Low Stakes, Lasting Impact in a Summer Writing Camp

10
May
2018

by Leah Mermelstein

“Some people wonder if it is possible for parents and teachers to make writing enjoyable, as well as deeply engaging for kids. Not only is it is possible, but it’s one of the MOST important ways we can teach children how to improve the quality of their writing.”

My daughter loves to write. So much that when her 5th birthday rolled around, she wanted it to be a writing party. Ariana chooses to create books the same way she chooses blocks—with a sense of joy and curiosity. As a writing consultant who helps teachers teach writing, I was thrilled.

On the big day, I gathered her friends around me in a circle in our living room and flipped through different types of books—wordless books, books with pictures and words, story books, and even teaching books—watching the excitement grow on their faces. I then told them they could make ANY kind of book they wanted and sent them off with blank journals and colorful felt tip pens. Without hesitating, the kids found a comfortable space and were happily writing, all the while sharing their wildly creative ideas aloud and trading fancy pens.

One little girl remained behind. In a shaky voice, she told me that she didn’t know how to write words. I calmly told her she could make a book of drawings from her imagination. She perked up, her eyes brightening, and within minutes announced she was creating a chapter book all in pictures about two sisters living in a palace. By the end of the party, she worked up the courage to title her book: Two Loving Sisters. Amazing how when the stakes are low, children do more. And they truly had a blast.

Some people wonder if it is possible for parents and teachers to make writing enjoyable, as well as deeply engaging for kids. Not only is it is possible, but it’s one of the MOST important ways we can teach children how to improve the quality of their writing. Writing can happen anytime and anywhere when a writer lets their creativity flow. Sometimes Ariana plans her writing time, i.e. a writing party, but most of the time it’s spontaneous, such as when she grabbed some scrap paper to journal what she was observing on our trip to Charleston, South Carolina.

Whether planned or spontaneous, when stakes are low and choices high, when kids are joyful and deeply involved, they use their curiosity, passion, and creativity to initiate writing. They dazzle us with their ideas and put more thought and effort into their work. Educator and author Ralph Fletcher calls this “greenbelt writing”—writing that is personal, playful, whimsical, and passionate.

As a writing consultant who has worked with hundreds of teachers and students in schools all across the country and abroad, I’ve witnessed time and time again the magic kids experience with teachers who strive to make writing time joyful. I have the pleasure of working with teachers who fully embrace Fletcher’s philosophy and others who seek more support. But either way, when we dig in—stripping away the rules (temporarily) so we can get to the heart—we watch the quality of the writing soar.

In the days following Ariana’s birthday party, several parents texted me to let me know their children were still working on their books—still imagining characters and plot lines and drawing pictures. Now they were wondering when they could have a writing playdate with Ariana.

How cool is that? When kids choose to write, and create their own fun, it begins to snowball. The writer is more inclined to write.

Ariana’s writing party was one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to teach summer camps at Project Write Now, where children are given choice and lots of tools—including fun notebooks, colorful pens, construction paper, and stickers—and a safe, supportive environment that fosters curiosity and creativity. This gives them the confidence to keep putting their ideas on the page.

It doesn’t matter where your children are right now—whether they love to write or have yet to discover their voices. In our summer writing camps, we explore all the ways writing can be exciting and engaging and continue to inspire long after camp has ended.

Leah Mermelstein is a writing instructor at Project Write Now as well as an internationally recognized literacy consultant who specializes in K-5 Reading and Writing Workshops. She is also the author of four books on the teaching of writing.