“Papa! Let’s make a leaf pile!” Shouting from the front door, my beautiful six year-old daughter already had her shoes and jacket on. Wait, what?! A leaf pile? Is it that time of year already?
Yes. Yes, it is that time of year.
Although I would describe our front yard that evening as merely cluttered with a smattering of leaves (making a “pile” proved somewhat challenging), there were indeed many maple leaves adorning the surface of my unfertilized grass. Some of those leaves were even brilliantly colored in red, yellow, and orange- already! Fall is arriving! I thought. And with this time often comes both excitement and trepidation.
For our middle school students, I would venture to guess the intensity of that excitement and trepidation is magnified greatly. Middle school years are, indeed, both exciting and anxiety-inducing (What will my teachers be like? Will I have science with my best friend? I hope my locker works!). But mostly, fall is filled with joy! New experiences, harvest festivals, fresh resolutions– so much to be joyful about. So… what about writing?
My oldest children love to write. At ages six and eight, they love to write poems, stories, information books, chapter books, greeting cards, signs…you name it. Likely, you know young children who love to write, as well. I can remember being a fifth grader the year the movie “Star Wars” came out (yep, just dated myself). That year, I wrote science fiction story after science fiction story. And it was so fun!
One of my virtual colleagues, Fran McVeigh, recently wrote about the joy of writing (check out her post here!). Fran really got me thinking…how can we support and foster joy in writing with middle schoolers? Here are a few ideas:
1. Try writing yourself- The great Donald Graves once said, “Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, “Hey,” the kids will say, “I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you.” Even if you don’t see yourself as a writer now, try adopting a growth mindset and think, “I’m not a writer YET.” Buy yourself a notebook, composition book, journal, etc. and spend some time writing. While the values of this practice are numerous, know that one central benefit of writing yourself is discovering how hard writing is, as well as what becomes possible. Who knows– maybe you’ll craft a great short story or poem? Maybe you’ll discover you have a knack for explaining a topic? Perhaps you’ll write that letter to the editor you’ve been meaning to write. What you write isn’t the point– it is the fact that you are writing and living like a writer. Which is what we ask our kids to do as students of the craft.
2. Be a book-a-phile and talk up craft- Being a reader is so important, as most of us know. But consider a next step: talking with kids about strong writing we see in the world. Whether we read a lot on our phones, iPads, Kindles, books, or newspapers– we can grab kids’ attention by saying, “Aw, you gotta hear the way this author said this! It’s just so good!” Many of us naturally comment on the performances of athletes (“Did you see Tom Brady’s game last night?!”), musicians (“Adele’s voice is so incredible on this song!”), artists (“I never thought I could be so moved by the use of color!”), and others. Why not turn writers into rock stars and include great writing in our conversations with kids, too?! By talking up great writing, we draw attention to it. And where attention goes, energy flows.
3. Talk up the importance of writing– Writing is one of those skills that seems to become more important as kids get older. Once high school hits, kids are often asked to write high-level literary analysis papers, critiques, self-reflections, essays, etc. Then, for many students, come college admission applications, and, of course, eventual cover letters for employment. And, as many of us know, the job market is changing at an extremely rapid rate. It is likely that many of the jobs our kids will fill in the future haven’t even been invented yet! In the U.S., unskilled jobs are becoming more and more scarce. However, the need for writing proficiency is becoming more pronounced. One executive, quoted in the National Commission on Writing (2004), said, “You can’t move up without…writing skills” (from Gallagher, 2006, p. 3). A quick Google search for “business writing” turns up countless sites dedicated to helping you become “a better report writer.” Which suggests that the engines of our economy are craving strong writing skills! So while jobs making phone books are a thing of the past, the critical need for strong writing skills does not seem to be going away anytime soon. Emphasizing this with our students may prove to influence them in a positive way. Perhaps, if nothing else, such emphasis could function as a gentle counter to the adolescent argument, “I don’t want to grow up and be a writer, anyway!”
And consider the power of writing, as well. After all, our nation was built on writing that eloquently expresses the best possible ideal our founders could envision for our new society. Remind students of how writing has changed the world: the United States Constitution, the Treaty of Versailles, the Communist Manifesto…the list of writing that has led to material changes in the world across history goes on and on. What’s more, as parents, teachers, and mentors, we can tap into an adolescent’s craving for self-determination by reminding them of the power of writing. Words matter. Writing is power.
4. Promote the notion that writing is discovery- One thing to love about writing is the exciting and unpredictable reality that we often discover what we want to say through the act of writing itself. Many believe that we must know what we have to say before we sit down to write. I would argue that it is the opposite: We must sit down to write before we can know what we have to say. And let’s face it, kids love to discover things! This summer, my family and I discovered a hidden room in our house (behind a built-in book shelf). My kids have not stopped talking about it! A secret room! What if we conceptualized writing as a way to discover secret spaces in our minds we never knew existed? Or, as a process that includes a robust element of discovery? Adding a little adventure can go a long way in conjuring up some joy around anything.
So Happy Fall, everyone! As the leaves continue to drift down and the harvest festivals gear up, do what you can to create joy. Whether that means supporting those affected by Hurricane Harvey, spending more time with family, or doing what you love– consider these tips on helping to bring joy into writing for our middle schoolers. Because just because they are growing up, doesn’t mean they can’t love writing!