By Susanna Benko
Introductory note: Shortly after COVID-19 shut down schools, I reached out to Writers Who Care with an idea of reflecting on supporting chidrens’ literacy practices when school was happening at a distance, in part because I was processing how I’d manage this in my own life. I’m writing this post about four weeks into our stay-at-home, learn-at-home experience; our governor has already announced that school buildings will not reopen.
As a mother of three young girls, a university professor, and a former middle school teacher, I used to think that I’d have to wait until my girls were older before I saw serious intersections between my career and parenting.
I was wrong, though.
When my oldest daughter, Catherine, was two, I came across Cathy Fleischer’s short post about inspiring young writers in your home. It was such an ah-ha moment, where I saw my life as a mother and literacy professor intersect in ways I hadn’t considered. And so, for the last seven years, our family has made a point to find ways to “make our home drip with literacy” through things like writing notes to each other or sharing in the responsibility of grocery list writing and management.
One of my favorite drawings was about three years ago, when Catherine was six. We were in the grocery store, and she oversaw crossing things off our list and doodled between items. That’s when she drew a picture of our family just after her little sister was just born—she scribbled it down at the top of our weekly list in our grocery book as she was doing her “job” of crossing off items from our list.
I didn’t expect to see the same kind of intersections when I learned that I needed to move my university classes online and that my kids would be out of school for the rest of the school year to try to manage the rapid spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus. In a whirlwind of 48 hours, I frantically reorganized my teaching and wondered how I would balance my role as university professor and supervisor-of-4th-grade-E-learning for one pupil: my Catherine.
I was not alone—schools shut down across the country, and parents everywhere found themselves in the never-before-position of teacher-from-home (while perhaps also working at home). Catherine has a wonderful teacher who got students started with eLearning quickly. Our school moved to a plan of three eLearning days each week. I wondered if I needed to fill in any gaps or find ways to keep our literacy learning alive.
As someone who has experience teaching and parenting, you might think that I’d have felt somewhat equipped to take this on. Not true. At first, I found myself scouring through my social media feed, which was flooded with resources recommended by friends and family. One of our favorite authors/artists offered drawing lessons online, a nearby zoo offered “Home Safaris” with activities featuring different animals; there was no shortage of resources or ideas.
And for me, none of them seemed like they fit. We spend a lot of time at our house chasing our 3-year old and 1-year old; I didn’t think I could get Catherine set up with a laptop or supplies, and even if I could, her little sisters would undoubtedly come crashing in. I was already overwhelmed (If I’m honest, I still am most days).
As a parent and a literacy researcher, I knew I wanted to work to support Catherine’s learning through her school activities and also continue to support her development as a young writer. I also knew I wanted to keep things as simple and sane as possible, for all of our sakes.
Here are some things that have worked so far for me as a parent; neither are new and neither are fancy.
Write to and with your children. On Valentine’s day, I gave Catherine a journal meant for mothers and daughters to write notes to each other. I happened to buy a journal that included some prompts and some free space. The prompts are low-key and lighthearted, and there’s space for the parent and child to each answer. One prompt is pictured below with our responses.
Another prompt asked the parent and child for “a drawing of my dream outfit, and where I’d wear it and what I’d do in it.” When working on this blog post, I thumbed to that page and saw my sketch of myself, drawn in comfy pajamas and fuzzy slippers, where I had written “I’d stay home all day, read books, play games with my family, and watch a movie while having a picnic.” A month later, as I’m writing this from social isolation, I’m rethinking that reply!
Beyond being fun time capsules for us to look back on, it’s just a fun way to write. Over the past few weeks, Catherine has snuck away to fill out an answer to some questions, and then left the notebook on my bed so I could reply. In some ways, it feels to me like being back in high school and passing notes. For children who do well with writing prompts, it’s easy to find prompts for all ages through a quick search. This site has a list for all different ages, or The New York Times has a collection of thought-provoking prompts that may be interesting for older children.
Another way we’ve written together, strangely, has been through texting. Her piano teacher offered to continue giving piano lessons through video conferencing and recommended Messenger Kids as a platform that could be used for video conferencing and messaging. As a parent, I appreciated that Catherine could only connect to people that I approved. We decided to test it out by messaging from opposite rooms.
Twenty minutes later, we had discussed abbreviation “etc” (and the meaning of etcetera) and the use of colons in writing, because she had seen me use both of those in messages to her. I wasn’t trying to teach her about those things—they just came out in my writing, and she asked about them. If we continue on this path, I think she’ll ask me about using parentheses and dashes (my writerly crutches)… I think we have plenty of time ahead of us.
She has also connected and is texting with a few other adults who we know and love. She and my mom are writing a collaborative story. She and I are in a group chat with my best friend, who is like an aunt in our family. All of our writing is an opportunity to expose her to language in new ways. Her text conversations aren’t exercises in perfect grammar or spelling, but that’s OK. Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks have reminded us that digititalk gives children a chance to think about questions of audience and purpose. She sends excessive thumbs up and emojis, but it provides the opportunity for us to talk about how those images work and what a reader does when they encounter 15 thumbs-up in a row.
Write to other people. On the weekdays that she doesn’t have school assignments, one “rule” at our house is that Catherine has to write in some way. I don’t have rules around it other than that she writes—she’s written in her journal or to me in our shared journal, some days she draws, and she’s also started writing to people outside our home. It’s the return of the pen-pal.
Outside of family, she has written to a friend who lives abroad and seniors at a local nursing home that her elementary school partners with. She’s written cards and colored pictures, and we’ve sent them off. Nothing has been elaborate, and I don’t oversee any of it. She has access to some inexpensive cards that we have, and she knows how to address an envelope. She’s decided who she wants to write and what she wants to say. It’s agency and authenticity in real life.
Letter writing isn’t new — others on this blog have written about letter writing as an important part of summer writing for families or an opportunity for expressing feelings (whether or not the letter is actually sent). I’ve been trying to model the idea of writing to others for Catherine. Over the past week, I’ve taken ten minutes each evening to write a short email of thanks to one of Catherine’s former teachers, writing to a different teacher or two each night. I know teachers at her school are fiercely missing their students, and I hope that small notes of thanks will brighten their days. I shared one of her teacher’s replies with her, which prompted Catherine and I to look together at the emails. I want her to see me writing to others, and this is a really easy way to do it.
Writing on her own. Around week 3 of being out of school, Catherine decided she wanted to write a story about her experiences. She wanted to type a story, and has done so with almost no oversight from me. So far, she has a title page (pictured below), a dedication, and ten pages of story (including some clip art)… and it’s all one paragraph. She uses extra spaces between parentheses and between punctuation “when she feels like it,” and isn’t interested in any of my suggestions about conventions when I gently suggest ideas.
This is a struggle for me; I want to copy edit her writing, or go for a mini-lesson about excessive exclamation marks. But really, this isn’t the time. She is playing with language, trying out strategies (…including creative punctuation…), and finding her voice. Instead of wanting to “fix” her writing, I’m focusing joyfully on the fact that she is writing, documenting her days, talking about what she misses (friends, school, sports), and describing the antics of her little sisters. Catherine’s already asked if she’s “living in history”, and historians have recommended that we document our feelings about this unprecedented, unpredicted period of our lives. I know we’ll treasure this story in years to come, grammatical imperfections and all.
Reflecting on these early days of our lives on literary lockdown.
If there’s a silver lining of the timing with these shut-downs, perhaps it is the suspension of state tests. Under these conditions, it seems like the perfect time to focus on writing in a less schoolish way—writing frequently, writing for authentic audiences—without external pressures like test prep. In other words, school’s out: I’m trying to frame this as an opportunity to be out of school and focus on finding authentic reasons to write.
Importantly, these weeks have reminded me that it’s possible to seek authenticity and encourage real-world writing without making things elaborate and without relying on expensive art supplies or specific technologies. A good portion of Catherine’s writing right now is low or no tech (passing notes, journals, writing letters). For our family, this is important since the family laptop is in high demand across more than one person.
Focusing on opportunities for agency and authenticity in writing also can take the pressure off of our teachers, who have too much on their plates in normal circumstances. In these unpredictable times, we can make space for small and simple literacy practices in our everyday lives, like some of the ideas here. After our first few days of E-learning, I wrote to Catherine’s teacher to thank her for all she is doing right now. I also encouraged her that, at least from where I’m sitting, writing doesn’t have to be fancy right now. Really, there are plenty of ways to write outside of school. If it takes the stress off teachers to let our kids write in other ways, now is a great time to do it.
I certainly won’t pretend we have it all together at our house; there have been a LOT of big messes over here — notice I’m not saying much about my 3- or 1-year olds! Actually, though, it’s been exciting to watch Catherine interact with her little sisters in ways that support their literacy development. She helps Anna make a grocery list (which is mostly participating with naming grocery items when Anna shouts, “WHAT DO WE NEED?!?”). She sits with Lucy while coloring, and mostly helps Lucy make marks on paper instead of eating the crayons. In these ways, Catherine is a tiny literacy leader.
At the end of the day, I guess what I’m thinking is this: Everything else in the world feels so topsy-turvy right now, but supporting our children’s literacy doesn’t have to be elaborate. There’s enough chaos in other places. For our young writers, the lessons right now can simply be in doing things that have been good for literacy development all along: highlighting our everyday literacy interactions and perhaps finding other small ways to connect with our children through writing.
More resources for supporting young writers at home can be found at this link.
Susanna L. Benko is an associate professor of English at Ball State University, where she teaches courses about writing pedagogy and young adult literature. She is also the Director of the Indiana Writing Project and Director of English Education. As a teacher and researcher, she is interested in the teaching of writing—in practice and in policy—at middle and secondary levels. Her work has been published in journals such as English Education, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and English Teaching: Practice and Critique. Prior to her work at Ball State, she taught middle and high school English in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.