Thursday, January 28, 2010

Encouraging the Love of Reading and Writing in Kids...

"You may not talk (or write) except when we tell you, and then only about what we want you to talk about, and in the way we want you to talk about it. All other talk and ways of talking are illegal, to be repressed and punished."

-from John Holt's book, "What do I do on Monday?"

It was from this system quoted above, that my son Ryan fled at the beginning of 4th grade. A tightly woven public school classroom which held him in a straight jacket, reducing his enthusiasm to read and write. I knew something was terribly wrong when Ryan stopped reading the Harry Potter series when he was half way thorough it, which up to that point he had been enjoying immensely. Along with that came his refusal to write and attend school. After a few stressful weeks of trying to understand exactly what was going on, I pulled Ryan out of school.

It seems Ryan was struggling with being told not only what to write about, but also how to write. There was a certain way his school expected him to write, a formula to be followed and anything less than their method was wrong. The school thought good writing was to be learned by following a prescribed set of rules and didn't understand good writing came about by allowing kids lots of freedom around their writing. Freedom to write at length on topics they enjoyed in order to allow their creativity to flow. Freedom to write uncensored by grades, especially in the early years when kids form opinions about how competent they are as writers.

For about a month after taking Ryan out of school, I didn't push any kind of reading or writing, allowing the negative feelings toward those subjects to dissipate. Then, borrowing an idea from Waldorf Education, I asked Ryan to start keeping a daily journal. At first, Ryan balked at having to write anything at all, so I told him he could simply draw pictures each day if he desired.

After a few months of communicating with only pictures in his daily journal, Ryan began to write a few passages. Maybe it became safe enough to write once again. As he began to understand his writing wasn't going to graded on quality, he began to enjoy the process.
Because I understood that in order to become a good writer, you also had to be well read, I made sure Ryan was being exposed to reading even though he wasn't interested in picking up books on his own. During this time I read books to him and slowly I edged him back to the world of reading and writing. I moved slowly though because I wanted to make sure he embraced both of these subjects because he loved them, not due to anyones rules and expectations of him.

Several more months passed before Ryan showed any interest in moving beyond where he was. Then one day, Ryan created a comic book story in his journal which became a stepping stone back into reading. For months Ryan drew comics in his journal and soon after that he began to read graphic novels (comic books that tell a story) in earnest. Thankfully our library had a huge selection of many kinds of graphic novels which captivated Ryan for hours and hours. I remember my dad at the time commenting that Ryan should be reading novels rather than graphic novels at his age, but after explaining to him Ryan's struggles and my thankfulness that he was reading at all, he understood.

About the time Ryan was embracing graphic novels, I began to encourage Ryan to dictate stories orally to me while I typed them on the computer, the idea being that kid's story ideas come at them much quicker than they can get them down on paper. I used a tape recorder for this same purpose. Before I knew it, Ryan's stories began to flow out unhindered and it wasn't long before he began to type them onto the computer himself. Soon after that, Ryan began to read novels once again, embracing Star Wars books initially. I never told him what sort of books to read and through this freedom, the sky was the limit. He soon was reading long adult level novels and books became his life.
Today, Ryan as a 7th grader still loves to read and write and he feels confident in his abilities. He never did go back and finish the Harry Potter series. Maybe those books remind him of a time he'd rather forget.
This experience has shown me that public school methods may not work for all kids. I did lots of research to determine the best of course of action for my son given his situation and I hope my examples above provide insight on how to tackle reading and writing issues for children struggling as my son did. Tomorrow, I am going to post about what happens when a child raised with this sort of freedom returns to public school.

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