The following was taken from a presentation given at the Gifted Development Conference, July 2004.
My name is Miriam Darnell. Being a gifted/learning-disabled child has afforded me the unexpected privilege of discovering new regions of my brain that few have ever explored.
Because of this, I've come to look at things upside down and backwards. This tendency comes in handy while teaching Language Arts at the Brideun School for Exceptional children. Brideun kids are unique learners who have blockages in their input or output capabilities. Our job as teachers at Brideun is to find alternative pathways in order to get to the same knowledge destination.
Creative writing is my favorite thing to do and my favorite thing to teach. And it was my favorite activity when I was a young child too, though god only knows why.
I was a terrible speller. I couldn't sequence to save my life, and with my poor memory, I tended to lose track of where my story was supposed to be going. On top of this, my teachers dwelled endlessly on the importance of good grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and how to spot a verb, but never taught me how to tell a good story that would keep my audience interested. I was never taught how exciting the written word can be when presented in a thoughtful way.
My greatest barrier of all was that I was a poor reader to boot, so I couldn't learn by the example of other authors either.
Writing for me was feeling around in the dark with no guidance, other than how to put properly spelled words in a proper order on paper and make sure the periods were in the right places. I couldn't make my readers care about what it was that my words were saying. I had incredible stories with realistic characters going on in my head all the time, but no idea how to make them real on paper how to make other people see what I saw in my mind's eye.
Despite all of these disadvantages, I continued to write for my own pleasure all through my school years. No thanks to some of my Language Arts teachers, who, if I hadn't had such an internal drive to write, would have quickly driven all interest in writing out of me in the first year, with their aimless rantings about proper grammar. I learned my grammar all right, which came in quite handy when writing technical papers, but until just recently, I didn't know how to put two words together that had an emotional effect on my readers. How could I know? I was never taught this. I was never taught how to create a character that other people could relate to, or what elements went in to making an exciting page-turning story. I was never taught that concepts such as foreshadowing, symbolism and metaphor add depth to a story and give it an artistic edge.
A mechanically perfect paper devoid of decent content is nothing but a showcase of surface knowledge.
Now I know these things, but only because I've had adult writing mentors who have instructed me in the concepts. My sheer drive to write has guided me toward finding the help I need.
Most children aren't so lucky as to have an internal drive to write. When they have a writing disability and all they are taught is the horribly dry and seemingly pointless method of mechanically correct writing, they lose their creativity and imagination; they lose the joy of just telling a good story. For some of these kids it becomes mind-numbing just to lift a pen.
I'm not saying that grammar and spelling aren't important. Of course they are, but writing, just like math or science, has to be taught with the application of the skill being just as important as the skill itself.
At the Brideun School, I teach creative writing backwards, the way I wish it had been taught to me. Backwards, meaning the application of the skill before the perfection of the skill.
In ancient times, stories weren't written down at all. Spelling and grammar didn't exist. What was important was the story itself. The characters, the plot, the setting, the drama with which the story was relayed to a captive audience.
In my family, Sunday nights were reserved for read-aloud. My mother read to the family from a cherished novel, and we were carried away by the amazing fantasy worlds that unfolded for us. I was always so surprised by how different the experience was for me when Mom finished a book and I loved it so much that I read it again to myself. It never sounded or looked the same. The process of decoding words on paper when reading a story can diminish the narrative in so many ways. Just as focusing on mechanics in writing, especially in the first draft, can cause a writer to lose sight of the story and the characters the things that matter most.
So, to get back to the roots, the essence of the story and the character the things that matter the most to kids, I have created game. The game is so different from the typical process of writing that kids are used to trudging through in school, that they don't even know I've tricked them into writing. The interaction and sheer fun of the game is a wonderful disguise. It frees them from the mechanics of putting words on paper and allows them to create the stories that live in their imaginations a place where words are heard and scenes are visualized, but little is actually written at first.
In the game, we start with a character sheet. A very long, detailed character sheet, where the only thing the kids have to do is fill in the blanks. But the questions proposed on the sheet cause young writers to think about their characters on a much deeper level than what they're used to. They can't play the game until they have a fully fleshed-out person on paper who grabs them emotionally. Next we start the story.
The story is presented in a completely verbal, interactive format. The game leader, or Legend Guardian, places the newly made characters into an imaginary setting, with a plot already planned. The setting is described in great detail, as settings should be, and then the conflict, the goal, and the reward for achieving the goal are all presented to the players. The players then set off on an imaginary adventure, led by the Legend Guardian, during which time they fight monsters, find treasures, discover new places and struggle for their lives against many obstacles. Finally the ending comes when the players achieve their goal and win the reward. This game is played with nothing but paper and dice.
You find that when you start this game, kids who were tense in the beginning when they learned that they would be doing creative writing, are now happy, relaxed, and more than a little fired up. The pressure is off. This is fun!
The game part offers students a setting and a plot to use in their stories if they don't have any ideas of their own of what to write. But it is also a great lure. They don't realize that they already have been writing a story just by playing the game. The only thing they haven't done is translate it into words on paper.
Now here's the catch. The only way their characters can move up levels in the game is to put words on paper. Words are like money. They're very valuable. The more they use, the stronger their characters become. Kids understand the process of moving up levels. It's the basis of every video game they play. This is something they're quite familiar with. I'm not particular about what words they use at first. And I never check their spelling or grammar.
The only rule is that whatever they're writing has to be something they're willing to read aloud (maybe just to me, or maybe to the group). Kids won't write nonsense if they have to read it aloud. They'll write stories or poetry that matter to them. They'll also hear the flaws in their own work as they read it verbally. It will bother them enough that they'll want to improve the words so they sound better. And THAT'S where the mechanics come into play.
Much later, in the second or third draft of their story at a time when they've come to care about the words that are on their paper. When they want it to not only sound good but look good as well. That's when I teach the more advanced writing technique concepts to show them that there are millions of ways to manipulate words to get exactly what you want out of them. I like to show them how many fun ways there are to add depth to their work so that others will cherish the stories that they write.
The only way you can get children to care about written mechanics (unless they're natural writers who are self-driven) is to get them to care about the stories they've created first. Writing is an emotional process. If you're not emotionally attached to your characters and your story, you're certainly not going to care if it looks good on paper or not.
To summarize, in the game, the volume of words written is the key to moving up levels. Children will care more about these words because they have to write something they'd be proud to read aloud. The editing and mechanics come in later once they're hooked enough on their stories to seek out ways to perfect them. Finally, if they're really into learning all they can, they are taught the art form of writing (adding symbolism and metaphor to give the words depth and meaning), but not all kids will make it to this stage. Only the real writers will, which is how it should be anyway. Just like only the real mathematicians will make it to quantum mechanics.
It's teaching writing backwards. But it works to turn non-writers into writers like nothing else out there.
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