Because I teach writing classes, or maybe because I’m a professional writer, or maybe just because I write kinda good-like, one question I get asked a lot is, “Which writing curriculum should I use?”
My answer: “The organic one.”
“Organic” conjures up images of purity. Of food untouched by pesticides, varmints, antibiotics, or human hands. The organic section at grocery stores retains an angelic, holier-than-you-other-foods air, and the simple act of choosing the organic $.99/lb bananas over the $.59 bananas imbues me with a feeling of virtue.
But the thing is, that’s not what organic means. It doesn’t mean good or best or perfect. It doesn’t mean angelic or healthy or pesticide-free.
Organic means “derived from living matter.”
MEANWHILE, IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…
Long ago, in our newbie homeschooling life, we tried a writing curriculum (this was before I possessed any self-confidence about, well, anything homeschool-related). The very first activity was to have the students write “I have a pencil” and add an adjective. Whoa! Fun! Instead of writing her sentence, my then-six-year-old daughter raised her hand (where did she think she was — a classroom?) and asked, “Mommy, can I write about butterflies instead?”
That morning, our painted lady butterflies had hatched from their little chrysalides. They were newborn things of wonder, drying their wings in their mesh cage, awaiting the freedom we would launch them to that afternoon. And, of course, the kids were watching their development with wide, awestruck eyes. No surprise that my little one wanted to write about the butterflies.
But you know what I said? I said, “No.” I said that we had a new writing curriculum — a highly-rated, not-cheap curriculum by a professional — and that we had to go in order of the lessons.
So, being obedient, she walked away from the butterflies and dutifully wrote the sentence, “I have a STUPID pencil.” Ah, those tiny acts of rebellion.
It came time, soon enough, to release our painted ladies. We readied the video camera, gathered outdoors in the warm spring sun, solemnly wished the butterflies long, fruitful lives, and unzipped the cage. They didn’t want to leave. My daughter reached her skinny finger inside and giggled as a butterfly planted its whispery feet on her arm. She raised her hand, breathed lightly on the butterfly, and off it flew.
Right into the beak of a cardinal.
Oh, it was traumatic. To have watched these new creatures metamorphosize from tiny caterpillars to crusty chrysalides to delicate butterflies, to have fed them sugar water from a plastic syringe, to have held them skyward and sent them off full of hopes and dreams… and then to watch that life snuffed out in a second by a bird.
Oh, the children cried. They declared that they would hate birds forevermore, that they would never put seed in the birdfeeder again.
And in between wails my daughter said, “Mommy, you should have let me write about my butterflies. Now I can’t remember what they look like and I can never write about them again!”
It occurred to me, as a lone tattered butterfly wing landed at our feet, that I was doing to their writing lives exactly what that cardinal had done to that butterfly. By not allowing them control over their writing, by not allowing them to write about life and what they loved, by not allowing them to practice practice practice and hone their skills by writing a thousand different things that they WANTED to write about — I was killing any enthusiasm or love they possessed for the art of writing. I was, in effect, that cardinal.
We don’t have talking curriculums. We don’t have walking curriculums. We don’t have soccer or baseball or hockey curriculums. We teach kids the basics — the rules, the standards — and we let them play, making sure they adhere to the rules. And we tell them to practice. And practice some more.
But with writing, we take out the play. We take out the fun practice. We distill writing down to the most basic elements. Add an adjective to this sentence. Write a paragraph about making a sandwich. Use an adverb. Use transitions.
And we don’t let them play. We don’t let them practice their new skills. Instead, once they have used an adjective, it’s on to the next lesson on adverbs. Writing becomes purely a matter of functionality.
No wonder so many kids hate writing.
MAKING WRITING COME FROM LIFE
When I encourage you to make writing organic, what I’m really urging — stringently urging — is for you to make writing COME FROM LIFE. What do your children love? What inspires them? What motivates them? What do they WANT to write about? Minecraft? American Girl dolls? Lego, soccer, food, siblings, a TV show character? Their friends? Their pets? What are you studying, either at school or in your homeschool? Write about that.
Teach them the basics — sentence structure, paragraph construction, essay outlines. Then, let them play. Let them practice by giving them plentiful opportunities to write.
Writing should be a cross-curricular, multiple-times-a-day activity. Once a child has mastered writing complete sentences, have them make a sign that says Dinner is ready. We are having hamburgers. Or I’m glad you’re home, Daddy. Put it on the front door. Have them write a sentence to Grandma — I jumped rope today — and illustrate it. Make it a game to communicate only in writing for 10 minutes. I love you, Mommy. Or I’m mad at you, Mommy. It really doesn’t matter WHAT they write, as long as they’re writing something from life. My favorite bit of early writing was a note my daughter wrote to her little brother: Dear Vincent, Pleza stop puting snakes on my pillo. I love that she didn’t come to me with her problem (and I think we can all agree that snakes under a pillow is a problem, right?). She went directly to the source, and she stated her request in writing. It doesn’t get much more organic than that.
As a child moves into writing paragraphs, hundreds more opportunities for daily writing emerge. Every thank-you note, every letter, every description and explanation and whine should take the form of a proper paragraph. Stress the idea of main points. Write paragraphs about butterflies — one day write a descriptive paragraph, the next a paragraph about the life cycle of a butterfly, the next an expository paragraph about butterflies migrating to Mexico for the winter — and about elephants, explorers, scientists, plants, presidents, and anything else that crosses your curriculum. Write about life, too. Is a child misbehaving? Annoying a sibling? Being annoyed by a sibling? Write, write, write. Why are you mad today, darling? I am furious because you are the meanest mother in the whole world. Great topic sentence, honey! Now give me three sentences detailing WHY I’m the worst mother ever. Use specific examples!
Essay writing sounds difficult, but it isn’t — if you practice. How can essay-writing be organic? As my daughter would say, “Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.” The very first essay she ever wrote was about Lewis and Clark. Seventeen paragraphs, and I didn’t assign it. She was so accustomed to writing paragraphs that when I assigned one paragraph about the explorers, she couldn’t decide what particular aspect of their lives to write about, so she wrote 15. It was only afterwards that she reviewed them and decided she needed a “nice way” to introduce the topic, as well as a way to end it. That’s how she learned about writing an introduction, a conclusion, and using transitions in an essay. Yet the word “essay” never came up that day. Now we use proper essay structure in writing just about every day. One of the children was balking at writing a birthday thank-you note, stating that he didn’t know how to write one. Yet when I pointed out that a thank-you note could take the form of an essay, he said, “Oh. Fine,” and proceeded to write a beautiful thank-you note of five paragraphs. Was he particularly thrilled about it? No, but he saw the construction behind it and that made it easier because he was so accustomed to writing essays.
Making writing organic is, at its heart, a simple methodology: Teach your children the tools of writing. Give them opportunities for practice every single day. Relate writing to the life occurring around them. Let them write about what they love.
And then, you shall have writers.
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