The other day, my six-year-old son and I serendipitously ended up at a classic-car show in our downtown. I didn’t really know he was even that interested in cars. But he was and asked me to take a couple of pictures of him with cars and even a picture of an engine (I think it was an engine).
That night he had me take one more picture of him “working” and then asked me to print the pictures. I was sure they would end up somewhere random, such as crumpled in his pocket or stuck between couch cushions. Instead, that same night he showed me a book he had made all on his own.
If you’re familiar with Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a Car, you will notice my son follows a similar structure to Van Dusen’s book, even to the end (“If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do.”) The ideas, though, were all my son’s. This is not a child who normally sits down to write for pleasure. But there’s a lot I learned from this experience.
I am a former elementary and middle school teacher. I actually left teaching to pursue a career in writing as well as to start a family. What I’ve learned is that when I return to teaching (it’s inevitable I will), I will definitely teach writing differently.
Here are some tips I have for teaching writing to elementary and middle school students. In other words: If I taught again I would do the following:
- As a writer, if I’m not inspired, I’m not inspired. I put my work-in-progress to the side and come back to it when I’m ready.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I wouldn’t expect students to pump out a product when they’re just uninspired. I’d have students do something different for a bit (even something not writing related) and try again later.
- Whenever I get inspired by something I see, I try to write it down before I forget it.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students keep a running list of topics. They’d have access to their list to add to it throughout the day. It wouldn’t have to include only topics, either. It could be a funny sentence or the name of a character, etc.
- When I’m stuck for an idea, I look at picture books to see if they inspire me. Sometimes I even attempt to write in a similar style to one.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d allow students to write “fan fiction.” If they liked a book, I’d have them do a spin-off of it (for instance, my son’s spin-off of If I Built a Car). Then they wouldn’t have to worry about inventing characters or inventing a plot. They could focus on other aspects of writing.
- I find that when I’m running, I get all sorts of ideas (such as the idea for this post!). It clears my mind and allows ideas to flow.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students work on discovering how they can clear their mind. How can they become inspired? Does drawing help? Running? Bouncing ideas off peers?
- Unless I’m typing, I am not working at my desk. I edit on my couch in front of the fireplace, and I work through plot issues by spreading my manuscript out on my floor.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that writing at a desk doesn’t work for everybody. I’d allow students to test out different ways of working.
- I find a lot of value from reading mentor texts. I learn about different formats, styles of writing, etc. I see what good writing looks like.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have kids use books as much as they could as inspiration for their own writing. If they are writing nonfiction, I’d let them tear apart the nonfiction section of the library. Which book formats do they like? What writing styles do they like? I’d have them do the same with narratives. They would look at humorous books and sweet books and scary books.
- Most of my time as a writer isn’t spent writing new material; it’s doing revisions.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I would change the focus of editing away from the grammar. Instead, I’d spend time on how to both add and cut text. I’d do an exercise in trimming a longer piece to figure out what’s really crucial to what they are writing. I’d have them make every word count.
- Writing fiction requires lots of research. With my latest novel on sled dog racing, I interviewed many mushers, attended sled dog races, and looked up the correct wording on websites.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students do research even when writing fiction. There must be something they need to look up or verify.
- Experts are the best source for fact checking. No matter how much book and online research I’ve done on a topic, when I show an expert my work, they find a better way to word something or find a part that should be tweaked.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that kids are even experts on something. A lesson I’d love to try out: have students write down topics they’re experts on (skateboarding, sewing, etc.) Then give one of their topics to a student who’s not an expert in it. Have that student write about it as best they can without any resources. Then have the expert read and edit it for accuracy and word choice.
- So going back to my son. I think the biggest lesson I learned about teaching writing is from being a mother. My children watch me write day and night. They see that when I have some spare time, I write—even on vacation. That’s because I really love writing. I did not ask my son to write about his experience at the car show. I think he chose to make a book because he saw me making books.
Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d be sure to write when my students are writing. I’d share my work-in-progress with them. I’d show them that writing isn’t just something you do in school. It’s a way to express yourself: your likes, your dislikes, your beliefs.
So if I taught again, that’s just what I’d do!
I also asked my fellow middle grade authors, What tips do you have on teaching writing as a writer yourself? Here’s what they said:
Ditch the “trade and grade” style of peer editing and form mini-critique groups in teams of 4. One child reads while the other three follow along, writing down suggestions and then discussing before moving on to the next student’s turn.
– Kym Brunner, author of Flip the Bird
I wish we had done more fun writing exercises in 5th grade. My main advice is, let them have some fun by creative writing. Schools are so focused on structure and preparing for the tests, that writing for fun, is often overlooked.
– Jonathan Rosen, author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies
Sit down. Then, no matter how much you want to, don’t stand up until you’ve written something.
– Darcy Miller, author of ROLL
Every first draft is bad. The magic is in rewriting.
– Kristin L. Gray, author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge
The hero and the villain in a story either both want the same thing for different reasons, or different things for the same reason. Either way, they’re reflections of each other.
– Katie Slivensky, author of The Countdown Conspiracy
Your writing will never be perfect. But you can always make it better.
– Beth McMullen, author of Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls
Writer’s block could mean that you’re focusing too hard on the wrong things. Back up and try looking at the writing from a different angle.
– Allison K. Hymas, author of Under Locker and Key
Sometimes it’s helpful to plan a story out before you write, but it’s also a-ok to start writing the story and figure it out as you go. The important part is to revise carefully once the first draft is finished.
– Lindsey Becker, author of The Star Thief
It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
– Gareth Wronski, author of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy
If you confront three of your characters with an identical problem, each should solve it in their own way. What they do tells us so much about who they are!
– Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity
You don’t have to write every single day to be a writer. Thinking and reading counts too.
– Carter Higgins, author of A Rambler Steals Home
No matter how challenging or scary it may seem, it’s important to write a story from the heart—it will make the writing stronger!
– R. M. Romero, author of The Dollmaker of Kraków
Be kind to your curiosity. Embrace the moments when you think, “I wonder…” – especially when the “I wonder” seems silly and strange and like no one else will care.
-Patricia Bailey, author of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan
Go for a walk, go to the park or the grocery store or anyplace new and soak up the sensory details. Take notes on the sights, sounds, and smells–they will make your writing come alive!
-Christine Hayes, author of Mothman’s Curse
When teaching setting, I like to use the “5 Senses Rule.” Does your story have details the character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste? If not, you may want to work more on the setting.
– Hannah Kates, author of Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key
So here’s a tip I give to all aspiring writers, young and old: the most important question a writer can ask themselves as they’re developing their story idea or even just when they have that “spark” of an idea is “What If?” That question is the engine that drives the plot. What if there were a young boy who’s parents were dead? And what if he lived with these really terrible relatives? And what if he discovered on his birthday that he was, in fact, a wizard? Oh! And what if there was a wizarding school? I like giving that example of how JK Rowling asked and explored “what if” when she wrote Harry Potter.
– Bobbie Pyron author of many middle grade novels, including the upcoming A PUP CALLED TROUBLE.
What tips do you have for teaching writing?