How Can I Help My Child Become a Writer in the Age of Nintendo and Carmen San Diego?

by Sarah Reaves White

Many parents today are understandably concerned abut just how much the children in the family are getting out of the family computer. No one has to tell us how much kids love computers, but the big question is, "Just what are computers doing for and to young people? Are they changing our next generation into technology whiz kids who have no real creativity?" While we know that computers are undoubtedly here to stay, we are all wondering how they are really affecting the developing minds of young people. Well the news from the workplace of the young (the schools) is optimistic. As a teacher of students between the ages of nine and eleven, I can tell you that there is every reason to be optimistic if we only avoid the dangers of mindlessness and explore the great possibilities ahead.

Many of us have watched with some annoyance and uneasiness as we noticed young children riveted to the computer screen while they were rewarded with various beeps and whistles, as they moved cartoon characters through various invariably violent or humiliating manuevers. Or we also listened as the young "traveler" searched for a female spy with answers to geographical questions to which the parent was almost constantly supplying the answers. The question arises, "have I simply bought a new and expensive child care system? Am I watching Pavlov's dog in human form? Worse still, am I training Pavlov's dog?"

The news from the schoolyard at times appears even more alarming. No longer are boastful young boys trying to establish their leadership by maintaining that my big brother can beat up your big brother. Now the challenge sounds more like "My Dad is getting us a new computer with more RAM and Gigabytes than any computer you have." Just as discouraging can be the fact that some of the more social-minded students are refusing to work with any program that does not feature cute, cuddly kittens. I also hear about children using the chat rooms as a tool to exclude their less charming classmates from games and conversations. The question arises: when it comes to creative writing, will we end up with the same mental wasteland that occurred when we allowed young math students to use calculators before they had memorized their math facts, or mastered all the reasons for indenting partial products when using a several digit multiplier? Learning all that math or rhetoric seemed too boring when all one needed to know was how to punch the correct buttons.

Actually, though, the news from the classroom (workplace) is rather optimistic for several basic reasons. Whereas the computer changed the world of business by both eliminating much of the drudgery of record keeping and correspondence, the computer in the classroom has done the same thing for students. One of the first bonuses noticed by those of us who work with young children was that the computer appeared to calm and focus the attention of even the most hyperactive student. Those unfortunate youngsters who did not fit the mold of "stay in your seat and finish your assignment types" were constantly aware that they were displeasing the entire adult establishment by their very existence. This is, of course, a heavy burden to carry and often results in a hostile or depressed child. Even the more focused and thoughtful student once rebelled when asked to do too many rough drafts of a writing effort.

"One of the first bonuses noticed by those of us who work with young children was that the computer appeared to calm and focus the attention of even the most hyperactive student."
Now, the teacher's suggestion of moving a paragraph or tightening up a sentence construction is met with a cooperative "O.K." I see students begin to perceive the real structure of writing in a more rapid and positive way as they view their efforts on the screen. I have seen some of the less-motivated personalities actually become enthusiastic when the answer to the question about a writing assignment of "May I do it on the computer?" comes back with permission to do so.

Of course all of this begs the question of how a parent can encourage literary adeptness in a child in the home environment. Few parents can get any cooperation by making assignments, and of course threats are not going to encourage writing at all. Actually a parent can use many little ploys to encourage and incorporate learning into the home environment.

Let's begin with the argument between siblings. This occurred to me one day after lunch and recess when five very upset youngsters called upon me to act like Solomon and dispense justice immediately. Everyone was very emotional, and I felt as if I were listening to a quartet in a badly written opera. Everyone was full of emotion, everyone was loud, and everyone was interrupting everyone else. A great idea occurred to me. "All right," I said, "I shall take no action until each of you has written a complete narrative describing exactly what happened and summed up the entire event in the last paragraph." Stunned silence. Suddenly, everyone rushed to their desks and began to write furiously. What a wonderful thing passion is for a writer!

The first person who finished had the painful experience we all have shared when we find that what we thought was perfectly clear writing has confused one of our readers. Realizing that one will receive no justice until he or she has clearly stated his case can bring out the best in a young writer. Every week my pockets and briefcase bulge with sincere little messages, correctly written, for they have all come to realize that I am best persuaded by good writing and that nagging and whining are simply a waste of time.

At the end of the school year, sitting alone in my classroom sorting through the educational debris of paper, I enjoy reading through excellent discourses from students on why they should be given a different seat assignment. I have received delightful essays on why two students who have put in a week full of educational attainment and should therefore be permitted to begin a chess match half an hour earlier on Friday afternoon. The writing of young people shows the developing person that hides behind the unlined face of childhood.

Pictures are also a wonderful starting place for encouraging writing in a young child. In my classroom I keep postcard reproductions of art from museums that I visit. They sit on a shelf in a red card file. With great ceremony I bring them to the lecture table and allow each student to pick one to describe. The students take the pictures to their desks and begin their descriptive paragraphs. When all are finished, we seperate the cards from the essays on the table. Then I pick up an essay to read as the students try to match it to a picture. A few years ago a parent had to tell me how her daughter had insisted that the entire family come to look at a painting she had found on a family trip to a local art museum. They all had to listen as the young art critic pointed out all the details of the painting. She knew the painting well because she had already written about it.

A parent can use the same technique. Every child daydreams of having the full attention of a parent in playing a game. Every ad for a new game shows parents playing with the children. With all of the pictures available to access from the Internet, a parent could very well begin a game of storytelling with a young child based on a picture. The child could describe the setting. The parent could supply a protagonist. Then the child could come up with a problem for the character solve. The parent could come up with a solution. The child could find a different solution. Together you could work toward a happily ever after ending. A child's story could easily be "published" online on a family's homepage, could be emailed or printed out and sent to grandparents, other siblings off at camp or college or taken to school for "extra credit."

As a person who is involved with young people, I find that it is always good to be able to take advantage of the opportunistic moment. I am reminded of a day many years ago when Curtis, a curious eleven year old African American boy with gold rimmed glasses and a big smile, announced that he had written a letter to President Jimmy Carter. "That's terrific," I said, "and why did you decide to write President Carter?"

"I wanted to tell him that he was doing a good job bringing peace to the Middle East and trying to get everyone to stop fighting." "You can't write the President," said the class. They were appalled. They were even more shocked that I knew the address of the President. "That's gotta be against the law!" someone declared.

I told Curtis to write his letter on a piece of extra clean notebook paper, and to enclose one of his school pictures so that President Carter would have an idea of what his correspondent looked like. Curtis immediately set to work on his project. A few weeks later Curtis came in to the classroom with a treasure to be shared with us. President Carter had written him back and sent a picture. All the neighbors had come to see the letter. Curtis, of course, began to see that the written word was a powerful tool. The class listened respectfully when I told them that written words often lasted longer than great buildings, and the skill of writing gained enormous respect.

The goal of the parent and the child is clear. We are looking for a young person who can master the art of communicating using the printed word, and even give pleasure and insight with a well-turned phrase. Given this opportunity, in time, the prognosis for success is optimistic. While we realize that the computer can be no more than an expensive electronic nanny, we must also state that the parent who will use it creatively will be relieved to see a literate young person developing right in front of the of the family monitor.

**Sarah White is a Montessori teacher at the Geo. B. Dealey Montessori Academy, which is a magnet school in the Dallas Public Schools system. When the magnet school system was set up to desegregate the public schools on a more voluntary basis, she, together with three other teachers and an administrator set up the first elementary Montessori public school in Dallas. The school was situated across from a huge public housing project and accepted neighborhood children and children from other parts of Dallas in a racially-balanced student body. The school became so popular that later it was divided into two magnet schools.

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