My dining room is filling up. After setting snacks out in the kitchen, kids are hastily opening up folding chairs and setting them out, squeezing around our double tables pushed together, and scooting their typed essays towards me across the table for reading aloud. Lots of laughter and talking fill the room, as we wait for a few more kids to arrive. I can already tell it's going to be another great two hours of Writing Club.
This diverse group has high school seniors all the way down to younger siblings who are just starting kindergarten at home. It's almost astonishing to look back and see how much being part of this group has helped these homeschool kids as they've developed into really fine young writers.
Why has it worked so well?
Create an Audience
You all know the old joke about real estate, that there are three main factors that are most important in finding the right house - location, location, location. Well, I think it's the same thing with writing. There are three main factors that are most important in motivating writers - audience, audience, audience. And writing clubs are one way to help kids find a real and lively audience.
We have been hosting a monthly writing club for years and years, and over time I can see that whatever else the group does that's positive for these kids, creating an audience is one of the most important things. All kids taking part realize that real homeschoolers they know and care about will be listening to their work as it's read aloud - and who would want to bring something boring or dull to a group of their friends? The kids instead inspire one another in a really positive way, as the strong and imaginative writers help encourage the others to reach for higher quality just by their example. The kids all clap enthusiastically after each piece is read, laugh aloud over funny parts, get hushed when someone writes something really touching, and spontaneously share similar experiences of their own when someone's story sparks a memory. We aim to be a positive audience - we are not an audience that is going to nitpick over spellings or an occasional awkward phrasing. We don't grade or evaluate. We really just encourage and enjoy - and this seems to make all the difference.
Open Ended Assignments
The kids in our writing club also gain a real sense of direction for their writing by completing the various open-ended assignments I set for them. Where do I get ideas for these assignments? From books on writing, from writing my own kids are doing on their own, from other writing clubs I know. The kids have done memory pieces, reflecting on an old favorite toy or piece of clothing. They've described a real person's personality by solely telling about where that person lives or works. They've remembered times when things didn't go as planned, written about how changes in weather affected or reflected a change in a character's outlook on life, and thought about times when they've learned something new or difficult. They've shared about funny dreams they've had, described people they've observed out in the larger world, and written about life from a pet's slant. They've imagined new twists on folktales told from another character's viewpoint, written spoof "application essays" for characters from well-known novels or stories, created letters to the editor for publications they've known or imagined, and more and more.
Such assignments keep the students thinking in fresh new ways about writing, giving them both guidelines and freedom. We are always happy when someone takes an assignment in a direction no one had anticipated, as when one student had a sweater tell the story of his not-very-responsible owner when kids were asked to write about a favorite old piece of clothing.
I often give the students short examples of other students' writings to illustrate an idea, sometimes found in my book Writing from Home, sometimes from publications such as Stone Soup or other magazines that publish student work, sometimes from family newsletters I receive, and sometimes from kids who've taken part in our writing club in earlier years. Assignments help the kids feel a full part of the group, as they've all tackled the same task, and they actually gain more appreciation for others work when they've grappled with the same idea.
I read all of these assignment pieces aloud, as I feel that kids deserve having their stories read sometimes by someone who will put real expression and liveliness into it - as well as reading loudly and clearly enough so that everyone can hear well. There's nothing worse than a wonderful piece read in a too-quiet voice or a monotone.
After a 10-minute break for those snacks, we gather around the tables again, this time to hear everyone read their free-choice piece of writing, something they've written on their own at home. This encourages kids to realize that real writers need to think up their own ideas and find their own formats and ways of presenting them to others. And after hearing me read aloud, even the little kids get the idea that they are expected to read with bounce and spirit.
Just Bring Something
I let kids know that if they somehow don't have time to write something on their own, they are to bring something they've written a while back. One long-time participant recently brought a whole stack of her journals and diaries from when she was a little girl up through her senior year at home, and she then wrote a reflective personal essay sharing how her diary writing had grown and changed over time, sharing funny and touching excerpts from her early entries. This presentation encouraged my daughter Hannah to rededicate herself to her own journal writing, and she now keeps the light on late into the night jotting down her thoughts and observations on each day. Kids really do inspire one another.
I hope your own home will soon be full of expectant young writers, ready to share with one another and learn from one another. By starting a homeschool writing club you'll probably be doing your own children a greater favor than if you bought any new writing curriculum - or a new red pen for correcting their work. You'll help motivate your kids through creating a vibrant audience for their work, giving them new reasons for writing, and motivating them to do their best. May your home soon resound with the laughter and appreciation and excitement that a homeschooling writing club can create.