I remember as a young writer in grammar school having to come up with my own ideas and topics to write about. In the 1980’s, this may have been a typical scenario, but as a homeschool mom, I am learning with my children that the ways of old, in this case, were not wise.
Benjamin Franklin utilized the technique of imitation as a way to train himself to write. His literary texts were articles that he used as models for writing his own work. Because he was dismissed early in his life as a writing failure, he sought the excellence of other work to master the art of writing.
This sounds like a logical path to follow and I know that when I get my hands on a piece of literature—essay or short story, or long fiction—I keep them handy as a framework to use to build my own work. It is like a sewing pattern. We need them as guides to know where to cut, where to fold, and how much fabric to use.
Likewise, for the young writer, it is most important to start them off this way. A blank sheet of paper with the instruction to write is already a failed attempt. We can have our young writers free-write to prime the pump, but to produce something excellent, we need to start them off by getting them close to another work of literature.
This isn’t to suggest that our young writers become counterfeits of another, nor does it imply that this learning model will hinder their creative voices from flourishing.
Since the blank page needs to be filled, the young writer needs a jump start. In the homeschool, my fifth grader will read a source text that engages him and has historical value. It could be around a theme of the past, or a theme of the present. It could be a “living book,” as Charlotte Mason (English educator of the 19th century) would put it. For instance, recently he’s read biographical material about Harriet Tubman, Johann Sebastian Bach, Levi Strauss, Dr Seuss, and Florence Nightingale, each with their own set of paragraphs telling the most amazing details of these people’s lives.
Then, the young writer may use this source material to create a keyword outline, highlighting the most important details, finding two or three central topics (such as childhood, personality, etc.) that will bring it all together.
What I typically do when the outline is completed is have my son do what I call a public speaking drill. He looks at his outline, and in front of his brother, sister, and myself, he reads off his outline-- but, the caveat is that he is not just reading word for word, but rather looking at the keywords, then lifting his face up to speak in complete sentences what those keywords are about.
It is a very helpful exercise because it not only teaches him to know the material he has read but to learn to speak it publicly. And isn’t that also another beneficial lesson? To be able to speak publicly without reading from a script while mutually having grasped what you have learned?
Writing assignments don’t need to be broad. They only require the proper source material to help lead a writer to devise his own outline, to write a composition based from that outline, and to enjoy what he’s learned.