For young writers, workshops help explore the “How” of their writing

A few years ago I was hedging on whether or not to plan summer writing workshops for young writers. I’d received a few inquiries from parents who’d found and stumbled upon the Workshop page, where information for the previous summer's workshop (2010) was still live. How did that summer’s workshops go? They didn’t. Whether it was a challenge of timing or planning, I wasn’t able to get enough parents interested in registering their students.

People have a lot going on in the summer, when the rains finally go away and the premium is spent on outdoor recreation.

I can’t blame parents for planning canoe trips, day hikes and backpacking adventures with their kids. I look forward to doing the same thing. Likewise, I discovered that parents like to have their children’s summers mapped out as early as possible. I didn’t publicize the workshops until mid-May, and by then it was too late. Decisions were made and the kids’ days were already lined up.

All of this was playing in my head when I received a fairly innocuous bit of literature in the mail, the 2011 “Report on Our Schools” from Portland Public. (You can find an online version of the same report here.) By all accounts, PPS is doing very well, as student achievement is on the way up . . . except in one key area that speaks to me both personally and professionally: “Seventh Graders Meeting Writing Standards.” It sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb on the report, the only “red downward arrow” in a column where all the rest are upward and green.

Why is this? I don’t know for sure, but I have my own thoughts and feelings about how writing is taught – and in some cases not taught – in schools. And when I boil my thoughts down to their simplest form, it comes back to the notion of processvs. content.

I believe that, as a society, our focus is on content. “What have you done?” is more important than “How have you done it?”

Overtime, what I’ve discovered and have come to honor is that successful writing has more to do with “How” than with “What”. Still, in a typical school day where classes are 50-minutes long, and occasionally half of that time is spent trying to get kids to stay in their seats, there just aren’t enough minutes to focus on “How.” And while kids may receive various tools and tips that help them find the “How,” the focus naturally shifts to “What” – after all, grading “What” is a lot easier than putting a stamp or letter on “How.”

My goal as a writing educator is to introduce writers of all ages to the concept and notion of “How,” keying the birth, growth and evolution of their own unique and individual writing process.

Some parents have asked if workshops are geared only toward students who already enjoy writing and/or excel as writers. The short answer is, “No.” The workshops are extremely inviting and inclusive. I refer to each workshop student as “a writer,” because in the end that’s what they are, not only during the workshop but also when they leave the workshop and venture back to the world. I want them to feel confident that when they sit down to write, the words that will spin out of them will be valid and good.

You can learn more about this my work with young writers on the Young Writers Workshop page. Feel free to connect with questions or thoughts of your own.