Each Spring I write Haiku poems to celebrate the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival which I hang on my yew hedge underneath the four large cherry trees in my garden.
The Coromandel Peninsula on the north-east coast of New Zealand is my favourite place in the world. I spent several hot summer Christmas holidays there with my family when I was a child. I never failed to be delighted by wiggling my toes in the sand of Hot Water Beach, along the shoreline, and feeling the hot spring water bubbling up from the earth’s depths, covering my feet. What a delicious feeling to be in the sea hot and cold at the same time. The deep crimson flowers of the pohutukawa trees bloom at Christmas and the tree has a remarkable ability to grow horizontally from sheer white cliffs, while remaining steadfastly rooted. The flowers hang over the clear azure blue sea and the sand is tinged pink by the eroded shells.
The vivid colours, the heat (from both the sun and water) and the bliss of those carefree days of childhood summers will remain with me forever – as only childhood memories, etched into our consciousness, can.
I also clearly remember being given an English assignment in Grade 6 – I was to write about a summer holiday using as many adjectives as possible and I wrote about Coromandel. Although I didn’t know why, I did know that the piece of writing I submitted was awful. Yes, it had the adjectives, but a soulless, contrived piece of writing it was.
If only a teacher had invited me to write of my experience, to get in touch with my senses, to encourage my enthusiasm and tap into my natural expressiveness which was lying in wait. Instead I was given an EXERCISE which had nothing to do with me.
Children are full of stories and delight and tragedy and passion. And too often misguided adults ignore what is lying in wait and impose exercises which dull creative expression and diminish the child’s expressiveness – the very thing that will bring success. So remember – the more adults encourage what’s already there, the better!
The most common suggestion school teachers make on my students’ school report cards for improving writing skills is that they should write “more detail”.
Sometimes children find this difficult because the teacher has assigned a subject the child does not easily relate to. This is why I ensure that my students decide what they want to write about. Usually they have lots to say when they are enthusiastic about a topic. I also ensure that I get to really know the child—not just his interests and hobbies, but also the many facets of his personality and how he sees and relates to people and events in his life. Encouraging and validating his world point of view results in an enthusiasm to communicate.
Which brings me to another reason why students can be reluctant to add details to their writing: they don’t really see the point of writing in the first place. Once the understand that writing is just another form of talking and communicating with people and is an important and rewarding form of self-expression, the details start to flow.
Writers must also be keen observers—they need to notice life around them and their responses to it. Reading and writing ability is linked—improvement in one skill, also improves the other. Any writing class must also include reading. The more the child understands himself, the more he understands the wide variety of characters he encounters in his reading and will also be able to describe complexity in characters.
Noticing details in life (visual, auditory, tensile, taste) allows the student to automatically want to include them in a story—to paint a picture that is complete for the reader.
Writing should be a joyful activity for the child and I hope he would have an eagerness to express his thoughts, feelings, opinions and observations with humour, insight and truth.
Substitute she/her for your daughter
I don’t think I ever said to my son “say you’re sorry” even if I felt it was clear that he should. I squirmed inside many times when others expected an immediate apology while I instead would take him aside and ask him if he did, indeed feel sorry, and if so, could he say it. Usually, he did the right thing, but occasionally he was stubborn or contrary, or felt that it was the other person who should apologize. Sometimes he was right and when we would discuss it later he would feel angry and wronged. Sometimes he was wrong and he would struggle with the reasons.
We all know when an apology is not meant, and sometimes children (and adults) will say it. “You’re NOT sorry, you’re just saying it”. A false sorry never feels very good and a sincere apology creates closeness.
An authentic person is generally appealing and creates respectful relationships. Authenticity also means that a person can be trusted, means what she says, and is emotionally true.
This is particularly useful in writing class!
A student who can write about the disagreement with a friend, the reprimand from a teacher, the struggle with jealousy, the frustration with *her own expectations, or her personal responses to an animal or book—in other words, her authentic life—will be well equipped to write interestingly and with verve. Not only does this serve her well in her personal life (to express herself intelligently, to communicate with others in a true and interesting manner and to accept all parts of her experience) but it also serves her well on a more mundane but relevant level, with examinations and university applications.
Grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, transition sentences and thesis statements can all be learned by example and practise once the principles are understood; to express yourself honestly and from the wellspring of your own uniqueness however requires encouragement and validation because it is an internal process.
The child who speaks the truth and writes about her experiences from her unique perspective writes usually with humour, energy and about themes to which we all relate.
Society generally coerces children to conform. I want my classes to be a place where each child feels secure enough to speak her mind.
*substitute him/his for your son.
Writers are often asked: “where do your ideas come from?” This is usually considered an irritating question. It implies, I suppose, that it is easy to “find” ideas. I have heard writers answer provocatively with something like: “Oh, I get my ideas from the bottom right-hand drawer of my bureau in the bedroom” or “I find them at the bottom of the garden on the first of each month.
But as a teacher I need to help my students come up with imaginative ideas all the time—whether it is writing a story or a poem or a scene to act. I guide them in realizing that they can mine their own lives for writing material—this is a lot more difficult than teaching sentence structure or vocabulary or plot.
Children eventually understand that every day provides them material to write about: a thought, a feeling, an opinion, a question, a daydream, an observation ….And it is the uniqueness of their experiences that makes writing compelling. One student may enjoy the poet Siobhan Swayne comparing the sea to a cat (“think of the ocean as a cat with her grey fur pushed high upon her back white boots kneading the shore”) while another may instead relate to the more sensory poem of Judith Thurman (“with shoes on, I can only feel how hard or soft the rock or sand is where I walk or stand. Barefoot, I can feel how warm mud moulds my soles …”). The child must be aware, of both his* internal and external worlds. The more parents and teachers authenticate the child’s unique perspectives, the easier it is for him to feel confident about having access to material to write about and the more rewarding the writing process is.
How do we do this? We relate our own stories, we share our own feelings and thoughts, we provide a safe environment where there are no “wrong” ideas, we encourage questions and curiosity and then we listen intently. We also read aloud, preferably daily, and help our children associate reading with joy (definitely not as an assignment or chore) and demonstrate that words are fun and interesting and aid in our communication.
That’s in a perfect world. In the real world, we do as much as we can!
* substitute her for your daughter