4 Tips on How Parents Can Help Their Middle School Writers

Happy New Year, everyone!  No, I know it’s not a new calendar year.  But it is a new school year, and that’s exciting!  With this exhilarating turning of the clock, however, often comes nervous anticipation and cautious optimism . . . what will THIS year be like?

For parents of middle school students, the fall can often invoke a sense of uneasiness as it relates to your role in helping your kids with academics.  Specifically in regards to writing, how much help is enough?  Too much?  And what kind of support will best serve your student’s writerly identity and skills?

Parents may wish to consider the following tips when it comes to helping kids at home with their writing:

  1.  Be a cheerleader for stamina-– Part of becoming a strong writer is developing stamina.  Just like many middle schoolers in a cross country race draw encouragement from a parent’s animated cheers from the sidelines, so too can writers be encouraged when we praise their efforts.  Like cross country and playing the piano, writing is a skill learned in use— meaning we get better at writing by doing it– a lot.  So the more parents are able to encourage and praise effort and time spent developing writing stamina, the better.  It may also help to convey to young writers the importance of strengthening their writing muscles, as I am attempting to do here.  Remember, we get better at what we do!
  2. Help them rehearse and give knowledgeable feedback— Writers often benefit from rehearsing their writing with a trusted mentor or partner.  Talking through the structure of how a piece of writing will go before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboards can pay huge dividends.  In her article, “Parents as Writing Partners,” (Educational Leadership, 2014), Dr. Mary Ehrenworth discusses the importance of doing this, as well as providing knowledgeable feedback.  Ehrenworth notes (2014), “[Parents] can make an immense difference by being a ‘first reader’ for [their] child.” (p. 24)  She suggests employing such prompts as,
    • “How will you (story/essay/article) go?”
    • “Tell me about the parts.”
    • “Then what will come next?”
    • “How do you think you want it to end?”
    • “What will be the most important moment/part of the piece?”

In regards to feedback, it is often helpful to point out parts of a piece that work well, as well as parts the young writer may wish to revisit, either by reading it aloud, rewriting it, providing more elaboration, etc.  Incidentally, feedback has been shown to have one of the highest effect sizes in education (Hattie, 2008).

3.   Actively advocate for the time and space to write— As Ehrenworth points out in her article, when asked, students often admit to struggling to find time and space to write.  A lot of kids have jam-packed schedules, busy households, and nearly omnipresent digital distraction around them.  It is no wonder then, that sometimes they may need help managing those schedules and securing a productive space in which to do some writing (p. 24).

4.  Focus on the positive before suggesting the correction— It is important to remember that our middle school students are in a long period of approximation when it comes to artfully crafting language in writing.  This includes grammar and convention use.  So when it comes to providing some help with revising and editing, parents might remember to lead with a compliment.  What is the student doing well that you might compliment or draw positive attention to on the page?  What might you acknowledge that the student is demonstrating successful command (or near command) over at this point?  Leading with a compliment often opens ears and metaphorical doors to follow-up suggestions.  And it has the added benefit of sending a critical implicit message: “You’re doing something right, good for you!”

As those of us who enjoy some intimate connection with academia proceed with the new school year, let us remember that where attention goes, energy flows.  Have a wonderful fall, everyone!

Makeshift Memorial: A Tuesday Slice of Life

We mourned the loss of a small animal yesterday . . .

 

I gazed out the front window at the two girls standing forlornly in my front yard.  Their backs to me, they stood at the faded and peeling split rail fence, gazing at something in the road.  Overhead, above the leafless trees across our road, dark clouds threatened more rain.  I thought about where this moment might be heading, how I might make it softer, perhaps maybe even meaningful in some way.  Still not sure, I grabbed my coat and and put on my garden shoes.  My daughters had now traveled to the backyard, so I exited out the back door.  While outside, I learned a squirrel had been unable to escape an encounter with a speeding auto.  A search had now ensued for a suitable burial location. After a few minutes, I heard my oldest daughter suggest,  “How about here, Papa?” She pointed to a patch of moss in a neglected flower bed.  

“Sure, honey, let me grab a shovel.”

As I dug a small grave for Mr. Squirrel, my two oldest worked together to transport a medium sized granite stone from a far location in our yard, expertly lugging it about 30 yards across the rather pathetic April grass.  “Oh, a headstone,” I commented.  They both nodded.

It was then time for me to retrieve the body from the road, which I did.

After patting down dirt, deep and brown, my daughters began to adorn the site with small, decorative stones. Using acorns, they spelled a single word: “Squirrel.”  I considered the possibility of gathering us all around the site, saying a few words on the animal’s behalf.  But it never happened.

Later, inside the house, I watched the girls cut a daffodil and make a precious sign to place at the gravesite.  And I suddenly thought about other animals lost: my first pet, the first pet I knew, a poodle killed by a passing car.  I thought about other pets.  And other people.  And of course, my mom.

Life seems to have a way of creating strings of connected moments of loss, separated by time.  I felt grateful this one didn’t pull too hard on our hearts.

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Life Paths: A Tuesday Slice of Life

I received an unexpected text yesterday . . .

There were three of them.  Sitting in my office, I looked to my left where my phone sat on a charger.  Lighting up the screen, a text alert had just arrived.  I leaned over and peered through my new spectacles, feeling a sudden and pleasant sense of surprise overtake me as I read the name; wow, the text came from one of my very best high school friends, Matt.  And, I could tell, photos accompanied the message.  Feeling intrigued, I took a brief moment from reading email and slid the message right to unlock my phone.  And there they were, three of them; the message read:

“Grandson and I in San Diego!”

Above the words, three photographs of Matt and a small baby boy, only a few months old, adorned the small iPhone screen.  I felt a smile creep across my face.  “My gosh,” I thought, “he really is a grandpa. Amazing.” 

My mind suddenly jumped decades back in time, and I found myself in Matt’s backyard in Portland, a place we often spent weekend nights in sleeping bags when we were thirteen.  We constantly talked of the future in those days: Who would we marry?  Where would we live?  Would I become a music star someday?  We dreamed together, and, as young boys, we wondered…where would life take us?

Turns out, life took us to different colleges, different countries at times, and down very different paths.  My oldest daughter will be nine in a few weeks, while Matt’s oldest just had her first baby in her mid-twenties.

But gazing at the pictures, at Matt’s face, he somehow seemed the same to me– still the boy I looked up to as a kid and whose friendship I still cherish to this day.

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Remembrance: A Tuesday Slice of Life

It’s been nearly a year since I lost my mom . . .

 

“Why don’t you guys plan on staying for dinner tonight?  I’m making my famous Chinese Chicken dish.”  My mother held her hands out toward me and carefully took my newborn baby from my arms.

“Wow Mom, that would be great.”

The year was 2009, and school had started back up.  After spending a lovely summer adjusting to our new roles as parents, my wife and I needed to return to work- my wife part-time, me full-time.  And we now enjoyed the great fortune of leaving our new daughter in the capable hands of my parents three days a week.

Two years later, another baby came along, and she happily agreed to take that baby, too.  During those days, my mother sang to them, danced with them, saw to a regular nap schedule, fed them, and – most of all – loved them beyond measure.

Yesterday my phone rang.  It was my father.  “It’s been almost a year,” he reminded me.  I  glanced at the calendar hanging on my wall, thought about the date.  Yes, it has indeed been nearly a year.  “I’m going to host a small gathering this Saturday,” my father continued, his voice solemn, “to honor your mom.  I’m asking everyone attending to write a letter to her.  I know you’re too far away to attend, but would you send something?  I’ll read it at the gathering.”  Of course, I assured him.  Placing my finger on the red “end call” button, I paused.  What will I write? I silently wondered.  I could thank her, couldn’t I? I could thank her for taking care of my girls when they were so little.  I could thank her for working three jobs so I could go to college.  I could thank her for inspiring me to become a teacher.  I could thank her for being not only the most wonderful mother anyone could ask for, but the most incredible human being I’ve ever known.  I could thank her for her delicious Chinese Chicken.

Many have told me the loss of a mother takes a great deal of time to process.  They are right.  Later today, I will draft a letter to my wonderful mom.  And once again, I’ll lean on writing- as I have in the past – to help get me through a difficult time.

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Perseverance: A Tuesday Slice of Life

My daughters are still working on balance . . .

Placing my hands on the handlebars, I lifted the small white bike from the gravel.  Small whimpers quietly escaped my daughter’s lips, making their way into my ears as I dusted the dirt and small stones from her pants.  “You okay, honey?” I asked, keeping my tone low.  She nodded, gently wiping her nose.  Looking up, I watched as her two friends expertly cruised on their bikes, maybe twenty yards away, around the tree-lined parking lot.  “You’ll get this, baby,” I whispered.  “It just takes time.”  She nodded again.

Meanwhile, I looked on and observed my younger daughter setting up her pedals, getting ready to try again.  For over thirty-five minutes now, the four girls had been biking around the empty bus lot; two girls who knew how to ride, two who desperately wanted to learn.  Living on a road with no sidewalks and on which traffic often traveled at high speeds has not made for friendly bike-riding territory.  Consequently, my girls have yet to achieve that magical milestone of balance.  Unlike their two friends who had come to visit with their bicycles.

But I watched, as time after time again, my girls tried; sometimes alone, sometimes with help from me, sometimes with help from their friends.  “Here, try this.”  “You want me to push you?”  “Try to keep your weight in the middle.”  “You almost had it!” And yes, frustration reared its head on many occasions.  But we celebrated small successes, especially when my girls’ faces turned to look at me beaming.  “Four pedals, Papa, did you see that?!”  Yes honey, I saw it.  So proud.

An hour later, we left the parking lot, my girls still unable to remain upright on their bikes.  But the perseverance they showed…that’s got to be worth something, right?

 

 

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Another Spring Snow Day: A Tuesday Slice of Life

A very short slice about spring and more snow . . .

 

The Easter Season typically brings a spirit of new beginnings.  In my mind, this time of year signals the turning of the seasonal clock from winter to spring.  It is a time of renewed hope and eager optimism, as plants, animals, and birds spring to life.

And so, when I reached for my ringing cell phone during the dawn hours yesterday morning, knowing my superintendent would be delivering the dreaded message of yet another snow day, you might imagine my spring optimism suffered a major blow.

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Slice of Life Challenge Day 31 #sol18

For the final slice of life 2018, a message of hope . . .

“I started my acting class yesterday!”  The light outside the library windows, still imbued with spring morning color, shone through onto the carpet.  As I stood across from my excited colleague, I observed similar light emanating from her eyes.  Her son, a middle school boy, had recently auditioned for and earned a lead role in a theatrical production.   A few weeks back, my colleague shared this impressive news with me.  In telling me, she literally exuded excitement for him, so pleased that he’d discovered what was for him, a new passion.  Shortly after that, I learned she had enrolled herself in an acting class.  “Just to learn what this acting thing is all about,” she reported.

When she told me this week the class had begun, I immediately thought back to my own theater experience. While working as an eager new teacher at my very first middle school, I had once offered a Thursday theater improv class for interested students.  Every Thursday morning, all teachers on my staff taught an “interest group,” a little course typically outside academics for which they had a passion and an expertise.  Teachers offered such mini-courses as knitting, archery, creative writing, origami, basketball.  I remember this fondly as a time when there seemed to be more time to get to know students, to play a little bit sometimes, to breathe.

As a specialist no longer working in my own classroom, I now see teachers struggling to breathe, struggling to maintain, struggling to balance the many pressures exerted on them.  Teaching is not what it once was, we all know that. We feel that.  Nor should it be, I recognize that, too.  But I am hopeful that the pendulum in our profession will swing back, at least a little.

Chatting with my colleague in the library this week helped me to feel heartened for her.  The brain loves novelty.  And I could see new sparks of inspiration electrifying her in ways I don’t know that I had ever seen before.  My hope for teachers, for all of us really, is that we can find those little avenues in life that not only sustain us, but light us up;  those paths of inspiration that help us come to school rejuvenated and more of who we are.  Because it’s important we stay in this profession.  It is.  This work matters.

And we’ve got to find ways to breathe.

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