Teaching a reluctant kid to write

My son is extremely bright, but reluctant to push himself.  He’s averse to challenges, and would infinitely prefer to have things fall into his lap.  Since he’s a natural athlete and mathematician, many things do fall into his lap.  Unfortunately for him, writing is not one of those things.  Combine his naturally execrable writing skills with laziness and bad teaching, and you end up with a 6th grader who cannot write a simple declarative sentence, let alone a more complex essay.

Tonight, I made him a promise:  “I promise that, in one hour, I will teach you more about writing than you’ve learned in a whole year.”  I then followed that promise by writing this sentence in his essay book:  “The lurpy snark biggled fluvily.”  He thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.  To his surprise, though, once I reminded him what adjectives, adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs are, he was quickly able to identify them in that silly sentence.  “Wow!  There’s an overriding logical structure there.”  That’s a pretty exciting concept for a kid with an engineer’s mind.

We doodled around with the nonsense concept for awhile by adding prepositional phrases, and additional nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.  No matter what nonsense we piled on, if we followed grammatical rules, there was that structural overriding logic, a logic that transcends nonsense words.  My son even figured out that one can write “The adjective noun verbed adverbily” and it will still have a bizarre kind of logic.

We wrapped up the grammar lesson with a discussion about interesting connectors (other than “and,” which is his all-purpose filler, often resulting in paragraph-long run-on sentences), clauses, parentheticals, etc.  At the end of an hour, he said “I get it.”  I don’t know that he’ll remember it all, but he now has a visceral sense of the logic and structure that underlies all good writing.

We spent hour two reviewing outlines.  He’d gotten a deservedly bad grade on an essay, which was what sparked this English lesson, so we pulled apart, reorganized and reconstituted the essay using an outline.  By the end of the second hour, he’d grasped that essays have as strong a structure as sentences themselves, and was able to organize his thoughts to match that structure.

Tomorrow, he will hand in the best essay he’s ever written — and for the rest of this year, any essay he writes at home, he’ll write with my coaching.  With luck, this will set him up for a lifetime of solid, intelligible writing.