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Instead of Curriculum: Bring Me Bad Writing

Editing writing (instead of curriculum)Bring me bad writing,” I told my two homeschool co-op classes of middle school and elementary age writers. “Incorrect writing, wrong apostrophes, sentence fragments, typos, passive voice. Horrible stuff. Bring it.”

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The next week, they marched in with an array of bad writing they’d found on websites, on convenience store signs, on gas pumps, in a letter from a college administrator, in text books, in novels, and in their own journals.

They had snapped photos, hand copied passages, bookmarked pages, and printed screen shots.

There I was, sitting with a bunch of kids who were anxious to share their observations of subject verb disagreement, misspelled words, errant apostrophes, impossibly punctuated dialogue, and overwritten purple prose.

They were arguing about who got to go first.

Learning Without Curriculum

With no packaged curriculum at all, we got in lesson after lesson on punctuation, capitalization, the its/it’s crisis, and mix-ups such as using the word for the metal “lead” as the past tense of the verb “to lead” (which is, for the record, “led”).

They had context for what they were learning. They asked questions. They were noisy collaborators.

In the past, I’ve written about how homeschoolers use effective resources and activities, often in addition to or instead of curriculum. The “Bring Me Bad Writing” exercise is one of my favorites.

My young writers are at a delicate stage, especially the middle schoolers. They have spent considerable time this year learning to trust their own voices, learning to spin out their stories even when they’re not sure where they will go, learning not to censor first efforts with an inner editor who is afraid of letting mistakes slip through.

This means their writing has gotten better. Their scenes are authentic; their characters are plausible and imperfect; their writing vibrates with strong verbs. Many of them have begun to write when nothing is assigned. Many of them are keeping journals and bringing stories to share outside of class. There are poets.

Over-emphasizing revision in the kids’ own writing, stressing incorrect mechanics and usage — “grammar,” as many people say — is risky at this stage. Too much attention, too early, on the need to revise writing for correctness, can cause fear and hesitancy to creep in.

So much carefulness chokes the pleasure out of rip roaring chase scenes, squeezes the speculation out of why the man in the bank is angry, frightens the red tailed hawk right out of my writers’ skies.

For the boys, the boys especially, the thought of recopying, or even in Word, dragging-and-dropping, to fix All These Things That Are Wrong, can quickly become overwhelming. Thus, they conclude, it’s better to write just a couple of sentences –careful, boring, correct sentences–so as to avoid Revision Hell.

I don’t want to be part of that disincentive to write well.

However, this doesn’t mean they’re too young to be Editors to the World. Sent on an error hunt, their eyes and minds are keen to collect examples of what doesn’t work. Yes, they’re getting coaching from their moms and competition from their siblings and “look at that one” from their dads.

Even better, when they bring their “bad writing” samples to class at homeschool co-op, they’re learning from each other and from me about errors they may have been only vaguely aware of.

They’re tuning up an inner editor who will recognize there could be a problem with their/there/they’re–but I’m not allowing that inner editor to eat its own young. Yet.

In addition to discussing the particular examples of bad writing the kids brought in, we enjoyed a discussion about how correct writing, “good” writing, is part of the expectation for successful college students and professionals. We talked about “code switching” — why texting works with its audience but its conventions don’t belong in work completed for a class.

“Unless,” one of them says confidently, “you are developing a character whose texting is authentic to the story.”

Ahem. Yes. I think she’s got it.

Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia for twenty years. Jeanne is director of Brave Writer's Homeschool Alliance, which provides homeschool coaching, community, and "grad school for homeschool" for parents. She is the contributing editor for TheHomeSchoolMom newsletter and writes the popular Ask Jeanne column, addressing homeschool parents' questions here at TheHomeSchoolMom. She is a former college faculty member, former editor and book reviewer for Home Education Magazine, a long-time editor for VaHomeschoolers Voice, and a news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne has conducted portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress for many years.

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  1. Karen Doll

    I LOVE this activity, Jeanne 🙂 I love your sensitivty to their sensitive feelings about their own writing, skills, mechanics. Yes, they are so very vulnerable at this age and even older if the child has a history of just not “getting” how to write well. During our homeschooling years, I often leaned toward the creative first, the serious part will follow when they’re ready or find just the right project to motivate them as you suggested. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Jeanne Faulconer

      Hi Karen,

      Glad you liked this activity. It is something that can be done in a co-op or group, but also just on an ongoing basis within a family. Not messing with the vulnerable aspects of a young writer is so important — and not that hard to do if you just realize that their writing is an extension of themselves. I appreciate your comment!

  2. Jennifer Castro

    This was an excellent tip. I’m always looking for ways to engage my children in writing. I’ve tried lots of methods and texts, but I loose them at the rewriting stage every single time. You do you suggest skipping the rewriting all together? Thank you.

    • Jeanne Faulconer

      Well, I suggest doing what works. So if you have a kid who is open to revision and enjoys it and gets bits and pieces of it, then do revision. But if you’re losing them at rewriting, then, yes, I’d skip over rewriting and get them to do exercises like this one, where editing is applied to Other People’s Writing. Simultaneously, continue to expose them to well-written, well-edited work — good novels, good essays, good stories. This way, they see the good stuff and the “bad stuff” and kids who are supported and able will gravitate toward the good stuff.

      Another trick — at the right time — is an experience where having “correct” writing counts. This might mean entering a contest that the child is interested in at a well-timed moment, or submitting something to a newspaper or magazine, or participating in a library book mark contest, etc. Just look for those occasional opportunities where “correctness counts” where your child may have sincere motivation for making good edits. Ironically, many a homeschool mom I know has said that when their children have participated in online forums (i.e., Minecraft or some other hobby/interest), at a certain age, they want their writing to be right because they don’t want to be perceived as “little kids.” When they hit that stage, many of them come asking about spelling and capitalization and sentence fragments.

      I think the main point is — don’t let the emphasis on correctness squeeze out expressiveness. Once they lose confidence (or if they never experience confidence) in being able to express thoughts and opinions and story in writing, it can be very difficult for them to ever get that confidence. “I can’t write,” is what you’ll hear, which sometimes means, “I am afraid to write.”

      Having fun looking for “wrong” things in public writing can be a great way to draw attention to what is standard and non-standard in English, without threat to personal voice. I recently took a picture of the area for teen clothes in our local Wal-Mart, which was labeled with a huge, professionally made sign that said “Junior’s.” This tickled us no end, imagining the teen girls wearing clothes, you know, belonging to Junior.

      And a great apostrophe lesson was had by all.

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