it, but either no one taught them to do it properly or they have "forgotten." They make four bubbles, three connected to the one in the middle and write the topic in the middle one, and the first three ideas that pop into their heads go into the other three. Then they think they are ready to write.
No wonder it is hard to write. They haven't thought about what they are going to say. I have an eighth grader that told me that he doesn't know how to brainstorm. Seriously?
So, we are going to brainstorm this week. I did a little Internet surfing to see if there was something new about brainstorming. Not much. One guy says, "Never brainstorm without a visual." OK, I have a great photo to project. We're going to work on that. Then we're going to brainstorm about a word. I need to come up with a great word. How about the word, "home?"
Organization is another issue. Kids have great ideas, but many of them have no idea how to organize them. Sometimes reading an essay from an eighth grader is like breaking bubbles floating in the air.
So what to do? Teach some outlining, and practice, practice, practice. Be thrilled with successes. Even small ones: a great phrase, a fabulous sentence, creative word choice. Praise, praise, praise! And don't forget to call their parents with some praise, too.
What else? Read, read, and read. Point out great stuff in the text they are reading. I get excited about what I find. I show my excitement to them. They'll think I'm a nerd, but they'll love it.
What can parents and other adults do? All the same things. Read; let them see you reading; share great things you are reading with them.
Let them see you writing is most important of all. Let them see you revising. Write thank you notes for gifts. Write letters to family. Write letters to the editor with well-thoughtout comments. Write on the backs of photos. Write for fun!
What can we all do? Talk with them, challenge them, make them think. You can do it over a movie or T.V. show. You can do it at the store. Make them have reasons for what they think. Get them off the mountaintops and into the valleys of their minds.
They are the future. Don't let them short-change themselves because you're too busy or they're too lazy. We'll learn as much as they will.
Anne Marshall is a teacher at Tempe's Grand Canyon Preparatory, a public charter school.