chapter-a-month challenge: january

February 9, 2010

It’s time for me to report back to you on whether I deserve a pat on the head or a kick in the butt on my book project.

writing at night

Finding interesting photos for this project is sure to be a challenge in itself.

My goal is to write a draft of a chapter each month. I gave myself an easy start for January, since I had just the last part of a sort of triptych of three shorter chapters to finish up.

I felt compelled to start with a brief history of how my views on kids and writing have evolved over time, with each of my own kids. (Brief history sounds troublesome already, don’t you think?) So I wrote a short chapter on each kid, following the shifts in my thinking.

With H, I was still pretty locked into the school model, and felt that kids at six should begin doing all their own writing.

“On a bookshelf in our family room is a tiny yellow book, hand-stitched with dental floss by H. at six, and titled–with a backwards JMy Journal. Only a few pages are filled, with lines like I oent to a rastrant. I had pancacs.  (I went to a restaurant. I had pancakes.) My articulate boy couldn’t manage more, didn’t want to manage more. Now, flipping through the empty pages that followed, I wonder: why didn’t I transcribe what he really wanted to say? Why didn’t I write for him more often? I know the reason, and there was just one: it wasn’t how schools did it.”

I go on to tell how at seven, H. slammed his pencil to the table and hollered, “I hate writing!”

Lulu’s chapter is all about cheating as a homeschooling parent:

     “Any parent of more than one child knows what happens with the second. You learn to cheat. You learn to slacken the rules that meant so much with your first. You permit pacifiers past first birthdays, you let bedtimes creep late, you let broccoli be snubbed and allow ice cream anyway. You know it’s cheating, but you try not to care. Anything to bypass a tantrum, to speed up a grocery trip, to let you sit at the table until you’re ready to deal with the dishes.”

With Lulu I knew that, more than anything, I didn’t want her to hate writing. So instead of forcing her to write, I cheated: I often took dictation from her. Still, I saw my transcribing as a temporary fix, just a little help until she could write on her own without difficulty.

Mr. T came six years after Lulu, and almost ten after H. That’s how long it took me to realize that all the times I’d thought I’d “cheated” with homeschooling had really been homeschooling at its finest: me, offering my kids just what they needed at the time. I took dictation from Mr. T as I’d done with Lulu, but this time around I began noticing what he seemed to be learning from the process.

     “T. narrated his tale, his head whirling with ideas, and I took notes, my head whirling with my own.

     I compiled quite a Post-It list at the kitchen table that morning. Slowly, I began to realize that T. had intuited an awful lot about writing from our dictation sessions. Not merely rules of grammar, but also the writerly choices that authors make, like using strong verbs such as tore to describe a character eating his food quickly, or ending a chapter with a cliffhanger.”

That was when I first began to see that taking dictation has real potential as a writing tool for homeschooling families.

So now I have three chapters–but I’m not sure I’ll use any of them. Part of me thinks telling my stories as the start of a book is too self-indulgent; part of me thinks readers love stories, and long to see how others trip up and figure things out. And that my history is a necessary lead-in to what I’ve come to believe about kids and writing.

I don’t know. This may not be my beginning. I may take stuff from these chapters and insert it elsewhere. I may not use it at all. I think I just need to keep writing and see where the pages settle, see what form the book wants to take.

One thing I’ve learned with writing, that I tell the kids in my writer’s workshops, is that the beginning you start with may not be your ultimate beginning. So often we feel compelled to start with something that drums at our minds, but that may just be a warm-up, a way into our true beginning. Our first efforts may simply be what I call making clay. Unlike the sculptor who begins work by taking out a block of clay and shaping it, the writer has nothing to work with, no clay at all, until he or she writes a draft and makes some. Only then can the shaping start.

the plan for february:

I’m forging ahead and starting a chapter on voice. To me, the most important part of a writing education should be nurturing a child’s written voice. If you’re baffled by the term as I once was, if you’re befuddled at how an auditory word like voice can have anything to do with writing on a page, stick around. I’ll try to explain.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Lise February 9, 2010 at 8:03 am

Whether or not it becomes the beginning, I think the personal stories (the mistakes as well as the later revelations) are what makes nonfiction compelling to read. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your book!

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patricia February 9, 2010 at 11:01 pm

I like personal stories too. I guess it’s just a matter of knowing how to balance the personal with the rest of it.

Thanks, Lise!

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melissa s. February 9, 2010 at 9:26 am

In my humble and brand-spanking-new-to-homeschooling opinion, I LOVE to hear other family’s homeschooling stories. I liken it to my infatuation with reading birth stories when my son was first born. Hearing how others have navigated this uncharted territory for me is comforting and enlightening and always gives me new perspective on my own approach. So, I may be biased, but I’d love to see those chapters in some way/shape/form.

A pat on the head, most definitely. I’m so looking forward to these little peeks into your book.

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patricia February 9, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Homeschooling is so different for each family–it’s fun to get some insight into how others do it, isn’t it? Foothill Home Companion Molly and I keep talking about starting a homeschooling meme that would get us all sharing…

Thanks for the pat!

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Angela February 9, 2010 at 9:53 am

I agree with Melissa: a pat on the head! I also agree that those chapters — whether they stay chapters or resurface in bits and pieces scattered throughout — hold valuable information.

It will be so interesting to watch this unfold!

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patricia February 9, 2010 at 11:10 pm

I’m interested in seeing how it will unfold too! 🙂

Thanks, Angela!

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Just Peaches February 9, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Interesting thought on dictation. My fifteen year old son is gifted but has a problem with processing speed. What this means really is that his overall general ability is in the 99 percentile but his ability to express things on paper in in the 42nd percentile. Without knowing, I had been accommodating him for years through dictation. On big assignments (we’re not homeschoolers) I would sit down at the computer and just type for him. I felt like I was cheating but it was what we had to do to get things done. As it turns out, when he was identified the psychologist said that that was exactly the kind of accommodation he needed. Now he uses an inexpensive software called DragonSpeak Naturally to dictate to the computer on his own.

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patricia February 9, 2010 at 11:21 pm

I love to hear stories about parents who figure out just what their kids need. Good for you!

I took dictation for my 17-year-old a couple of years back, when he was 15 and in an online AP composition course that really challenged him. My typing of his essays freed him up to move around and think aloud, which he needed to do as he worked through assignments that were a bit over his head at first.

It’s such a shame that an inability to get ideas down on paper easily keeps many kids from developing as writers. It’s the ideas that matter, not the manner of transcription. I’ve had DragonSpeak Naturally recommended to me a few times now. I will definitely look into it at some point. It seems like a good tool for older kids who may have started out with dictating to parents.

Thanks so much for sharing your story.

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spaulukonis February 10, 2010 at 7:33 am

I can’t wait to see your progress over the coming year with the book! So exciting. And isn’t it nice to have that goal (“I have to write about it on the blog!”) to push a little?

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patricia February 10, 2010 at 8:57 am

Yes, well, writing about a project that’s in-the-works seems a little like tempting fate, and more than a little self-absorbed–but giving myself a deadline here really works for me. So damn fate and self-absorption, I’m making progress!

Nice to hear from you, Susan!

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stefaneener February 10, 2010 at 11:42 am

You go! Focus, focus. . . you’re an inspiration.
I’d love to read it.

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patricia February 10, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I’m going! Thanks ‘neener.

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susan February 10, 2010 at 2:50 pm

After reading this post and then clicking back to your post on taking dictation from your kids, I decided to give it a try today with my 6 year old. This is our first year of homeschooling and even with years of classroom teaching under my belt, I hadn’t thought to try this with him before. Sure, we’ve composed the occasional letter together and sometimes I put captions under pictures he draws, but we’ve never sat down with the idea of getting one of his stories on paper.

Anyway, I just wanted to share that it went beautifully! He has been a bit of a reluctant student when it comes to writing (he’s still working on letter formation at this point), but the truth is, I’d lost sight of the fact that he’s not a reluctant storyteller at all! All these months of practicing writing upper and lower case A’s etc.. without spending any time doing the real work of writing. He was so excited and had so much fun with it. We read his story of “Cake and Bake” several times, he shared it with his grandparents and then drew a picture to go with it. His excitement and enthusiasm even rubbed off on his little brother (4 1/2 years) who insisted on writing a story of his own as well (titled “Chip and Dip”)!

Thanks for the ideas and inspiration. It’s such good stuff!! I can’t wait to read your book. Get going! I want to buy a copy already!

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patricia February 10, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story, Susan!

I think that classroom experiences–whether as students or teachers–drill into us the notion that writing means the physical task of putting words on the page. Classrooms expect kids write at six because there just aren’t enough scribes to go around! But homeschoolers can do it differently. (As can parents of school kids who are helping with homework, or just trying to nurture a love of writing in their children.)

As you’ve seen in your sons, young kids are often natural storytellers. Having ideas and an original writing voice are the parts of writing that often challenge older kids and adults, but young kids have these skills in spades. They don’t need to be taught; they just need us to get all that down for them for a few years, until they’re ready to take over themselves. I think kids often lose their storytelling abilities because the task of physical writing gets in the way; in the years that they’re working on those physical writing skills, they grow out of that natural storytelling phase. (And I’m not just talking about stories–the same techniques work for their dictation of nonfiction interests.)

I appreciate the encouraging words. Keep writing down their stories!

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Kristin February 11, 2010 at 6:04 pm

I think you deserve a pat on the butt; the kind that football players give to each other. Seriously, it’s a fine way to start. It makes sense, and later, it may change. But you have to start somewhere and you know how damaging being critical of your first draft is. Take your own advice and just do it, like you are…and thanks for sharing bits of the book. I like that.

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patricia February 15, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Kristin, you can pat my butt anytime you think I need it. 😉

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wanderingsue May 4, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Tricia, I hope you find time sometimes to read back through some of this- you are such fun, and the comments show just how much we all appreciate your wisdom and encouragement. A pat on the bum from me, too!

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patricia May 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Thanks for the pat, wanderingsue! I definitely come back a reread comments. In fact, I’m counting on revisiting these comments as a I write my book. There is so much wisdom and experience shared here from readers. It’s a whole community of fantastic people at my fingertips!

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