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Word up

A bestselling author offers five techniques to blast through resistance and teach kids to write.


By Joe Quirk

I strutted into the creative-writing classroom confident that my experience as a novelist and science writer had granted me wisdom to teach children to blossom as writers. When I met the students, I was even more excited. Nine-year old Jennifer couldn't stop talking about the essay she had planned. Eight-year-old Ethan was a voluble storyteller with detailed plans for the story he had been imagining for weeks.

I marched to the front of the room and launched into my disquisition on the many manifestations of story in our lives. Within minutes, their smiles turned to yawns. What's wrong with kids' attention spans these days? Cutting my lecture short, I gave them what I thought was a simple assignment.

"Pick up your pens and write one page about the most awesome thing that ever happened to you."

Grumbles, complaints, and shrugs. Is "awesome" out of fashion now? Not to worry, I had a list of age-appropriate writing prompts I had researched: "What do you think the world will be like when you are a grownup? What would you do if you had a million dollars? What did you do for your summer vacation?"

Soon I had a munchkin mutiny on my hands. "This was supposed to be fun!" "I don't know what to write!" "It's too hard!" "I want to go home!" They told me my inspiring subjects were "stupid" and, worse, "boring"!

These twerps sounded like my editor. How dare they? I was a bestselling man of letters! Hadn't they read the New York Times review?

As the outcries veered toward tears, I looked at my watch. We were 10 minutes into the first class. Five hours and 50 minutes to go. Six weeks total.

Gulp. I was face-to-face with that awkward developmental stage that occurs just after children learn to express cogent insights, but before they learn diplomatic phrasing.

I tossed my stuffy lesson plan and confronted an audience who knew the difference between boring and inspiring, and didn't hesitate to let me know it. By the end of six weeks of creative-writing boot camp, I would be trained by my miniature drill sergeants into a lean, mean teaching machine.

Since then I've tutored kids from 6 to 16, taught classroom sizes from two to 32, and been called in as emergency muse to rescue a child paralyzed with writer's block. Through lots of trial and more error, I discovered five techniques that get kids putting pen to paper every time. Whether you’ve got 25 students or just one, use these exercises to break through inhibitions, build a story line, and turn story creation into a collaborative game instead of a solo exercise.

Joe Quirk is a novelist, science writer, and creative-writing teacher living in Berkeley, Calif. His bestselling book, The Ultimate Rush, is an action thriller about rollerblading.

Comments from readers

"Absolutely BEST article I have ever read on getting a kid to write! My son thought I was crazy when I told him to not worry about the spelling, etc. and just get the idea on paper.I ask a question and have him tell me the answer, then rough draft it, then worry about edits, then penmanship(or typing). I learned this when my oldest broke his arm in third grade, he had been labeled as 'unmotivated' aka lazy, when in reality he had not yet been diagnosed with dyslexia. Well, the truth came out when his classmates (bless them) volunteered to transcribe what he dictated, and amazing stories came through!! Needless to say, life has been much easier for him ever since, and essays are no longer to be feared and dreaded!! Great article, thank you. Donna"
"Great advice for every age!"