Nearly every school in New Jersey has increased the amount of writing students are doing – from informational writing (what we older folks knew as “reports”) to memoir/“small moment” stories to literary essay. This may cause us to question whether we are providing our young writers with the proper expanse of experiences upon which to write. Not to worry. Just like published authors, children write about what they know.
Famed author Gary Paulsen of Hatchet, Dogsong, Brian’s Winter and other Young Adult novels, is an outdoorsman who has first-hand experience with hunting and trapping. His books reflect these experiences. Similarly, John Grisham channels his background as an attorney into his legal thrillers. Children, too, write about what they know, and their stories are all the richer for it.
Take, for example, the writing produced by primary grade students after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. A first grader in my school prepared a “How to Get Ready for a Hurricane” list by writing “Get a junarater.” A kindergartner shared her story “I Lost Pawowr” with her classmates.
One of my all-time favorites is the story written by a first grader about shopping for boots with her mother. “I lokt in avye sto. I konot fob tm. hhh!!!” (Translation: I looked in every store. I could not find them. Sigh!) I love the developmentally appropriate writing, the emerging writer’s voice, and the fabulous way this young lady has captured the exasperation of the female quest for shoes.
Then, there is my son Tyler’s story about when “Grandma tried to put the oven fire on. Grandma O. almost blew up the whole house pulling on the hot or cold switch.” Tyler was 7-years-old at the time, and this comical experience of watching his grandmother trying to navigate the switches on a new stove provided the inspiration for a story that we framed and have teased Grandma O. about quite often.
What do these pieces have in common? The children have written about everyday topics in ways that reflect their childish perceptions and outlook. It doesn’t take fancy trips to provide a young writer with inspiration. Rather, it takes adults and caregivers who talk with their children and give voice to the experiences in their lives. A trip to the grocery story, a campout with Cub Scouts, having a little brother or sister, or losing power in a storm all have the potential to become stories for our student writers.
How can we best support our young writers? Think of the stories in our own lives.
- What stories from my childhood do I keep coming back to?
- What funny or unusual event happened today that I can retell to my child?
- What personal stories do I tell my children at bedtime or other quiet moments?
By sharing those wonderfully ordinary, everyday observations with our children, we help them to see that they have their own stories to tell. So, before our children move into the world of essays and persuasive/informational writing, encourage and marvel at the beautifully simple stories they have to tell. It truly is the gateway to bigger and better writing.
Dr. Barbara Sargent is the Superintendent of Parsippany-Troy Hills Public Schools