Popcorn and Peter Elbow: Ways to Help Your Kids with Their Writing

by Laura J. Davies

It was 7:30 pm, otherwise known as the witching hour in my household. My 10-year-old son, Mac, was sitting at the computer desk and staring at a blank Word document, his arms crossed defiantly, his eyebrows furrowed.

“I can’t do it!” He stomped his foot and pounded the desk with his fist.

“I don’t get it!” He scowled at his baby sister, who was toddling around the corner with her little grocery cart filled with plastic fruits and veggies.

“This is too hard!” He shuffled the papers in front of him, and in a dramatic show of pre-teen angst, flung the whole stack onto the floor.

Hmmm, I thought. Perhaps it’s time for some parental intervention.

My first instinct was to gather the papers, put them back on the desk, and let Mac know in no uncertain terms that the blame for not starting his essay assignment until the night before it was due rested squarely on his shoulders.

My second instinct was to ignore Mac, pay attention to the other kids, and hope my husband, a former middle school teacher, would take care of the rapidly disintegrating situation himself.

My third instinct was to make some popcorn. I went with this one.

As the popcorn sizzled in the microwave, I shooed everyone else upstairs and told Mac to leave the computer and sit with me at the kitchen table. For good measure, I even made him some chocolate milk. He was sniffling and still muttering “don’t…can’t…don’t…” as I poured the popcorn into a bowl. I put the whole bowl in front of him.

bowl of popcorn

Image from http://www.123rf.com/profile_serezniy

“Hey, Mac,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me about what you have to write?”

He started talking, and as he munched through handfuls of popcorn, he began to settle down and I got a sense of what he had to do. The assignment was a current event essay. Mac had to find an online or print news article, read it, and write a three-paragraph essay about the news event. It was the second current event essay assigned that year, and his grade on the last one – 70% – left much to be desired.

Mac led me to the computer, where he showed me the current event he had selected – something about the discovery of a new kind of lizard-like dinosaur. He sat back down and re-opened the blank Word document.

“But I don’t know how to start!” he whined. I could sense the panic beginning to set in again.

“Why don’t you take a sip of that chocolate milk?” I suggested, leading him back to the kitchen table as I rummaged through the coloring books to find a stack of index cards.

“What are you doing?” Mac looked at me and then, in shock, at the clock. “It’s 8:00! I’m never going to get this thing done!”

I handed him an index card, and in my most authoritative writing professor voice, I declared, “We are going to do some freewriting.”

What is Freewriting?

Freewriting is a writing technique described by Peter Elbow. In his 1973 book, Writing without Teachers, Elbow explains that very few writers follow a “first draft = last draft” mentality when they write. Instead, Elbow describes writing as a process. The first step in that process, a step he and others have called “pre-writing,” involves coming up with and developing ideas. One of the strategies for pre-writing is freewriting.

When I ask my students to freewrite, either in class or for homework, I go about it in different ways. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of a unit, when my students have a lot of ideas swirling around in their heads, I do unstructured freewriting. I ask my students to write whatever comes to mind for a set amount of time – usually between 5 and 15 minutes. Other times, when we’re focused on a particular reading or when they are drafting their essays, I assign more structured freewrites by asking students to respond to an open-ended question for a set amount of time.

Freewriting gives students a space to explore nascent ideas without worrying about grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph transitions, or argument organization. You can freewrite at any part of the writing process, not just at the beginning. I find that although it takes time to freewrite, my students end up saving time in the long run. Instead of staring at blank Word documents, they just start writing, and usually, ideas emerge through the act of writing.

Back to Mac

Mac didn’t seem convinced. “Trust me,” I said.

On one side of the index card, I asked him to write a list of the most important facts and ideas he remembered from his current event. Then, two minutes later, when the kitchen timer went off, I asked him to turn the index card over and write a list of the most surprising facts and ideas from his current event. The timer went off again, and the index card was filled with words and phrases. Bingo.

We read through the list, and he circled the best ideas from his lists. We talked about how he should organize the essay, based on what his teacher had said in class about the purpose and audience for the current event essay. Index card in hand, he went back to the computer desk, sat down, and started writing.

A half-hour later, I heard him call me back into the living room. “Hey, Mom,” he said. “Can you read over my essay?”

Beyond Freewriting: Other Ways to Help Our Kids Be Better Writers

When we ask our kids or our students to do freewriting, it’s important to remember that it’s not the type of freewriting (structured or unstructured) or the specific prompt we give them that matters. What matters is simply the time and space freewriting gives them to invent, explore, and contemplate ideas. Freewriting can help student writers sidestep the paralysis and panic they might feel while staring at a blank page. Most importantly, inviting our kids and our students to freewrite helps them learn that writing isn’t something that happens in one fell swoop – writing, instead, is a process.

Freewriting isn’t the only way you can help your child (or your students) explore their writing ideas. Here are some other suggestions based on strategies I used with Mac:

  • Ask your child to explain their writing assignment to you in their own words. Mac didn’t have his assignment with him, but that was OK. When I asked Mac to tell me about his assignment – away from the blank computer screen – he took a much-needed time-out from his stress-induced writer’s block. Also, asking him to explain the assignment instead of just reading the assignment sheet helped him begin to interpret the assignment and take ownership of it.
  • Talk through the process. Writing shouldn’t always be a quiet, solitary activity. Writing is social: it’s about communicating our ideas with other people. Writers often rely on others – family, friends, colleagues – to talk through their ideas, something Katie Sluiter discusses in her post. Don’t just ask to see the final essay – check in with your child throughout the whole writing process. First, talking through the process helps your child acquire a vocabulary for talking about writing and naming what she’s doing as a writer. Second, talking with your child as she writes gives her the opportunity to problem-solve out loud as she explores and organizes her ideas.
  • Ask your child to think about audience and purpose. I asked Mac to think about who might read his current event essay (his teacher and people who didn’t know about this new species of dinosaur) and what he thought the essay should do (share an interesting archeology discovery with people who might not know about it). Encouraging your child to think about audience and purpose, as Jonathan Bush explains, emphasizes the communicative nature of writing: writers write to do something, not just say something. Having a real purpose and an authentic audience helped Mac thoughtfully select the information he wanted to include in his essay instead of just listing every fact he found in the current event article. Some questions you could ask your child to get them thinking about audience and purpose include:
    • Who are you writing for?
    • Who might be interested in reading about this topic?
    • What do you think the reader wants to know first (and next)?
    • What do you want the reader to think about or do after they read this?
    • Why is this essay (or poem or story or report) important?
  • Make some popcorn. It can’t hurt, right?

Laura J. Davies is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of Campus Writing Programs at SUNY Cortland. She, her husband, and her soon-to-be six kids consume quite a lot of popcorn.

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8 thoughts on “Popcorn and Peter Elbow: Ways to Help Your Kids with Their Writing

  1. This is a wonderful look what happens after our students leave our classrooms and go home (or to the library or the teen center or…) to write, to do our assignments. Mac was fortunate to have parents who could support him with deep knowledge of composing, and popcorn! While not every student will have this, they can all have access to the wisdom of Peter Elbow and freewriting.

  2. The popcorn seems a stand in for time, interest and pedagogy. Peter Elbow is famous — but likely ignored too frequently among younger theorists and development providers.
    Free writing — or memory chains — or fast writing — or what-cha-may-call-it is one of the best ways to open up one’s mind and energy.
    Inside the writings of the last 50 years a/b composition, Ken Macrorie, and Donald Murray described and included student-wirrten cuts of free writing; Murray describes an index card strand in the opening of the first edition of “Write to Learn.”
    Even before them, read James Moffett in the first edition of “Student-Centered Language Arts . . .” and James Britton in “Language and Learning.”

  3. Pingback: Reblog: Popcorn and Peter Elbow: Ways to Help Your Kids with Their Writing – The Rambling Badger

  4. It’s funny how many of our thoughts about the writing process come from Peter Elbow’s work: the idea of ideas “brewing” before they can be done for instance and that writing is a process. Good work doesn’t happen in one sitting–at least, not the kind of work we’d like to turn in. Thanks for the essay. I’ve taught poetry and Spanish and am currently attempting to design a writing course or two, so these concepts come at a very an appropriate time.

  5. The index card is so important! Small and defined, not a frightening blank page (digital or paper). Post-it notes are another one of my favorites. I use both for myself as a writer, and for my students.

  6. Thanks, enjoyed reading this. I am always in awe of people who teach, and then go home to parent! This story makes me see how the two roles can come together …Lucky son!

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