By Sharon Holbrook of SharonHolbrook.com
Every Thursday, I get the treat of spending an hour in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, helping with “writer’s workshop.” The kids scratch out a sentence or two about what’s going on in their lives, and we adults help them work through sounding out words and getting them down on paper.
A friend told me, “That’s perfect for you, since you’re a writer!” I laughed that one off, because what could adult freelance writing really have in common with 5-year-olds learning to craft their first small stories?[bctt tweet=”What could adult freelance writing have in common w/5-year-olds crafting their first small stories?” username=”BeyondYourBlog”]
Well, when I started to think about it, quite a bit, in fact. I listened to myself and found that much of my advice to kindergartners is just as helpful for us adult writers. And I listened to them, and found that they could teach me too.
When you’re stuck on where to begin, talk it out.
To a child with a blank page and a daydreamy look, I’ll often say, “Put down the pen and talk to me first. What do you think you want to say?” Through a bit of chitchat, we can figure out what the kid’s story is, and then the work of turning it into words on paper can really begin. Similarly, when I find myself with a vague idea, I bounce it off my husband or one of my writer groups and find that it begins to find its focus and direction as we talk it out.
Let yourself shine through.
To the child who writes one sentence, such as “I watched the basketball game last night” or “I played in the snow,” I’ll ask, “Where is Sam in this? I want to know how that made you feel. Tell me more. Were you excited? Were you cold? Did anything funny or unusual happen?” We adults need to do the same digging – and of course, more. Surface level writing can tell us the facts, but the human emotions underneath it all are what make it come alive and relate to the reader. Dig deep (and, yes, deeper than a kindergartener!).
Accept editing as part of the process.
Little kids today write words using “inventive spelling.” That means they trust their ears—their knowledge of letters and letter sounds—to sound out words as best they can. “Excited” may come out as “egsitd.” Because that’s part of their learning process, I don’t correct their spelling, but for especially inventive (and unintelligible) spelling I will ask, “Do you mind if I make a note here so that Mrs. J [their teacher] can understand the word you were writing?” They always, always immediately say yes, and are exceptionally gracious accepters of my editing pen. May I always be so open to my editors’ pens.
Make sure the reader understands.
Sometimes we adult writers forget to step back and take the reader’s perspective and confirm that we are making ourselves clear and logical. Kindergartners never forget that. They must learn to put their “Mr. Spacer” index finger down between words so the reader can see a space and understand where one word ends and the other begins. They must make their penmanship relatively clear and readable. They must write from left to right and keep their words (roughly) on the lines. The basic art of writing is making oneself understood to someone else. That’s something a brand-new 5-year-old writer isn’t allowed to forget, and something that a 35 or 55-year-old writer can’t afford to forget. The reader comes first.
Work hard and don’t give up.
I see the fatigue. After 10 minutes, the pen starts twirling and the chair begins to squeak on the floor and the wiggles begin. Yes, these kids need to move. We all do. But if we really zero in on working, what we were afraid was too hard/boring/unappealing often takes just a few minutes of focus to actually complete. “Let’s just work on this last bit, and then we can read a book together.” And then they do, and they find that what took 4 minutes of procrastination took 10 seconds of actual work.
I thought I was helping out in the classroom when I volunteered for this little gig. And, surely, I am. But what’s also true is that it’s been a gift to me, a chance to see writing at its most elemental, and often, at its most joyful.[bctt tweet=”Writing Lessons Learned From A Kindergarten Class” username=”BeyondYourBlog”]
Sharon Holbrook’s writing appears in The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national publications. She is also a regular contributing blogger at Brain, Child Magazine. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.sharonholbrook.com. Sharon is a mom of three and lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.