Category Archives: Parenting

Teaching Children to Write: Grammar

I have been thinking about how to teach children to write. Especially how to control a sentence when you write creative fiction, and that means grammar and mechanics.

Two of my kids have been homeschoolers this year. They are both reluctant writers, though my eldest has elaborate ideas and stories that he plays with even when he doesn’t write them down. And, he has an intuitive understanding of narrative structure that makes me jealous.

Part of my difficulty in determining how to teach them the myriad of skills involved in writing well is that I have spent much of the past two years training myself out of habits I saw my eldest being encouraged to develop last year at school, especially in his creative writing. He was being taught to add adjectives and adverbs to develop descriptions; I was teaching myself to replace my adjectives and adverbs with more specific nouns and verbs.

I found myself wondering whether there was another way to teach writing that didn’t require so much unlearning – or whether this really was an age appropriate way of learning to write.

Some people believe writing must be taught very formally and others believe that writing well develops naturally from reading good literature. I am conviced there is a third way.

In the fall, I took a course that introduced me to Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction by Edgar H. Schuster. Schuster suggests a wonderful approach to learning grammar, an approach built on the assumption that we absorb grammatical rules as we learn to speak, so grammatical instruction is about refining and articulating an understanding that we already have.  In the book, he lays out both why he thinks this is the best way to teach grammar, but he also provides teaching examples. He also provides examples of how to discuss “rules” of grammar that are frequently broken in published works.

For example, sentence fragments. He encourages teachers to look at sentence fragments in literature with their students and ask how the fragment works, what impact it has on the reader. And then, to look at sentence fragments that confuse a reader or hinder understanding in some way and ask why the language works that way. He aims for a functional understanding of grammar.

This appeals to me. Grammar is the how of linguistic communciation, the structure of language, written and spoken. For most people, the application of grammatical understanding is what matters.

So, I have been teaching grammar in the context of writing. Our early assignments were retelling Aesop’s Fables. We would read them together, discuss the narrative elements of the story and any interesting sentence structures, and then he would write the story in his own words. I would mark up the draft using professional proofreaders’ marks, and we would discuss the revisions. Grammar lessons came up as he needed them, but no more. It is clear to me that his functional understanding of grammar has improved through this approach.

But, there are some formal rules and some vocabulary related to grammatical analysis that I would like him to know. So, we play Mad Libs. We read books about grammar and why it matters, like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I am looking for my copy of Breaking the Rules, which got misplaced in our move, for more analytical activities.

But, my son’s favourite grammar and punctuation activity is proof-reading my work. The satisfastion he gets when he finds an error is worth any momentary embarrassment I may feel.

I have heard a lot of horror stories of how sensitive children stopped writing when a teacher said something critical of their work. I am wondering how we can support children as they learn to wield the magical power of words.

Do you have any stories of things your teachers did right when it came to teaching you to write?

When Something Has to Give

Have you missed me?

I have missed you.

I didn’t mean to disappear, but my priorities have been away from this blog during April and I couldn’t bring myself to post the dreck that I was writing when I did sit down to write for this site.

I did improvise poetry for 24 letters of the alphabet for A More Playful Life during the A to Z blogging challenge. W and X are still waiting for their moments. Putting unpolished work out on the net was odd. I felt extremely conflicted about whether I wanted people to read them poems or not. When I have performed improvised poetry in classes led by poet Alison Luterman, I have frozen. I loosened up somewhat writing these poems. I think it was a good exercise.

I have been busy revising my work in progress for my novel-writing class. We submitted the first 20 pages this past weekend and will be pitching the novels to a panel next week. With the excellent comments on the opening that I received from Charlotte Rains Dixon and feedback from my class on the synopsis, I had some significant changes I wanted to make. I am pleased with the current state of things, but not complacent.

The panel next week is going to choose one package to share with the chief acquisitions editor of a major publisher. I think I stand a reasonable chance of being selected and want my work to show me in the best light possible. The novel had to take priority over the blog.

My other priority has been celebrating my triplets’ fifth birthday. They are old enough to take the birthday adventure seriously and getting things right has been a challenge.

My favourite part of preparing for the birthday celebrations was the evening before their birthday. One at a time, I took each child into my room to wrap presents and sign cards. Each child had a fit of jealousy that their siblings were going to receive these cool gifts, and I had to help them understand that they would also be getting gifts. The moment of understanding was different for each child, but in each case, I got to witness a glow of excitement and anticipation as they realized what their siblings were doing when alone with me.

The actual birthday was fun. The birthday party was more of a relief than anything else. I wrote about getting ready for the party for An Intense Life today. In that piece I describe the intensity of the kids by comparing them to small monkey pumped full of amphetamines. It was wild.

But, I am back.

I pushed myself too hard in March, blogging every day. I needed energy I had already used for getting through April, and there was too much going on at the end of April.

So, I am doing myself a favour – or at least I think it is a favour. I’m not deciding how often I am going to post here in May. Suffice it to say that I plan for it to be more than April and less than March.

There was too much going on in March and April. I need to strike a new balance, a balance that puts my priorities where they need to be – on getting the novel finished.

Now Comes The Hard Part: Reversing Underachievement

I am in the part of my learning curve with my fiction writing that will push me to the brink. Like many adults who slid through school without having to work hard, I never developed habits of persistence and grit. And now, I have to if I want to make progress.

I got through school by showing up to class, reading the assigned work, and taking the tests. Notice the complete lack of revision, study, or thinking about the material to understand what I was missing. I always understood enough to get As, but never enough to excel. I had no motivation to excel. To excel would have required me to live through the discomfort of staring what I didn’t know in the face and hanging out with it, examining it from all angles, trying to find a path to understanding – a discomfort that most people encounter before leaving high school, but that I managed to get through law school without ever encountering.

This pattern of not pushing myself has led to a classic case of adult underachievement, a failure on my part to fully use my strengths to accomplish my goals.

Luckily, the universe sent me a bunch of challenging children to parent. I can’t stay in bed all day and ignore my kids. I have to do my best to help them grow into happy, healthy, productive citizens. And, like all parents, some days are not so good. Some days, I really feel like a failure. But, I need to get up the next day and keep trying, hoping that what I can manage to accomplish that day will be enough.

Parenting has forced me to develop persistence, to become comfortable with studying, experimenting, and changing things that aren’t working.

For the first time, I have been given a task that feels too hard for me, but that I refuse to give up on, and I am learning to push past what comes easily.

As a writer, I have reached the point where I need to dig in for the long haul and do the hard work. I have written bad first drafts; I have read a huge amount about the craft of writing; I have written good and bad short stories; and now I am revising a novel – a very messy, in serious need of hard work, novel.

I am unwilling to give up on this novel. But, I don’t have the discipline of decades of hard work to draw on. I need help getting past my lazy habits of doing just enough to get by. For now, I need external deadlines to meet, to push me through the frustrations. I hope not to need them forever.

I have homework due for my novel-writing class – homework that will require me to do some analysis of my draft that I have been putting of for too long because it is hard. I have agreed to send the first 25 pages of my WIP to Charlotte Rains Dixon tomorrow because I won a critique from her. I am terrified to give her these pages. This is the weakest part of my draft and I know it. But, it is better now than it was before I won the critique, and it will be better again before I submit the first 20 pages at the end of my class in a few weeks.

I am determined to beat this underachievement thing.

Raising Literate Children

So far, it looks like I am off to a great start in my goal of raising readers. The pile of books my kids bring home after each visit to the library is evidence of that.

But, I don’t just want my kids to be able to read. I want them to feel comfortable with turning to written materials to learn anything they want, to know the joy of reading stories that engage them and move them emotionally, and to find the great literature of the English language accessible. To succeed in the last task, making the great literature accessible, I must introduce them not only to the classics, but also to the material referred to by the classics.

So, on this weekend of Easter and Passover, I am telling them bible stories. We are neither Christian nor Jewish. We do, however, celebrate a springtime festival of chocolate that we call Easter, and a winter festival of lights and gift-giving that we call Christmas. I am not telling them these stories because they are part of our faith tradition; I am telling them these stories because they are reference material for literate readers.

So, last night, we talked about the plagues of Egypt, the slaughter of the Egyptian first-born sons, the exodus, the crucifixion, and the empty tomb. We also talked about calendars and the scheduling of holidays.

Today, we will be at a maple syrup festival and will surely talk about symbols of spring. Sunday’s egg hunt will bring us to conversations about how religions use natural phenomena as symbols. We have these conversations every year. As the kids get older, the conversations get deeper, richer, and more complex.

I am fully conscious that what I am doing is passing down cultural traditions in a way that reveals my deepest beliefs. I am sharing stories I think are necessary for my children to understand their literary heritage. I am sharing my appreciation for myth and metaphor, encouraging an understanding of the importance of the stories we tell, grounding my love of wonder and miracle in observation of the natural world, and imparting my belief that history is a vital part of understanding who we are. To me, all of these elements are part of teaching my children to read.

It is not just enough to be able to look at words and know what they mean. To read well, you need to understand what the author is talking about, and that often means understanding references to other material.

I wrote about the need for writers to read widely last April, and included familiarity with the bible in that context. I believe that raising literate readers requires the same approach.

Are there specific books and stories you think children should be exposed to?

Giving Pages to a First Reader

I did something very unusual this morning. I gave my son pages of my WIP and asked for his feedback. I am revising these pages to submit to an editor for feedback by the end of this week and was working on them next to him as he was working on school work.

He asked me if they were part of my book and I felt moved to see if he wanted to read them. And he did. And then, I asked for feedback. Asking him for feedback was terrifying. I wanted him to respond honestly and I also wanted him to have liked it and want more. I would have been mortified if he hated it and horrified if he lied to make me happy.

It took every ounce of patience I had to not look over his shoulder as he read, and I cringed the few times he pointed out proof-reading errors. But, having handed over the pages, I had to live through the result.

He needs to be asked direct questions in order to discuss what he has read, so I asked him to tell me what he knew about the characters from the first few pages. I did my absolute best not to ask leading questions. I am pleased to report he understood at least as much about the characters as I had hoped the three pages would convey. He did use his knowledge of me to pinpoint the age of the two kids more accurately than the “older than me” that he inferred directly from the text, but he is 8 and has little frame of reference for judging between a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old – which is an issue I will be discussing with the editor.

He did indicate that he would have preferred it if the stakes had reached life or death proportions within the first three pages, but when asked if he would have kept reading if I had given him more pages he said, “yes.”

He then asked me some really good questions. The one I liked best had to do with the narrator. The latest draft is in first person and there is no reason within the first three pages for anyone to address the protagonist by name. He wanted to know how the reader would get to know her name. (And yes, he figured out the protagonist was a girl from what I had written; I was so proud of us both.)

My son is not quite my ideal reader, but he is close. He reads more middle grade fiction than YA and my novel is definitely heading in the YA direction with this draft. He prefers science fiction to fantasy, and genre fiction to realistic fiction. My WIP starts in a realistic mode, but is definitely a fantasy. More importantly, he neither lies well nor continues reading when he is not enjoying himself.

The biggest compliment he gave me was an hour or so after he gave me back the pages. He asked if I had the next chapters ready for him to read. I don’t, but I have a new incentive to get them written after this morning.

It took a lot of courage for me to give him the pages, but I am extremely glad I did.

Do you have a first reader you usually turn to? Or does it depend on the work?

The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part II

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

This post follows on from The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I.

I started trying to pass for normal before I had any idea I was gifted. All I knew was that I was different and that different was bad. I have no memory of the beginning of the process. All I know is a story my parents tell, one that in retrospect shows a problem that nobody thought to address. For decades, this story has been told as an example of how clever I was. It is only now as an adult, going through the process of recognizing my own identity that I see it as a cautionary tale.

I was born in England and attended early school there. My father took a sabbatical in the U.S. when I was 5 and I started Kindergarten. I was one of two students who entered Kindergarten already reading and my only memory from that year is of the two of us lying on the floor by the coat cubbies reading while the other students learned the letters of the alphabet.

The story my father tells goes like this.

“Kate has always been a talker. Once she started, there was no stopping her. At the first parent-teacher conference in Kindergarten, we were shocked to learn that Kate never spoke up in class unless directly asked a question by the teacher. She was still talking up a storm at home. ” Pause, accompanied by facial expression conveying confusion. “The next time we met with her teacher, it was a different story. Kate was talking at school the way she talked at home – but in an American accent. She had waited to talk until she had mastered the local dialect.”

I was 5 and I was hiding myself to fit in. It is a habit I am still trying to break.

As a teenager, the disconnect between my deep truths, the truths I let myself be aware of, and the facade I was presenting to the outside world became unmanageable and I suffered an existential crisis. In the midst of that crisis, I found the ground of my being, and moved forward, but it certainly looked like all was lost for some time.

If my life were a novel, that crisis would have been the final turning point where I rallied and strode forward into the fight that would lead to the novel’s resolution. But life is messier than art. In life, the protagonist doesn’t always make the choice to fight. And, resolution is not assurred. But, that turning point is the place in my memories that I need to access in order to write about the descent into deep crisis that will push my protagonist into change.

The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post. 

Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.

“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented

This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:

“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities.  Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children

Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.

“Gifted people often adjust what they say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feel that other people do not take them seriously. This can lead to not trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It can convince children that there is someone who thinks that they are valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth

**A Note About Passing

In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.

Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.

Sneaky-Deep: Easing Into Truth

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

My experience of InterPlay went a little like this:

  • InterPlay is fun, a little weird, maybe, but definitely fun.
  • Oh, shit. I didn’t mean to talk about that. InterPlay is scary.
  • Oh, boy, I really needed to talk about that. InterPlay changed my life.

See how the deep work slipped in there surrounded by a lot of fun. Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, the founders of InterPlay, talk of the practice of InterPlay as sneaky-deep. What they have developed is a body-wisdom system that eases people into connecting with their whole selves, including the parts of themselves that they shove back into the recesses of their psyches. It is a very gentle practice, and because it is so gentle, it can seduce people into touching deep material. It is not therapy, but it can be very therapeutic. And, because of the way it is taught and led, workshop participants can choose how deeply they want to play.

But, if you want to play deeply, the opportunity is always there.

My entire life has been a journey to understand myself. When I found InterPlay, I immediately started using it to consciously explore myself and the nature of my experience as a physical being. I have conditioned myself to play deeply.

Here’s a little story.

Once upon a time, my husband and I decided we would move our family to a foreign country, away from all our friends and family. We would give up on giving our only son a sibling and start a new life for the three of us without regrets. My husband got a job in the new land. We sold our house and made arrangements to rent a temporary place in the new country while we looked for a new house. We had not only a dream, but a plan and a budget. My husband started the new job from afar and we sold our house.

And then, before we moved, but after we were committed, plans changed. I was pregnant. Ok, that had been part of the old plan. We could adjust. With twins. Okay, this is tough, but we’ll get through. Oops, sorry we missed a baby, that would be triplets.

If you imagine that I flipped out at this point, you would be wrong. I went into shock.

6 months later, I was living in a foreign country and had three babies in the hospital and a traumatized older child at home. Still in shock.

6 months later, I was still in shock.

But, somewhere in there I had enough sense to know that I needed to pull myself into my new reality. So, I took advantage of the fact that I had completely failed to get any of the babies to breastfeed and left them with my husband, my mother, and the nanny for a weekend of InterPlay.

I swore going into the weekend that I was sick of my whole life being about the babies and I wasn’t going to bring them up while I was gone. Which shows how deeply detached from myself I was.

The first thing we did was completely non-verbal. I danced, letting my body move without words or thought according to my impulses. I felt great.

The second thing was a little exercise called babbling. People pair off and take turns talking for 30 seconds or so about or in response to a word provided by the leader. In one of the rounds of babbling with my first partner, we were asked to talk about our kitchens. Now, having done the leadership training, I know that this is a sneaky-deep topic. It sounds innocuous, but it gets to the heart of a lot of people’s lives.

In my case, my kitchen was a literal representation of everything that was wrong with my life. I hated that kitchen until we moved out of that house last month. We had left a gourmet kitchen and moved into a house that although otherwise well suited to infant triplets had a crappy kitchen. Until the trio gave up bottles, the counter-space was entirely covered with bottles drying and slow cookers with warm water ready to heat bottles. The table was displaced from any sensible place because there needed to be room for three high chairs, and the entire space was heavily gated in preparation for triplets on the move.

When I was asked to describe my kitchen, I could have described the kitchen underneath all the baby stuff, but the truth was I had never really talked about the baby stuff with any depth and my body knew it needed to let some of those stories out. So, I spoke about the bottles. Not about the rest of it, I only had 30 seconds after all. And, having that limited framework made it okay to talk about. I wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by everything that had happened over the previous year because there wasn’t time to bring it up. But, 30 seconds of cracking open the door of my experience and seeing what was in there was safe.

Eventually, the focus of my weekend became about me embracing my new life. I had already been doing everything I needed to do to make sure the children were cared for, but InterPlay helped me start caring for myself as well.

Sneaky-deep stuff.

I just went to have fun. I came back more whole.

InterPlay is like that.

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part II

Shakespeare was my first literary love.

I was 8 when my grandmother and I read Macbeth aloud together, sitting at the dining-room table of the house that holds my most vivid childhood memories, bright sunlight streaming through the window as I encountered that grim but glorious material for the first time.

This is the very book from which we read, my grandmother and I, this book bedecked with working designs, such as this image, drawn by Michael Ayrton and John Minton, from which a costume would be fashioned that Lady MacDuff might clothed be.

I was hooked.

After that, I sought out the Bard at every opportunity. By high school, I had absorbed Shakespeare’s sentence structure deeply; I was more comfortable with a sentence containing four or five clauses than my teachers.

As I proceeded through my academic career and especially during my time as a lawyer, my writing changed. I retreated from my literary use of language. By the time I left legal practice, I had developed a dry and unambiguous style, a style that was working against me as I struggled to write a fantastical novel.

This fall, I started working through a dvd-based course entitled Building Great Sentences. The instructor loves and encourages long, cumulative sentences. As I started working with the materials, it was as if a flood gate had been opened. Complex, flowing sentences of greater than average length started appearing throughout my work. The early influence of Shakespeare and my grandmother had been sleeping, but no longer.

Several of Shakespeare's plays in the Folio Society edition from the 1950s. There were several complete collections of Shakespeare's plays and poetry in my parent's house, but this edition was my favourite because of the heavy paper, elegant type, and evocative production design drawings.

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part I

I’m at my parents’ house for a few days. The books of my childhood surround me. Browsing the shelves, deciding which books to bring to my children’s attention, I am deep in my own literary memories.

Yesterday, I found this book.


I don’t remember anything about the story, but I remember a creative project inspired by it, or at least by the cover. I had forgotten this book was the inspiration until I saw it again. But, the project itself is one of those half-finished projects from my past that still haunts me.

For class (fourth grade, Mrs. Voake, one of my most inspirational teachers), I made a map of an island country, Gingericana, where every geographic feature was named after a spice. In my imagination, stories about the peoples of this land were writing themselves, but I never made time to get them down on paper. Over the past few years, I have considered revisiting this world to write stories for my children.

I don’t know if I will.

In the meantime, however, I plan to reread the book. I am curious to see whether I recognize the story within the cover.

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