Writing with a pencil by hand is a foundational skill. But it’s also a beautiful endeavor. I have fond memories of learning to form the ABCs. This work was quiet, slow, and mysterious. Yes, mysterious. My grandmother, who raised me, wrote little notes by hand and left them in various places around the house to my great delight. Her hand was one of a kind, a lovely extension of her loving self. It was not like any other by-hand note I’ve ever encountered in life. That’s the thing about penmanship. Penmanship is personal.
Sadly, digital teaching tools have pushed handwriting instruction to the back seat. But writing by hand is multi-sensory, connecting hand-eye coordination and memory. Writing by hand, the art of encoding language, strengthens the ability to read (decode) language. Writing by hand slows us down so that we might engage with and bring shape to our ideas.
This past Sunday, January 23, was the birthday of John Hancock—the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. I can see his strong, courageous calligraphy in my mind’s eye. His is the one famous signature that my elementary classmates and I committed to memory. So it is fitting that here at the end of January each year we celebrate the art of handwriting connected to this larger than life signature!
So at the dawn of 2022, may you pick up a pencil, craft your very own John Hancock, marveling at each individual stroke that defines your hand.
The potential of the letter is expansive. Its form is deftly suited for all occasions.
Letters are common ground.
Letters are a gift.
But our slapdash digitalized pace has fashioned handcrafted letters out of style.
Let’s face it. Letters are a gift we scarcely know how to handle.
As a writing mentor I’m at odds with the pervasive mechanistic approach to writing that cultivates dread and squelches the writer’s voice.
The work of writing is first and foremost an art form. I want my apprentices to marvel at the potential of language to transcend communication.
Words, crafted well, echo in the heart.
I am always seeking new ways to engage young writers with the finer of art of crafting words, making every effort to inspire through writing meaningful exercises. My goal is to cultivate curiosity and motivate young writers to engage in the complex process of writing that will produce something that echoes their heart. When young writers are empowered that their ideas are meaningful, they raise an authentic voice. Grammar and mechanics are secondary to voice.
I’ve come to discover in my own process as a writer and, after twenty years of mentoring, that writers who value their voice will not only focus on the difficult work of unpacking the rules of writing—grammar and mechanics—but will also integrate and apply that work.
Might the art of letter writing be revived?
This said and the Thanksgiving season upon us, I’m giving my writing apprentices a gift that I want to share with you, a gift in the form of a challenge:
This week, craft a letter of Thanksgiving. This week give words.
Here are some tips that will help your writing apprentices get started:
1. Riff on another writer’s work.
To begin the Thanksgiving letter, encourage writers to begin by listing some facts about Thanksgiving. Next, read Abe Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Think about these words being written in the midst of Civil War. How are these words relevant in 21st Century America? Now have them read Lincoln’s first sentence closely. Instruct writers to use Lincoln’s quote at the start of the letter and to do the work of translating the sentence, “I think Abe Lincoln meant ___________.” Finally, challenge the writers to use the phrases “blessings of the fruitful fields” and “healthful skies” to create a personal metaphor of thanksgiving. What might they represent in the apprentice’s world? Riffing on the work of a master mentor such as Abe Lincoln promotes specificity of language, here, the fruit will take the form of gratitude.
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” – Abe Lincoln
2. Utilize parallel writing.
Begin with an interesting quote:
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” – Henry David Thoreau
Find a pattern and craft a sentence of your own your own:
I would rather _________________________ than _________________.
I would rather consider the diversity in a pile of freshly raked fall leaves than wander aimlessly in a grumble of boredom.
3. Make your letter beautiful.
Writing is a process that begins with an idea.
Ideas must be forged to words on a page.
Never skip steps.
Rough drafts matter!
But once your drafting is done, once every word is as it should be, then (and only then) dive into the work of making your words shine on the page. Writing is gift and a gift is never wrapped until it is complete.
Once upon a time writers were apprenticed in the art of handwriting, were compelled to practice the basic shapes and orientation of letterforms. Once, writers were required to master a script, establish a hand—slant and flourish—one that was both legible and lovely. Now, there is not much value placed on this work.
Must the art of handwriting become yet another artisanal extracurricular? Engaging in the process of beautifying forces the young writer slow down to focus on words and phrases in a way that typing can’t, promotes the self-edit to a whole new level. I ask my apprentices often, “Isn’t a handwritten document more precious than a computer generated one?”
What do the circulatory system, WW1, the life-cycle of a star, Samuel Adams, great characters from exceptional stories, and a single spring from the workings of an ink pen have in common?
Why human potential, of course.
Interdisciplinary endeavors provide the grand opportunity to perch students high above the realm of facts and mechanics, inspiring them to weave connections across disciplinary boundaries as they reflect on common themes, symbols, and purpose.
What better way to fortify learning?
An interdisciplinary endeavor challenges students to weave new knowledge to what is previously known. Challenges students to assemble and construct as they learn ignite curiosity.
And so letter writing is a tradition in my writing workshops. Letters crafted by hand. From the pencil markings scratched on paper to polished draft. The kind that take nearly an hour to read, to seep in and savor. Letter writing empowers student writers to share the connections they are making. Interdisciplinary connections. Connections at the intersection of acuity, creativity, and and ingenuity. But most important, engaging in the art of letter writing demands authenticity. Letter writing requires writers to raise their voice.
This year, letter writing at the Guild coincided with a wonderful Miss Lori (our Historian in Residence) lesson. When introducing students to The Committees of Correspondence, she first asked for a definition of the word correspondence and was met with the chirp of crickets. Not one could conjure a working definition.
“What does it mean to correspond?”
I imagine she stopped for a bit of word study before proceeding: “To correspond is to communicate by exchange of letters. Correspondence is a letter or letters that passes between correspondents (the letter writers).”
This set the stage for Miss Lori to continue, “The American Revolution would have never succeeded if it weren’t for letter writing.”
Think Samuel Adams. Back in 1772, he organized a network of letter writing—The Committees of Correspondence—to keep colonists informed of British actions against the colonies, and to plan a concerted response. Letter writing united the 13 colonies and girded their loins for revolution.
Letter writing is a terrific domain to teach a writing truism: one idea leads to another. And when it does the reader is engaged, intrigued, mesmerized.
At the Guild, letter writing exercises are a grand opportunity to inspire young writers to connect the dots, dots that they might not have imagined could be connected. And as the correspondents weave this disparate knowledge to one, they bring permanence, relevance, and significance to what is learned.
Trust me, it requires courage to weave the circulatory system, WW1, the life-cycle of a star, Samuel Adams, great characters from exceptional stories, and a single spring from the workings of an ink pen to a cohesive letter of consequence. But the task is worth the effort. So pull out some paper, think about this past year's learning, connect the dots.
Letter writing is kindly, generous, revolutionary.
Hear the tale of Pocahontas as only she can tell it… Experience the wit and wisdom of Ben Franklin… Sail the seas with Leif… Join the Pony Express with Buffalo Bill, the man in the buckskin suit… Join the adventures of the great mariner Columbus… Follow George Washington from the little red brick house where he was born to the White House…. and climb upon the shoulders of our beloved Abe Lincoln. And who better to tell the tales than Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire? We are so thankful to our BFFs at BFB—Beautiful Feet Books—for keeping these beautiful pockets of history in print.
Blackbird & Company's brand new History Discovery Guides will inspire your students to engage in meaningful research activities. As students are encouraged to independently investigate, they will gain a greater depth of understanding, and a broader knowledge base of the great men and women who have shaped our history. Use one guide of your choice in the fall and another guide in the spring in conjunction with our year 2, Level 2 or year 1, Level 3 Literature and Writing Discovery Guides and your student will have a seamless transition to the entry level Introduction to Composition: The Essay during middle school to fully prepare them for Level 4 in high school.
Our History Discovery Guides provide the scaffolding your student needs to successfully craft a biographical essay. Each week, for three weeks, the student will examine rich vocabulary to describe character traits exemplified by the historical figure, respond to comprehension questions designed to help them extract details that matter, and craft one body paragraph that will later become part of the culminating essay. During the fourth week, students will be guided through the process of composing a simple three-sentence-with-a-punch introduction and a simple-three-sentence-with-a-punch conclusion. They will put the components together and, viola, an essay! There is a fifth week creative project, of course, that offers directives to tap into the students imagination.
Honestly, the d'Aulaire books have been part of my personal library since childhood. I read them to my children when they were small enough to nestle on my lap during story time. Later they read them again silently, on their own cozily snuggled in our living room armchair. As a writer and an educator, I am happy to offer this opportunity for your students to not only experience these wonderful stories, but also to glean from their riches and to offer in response their own original insights inspired by our rich history. So challenge your students to raise their voice! Challenge them to write authentically so their ideas will Take Flight!
Millet was a thoughtful artist who cared deeply about the dignity of the commoner. As I stood in line waiting for my pumpkin-spiced latte, I whipped out my phone to consider Millet's wisdom via Google and consider why in the world Starbucks would echo his painting (a painting that I've stood before on many a trip to the Getty). This is what I discovered:
This: "Sometimes, in places where the land is sterile, you see figures hoeing and digging." "From time to time one raises himself and straightens his back, …wiping his forehead with the back of his hand." 'Thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow.'"
And this: "Is this the jovial work some people would have us believe in?" "But nevertheless, to me it is true humanity and great poetry."
And this: "To tell the truth, the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, that the human side of art is what touches me most."
And then Van Gogh's voice chimed in: "I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people."
And I thought: Persona Poem, yes, yes, yes!
Personae, in Latin, this form of poetry is a terrific opportunity for pretending on the page. Several years ago, when I was teaching the feudal system and medieval art, I had children pretend to be stationed in various social roles and to create persona poems to help them explore daily life in medieval times. The persona poems were brought to life in a collection of short films.
Over time, the curriculum will enable your children to develop the tools necessary to independently analyze and respond to great stories. Our goal is to help the child work independently freeing up the mentor’s expertise. Each week, the mentor has two tasks:
1. Read the section to facilitate discussion, helping your readers tap into the heart of the story. Our guides have discussion questions built into every section, providing the framework for weekly interaction between you and your children. Questions are designed to spark student’s memories, trigger their interpretations, and get them thinking beyond the page about how a story can relate to their actual lives. In time, students who participate regularly in a discussion circle will become excited and amazed about what they glean from books.
2. Conference with the writer, lending expertise necessary for the emerging writer to gain the skills necessary to articulate an original idea on paper. Encourage young writers in Levels 2 through Level 3 to develop the skill of self-conferencing —having drafted, re-read, and made self-edit marks in red.
Establish a routine. The comfort of routine, once established, will set roots deep into soil, establishing a framework for the tree to grow strong. The following schedule—45 minutes to 1 hour per day—will allow your children to pace (not RACE) through the Discovery guide and establish the Habits of Beings specific to literacy.
Saturday & Sunday – Read the new section over the weekend… Create a tradition of cozy reading! Monday- Complete the vocabulary Acquire and begin taking notes in the Journal (Characters, Setting, Plot) Tuesday- Complete notes Journal (Characters, Setting, Plot) and begin comprehension Recollect Wednesday- Complete the rough draft Explore, re-read and make edits with a red pen Thursday- Conference with an adult mentor and complete comprehension Recollect Friday- Complete the final draft, carefully re-reading and implementing all edit suggestions
We remember the things we discover for ourselves. As your children grow, the intensity of the important work that will enable them to discover, increases. Work is GOOD!
Remember, no child is able to do the work of bringing an original idea into the world without the tools. You can present a child with oil paint, for example, but without the skill to utilize the tool properly—color theory, practice mixing, good brushes and so on—the child will produce muddy colors.
Nothing fosters the higher-level thinking that allows students to form new ideas and opinions about real life more than hashing through a story in a discussion circle. What begins as an imagining in the mind of the writer is translated to story, and in turn, transferred to real life through group discussion. Integration is a powerful tool.
“Yes you can! If you have ever been inspired by words on a page, then you can teach writing.”
If you can read and ask questions when you read something that is not clear, you can be a writing mentor. Whether we are reading a newspaper article, a scientific journal, a novel, or a poem, who wants to read words that are void of ideas?
Great writing begins with an idea crafted to words on a page by a courageous writer.
Madeline L’Engle in, Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art, confides, “I am grateful that I started writing at a very early age, before I realized what a daring thing it is to do, to set words on paper, to attempt to tell a story, create characters.”
The most important thing we can do when it comes to teaching a child to write is to value their imagination and to teach them to do the same.
Ask yourself, “Do I want my child to write formulaically or to write for real?”
Teaching children to write for real begins by teaching them to believe that their ideas are important enough to do the work of shaping words on a page.
Teach your children to become storytellers. Regardless of domain—fiction to non-fiction—great writing tells a story. Writing is a wonderfully tedious process. Provide writing opportunities that teach children the cardinal rule of real writing: Imagination first. After all, imagination is the seat of great ideas. When children discover that their imagination is valuable and relevant, they will work diligently to refine their voice. Purpose helps writers develop habits of being that motivates them to move through the writing process:
Come up with an idea
Write your idea
Re-read and refine your idea
Have someone else re-read and refine your idea
Polish your words on the page
Moving from reading and recognizing ideas, to engaging in personal expression through writing, develops an awareness of the world at large. When students are encouraged to engage in the process of writing, they will discover the power of words.
Great writing is work connected to the soul. Great writing brings shape to imagination. Great writing evokes, engages, and inspires human curiosity.
Students who engage in the process of real writing will develop confidence in their voice, strengthen their ability to communicate new ideas and become keen observers of their world. Authentic voice is a one-of-a-kind fingerprint. And those are words on the page that are worth reading.
I have been discouraged when people don’t like my writing—when people don’t like my voice.
I'm sure this is true for all writers.
The truth is, it’s hard to be yourself when people disagree with what you personally find interesting and beautiful.
Authenticity is a lesson that is almost never taught in school but is integral to being an artist. The truth is, sometimes, people won’t like your writing.
Now, sometimes that friction between differing opinions is definitely healthy and necessary. Dozens of blog posts could be written about the value of knowing the rules before you break them, and the importance of having the humility to listen to other artists’ advice.
But, sometimes, when the choice between two kinds of line break or two uses of allusion seem substantially subjective. As writers, we have a choice between doing what people approve of and doing what they find aesthetically satisfying. One lesson that students need to learn is that, throughout their writing careers, they will have a choice between being recognized and having painfully genuine integrity.
And that is the real-life choice between being normal and being divergent, the choice between being a people-pleaser and being a literary mutant.
The good news is that the greats were often literary mutants. Literary mutants who, no doubt, knew the rules and broke them well. Think Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen—all of these people were literary freaks when they first unveiled their writing. Each of these writers faced critics who thought that their writing was careless, boring, or just plain weird. These writers were extremely talented and willing to take risks, but that means that they were also ahead of their time. These writers were the hippies, the revolutionaries, the weirdos, the outliers.
But it’s hard for me to remember that being a hippie is ok when people tear my writing to pieces in the workshop.
So I have a very important question.
To what extent are we willing to let young writers raise their voice?
Thanksgiving is a terrific time to connect with friends and family across the miles. But it's also a perfect time to help young writers creatively communicate thankfullness. Visit our Pinterest page and let the writing begin:
Telephones come in all shapes and sizes.
Imagine a telephone.
Now, imagine a telephone made of cardboard.
Imagine someone trying to make a call, but the only telephone is a telephone of cardboard.
Does this person realize that the telephone is made out of cardboard? Does s/he want it to be made out of cardboard, instead of being fully functional? Why? Does the narrator know why this person is using a cardboard phone? Or is s/he just as confused as the reader? Or, what if the character in the story or poem happens upon the phone, picks up the receiver on a whim, and the cardboard telephone actually works? Who is on the other end? Is that person using a cardboard telephone too, or a standard phone?
Imagine the possibilities and then craft your ideas into a story or poem.
The Girl with The Cardboard Phone
There is a girl who talks on a cardboard phone
every day during recess.
Past the thwacking of jump rope
on cement, past the many grabbing hands
at the monkey bars, below the cracked tube
of the playground slide,
you’ll find her clutching the cardboard receiver,
stroking the thin fringe of its ripped edge
with a white finger. We used to wonder
what secret messages were being passed
into the thick brown strip, soggy with dew
and wet leaves, and whether
anyone was replying. We wondered
until one day, we wandered by and caught these words: