When it comes to your kids and writing—particularly if you homeschool—you have a choice to make: do you want to be a writing teacher to your child, or a writing mentor?
When H was twelve, he wrote a book review that he hoped to get published in Stone Soup magazine. He asked for my feedback on his draft. That day I tried something new: I printed out the draft and gave H the same sort of written feedback that I give to the members of my writing group. I underlined words and lines I admired; I wrote positive comments and smiley faces in the margins; I made arrows and notes in a few spots that were unclear or confusing.
It was the first time I’d given H feedback in this format. He loved it—and has asked for my written feedback on his writing ever since. Even sometimes now, as a 20-year-old college student.
This, as you may have guessed, is an example of me being a writing mentor to my kid. But lest you think I am the sort of homeschooling parent who always has everything All Figured Out, allow me to share a scene from a few years earlier:
H was seven and writing a report on meerkats. He was writing a report because I had assigned him to write a report. I had assigned him to write a report because it had only been a few years since I’d been an elementary school teacher, and I knew that writing simple reports was something that seven-year-old schoolkids did. I’d allowed H to choose the topic of meerkats for his report because he’d been enchanted with the meerkats at our local zoo a few days before, and surely we ought to make a school project of that! Wouldn’t a report on meerkats be fun?
Actually, H was not writing a report on meerkats. He was recopying a draft of a report he’d already written, stamped DRAFT at the bottom in red ink. H had stamped DRAFT with rubber stamp and inkpad himself—surely that was fun too! He was rewriting the report in his best printing, incorporating a few additions to the text that I’d encouraged him to insisted he add. Because every seven-year-old wants to expand his or her work and make it better, right? Requiring kids to rewrite their work was part of the writing process in my classroom: draft, revise, proofread, publish. It’s what professional writers do. Naturally it followed that H could do this too.
H was writing on a topic of interest, and creating something neat and perfect for sharing with others. Such good work for a seven-year-old! And wasn’t I a fine homeschooling parent?
Cue up the response (I’m sure you see it coming): In the middle of his rewrite, H suddenly swatted his draft and a shock of other papers to the floor, hollered “I hate writing!” and stomped out of the room.
This, dear readers, was what writing sometimes looked like at our house, back when I thought of myself as writing teacher to my children.
(Looking back at H’s report, which I saved and photographed for this post, makes me humble. I’m sad that I made him rewrite it, for no authentic reason. And just reading how dull it is breaks my heart. My kid’s imagination was bursting with better, I tell you! I wish I’d had the sense to follow it at the time, rather than try to make a schoolkid of him. His upside-down draft stamp may have been a mistake, but I’m guessing it was his intentional response to this report-writing business.)
I will spare you, for now, of what came in between the two scenes, of how I shifted from writing teacher to writing mentor. Suffice it to say that I learned to let go of what I thought my kids needed, and began to recognize what they actually needed.
I’d love to help you avert swatted papers and hollers. I’d love to convince you to consider being a writing mentor to your kids from the start. Which is why I’m beginning a new series here on that very topic.
What, you may ask, is the difference between being a writing teacher and a writing mentor?
A writing teacher might underline misspelled words on your drafts even if you have not asked for such help; a writing mentor might help you find audiences for your writing that excite you, and would help you fix your writing if these audiences required work with conventional spelling, and you wanted to fix it. A writing teacher might assign you to write a report because you are of a certain age; a writing mentor would encourage you to write in genres of interest, and would find intriguing nonfiction on your favorite topics and leave it lying around so you might learn how good nonfiction works without necessarily having to write it yourself. A writing teacher might assign a grammar textbook when you are more interested in talking about dystopian fiction; a writing mentor would discuss dystopian fiction with you, and would help you find more dystopian fiction with the faith that you will pick up the rules of grammar through your enthusiastic reading.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
A teacher is typically someone who decides what learners ought to learn, in which order, and who works to try and make that learning happen. A mentor is someone who supports a learner as the learner chooses, offering encouragement, support and modeling.
Letting go of teaching means giving up your own agenda about when and how your child will learn to write. But it doesn’t mean doing nothing. Instead, you help your kid come up with his or her own agenda. Which brings up Big Question #1: Can kids learn to write by following their own agendas, without being taught?
Then there’s this small detail: mentors don’t choose mentees; protégés choose their mentors. Which brings up Big Question #2: If we hope to be mentors to our kids, how can we encourage them to choose us as their mentors?
Those two questions should fuel us through the next few posts. Here’s a bit more to chew on until next time.
Barriers to being a writing mentor:
- Believing that learning to write is a series of skills which must be mastered in a particular order.
- Focusing on minor aspects of writing, such as grammar, spelling and penmanship, rather than what your child is trying to express on the page or screen.
- Underestimating the power of positive feedback.
- Valuing your agenda for what you want your child to learn as a writer, rather than his or her own agenda.
- Being impatient with your child’s evolution as a writer.
- Being unable to recognize how much kids can learn about writing in the course of a typical day, through talk and sharing of books and language.
- Being out of touch with the writing process–not what you may have learned about writing in school–because you don’t write much yourself.
Do you think of yourself as a writing teacher or a mentor? Which is the role you want to play? Have any questions or objections so far? What would you like to explore in this series? Has your child ever swatted a stack of paper to the floor and hollered, “I hate writing!”?
You can read all posts in this series here.