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Plodding Through the Writing Process

October 29, 2008

This post promises to be long and a bit dry, but if anyone can wade through it, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

As I’ve mentioned before, my 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, is a prolific writer — she likes journaling, fiction writing, and writing short book and movie reviews. She also loves list-writing. You know those lists people make on Amazon, like “Great Books on Disabilities?” And you wonder who has time for that stuff? That’s Sarah. 🙂

She doesn’t have much experience with expository and persuasive writing. I noticed a year ago, when she took an online composition course, that she was having difficulty making the transition from writing down her thoughts and observations and making lists to organizing her ideas in a more deliberate, complex way. So I decided to set it aside.

Here we are, a year later. I’ve plunged in and asked her to write a research paper to include in her portfolio. I am a believer in waiting for readiness, and — if possible — letting kids discover things on their own. However, we’re preparing for the transition to public school. And because Sarah has Non-Verbal Learning Disability and “mild” Asperger’s, I do not want to leave this to chance.

NLD or Asperger’s both relate to difficulties with what Dr. Gutstein (the Relationship Development Intervention guy) calls deficits in dynamic thinking. Dynamic thinking, according to Dr. Gutstein, includes things like critical analysis:

  • What do all these details have in common?
  • What is the most important point? Let’s cut to the chase.
  • What’s central and what’s peripheral?

One of my concerns with Sarah is that she tends to gather a lot of interesting details instead of focusing on the most important points and looking at how all the ideas she has on the table are interconnected. Later in this post, I’ll give a specific example of what I mean. These problems are NOT unique to kids with diagnosable differences. I think developmentally most — if not all — young adolescents struggle with these things. I see it in my writing students. However, having a teen “on the spectrum,” I feel I need to be more thoughtful and purposeful in how I approach it.

An RDI person might say we’re putting a cart before the horse. We have not yet started RDI, the program that can teach dynamic cognitive skills from the ground up. But we probably can’t afford to wait that long, so — plunging ahead —

Sarah is writing about banned books in the U.S. since the 19th century. It’s a very broad subject, not nearly as focused as what you’d usually choose for an academic research paper. But this is a beginner project, and I think we can work with this.

We need to break it into manageable parts, trying to give her enough scaffolding so she can succeed. So far:

  • She started researching her paper, exploring the subject online and talking to librarians. I think she enjoyed this part. Traditionally, one creates an outline before beginning the research, but I think plunging in and starting to learn about your topic can help give the paper a clear shape in your mind.
  • Once she had a better idea what direction she was going, I helped her sketch a visual outline of how her paper will be organized. She didn’t need much guidance from me; I just helped her get her thoughts out of her head and onto paper.
  • After we created her outline, I dropped her off at the library. She did a bit more research. After talking with her about what she’d done at the library, I felt she needed more scaffolding. She was just browsing, really, not gathering the specific information she needed for the paper she had planned.
  • Next, I helped her write a list of specific questions to take with her when going to the library or doing online research.
  • She explored a site dedicated to keeping “bad” books out of school libraries. This made her angry; she called it a “zealot site.” *LOL* Sarah is a good thinker and she’s passionate about what she believes in. She’s also a bit of a black and white thinker. (This is another dynamic thinking challenge). A few of my goals were to guide her to think fairly about both sides of the issue and have her give concrete reasons to support her opinions.
    I asked questions like: 

    • Do agree with the “zealot site” that some of these “bad” books are pretty bent?
    • Which ones are good books but not intended for children?
    • Which are good kids’ books about which the website twisted the facts?
  • Next, she decided that although she knew she needed more information, she wanted to go ahead and write her rough draft. So she did, and we looked over it together.
  • We refined her outline. We made a radial diagram. Then we got out a set of highlighters and assigned each subtopic a color.
  • I asked her to select which parts of her rough draft related to each subtopic, and highlight each one to match the radial diagram. For example, “History of Censorship” is pink on the diagram  and she highlighted the information that fits under this heading in pink. Then she reorganized her paper a bit.
  • Next, I started going through her rough draft, subtopic by subtopic, and giving her feedback on each one.
  • First we tackled the section on History of Censorship. She had many interesting tidbits — including Nazi book burnings and the removal of Braille books from French schools. (This is before we focused on the U.S.) Her paper was well-written and interesting. However, it was just a string of bits of information. She didn’t seem to have picked out things that were most important, and it was not clear how all these ideas were connected.
  • I directed her toward reading about the Comstock Act, which took things in a new direction. She ended up focusing on 3 things — the Comstock Act, Nazi book burnings, and the controversy over James Joyce’s Ulysses. I wanted her to focus on the connecting threads among these things and show her readers why they were important and how they are related. Nazi book burnings opened Americans’ eyes to the dark side of censorship, and when the banning of Ulysses was overturned, making Comstock unenforceable, it basically broke the back of the Comstock Act. I saw Marie struggling with this a bit, and I tried to help her by sketching a graphic organizer with arrows showing cause and effect.
  • We also tackled the section titled “Censorship Today.” Again she had a string of paragraphs about books that have been attacked — the “Harry Potter” series, books with homosexual themes, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and a few others. I talked to her again about the fact that while these paragraphs were interesting and well written, it came across as a string of random bits of information rather than a cohesive discussion. Since she’s a movie buff, I described this kind of writing process as being a bit like a filmmaker moving in on a scene with a camera. First he captures a wide-angle view of the landscape. Viewers get a broad picture of where they are. Next the filmmaker zooms in on a particular house where the story will take place, then on particular characters. Similarly a writer gives readers the “big picture,” with a topic sentence: “The controversy over censorship continues today …” Then she moves in a little closer: “The most common reasons books are challenged include …” Then she zooms in on a more specific topic: “Books are often challenged because they are seen as incompatible with the religious beliefs of particular parents … For example, the popular “Harry Potter” series …” She doesn’t want the camera to hop from a copy of Harry Potter, to another thing, to The Giver. Readers won’t see the “big picture” or understand why these things are important and how they interconnect. While we talked, I drew a radial diagram to show her how to tie together these ideas.

I’m struggling a bit here. There is nothing wrong with the approach I’m using; similar strategies often help my students. And many of them, including members of the “NT” set (*LOL!*), struggle more than she does. But I sill keep questioning myself. Is this really the right approach for Sarah? Am I trying to push her beyond her abilities? Or am I not challenging her enough? And especially … am I scaffolding these tasks so she can succeed, or am I breaking it down so much and being so directive that I’m turning a dynamic thinking endeavor into the opposite — a static exercise? *Sigh* Food for thought.

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