Teaching Writing to Reluctant Writers
—and Who Isn’t One?

Margo Sorenson
Mar­go Sorenson

What’s next?” kids — ask, as they whiz through life at warp speed. You’ve seen them con­stant­ly check their phones for texts, Snapchat, and Insta­gram. Kids at video game kiosks hunch over the con­trols, zap­ping ani­mat­ed fig­ures and blow­ing up char­ac­ters by the dozens.  Should the adren­a­line abate for even a sec­ond, they turn to the next game, in search of that high-risk rush.

Teach­ing writ­ing for this video-visu­al­ly-ori­ent­ed gen­er­a­tion brings the chal­lenge of try­ing to hook them into pick­ing up a pen­cil and writ­ing their own sto­ries, mak­ing them­selves vul­ner­a­ble to pos­si­ble ridicule and teas­ing, com­pound­ing the state of per­pet­u­al self-embar­rass­ment kids seem to live in for too many years in ele­men­tary and mid­dle school. Before we can tack­le this task, we need to iden­ti­fy our quar­ry — reluc­tant writers.

boy writingNo doubt you’ve seen one of these “hate-to-write” kids. He sits at the back of a class­room, slumped back in his chair, his legs stretched out in the aisle, ready to trip the next unsus­pect­ing kid. He glares at you — when his eyes aren’t glazed over, or star­ing out the win­dow. He resists direc­tion, gives you “atti­tude,” harass­es sub­sti­tutes, and, if you’re lucky, toss­es spit-wads instead of chairs. Or maybe you’ve seen anoth­er “just-won’t‑write” kid. She also sits at the back of a class­room, her head often down on her desk, hud­dled over it in self-pro­tec­tion. She stares at you, first in fear, and then, almost as if a cur­tain has been drawn, with a blank look. She flush­es with embar­rass­ment if you call on her. She slides down in her desk, hop­ing that if you can’t see her, she’ll be invisible. 

We who write and teach know that to be able to write is to set one­self free, but kids are ter­ri­fied that they will be exposed and made fun of for what they write. Thus, it’s key to set the stage, the atmos­phere, the expec­ta­tions for writ­ers as a com­mu­ni­ty of mutu­al respect. If we want to lib­er­ate kids to be able to write in their own voic­es, they need to feel safe.

One way to do this is to jump-start the “voice,” by using an exer­cise with Lit­tle Grin­da, Brat of the World, done in pairs. To begin, I tell them, “Some of you may not want to write because you think oth­er kids will think you’re writ­ing about your­self. Many times, as an author, I get asked, ‘Did that real­ly hap­pen to you?’ Here’s the answer to that: “No, no, and NO! Not real­ly — and here’s why: Famous author Vir­ginia Hamil­ton (M.C. Hig­gins the Great) once said, “Writ­ing is what you know, what you remem­ber, and what you imag­ine” — all three in one. It’s not about you and it’s not about me or about any­one you know — it’s a mash-up.” Shar­ing these ideas with the stu­dents helps to set the stage — to free kids up so they can begin to write with their own per­son­al voic­es, which is, as you know, one of the crit­i­cal keys to help kids con­nect with writ­ing as not a dread­ed process, but as a new adventure.

Put kids in pairs, and explain that voice is not who “they” are, but it is who their imag­ined char­ac­ter is. What is voice? It is like a secret trade­mark, and it can be seri­ous, sassy, fun­ny, or fierce. The words you choose, the audi­ence you’re writ­ing for, and your pur­pose all affect voice — BUT, it will always be unique, because it’s yours.

Then, we talk about the impor­tance of verbs in writ­ing with voice. In suc­ces­sion, I act out Lit­tle Grin­da “slink­ing into the class­room,” Lit­tle Grin­da “swag­ger­ing into the class­room,” Lit­tle Grin­da “tip-toe­ing into the class­room,” and Lit­tle Grin­da “stomp­ing into the class­room.” We dis­cuss how the dif­fer­ent verbs inform the audi­ence what Lit­tle Grin­da is real­ly like, and how dif­fer­ent­ly we see her, depend­ing on the verb. The verb does the heavy lift­ing in sen­tences. Besides using strong verbs, vivid, con­crete details are also impor­tant to use in writ­ing with voice, such as smell, touch, sight, sound, taste. Togeth­er in pairs, stu­dents will do the fol­low­ing exer­cise, being pre­pared to share with the rest of the class after­wards. 

Lit­tle Grin­da Voice Exercise

Write “jalapeňo” and not “oat­meal” by chang­ing weak verbs to strong ones and by adding more con­crete details to “show” the action, instead of “telling” it.

Little GrindaLit­tle Grin­da walked into the class­room. She looked at her class­mates and smiled. She walked over to her desk and put her books down on the floor. She looked up at her Lan­guage Arts teacher Mrs. Whip­per­snap­per and sighed. It was going to be anoth­er long day in Lan­guage Arts. She wrote a note to Clo­vis and fold­ed it up.

Pass this to Clo­vis,” she said to Min­er­va. She then took her half-fin­ished home­work paper out and tried to smooth out all the wrinkles.

Don’t you have your home­work, Lit­tle Grin­da?” asked Mrs. Whippersnapper.

Of course I do, ma’am,” said Lit­tle Grin­da. She tried to hide the blank half of the paper with her Hel­lo Kit­ty pen­cil box.

You know me and home­work, Mrs. Whip­per­snap­per,” said Lit­tle Grin­da. Just then, the return note from Clo­vis arrived and Lit­tle Grin­da put it in her sleeve.

What’s that in your sleeve, Lit­tle Grin­da?” asked Mrs. Whippersnapper.

Oh, noth­ing,” said Lit­tle Grin­da. All the oth­er stu­dents began to smile and give each oth­er know­ing looks. “It’s just my Kleenex. I have a bad cold.”

If you have a bad cold, you should stay home,” said Mrs. Whippersnapper.

Lit­tle Grin­da just smiled, and all the oth­er stu­dents began to whis­per. They just could­n’t believe Lit­tle Grin­da had got­ten away with it again!

Once the stu­dents are done, remind them that it is impor­tant to remem­ber when writ­ing, and shar­ing writ­ing, that con­sid­er­a­tion and respect are very impor­tant. Shar­ing writ­ing is risky, so we need to be extreme­ly respect­ful in the way we lis­ten and comment.

Over the years in the class­room, I’ve found that the best for­mat is to have kids respond to oth­ers’ writ­ing by using this for­mu­la: “I liked….” and “I won­der what…” NOT “What were you think­ing?”

The Day the Crayons QuitAn addi­tion­al voice exer­cise is to have them think out­side the box: what if every object in the class­room were alive, such as the pen­cil sharp­en­er … (ask for sug­ges­tions) Read aloud excerpts from The Day the Crayons Quit. Now, ask them to write two or three sen­tences — you ARE that object — write out what your feel­ings are as the first day of school approach­es. Are you dread­ing it or look­ing for­ward to it? Then, have stu­dents read sen­tences aloud. Which verbs real­ly added to the voice? Final­ly, ask stu­dents to choose one strong verb and one strong con­crete detail or descrip­tion from each work and begin their own verb bank lists.

They’ll be on their ways to writ­ing with their own voic­es, and, with any luck, not as reluc­tant writers!


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Bonnie Graves
Bonnie Graves
5 years ago

Wow! Mar­go real­ly hits the nail on the head with this artl­cle – con­crete ideas for teach­ers (par­ents and oth­ers, too), for encour­ag­ing authen­tic writ­ing and voice. Love the “show, don’t tell” exam­ple. Bra­vo, Margo!