by Ginny Kochis
Yesterday and a lifetime ago, I was a high school English teacher. This was before motherhood, before homeschooling, before the wisdom that comes through the baptism by fire of raising twice exceptional children. At the heart of it, this is my conversion story. And it is my daughter’s story, too.
At the school where I was employed as an educator of the gifted, teaching writing meant instructing students in the art of the five paragraph essay. Give them a good base upon which to build, then drill in unbreakable rules: no contractions; no first person; no use of the verb “to be.” Writing was considered objective, and when GT students and their parents expressed skepticism that it could be so, I responded that I had set standards to which students must be held. And yet I became supremely uneasy. If I was doing what my department expected, and teaching in a way that had been deemed necessary and successful, why did I feel that I was suffocating my students?
Because I was. I required that my students follow a cookie cutter format, then was mortified when their work was dry and unimaginative. I had held that a fine line existed between expressing oneself in an organized manner and allowing the voice—the person—to claw its way out of the written word. But as Donald Murray points out in Write to Learn, most teachers of writing are readers and not writers themselves. In the isolation of the sterile, five paragraph classroom, I had forgotten that I was a writer. And in teaching writing the formulaic way, I had forgotten that my students were thinkers, creators, and writers, too. I had put my gifted students into a box, slammed shut the lid, and dropped the key into a limitless ocean of conformity. Because of departmental guidelines, I had no choice but to teach the rules.
But I could choose to teach how to break them.
Now I suppose this is the point when most conversion stories end. A grand, sweeping declaration of a dawning light, an epic end to the struggle of my philistine ways.
But there is more. I eventually left the classroom and had my first child. My daughter, my highly gifted, sensory processing, anxiety-ridden, beautiful, creative, fantastic daughter, hates to write. Never mind that she drew her first picture book at barely three. Never mind that she has journal after journal filled with kindergarten conversations between her alternate personality, G. Pearl Wolf, and Ian Whybrow’s character Little Wolf. If you ask her to write a paragraph or a book report or an essay? No way, no how. And it is the most frustrating, failure-inducing aspect of our homeschooling relationship. Or at least it was, for a time.
My daughter hates writing because she is terrified of the pressure, frustrated by the billions of thoughts rushing through her head that she can’t adequately express. She is hampered by the difficulty of actually writing, as her sensory issues impact her fine motor skills. Do you think I remembered any of this when we started homeschooling after a disastrous kindergarten school year? Of course not. I was so frazzled coming out of a battle for the ages that I clung to our curriculum like it was the last vestige of my sanity. It shouted, “Copywork!” “Paragraphs!” “Key Word Outlines!” “Insert dress-ups here!” I shouted these things, too. To her credit, my brave girl tried. And then it fell apart.
It might have been in between a spectacular summary of arctic wolf habitats and an equally spectacular breakdown over a written explanation of the grazing habits of dairy cows. At any rate, I found myself standing on the exact same precipice I had inhabited in the classroom. It dawned on me that I didn’t have to follow the curriculum, that I could teach her in the same way I had taught my gifted students after my professional epiphany. So here is what I do now, not only with her, but with the gifted and twice exceptional homeschoolers I am privileged to teach through my tutoring service, as well.
Brainstorming: We ask questions. Conversation is vital to working with gifted students. They want to be heard, appreciated, questioned, challenged. They want to express the millions of ideas that sometimes move faster than their hands or their mouths. And so we dictate. We record. We film. We look at ideas from the opposite direction (what if you disagreed with me?) or from another perspective (what if you were the horse in this story, instead of the dragon?).
Prewriting: We draw pictures. We make comic books and storyboards. We act out battles with clay figures and make scientific models with Legos. There’s no writing, at least not in the traditional sense, but the ideas are taking shape in a way that is more purposeful, less threatening.
Writing: We write. In five minute increments. In notebooks spread around the house. On giant sheets of paper taped to the wall. And yes, sometimes we even write on objects: old CDs, worn out ballet shoes, plastic dragons, guitar cases. We look at writing as outside pen and paper first, taking the pressure out of the equation.
Revision: We don’t harp on grammar or spelling, though that does eventually come into play as a means to support the writer’s voice. We take the creative, off-the-wall ideas and channel them onto paper, throwing overt adherence to form out the window and letting content be our guide. We consider how best to reach our audience, letting our ideas—not a script, not a formula—tell us where to go.
When the product is finished, our adventure has taken us not just to the written word, but to the other side of the frustration and anxiety that handcuffs thinkers to their inability to think. Each success moves us one step farther from the edge of the precipice, and one step closer to writing our own independence.
Ginny Kochis is a homeschooling mother of twice exceptional children. Once a full-time high school English teacher and adjunct professor of Developmental English, Ginny now teaches reading, writing, and study skills to gifted homeschoolers through her business, The Writing Well. She blogs about writing instruction, homeschooling, faith, and life in general at Not So Formulaic. Ginny lives with her family in Northern Virginia.
Want to read more from Ginny? Check out these posts on writing:
Image credit: Zak Suhar, https://stocksnap.io/photo/6WH7K414AF