Summer writing

Summer writing reached an important milestone last week. We've been talking and reading and talking since May. This week I introduced actual writing. It went better than I expected.

Actual writing

Since summer began, we've been reading short passages and discussing them. Part of the reason is that this is a good way to begin writing. Part of the reason is that I have a 13 year old boy with a two word vocabulary: good and stuff.

For his first writing exercise of the summer, I gave him the choice of writing about one of the topics that we've been discussing or write a historical account of his favorite video game. Guess which topic was chosen?

3 Years of work

A digression is order. When he was in 6th grade, I helped him work on his science labs. His teacher would grade a lab. The kids could resubmit the lab as many times as they want to for a regrade until they achieved the desired score. I would occassionally help because the 5 or 6 page lab narrative was usually filled with shockingly abysmal writing. Once we spent 2 hours discussing what is important enough to include. Once we spent 4 hours recrafting and recrafting and recrafting sentences until the reader could understand the text.

I sent an email to express my appreciation to the teacher. The lower the grade, the higher the incentive, and the more productive our work learning how to craft a sentence or paragraph. Then I wrote the math teacher a 3 page document outlining my math goals from functions through calculus that I wanted to cover before 7th grade was complete, asking for help. I received a restraining order from the Illinois 7th Circuit Court forbidding me from sending emails to his teachers.

In 7th grade I backed off the writing oversight. Thus summer writing.

Immediate Success

After 90 minutes, he had once big paragraph. I told him without reading it that he has at least 3 paragraphs and probably run on sentences. 'This is going to be 6 pages long' he said, justifying the long paragraph. Let's just end it here, I said, I don't have 12 days to wait for your first writing assignment.

My goal as a math and now writing coach is to break up work into 25 or 30 minute chunks and focus on one little bit per day. After 6 months of this, we will make a lot of progress. We won't get to the second day if I'm critical or complain about all the mistakes I see. This day, I would start with paragraphs. After about 20 minutes of arguing, I asked him to name the subtopics within that big paragraph. He found 4. We broke it into 4 paragraphs.

I asked him to rewrite one sentence that started with 'This is because he...'. He fixed it in 2 minutes. In 6th grade, an improvement of this sort would have taken 30 minutes.

It wasn't a bad effort. I was actually impressed with his work and he could see my pride without me saying anything. This is very very important if you want to make it to day 2. I asked him why his writing skills were so good.

'You know those last few weeks after all the tests are over where nothing happens in school? Our teacher was gone most of the time. All we did whether the teacher was there or there was a substitute was write. In the morning, we would get a topic. We would have a few hours to write about what we were going to write about. Then in the afternoon, we would write it, and at 3:00, the time was up and it had to be done.'

Oh my friggin gosh. That's like 3 months of at home writing per week. Could my letter have caused a revolution? Unlikely. But I'll take it.

Nonetheless, there's a lot work left to do. After that first day I created a long list of things to work on (one at a time, of course). For example, how to choose and limit a topic to a doable 45 minute task. There were other grammar and writing mechanics and techniques that I noted need improvement.

I did a bit of research on the SAT - the essay and reading comp - and was surprised to find a) our At Home writing program and odd choice of reading material which I talked about in prior issues is lined up closely to the methods and goals of the SAT, and b) none of the writers understand why the SAT chose their peculiar methodology. I understand. In short, it's no longer the beginning of the twentieth century and our world values more than a novel set in the English country side dealing with people wearing period costumes.

So little time, so much to blog about. The saga will continue in the next issue with the SAT. It's hard to reach goals if you don't know what you're working toward.

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