As I continue to revisit my old issues of Growing Without Schooling, I share another piece I wrote for Issue #123, on the theme of When Kids Resist Writing. As I re-read these precious old magazines, I remember again why they meant so much.
The piece below was written when my son was 10, about his first foray into writing. The particulars are a bit dated (handwriting was something people still cared about in the 1990s), but I think the story is still relevant. It touches on issues including my ambivalence about whether unschooling would be sustainable (I’m happy to report that it was!) and pressure from family members. To follow up on what happened after I wrote this, my son didn’t pick up writing again until he was a teenager, when his love of fantasy novels inspired him to try and write in that genre. Eventually, he enrolled in a college class and wrote his first formal paper with little difficulty. He’s now a happy musician who writes all his own PR materials.
I continue to have the good fortune to facilitate creative writing groups for homeschooled kids. Good old paper and pencil are still regularly used, but just as often the tool of choice is a laptop or tablet. No matter the medium, the important part is the joy.
I am the mother of an active, curious 10-year-old who has shown little interest in the physical act of writing. Except for two years (grades 1-2) in an alternative private school, my son has been homeschooled. While his classroom teachers were not big on seat work, they did require a minimum of paperwork. Even then, this was not something my son was drawn to.
Our homeschooling philosophy has essentially been unschooling, but over the past year or so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether this approach will continue to work. This reevaluating has come about partly as a function of my kids getting older (my daughter is 13) and partly because their father is concerned about their skill levels in academic areas and whether they are “ahead of” or “behind” their peers. I’ve tried to settle on a compromise approach, but for the most part the only thing I’ve required is math.
When he first began working in his Saxon math textbook, my son’s actual writing of the numbers was so sloppy it was difficult to read. I thought the daily act of writing out the problems would eventually produce neatness, but it hasn’t. His answers are legible enough, but his writing out of the problems remains on the messy side. His biggest problem in working on the math lessons has come from this difficulty with neatness. Properly lining up columns in multiplication problems is essential to getting the right answer. My son’s solution is to use vertical lines to keep the columns straight. While this works, it’s still unacceptable to some adults, who feel that using lines somehow signals a lack of intelligence or ability.
My son’s handwriting is also sloppy, and he hates the act of writing longhand. He has received much pressure from his grandparents about this, who talk often with him about the necessity of learning printing and cursive and send him copies of the cursive alphabet to practice with. The times we’ve tried traditional approaches to handwriting have been horrible battles, and I decided it simply wasn’t worth it. The only thing my son writes in cursive is his name, which he learned so he can sign bank deposit slips. In printing, he primarily uses capital letters. When he uses lower case letters, they’re often not proportionate with the upper case letters. Yet if he spends enough time, he can write a note neatly enough, as we saw when it was time to write thank yous for holiday gifts.
I really wanted my son to experience writing as a creative act but it was clear that combining this with pencil and paper would be a disaster. So we turned to the computer, which he was already using for making fact sheets and statistical charts about his favorite subject in the world, basketball. As we talked about writing, it became clear that my son wanted to write but was having difficulty coming up with ideas. At first this seemed amazing, since my son’s energy and curiosity are notorious and he has been referred to by some as an “idea man.” His problem did not really lie in lack of ideas but in the newness of composing a piece of creative writing and in the quandary many writers face: how to begin. Since his biggest love is basketball and most of his reading (besides devouring Calvin and Hobbes books) centers around basketball and the sports page, it seemed logical that he might want to write about that. I threw it out as an idea and started suggesting possible topics.
He bit, and last December he put together a magazine called NBA Cool Stuff, complete with a 1998 projected finish and articles titled Team of the Century, Who Rules the Rim? NBA Top Ten Slammers, and The New Dynasty. In the end, he came up with all his own ideas and really enjoyed sitting at the computer composing his articles. When he finished a piece, we would sit down and talk about punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing. At first he incorporated none of this, but I was amazed at how quickly he began using periods and capitalizing the first words of sentences.
Shortly after the holidays we finished reading Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves trilogy out loud, and my son liked the books so much he decided to write a sequel. He’s currently only written about three or four pages, and who knows how far he’ll get, but he’s enjoying himself.
One thing I’ve noticed in both these writing projects is the way my son successfully imitates style. I don’t believe he thinks about it in this way when he’s writing, but it’s clear he’s paid close attention in his extensive reading on sports and his listening to our reading aloud together. His NBA Cool Stuff articles are bright and upbeat, with varied sentence structure and plenty of commentary. The novel, which he’s calling Julie on the Tundra, is written in a much simpler style, reminiscent of Craighead George’s lovely, austere prose. The fact that he is imitating style in no way detracts from the originality of his pieces. He is definitely expressing his own ideas and opinions, and creating new storylines and characters. And, of course, imitation is a tried and true, completely natural step in mastering any discipline. I’ve observed, too, that although my son (unlike his sister, who began writing spontaneously at the age of 4), has not formally written consistently, he is still able to write at a level of maturity appropriate to or greater than his years. Perhaps this is because he has read and been read to often. It also fits in with what I’ve observed as his lifelong pattern of learning. He seems to be clueless about or incapable of certain tasks one day, and the next he performs them with ease and competence.
To some adults, and maybe to a teacher if he were in school, the fact that my son doesn’t print well might make it seem like he can’t compose a piece of writing. But that simply isn’t true, and I’m grateful that he’s had the opportunity to learn and explore in his own way and avoid being labeled.
Over the last few weeks he seems to be taking a break from writing, and I won’t push him. Our experience with these two writing projects has clearly shown me that my son is not only a competent writer but that he also enjoys writing, and I feel confident he will return to it.