Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Plan

"I'm ready!  I'm ready!  Let's write my story!" my four year old announced, grabbing my hand and leading me over to the desk where his plan lay completed.  Story writing is serious business for W, and as soon as we sat down, he immediately launched into a description of what he had drawn in each block.  I asked a couple of clarifying questions, then picked up a pencil to write each word of his story, just as he dictated it.  He twisted left and right, his excitement transforming into movement, as I added the final period. His story was on paper forever, to be read over and over again, and he was thrilled.
W's natural story telling - and story writing - ability is something his older brother envies.  As much as he loves fiction, E's true passions lie in the sciences.  He collects facts about space and the human body, animals and engineering, all with unbridled joy.  He is a child who always wants to know more, and is always fascinated by what he's learned.  When it comes to creative writing, though, he freezes.
The majority of E's frustration, it seems, comes not from a lack of ideas, but from the difference between the vibrant story he imagines in his head and the skeleton of a story he leaves on paper.  Any questions I ask about details - which were so clear in his mind before he picked up the pencil - lead to tears. 

I can sympathize with his tendency towards perfectionism, truly. It’s a trait I still fight, and likely always will.  But, at the same time, I’m not willing to let him give up on creative writing.  The skill of translating thoughts into words is an important one to develop, no matter where his future leads.  
The question was, how could we go forward, without turning writing into something he hates?  Or refuses?  I knew something needed to change, if we were to get off this path, and set my energies on finding out what.

After reading Dianne Craft's theories on Smart Kids Who Hate to Write (interesting, but not the root of E’s issues, I don’t believe) and reflecting on both E's expectations and my own, I reconsidered the physical act of writing - and how important it actually is to the writing process.  

I have scribed all of W's stories this year, without a second thought.  Handwriting is becoming easier for him this year, through both age and practice, but writing an entire story would be laborious and frustrating.  His thoughts move so much faster than he could possibly write, it has made perfect sense for my fingers to move the pencil.  

What if I gave similar support to E?  Would it make a difference in his enjoyment of the writing process?  Could it help him write the story in his mind, on paper? 
I decided to try.
E had already created his new ice cream cone constellation, but he had put off writing the story about how it came to be in the sky for weeks.  (The prompt may sound familiar - Fancy Nancy also made up a new constellation in Stellar Stargazer.)  I approached him with my idea - We would skip our “beginning, middle, end” story planner this time.  Instead, he could tell me his story, and I would write the details down on a piece of scrap paper.  
Mom writing while he talked?  He was in!    

His story tumbled out, and I jotted down the notes - a few in complete sentences, but most in the form of key words.  I asked him questions about details as we went.  What kind of ice cream was it?  How did the boy feel when the cone kept flying up in the sky?  And what was his name?  All things I - or any reader - would want to know.  It took no more than five minutes, but he told a strong story.  What's more, he had a framework for writing a story he would be proud of.
I would love to say that he jumped right in, thrilled to get his thoughts on paper.  But he didn't.  He procrastinated for three days, choosing other work and saving the writing for "tomorrow."  Thursday morning, though, I had another flash of inspiration.  

"I was thinking about your story," I said offhandedly, as E finished his snack and I cleaned the kitchen counter.  "What if we set a timer, and you only wrote during that time."  
I had his attention.  
"I think 20 minutes would be too long, though," I went on.  "And I think 5 minutes wouldn't be long enough.  What do you think?"  
"How about 10," he suggested.  
I agreed that it sounded like a good plan.  "When the timer goes off, you can take a break and work on something else for a little while, then set the timer again to write your story."  
He got all of his materials together - his story notes from our planning session, a pencil, paper, the timer - and sat at his table.  Pressing start, he wrote.  And he wrote.  He turned his notes into complete sentences and poured them onto the paper, as if he were born a writer.  When the timer sounded, he took a break, working for 10 minutes on another activity, and then he was back to writing.  
After four sessions split over two days, E ran to me holding three pages of 1st grade writing paper.  
"I want to write all my stories like this!" he said, gleefully proud of his work. And he should have been.  It was a good story.  More importantly, though, he had fun writing it.  Fun!  

It was a giant step in the right direction, and one I wish we had taken earlier.  As familiar as I am with E's inclination towards whole to part (or top, down) learning, it took me seven months to realize I needed to shake up our approach and find a writing plan that would better meet his needs.  

We will return to traditional graphic organizers, I'm sure, as he becomes a more independent writer, and as we tackle different types of writing.  My years as both a student and a classroom teacher have shown me how different plans can help structure thinking and communication, and I'm certainly not willing to blow them off altogether.  

I'm slowly finding, though, that if I can loosen my grip on the plan,  even just a little, that's when my children - and when I - learn the most.  Even better, we have fun doing it.

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