Monday, October 01, 2012

Homeschooling High School: Writing and Composition

Writing with teens?

The single best piece of advice I have to offer is this:

Start a writing group.

(A friend of mine who runs a homeschool learning center started some teen writing groups and I stole his idea.)

When Anne was a sophomore, and Betsy was in eighth grade, we started a weekly group. Simple premise: four teen girls, a piece of writing from each of them every week, to be read aloud to the group.

The rules for our no-pressure group were:

1. The girls could bring any kind of prose they wanted to share -- a short story, part of a novel in progress, an essay written for a school assignment, a report, a book review ... anything. It could be a first draft or something they'd polished.

2. After each reading, the first reaction from the listeners had to be a positive, encouraging comment -- what they especially liked about the piece, a favorite description, an intriguing character or plot development, etc.  Then we could move on to other, more detailed constructive criticism and ask questions, share ideas, etc.

3. When we were finished with all the reading and discussion (and generally a lot of laughter and fun), the girls headed off for some free time and lunch while I re-read the papers more closely and offered editing and ideas via my trusty red pen.

4. The last rule: Don't Be Afraid of the Red Pen. Early on, I assured the girls that my red pen was their friend. (The single most important thing for young writers to understand is that rough drafts are called "rough" for a reason.) I didn't want my comments, corrections, or suggestions to discourage them. I stressed that edits do not mean, "Wow, you're a very bad writer -- oh, my, look at the many marks I had to make!" No -- I wanted them to understand that the better the writing, the more they would see my red pen (because as their writing improved they gave me more to work with.) If I taught them only one thing about writing, I wanted them to know that all the real work comes in revision. Anyone can write something; a real writer revises. And revises and revises again. I told them that I became a real writer the day I realized that a great editor was my friend.

Our writing group became the highlight of everyone's week. The girls shared silly stories, serious work,  novels (completed and abandoned), essays, history reports, and stories that were composed entirely of the inside jokes of this quartet. Some weeks we (sometimes me, sometimes one of the girls) shared a writing prompt and the girls all wrote on that prompt for the next meeting. Sometimes we went out for hot chocolate and pastries. (Writers do need their sustenance.)

The greatest benefit that a writing group offers for teens is simply this: it keeps them writing. If they write regularly, they will become better writers.

And the pastries are a lovely fringe benefit.



Jennifer said...

We did this last year and I loved it. I need to convince my 12yo that the red pen is her friend - that's good advice.

Erin said...

How amazing! I just wrote about our Writing Club too! Going strong for 2yrs now. Our children's favourite is Round Robin stories, each child writes a paragraph, passes tablet onto their neighbour on the right and continues left neighbours story:)

Karen Edmisten said...

Erin, my 10-yr. old loves round robins, too! :)

Jennifer, I showed our writing group a bit of my own writing -- some pages I was revising on a manuscript. LOTS of red. I think it helps when they know they aren't the only ones who don't get it down perfectly on the first try. :)

Karen said...

When I was working at a consulting firm, we weren't allowed to use red pens. There was something about negative associations from school. Thisfrom adults who had succeeded enough to become consultants! Lots of green, blue, and purple marks on communications and spreadsheet print-outs...
My honors English teacher in high school used a red or green pen at random to grade papers. We were convinced, though, that he chose green for good papers and red for bad papers. He would start at 200 points and knock off points for each mistake. Then he subtracted all of the points from 200 and divided by two for the percentage. I know that some actually ended up with a negative percentage!

Karen Edmisten said...

Karen, sneaky color coding! :)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I absolutely love the idea of the writing group and your rules are awesome.

When I was teaching composition I often made comments on papers in pencil to avoid the red pen stigma. I don't know if I ever convinced my students that comments and corrections were their friends; but that was my aim. I think that when they are divorced from a grade it is much easier to see an editor's notes as helpful. I think that's one of the beauties of your homeschooling writing group.

I don't think I learned to appreciate a good editor till I was in college when I acquired best friend who was as geeky as I was. We always met and exchanged papers and covered them with red. She helped me learn a lot about punctuation. I'm sure I must have helped her with something or other. I used to still send her my papers when I was in grad school because I had learned that I needed that extra set of eyes to help me see my work more clearly.

Karen Edmisten said...

Melanie, I agree that because these pieces were divorced from a grade, the girls were able to see the red pen as helpful.

I love your best, geeky college friend. My middle daughter has connected with a writing partner and they are completely honest with each other in their critiques and they have made each other better writers. My daughter loves her friend's input!

Eva McNamee said...

Karen, how do you keep a record of the reading group for a high school transcript? Or any unschooling subjects for that matter? Eva

Karen Edmisten said...

Eva, that's a great question. Our writing group goes on a transcript as a writing workshop class, because that's exactly what it is. An accurate description of the class would be, "This class meets weekly. Offers opportunities to read one's own writing aloud, and listen to the work of other young writers. Students give and receive critiques of their work."

For reading lists, I have my daughters keep their own book lists, which I use for my records at the end of the year.

For more on homeschooling high school, you can check this series or this tag. Let me know if you have any more questions and I'll try to answer them!