It Deserves an Exclamation Point!

By Kristen Hawley Turner

I bought my kids their first journals when they were 3.  At the time they were starting to write letters, and my daughter in particular loved to draw.  As a teacher of writing and writer myself, I wanted to document their writing development and introduce journal writing as a practice in our lives.  Each night I would scribe for them something “good” about the day and something “not so good.”  Sometimes, they would take the pen to draw or write themselves.

My son, the pleaser, dutifully participated, but it was not a routine that he relished.  My daughter, on the other hand, often took the pen – tracing her hand and coloring it, drawing rainbows and people, and writing her name, the one word she could spell with confidence.  She added stickers to each page of her journal, and she asked regularly if we could “write tonight” rather than read.  She was a budding writer.

And then she went to school.

As a kindergartner, my daughter did not like to write in school.  “Reading” and “writing” were her least favorite subjects, and she abandoned her journaling at home.  No matter how I tried, I couldn’t help her to see that the freedom she loved in drawing her pictures and writing with me in her journal were also things she could do on the lined paper at school.  She didn’t draw.  She didn’t “stretch her words,” as her teacher encouraged.  She didn’t write.

At the same time that she abandoned the journal and writing in general, her creativity blossomed.   With music in her heart, she would create tunes, add lyrics, and dance – everywhere.  She fluttered and sang her way around the house, down the aisles of the grocery store, and even through the park on our family trip to Disney.  She was composing – but she still wasn’t writing.

Her resistance to paper and pen was so strong that I asked her kindergarten teacher to allow her to “write her songs” during writing workshop.  Though my daughter appeared excited about the prospect, she did not write her songs at school, and my attempts to get her to write them at home were futile.  Rather than push her, I backed off.  We left the half-filled journals on her nightstand, and I hoped that, one day, she would return to writing.

Now my daughter is in first grade, and something has shifted.  A few weeks ago I noticed that she was carrying a small notebook everywhere she went.  At the kitchen table she asked me to help her think of “categories.”  In the car she asked the family to give her words and to help her spell them.  She hid the notebook in her backpack to take to school and to share on the bus.  She filled page after page with pictures and words, and she asked me to buy her more notebooks when she finished the one she carried.  A few nights ago I reminded her of the journals on her bedside table, and we looked through some of the stories she had created when she was younger.  “I was little then,” she laughed as we read a silly story about her friend Isabelle.

Then one night she asked me if we could “write instead of read tonight.”  She had the journal and a pen in hand as she sat on the bed.  She turned to the first empty page and began drawing. She chatted as she developed her art, and she held on to the pen as she wrote her own words, rather than having me scribe her story.  “One day Princess Megan went walking,” she wrote.   Her pen flew over the second page, and an elaborate castle appeared.  “Princess Megan went back to the castle.”

She turned the page.

“And now the problem,” she explained as a new version of the castle appeared on the page.  “The problem?” I asked, impressed that she knew that a story needs a conflict.  “Yes, every story needs a problem,” she explained.  I smiled, hearing the echo of a teacher’s voice in her words.

“But…,” she wrote.  She paused for a moment before adding an exclamation point.  “BUT!” she exclaimed, and continued to write, “the drawbridge wouldn’t open.”  She added a second exclamation point.

Drawing of a bridge surrounded by a moat with a frowning princess outside the door. The picture says, "But! The drawbridge wouldn't open!"

She read the page three times, as if she knew that the punctuation was wrong.  However, as she loudly and emotionally pronounced “BUT!!!”, it was clear to both of us that the punctuation was absolutely correct.

It’s a fine line between correction and encouragement.  Writers need both, but without a desire to write, there will be little to correct.  I am still not sure why my daughter stopped writing when she went to school, nor do I fully understand why she has recently picked up the pen.  What I do know is that my daughter is a developing writer, and I love that she loves to create, and I am happy that she has taken her composing back to the page.  I love that she knows that a story has a problem, and I love that she is learning to write stories both at home and at school.  And, as Patty Dunn reminded me in her recent post about engaging writers, I know that my role right now is to encourage her to tell her stories.

Recently Rob Montgomery posted about the importance of narrative.  My daughter is a living example of the power of narrative in a young writer’s life.  She creates.  She thinks.  She learns to be a writer. AND!  I am excited that she has been inspired by her work at school to pick up the pen at home!

Kristen Hawley Turner (@MrsT73199) is an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University.  A former high school English and social studies teacher, she directs the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.  She is also the mother of 6-year-old twins, and she blogs about her multiple roles in life at Twin Life: Having It All.  A version of this post was originally published on her blog.


6 thoughts on “It Deserves an Exclamation Point!

  1. Kristen, as an English teacher, I , too, love watching young writers develop. My son is in kindergarten, and his teacher recently introduced editing. He somehow loves this process. He came home and immediately wanted to edit a Ninja Turtle book he wrote using pictures and short sentences. It’s rewarding to ignore spelling and punctuation and just help them develop their stories, whether that means identifying the “problem” or making a stylistic choice to include a well-placed exclamation point. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Brian I love that your son edited his own writing! I sometimes worry that introducing editing so young may inhibit children from fully developing their creativity. If they become worried about their mechanics, will they be hindered in their writing? I see this fear so often in adolescents. Do you have that same experience with your older writers?

    • With my high school writers, I’ve tried to create a culture of revision first; they aren’t allowed to give those “you need to…” comments. We talk about commas as “cosmetic changes” that are the final step in our writing. With the focus on “I” statements (thanks, Peter Elbow), I think I have students more comfortable with revision. It’s always a challenge, of course, but I’m looking to have them buy into that concept that writing is about opportunities, not obstacles. There are so many ways to say something, so which one will affect your audience in the way you intended? Also, I just wanted to thank you for your timely and insightful comments a month ago when I asked both you and Taylor Hicks about blogging in class. My students are getting better and more interesting at it, and I shared your comments with a few other teachers. We’re all trying to do this job a little better everyday (just like parenting, right?).

  3. It is funny that Brian N would mention Elbow, because as I was reading this post I could only think of this:

    In this EL article from 2004 Elbow addresses the push-pull of reading and writing (or at least the problem of perceiving reading vs. writing), and I always think about this when I encounter powerful narratives of young writers.

    What I love about this post is Kristen’s honest struggle as teacher/parent. When she writes “We left the half-filled journals on her nightstand, and I hoped that, one day, she would return to writing,” I am struck by the difficulty of that approach. It seems so hard, and yet it probably made the difference in the long run. Her daughter was never punished with writing, never forced…and then I get concerned when I pause to consider how our educational system addresses (or ignores, or punishes) the natural, even expected ebb and flow of writers, readers and learners.

    • Brian I worry too. I worry about instruction that reduces writing to that which is tested. I worry about kids who have their creativity stifled. And I worry about a mandated “timeline” to meet standards. We know that schooling often sucks the love out of reading and writing, and I don’t want my children to experience that. I know they will. After reading my post, a mom in my town said, “Wait till they get to third grade and the testing begins.” I’m worried.

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