I mentioned last year that my son is a very creative child. He is regularly having imaginary adventures with his imaginary friends, and he constantly comes up with stories for me, stories he tells as if he’s surely experienced them. Given his intense interest in creative writing, I was seeking further instruction on how to nurture his creativity in his early years.
No More “I’m Done!” by Jennifer Jacobson (Stenhouse Publishers, 2010) is an inspiring how-to manual for early primary grade teachers. Subtitled “Fostering Independent Writing in the Primary Grades,” Jacobson’s book describes a system of nurturing creative writing that lets children take control of the process. After she describes her system, she provides a year’s worth of mini-lessons for encouraging the development of ideas in various segments of writing (including voice, organization, word choice, fluency, and details) all using well-known and beloved children’s picture books as examples. Although I am not a teacher in a classroom setting, her ideas have given me the confidence to institute some similar casual instruction during our “school time.” It is informative and inspiring, helping one think outside the traditional box of writing prompts.
The main crux of Ms Jacobson’s suggestions is that students be encouraged to write and revise without adult direction and criticism. How might first and second-graders do so? It seems children that age need someone to help them figure out what to write about, as well as to physically write words on a page. The concepts she describes might be hard to comprehend, but I can definitely see how such “writing workshops” produce positive results, as well as children excited about writing.
First, Jacobson suggests that children in the primary grades are often boxed in when they are given cliche prompts: “Write about a trip to the beach.” “Write about a friend.” “Tell me about your summer vacation.” When children don’t feel interested in a subject, they will quickly write down something and call out “I’m done!” as quickly as they can. Rather, Jacobson suggests that children are full of creativity. Although they may benefit from brainstorming or suggestions (such as “let’s think about all of our senses today”, or the suggestion to write about one particular thing by “looking through binoculars”), children probably have a story they are eager to share. By opening up writing time to be on a subject of a student’s choice, the students will find themselves excited and eager to continue writing time. They will abandon the urge to yell “I’m done!”
As for the difficulty of writing, Jacobson makes it clear that writing is not the most important part of creative writing. Pre-writing skills such as drawing a clever picture and writing non-letter curves on a page are just as integral. Further, to criticize a young first or second-grader’s paper because of spelling errors or incorrect letter formation only discourages a child from writing. No wonder writing is a dreaded subject when kids have to rewrite their papers to be “prettier”! Ms. Jacobson insists that teachers should not tell children how to spell words or otherwise help them write on paper. To do so is like criticizing a baby’s “da da” by saying “No, dear, it’s ‘Daddy,’ not da-da.”
Rather than reading the student’s misspelled page, the teacher listens to the child’s dictation of the story. Later, the child can add revisions to the story by cutting out the sentence on another paper and taping it together. When the child feels his or her story is complete, a parent or teacher can type it on a computer and “publish” it for the child. This makes writing time about the content, not about what a child cannot physically perform. It also incorporates an understanding of revision. Revision is not simply about rewriting a story on a paper neatly; it’s about reworking ideas.
The concept of revision is one I feel strongly about, and I’ve never before encountered an explanation as to how a teacher is to explain it to a young child. I really appreciated Ms. Jacobson’s mini-lessons. First, they are all based on literature. As a child reads familiar picture books, they certainly do get a feel for voice and for the organization (children’s picture books are often quite formulaic, but that’s because a formula creates a wonderful story). Further, Ms. Jacobson’s lessons made me wish I had a whole classroom of kids writing so that I can institute the sharing chair!
Ms. Jacobson’s concepts seemed revolutionary to me: imagine children begging for more than an hour of writing time every day, and me letting my child do so without me to spell words, help form letters, and insert my own criticisms as the story develops. Her book was full of passion, examples from children’s clever stories and paragraphs, and inspiration for the parent or teacher hoping to inspire kids in writing. I’m excited to see how her methods work with my own child.