become a writing mentor to your child, part 1: teacher or mentor?

February 28, 2013

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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.

Let’s talk:

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.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

amy February 28, 2013 at 9:45 am

I take a laissez-faire attitude towards my 8yo’s writing because he is so resistant to it. I would like more sneaky-seeming ways to suck him in. (How’s that for honest?!) Lately he’s been using letter stickers to make signs. He writes notes. I think part of the problem is the fine-motor whatever-it-is that’s necessary for longer writing isn’t fully developed, and I suspect he doesn’t have the patience to funnel his lightning-fast ideas onto paper. (He’d much rather verbalize them. I have two like that, actually. My poor exhausted ears!) So…I am looking forward to your wisdom, Patricia!

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Erin @ Wild Whispers February 28, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Have you considered letting him dictate to you? Or perhaps to an app on a phone or device? It might be a way to get the ideas out, keep them flowing, but to overcome the frustration in the lack of motor skills you are noticing. Just an idea!

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patricia February 28, 2013 at 10:29 pm

I always appreciate honesty, Amy, or I wouldn’t have shared the story behind the paper at the top of this post!

Like Erin, who commented to you above, I wonder if dictation might be useful with your son. Have you seen my series on taking dictation from kids? http://patriciazaballos.com/the-dictation-project/ It explores the whole notion of helping kids express themselves when their motor skills haven’t caught up with their communication skills. It can be a very powerful tool.

Then too, I’ve come to believe that speaking is a developmentally appropriate way for young kids to establish writing skills. Some of them are happy to dwell in the verbal for longer. Schools push writing on kids at a young age because it makes teaching easier in a group situation. But I don’t think that kids need to write nearly so much, so young, unless they are really driven too.

You say he makes signs and writes notes–that may be just right for him at this point. And as hard as it can be to listen, listen, listen to verbal kids (I know; two of mine are like that too), the verbal kids often develop into effective, talented writers. They get how language works!

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Heather February 28, 2013 at 11:15 am

I think I do well at times assuming the role of mentor to my children. They quickly tell me if I slip into teacher. Setting up my son’s blog was part of that mentorship. Now we talk a bit about the content and what is great. As he is quick to point out if we get muddled up in syntax is that it is his blog and his writing.

Eager to hear more.

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patricia February 28, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Those kids, Heather! Isn’t it funny how they call us out if we’re taking over their work? My kids are really the ones who taught me how to stop *teaching*.

Setting up a blog was such a great thing for you to do for your son. Just the sort of authentic writing experience I’m always encouraging here. Love that he owns it!

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Erin @ Wild Whispers February 28, 2013 at 5:02 pm

My daughter is a fine creative writer but the moment we ask her to write anything academic, she freaks out. For years the “essay” has been on both of our “most dreaded” to do lists. It is only now, as she is entering the last two years of high school, that I am realizing that all those hours of sitting over her writing with a red pen wasn’t helping either of us. We have stepped back. She is reading popular essayists. We are listening to books on tape together.

My questions are these: How do you overcome the “I hate writing” attitude when it’s become deeply ingrained? And, how do you engage a teen in non fiction when they aren’t at all interested?

I am on pins and needles for more here. Thanks!

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patricia February 28, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Hi Erin,

You say that your daughter is a fine creative writer. That’s great!

Honestly, I think we get too worked up about academic writing for teenagers, especially for kids who are college-bound, as I know your daughter is. When my son was a homeschooled teen, he wrote eagerly about whatever interested him: mostly fiction and some nonfiction. When he decided to go to high school for his last two years, he was placed in an Honors English class that was very formulaic and was supposed to teach him “academic” writing. All it honestly did was make my son focus on formula and trying to guess what his teacher wanted. It actually seemed to hinder his ability to express his ideas in writing. By the time he began writing his college admission essays, I had to work with him to help him find the confident, original writing voice he’d had two years earlier as a homeschooler.

Fast forward to when he got to college and his “Writing the Essay” professor told him and the other students to forget what they’d learned about formulaic writing in high school. Instead the students read essays or watched films and then did a variety of creative exercises to explore those topics. Then they considered which of the exercises might lead them into their essay. It was such great writing instruction, and my son wrote wonderful essays in the class. Ironically, the creative writing he did as a homeschooler would have been much better preparation for the thoughtful college essays that have been required in his coursework.

One of my favorite quotes comes from writer and college English professor Thomas Newkirk: “The good writers I see in college have often developed their skill in self-sponsored writing projects like journals or epic, book-length adventure stories they wrote on their own.”

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that perhaps you should stop worrying so much about your daughter learning “academic” writing, and instead help her continue her fine creative writing. Perhaps you could urge her towards nonfiction without going so far as expecting formal essays. I know she’s interested in the theater; she might enjoy writing reviews of favorite musicals or soundtracks, or something along those lines. Even simpler: see if she might want to start with a paragraphed list. For example, “5 Reasons Why Oklahoma! is Better as a Play Rather than a Film”. She chooses her topic and a few reasons, and then supports each listed reason with a paragraph. Spunk and attitude should be encouraged–no sense having kids write dull, academic stuff when they can be writing about content and developing their writing voices at the same time!

As she gets closer to college, she might be interested in taking an online writing course for homeschoolers to work on her essay writing. Then again, virtually every college student is expected to take a writing course early in their college career. Those courses teach kids how to write in a style that is expected at the college–that’s what they’re designed for. Any student who has written eagerly as a young person should be able to take one of these courses and do what is expected of them. I’ve seen many, many homeschooled kids do just that–even kids who had very little previous writing experience.

Your daughter has passions. Go with those, Erin!

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Leah February 28, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I’ve sort of found my way in the math and reading department just recently with my three but I’m super excited about helping them love to write. My oldest is twelve, he just finished a writing workshop at our local co-op. They focused on fiction and I’d say, it was a life changing class. But I’m kinda lost in trying to make it a part of everyday life. I love to write, myself, but that came much later for me, though probably only because I lacked a mentor! Thanks Patricia! I’m so up for this series!

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patricia March 1, 2013 at 8:41 am

Leah, if a writing workshop was life changing for your son, and you don’t know how to make it a part of everyday life, why not host a writer’s workshop and continue the fun? I’m not sure how long you’ve been reading along here, but I happened to write a book on that very topic, which you can read more about by clicking the book cover up on the right. 😉

I’ve done workshops with kids of all ages, from 4-18. Honestly, I’ve never had to pester my kids about writing (after those missteps mentioned in this post) because they always had a workshop happening twice a month. We started our first one not long after the dreaded meerkat report, when I knew something needed to change in our approach to writing. The workshop was an instant, successful shift for us. It provided all the inspiration my kids needed, and my youngest still needs, to write on a regular basis.

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Marina February 28, 2013 at 8:26 pm

As a Grade 3 teacher at an international school in China, we are talking a lot about giving feedback versus giving advice. Being a writing mentor is like giving feedback (e.g “When I read this I feel/think/wonder…) and being a writing teacher is giving advice (e.g. “Hmm, why don’t you check the spelling of/if you changed this sentence to…/if you added another idea here…”). The former, feedback, is so much more powerful. The kids engage and ‘own’ their writing rather than feel like they are writing to get it done (i.e. ‘teacher says I have to…’).
Love your website!

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patricia March 1, 2013 at 8:46 am

Nice to meet you, Marina! What an interesting life you must have, teaching at an international school in China!

Your mentor/feedback analogy is an apt one. Exactly! I wrote a guest post on the Spilling Ink blog about offering feedback to writers; it’s very much in that spirit of helping kids own their work. http://www.spillinginkthebook.com/creativity-blog/2012/11/26/5-tips-for-offering-feedback-to-a-writer-plus-ebook-giveaway.html That’s so important for writers.

Your students are fortunate to have a teacher who recognizes that!

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lakenelson February 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm

My 8 yo son narrates stories to me instead of writing them out, as was recommended by the Charlotte Mason approach. He narrates them in excellent written English, not conversational at all, which I believe is the result of listening to substantive audiobooks such as Lord of the Rings and Story of the World. He likes typing and detests holding a pencil…so when it’s time for him to write independently he will probably do so by typing. I don’t see any problem with this – most adults only type now. My stepfather is a professor who dictates the first draft of all his papers due to a hand disability – it works for him!

I think First Do No Harm is an important guiding principle with homeschooling. If we force them to do something they clearly detest it can only backfire. I make the most progress with my son when he is inspired. Forcing him to do something is the kiss of death – the assignment will go nowhere.

My son has a blog and he gets so excited about posting to his blog, releasing his work to the public, creating art for the stories, sharing the blog with friends. Currently I type as he narrates and he watches as I’m typing. He will also back up and tell me how to edit a sentence – so he is learning to write as adults now write rather than as his friends in the classroom are writing (with pencil, from start to finish, no edits possible).

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patricia March 1, 2013 at 8:53 am

Lakenelson, you and your son are pretty much doing all of the good things that I recommend on this blog: taking dictation, developing literacy through audiobooks, not getting caught up in penmanship if it’s a difficulty, going with inspiration rather than pushing kids, finding authentic writing experiences like blogs, being willing to take dictation to make those experiences happen–and recognizing the benefits of that dictation process.

Phew! You’ve got it all figured out! All I can say is keep going (and I hope you’ll keep sharing what you’re doing together here.) :-)

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Carrie Pomeroy February 28, 2013 at 10:26 pm

In answer to your question “Can kids learn to write by following their own agendas, without being taught?”, I’m feeling more and more confident that they can as I watch my son learn to write because of his desire to be able to chat with other friends on Minecraft and write fan fiction about–what else?–Minecraft.

Lately I’ve made another discovery–that there’s no way at all I could coax my kid to do a report just to do a report, but he will write report-ish things if he has a specific motive for doing so. Today my son and I collaborated on a short bio of Charlie Chaplin to put on a display we’re making for a silent movie matinee that we’re sponsoring at our local library this month. He had info he wanted to share with others for a specific reason, so he wrote a report. Ta-da!

Now I’m trying to watch my desire to push my very reluctant 7-year-old daughter into writing. She tells stories all day long, but when I ask if she would like me to write them down for her, she says no. Does she want help practicing writing herself so she can write them down? NO. So I wait, fascinated to watch her as she makes her own journey toward writing. I listen to her stories. I keep reading to her and talking about what we read. I buy her awesome little notebooks and rainbows of markers. But mostly, I wait.

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patricia March 1, 2013 at 9:07 am

Carrie, I thought about you when I wrote that “being impatient with your child’s evolution as a writer” can be a barrier to becoming a writing mentor. I’ve so enjoyed our conversations here over the years–and you have been so patient with your son’s writing development. It was such a victory to read about his experiences with Minecraft in your comment a few posts back: http://patriciazaballos.com/2012/05/31/how-do-kids-really-learn-to-write-2-0/comment-page-1/#comment-5943

And now, again, to see that he has naturally gravitated to report-style writing when there was a personal reason to do so: hooray!

Your last paragraph is lovely. Full of hope for your daughter–and patience. It’s a little easier to have faith when you’ve been through it already, isn’t it?

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wanderingsue March 2, 2013 at 8:55 am

Hi Patricia, this is all so exciting! My 4-year-old has just begun to ask me to write his stories down for him, and I’ve just finished my first read-thru of your fabulous book. Thank you ever so much for sharing your wisdom.

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patricia March 3, 2013 at 3:54 pm

So great, wanderingsue! If your son wants you to write down his stories, you have it made. Have fun! I’m glad you like the book. :-)

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Heather Caliri March 2, 2013 at 10:22 am

I tend towards mentoring–and I so appreciate this series: I feel like I need a mentor to learn how to mentor 😉 (Which I’ve said to Lori Pickert in comments before. I see my daughter writing verbally all the time (she’s quite a songwriter on long walks home)–and sometimes my challenge is waiting for it to look more like writing, knowing how to explain to others (myself, my family) that _this_ is learning, this experimentation and fun and joy.

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patricia March 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Mentoring can be hard, can’t it, Heather? Even if you believe in it. My kids have always been my best mentors in knowing how to mentor. If learning is working for them, I’ve usually been acting more like a mentor; if it isn’t working, it’s often because I’ve drifted into teaching. Like Heather said above, my kids usually let me know!

Can you write down some of your daughter’s songs? Maybe record them as she’s singing–on a phone?–and then transcribe them later. Some kids like to have a written record of their creations. Thumbs up for experimentation, fun, joy and learning!

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Lula B March 4, 2013 at 5:33 am

I absolutely loved reading this post. Even though I know in my heart that I want to mentor my children, it is hard sometimes not to feel anxious when I read about other homeschooling parents drilling their children on grammar, 5 paragraph essays and the like, over and over.

I am a big fan of authentic expression and I trust that the skills will be picked up along the way and that my children will WANT to develop the rest of the skills, and will naturally do so – IF their true writing voice has been nurtured.

Thank you so much for taking the time to put down your thoughts – it’s so reassuring hearing this from an experienced homeschooler. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

Lucinda

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patricia March 5, 2013 at 8:02 am

Hi Lucinda,

We often have the double whammy of and what other homeschooling parents do *and* our own school memories making us question how we homeschool. It can be hard to forge ahead on a path that seems so foreign.

Keep going with the enthusiasm and trust you have. Other experienced homeschoolers and I are here to tell you that it will all work out!

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Jacinda March 5, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Well I guess I’ve had a good mentor in you for encouraging my own mentoring of my girls. They have mainly developed as writers through writing letters to friends far away but now Sky writes stories and poems everyday. How did that happen? The poems sit alongside her love for rhythm and music.

One of my triggers at times is Ruby’s spelling. She’s 9 and I notice her spelling when writing notes to others moved from cute to cringe for me recently. My fear of her being judged. My wish to keep her confidence intact. A new email address has really motivated her to check her spelling because it is easy and self-directed.
They have no fear of writing and use it as a tool every day. Thanks for your support Patricia 😉

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patricia March 6, 2013 at 10:57 am

It’s always nice to see you here, Jacinda! You’ve been coming back for a long time! It’s so good to hear that your patience with your girls and their writing is paying off.

My daughter also struggled with spelling. I know that fear of your child being judged. Writing at the computer was a huge help for my daughter–spell check is a very instructive tool for her. At 17, she still has to be careful with her spelling; she always asks me to proof anything important. But her spelling has naturally improved over the years, because she loves to write and didn’t develop hang-ups about her spelling.

“They have no fear of writing and use it as a tool every day.” You’ve succeeded, Jacinda! You couldn’t hope for better!

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Kristin March 6, 2013 at 7:38 am

Nice written topic Tricia, and close to home.

Just a few points I’d like to share which reaffirm what you’ve written.

It’s true that in the case for our eldest he was taught a step-by-step approach to writing an essay in community college at the age of 16. It’s ironic/fortunate that they assumed that students didn’t know how to write an essay, even though they have to take an assessment test to place into an English class.

It has worked to both of my son’s advantage to write whatever they wanted and to develop a style, a sense of their writing “self.” With that in place (which in itself, is a skill that can’t be taught), when the time came that they were required to write an essay, and instructed how it was to be done, they were ready, able, and willing to learn how to do that. But the main thing is, their essays are interesting to read because of their “voice” or writing style.

In many cases, kids who have only been taught the structure of an essay have no sense of style. I believe that only through oodles of creative writing or free writing about anything does one begin to identify their voice. That’s why I’ve let them write whatever they’ve wanted from an early age, up to high school, or when they were enrolled in a class.

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patricia March 6, 2013 at 11:15 am

Kristin, you know I agree with everything you’ve written! And I hold stories of kids like your boys close to my heart as evidence of how well this approach works. The structure-before-creativity approach always strikes me as utterly backwards, for all the reasons you’ve shared. Planning to focus on this very topic in the next installment of the series.

Thanks for offering your boys’ stories as evidence to us all!

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Zane March 7, 2013 at 7:06 pm

I’m also very excited to keep reading this series (and your book just arrived in the mail yesterday . . . I’d been waiting to give myself a birthday present!).

I have questions about writing by hand versus typing. I understand the value of dictation, for sure. But I wonder about the importance of using our hands—pen to paper—to write. I find that I write much differently by hand than on a screen, and my thoughts on this were really deepened when I listed to this interview with Lynda Barry on NPR: http://ttbook.org/book/lynda-barry-uncut. She teaches writing workshops and shares a really interesting perspective on writing by hand. I’d love to hear your opinion, Patricia!

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patricia March 8, 2013 at 9:48 am

Zane, I do think it’s important for kids to be able to write by hand–unless it’s a real struggle for them, and typing on the computer makes writing accessible. In that case, they’re probably better off just going with typing, since they’re growing up in a digital world. But for most kids, writing by hand can start small, alongside dictation. Rather than expecting them to handwrite as much as kids in school write, we might encourage kids to do the sort of writing they might be inclined to do anyway: list-making, note-taking, comic-captioning. In other words, their handwriting might be for useful tasks that are simpler; while dictation is reserved for more complex ideas that require deeper thought and concentration. In this way, their handwriting skills develop organically, and eventually catch up with the rich writing voices they’ve developed through dictation. I wrote a little more about that here: http://patriciazaballos.com/2010/04/02/but-if-i-write-for-them-how-will-they-ever-learn-to-write-themselves/

I read the transcript of Barry’s interview–fascinating! I ordered her book from my library. I’m thinking it might offer writing exploration ideas for my kids’ workshops. Her ideas remind me a lot of Peter Elbow’s notions of freewriting, which is a similar sort of writing by hand. I find that older kids who are fluent writers can get a lot out of this sort of writing. I often use it as a way into my own projects.

Thank you for buying my book. :-) I hope it’s useful to you. If you have any thoughts or questions, please post them on the book’s community page! http://patriciazaballos.com/community/

Happy birthday!

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