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How to fix specific writing problem (10th grader)


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My 10th grader is really an excellent writer. Her grammar is better than mine. She writes well. She just got a 100 on a term paper for her first community college class.

However, she seems to get really stuck (maybe because of some perfectionist tendencies?) between the brainstorming and writing stuff down. We are attempting to do Excellence in Literature this year. She has no problem reading and understanding the lit selections. But, if she doesn't like the prompt option, she just will sit and stare at a blank piece of paper for hours and hours and hours and hours.

I'm frustrated. I don't know if she just needs more explicit writing instruction. Or what to do. Or maybe she's just not motivated as much to write for me because I'm mom and she knows she can put stuff off. I've kinda gone the "I'm going to punish you for not putting words down" route. And after that option failed in flames, I'm seeing if anyone has words of wisdom!

Any suggestions?

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Do you mean that she will brainstorm on paper and then get stuck or not even write down a brainstorm?  Have you tried going from a general brainstorm to more specific brainstorms?  Then from there to a thesis and then an outline? 

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Have you tried timed free writing? Where you set a timer and then just have to write for 15 min (or whatever time)? The rule is you can write anything (even something like "this is stupid" over and over) but you have to keep writing. I find my reluctant writers are more amenable if I also do it with them. Then we share, but it's optional to share what we wrote. 

Other thoughts...one of my kids really likes outlining. He's more of a logical thinker so outlining really helps him where a more free-form brainstorming doesn't. Another of my kids who is a good writer really pushes against it if he thinks the prompts are stupid. I don't know if your program is one where you could change the prompt or allow her to write something else. Or maybe a free write first on what would be better prompts and then she can see if any of those topics can fit into the original prompt. 

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I heavily participated in the brainstorming process by asking a lot of questions and tossing in a lot of ideas to help spark thinking. Maybe your DD just needs you there to provide some scaffolding and suggesting random ideas to help jump-start her brainstorming??

We also did a lot of practice with timed essays from old SAT essay prompts, which helped a lot. Maybe do a daily 10 minute brainstorming warm-up from a different type of writing each day?? Do it together. The point is to practice coming up with a variety of things that could become part of an essay.

Maybe treat it like lewelma (Ruth in NZ) describes from a past post (alas, I can't find the link to the actual thread at the moment):

Persuasive Writing involves having a specific insight, point of view, opinion or argument, and then supporting it with reasons.

A thesis statement for persuasive writing will have:
- your topic
- your opinion
- your direction (overview of the support for your opinion)

To practice deciding on a viewpoint, opinion or "contention", and in gathering support for your opinion or contention, we're going to practice with "Speed Reasons"
- each person will get to pick an opinion (best/worst) AND will also need to contribute at least 3 reasons in support -- one reason for at least 3 different topics
- speed is essential here -- this is about thinking fast and getting used to supporting opinions

EXAMPLE

Why is purple the best color?
- color of royalty
- it's a gender neutral color (unlike pink or blue)
- it goes nicely with my eye color nicely
- lots of flowers are yellow and purple is the complimentary color of yellow, so pops
- it's more complex -- need to mix 2 primary colors (red & blue) to make it

Why is the United States the world's best (worst) country
Why is swimming the best exercise?
Which sport is the best and why?
Who is the best super hero and why?
Which state in the US is the best and why?
Why Math (or Science or Music or…) is the best school subject
Why Lucky Charms is the best/worst breakfast food?
Why being an only child/having siblings is the best/worst?
Why WW2 is the most important historical event ever?
Which video game is the best and why?
Which cell phone game is the best and why?
Which book of the Bible is best and why?
Which Pokemon Go character is the best and why?
Which transportation method is the best and why? (car, bus, train, plane, bike, skateboard, walking…)
Which Greek myth character is the best and why?
Which silent comedian is the best: Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin?

With my younger we play a word game I made up - 'The Best.'  We take turns asking the other why something is the best.  "Why is this heater the best?"  "Why is this sofa the best?"  Then the person has to come up with three points in 30 seconds.  fast fast fast.  Then we switch sides.  We do this over and over for about 15 minutes.  It is super fun, and gives kids the confidence to come up with 3 points with confidence.  Over time we make the questions harder "Why is this city the best?" "Which Roman God is the best?" "What is the best dragon in D&D?"etc. 

Once my ds was good at that, we moved to "3 points of support" for each paragraph. We would warm up with a bunch of 'the best', pick one we liked, and go for the support.  We try for 3 points for a paragraph in 30 seconds (you do have to build up to this, but you have to be fast fast fast, no time for worrying about being "right") and with 3 paragraphs that is under 2 minutes.  We take turns.  Sometimes you can't find any supporting points and then you know that your main point was no good.  This is a good lesson.

Finally, we require "opposition" -- to name the strongest point against our argument and how we would respond. 

++++

This is game is built up over time.  Start slow and as they master it you add in the next step.  Because you are moving fast and doing odd or even silly topics, sometimes the answers are really quite funny and we get the giggles. As you get better, it is fun to try to trick the other. "Why is this the best color white for the wall?" Sometimes we are stumped, which tells us something.  We never write these things up.  The goal is simply to gain confidence and speed, and to not be frozen with indecision as to where to start.  Also, the goal is to realize that you don't need the *right* answer, you only need *an* answer with support.  We are fighting perfectionism over here, and this game has helped so much and so quickly.

Ruth in NZ

Edited by Lori D.
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Similar to above works here, i.e., scaffolding wherever they have hangups.

For years we have done a lot of brainstorming and cluster maps and other organizers together. Together usually means we both end up with a fairly complete cluster map and then a pretty detailed outline. The actual writing has always gone easier when they have brainstormed more topics or points to make than they need. Then they can choose the better ones and own the process more.

If moving from the outline to sentences is daunting, I'd model that too. IEW does this even going so far as to make lists of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs from synonym lists that might get the juices flowing. A thesaurus, A Word Write Now  made this painless. https://www.christianbook.com/a-word-write-now/loranna-schwacofer/9781623412197/pd/412198?kw=21439910172&mt=b&dv=c&event=PPCSRC&p=1186432&gclid=CjwKCAiAouD_BRBIEiwALhJH6IS0-Sk4KXuvcZ9OWfsOVg7Yn3aELMBN21fSuG8aq9_wXgVYJ1M8XBoCVmQQAvD_BwE

Another thing that has helped my more creative and perfection oriented writers is to encourage them to start on any paragraph they want. Typically they have found (over a couple of years) they like starting on the point  or issue they feel strongest about. And although they have a tentative thesis from the  organizers, they usually write the conclusion paragraph before the intro paragraph. Then they go back and verify that their thesis matches what they are saying (The thesis often changes, especially on literature topics and persuasive papers.) and tweak all the intro/ concluding sentences.

And you may laugh, but my perfectionist writers did better when they started experimenting with cooking. I think it was something about the failures paving the way to some really good red velvet cake with home-made boiled icing.

 

Here's how scaffolding is working now for us.

I just brainstormed a 1500 word research paper with my 17 year old. We first looked at his old papers to get an estimate on the number of pages/ paragraphs he would need, 10-12 paragraphs for him. I wrote out a very basic outline of what the paragraph structure might look like for a paper this size as this is only his third large research paper.

  • Intro/ background
  • Issue 1 (weakest point)
  • Issue 2 intro
    • sub issue a
    • sub issue b
    • sub issue c
  • Issue 2 conclusion
  • Issue 3 (strongest) intro
    • sub issue a
    • sub issue b
  • Issue 3 conclusion
  • Conclusion

I wanted him to think about the overall structure because that will guide how narrow a topic he selects. He first selected drones, too broad. Then he found a particular hybrid model, probably too narrow. I then asked him to search online for articles on the future of drones in urban settings. That gave him some interesting articles to read. We started making a list of relevant terms to search next: things like urban air mobility, distribution hubs, architecture, surveillance, etc.  Now he's getting a peek at the issues. This took a good 40 minutes. Next I'll get him on EBSCO and other database search engines. He likes to pull quotes and citation info into a WORD doc by rough topics then choose his issues and sub issues.

(Hugs) on the journey.

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On 1/7/2021 at 1:14 PM, staceyobu said:

But, if she doesn't like the prompt option, she just will sit and stare at a blank piece of paper for hours and hours and hours and hours.

She shouldn't be doing her initial thinking while sitting in front of the paper/computer.  It is far better to think while walking, showering, driving, or, as I apparently like to do, during bouts of insomnia.  Once she has an idea, then it's time to sit in front of the paper/computer.

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16 hours ago, EKS said:

She shouldn't be doing her initial thinking while sitting in front of the paper/computer....

Totally agree.

We used a large whiteboard. Lots of space for writing, and then the ability to use colors for underlining, circling, or arrowing to start connecting up ideas in the "organizing" stage (step 2 of the writing process). Some people do well with graphic organizers, such as "bubble maps" or "spider mapping".

Once you have the major parts of the outline, or structure, or "writing roadmap" down, THEN you can sit at the computer and start fleshing out those key words or parts into complete sentences and paragraphs. It is incredibly difficult to simultaneously "think out" a paper and rough draft write it simultaneously.

Edited by Lori D.
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Have you tried letting her choose her own prompt?

My philosophy in my homeschool was that it is much easier to teach a student to write well when the student can choose what to write about. And once they can write well, they will be able to transfer this skill to a situation where they do not have a say about the prompt.
My kids always got to choose their own writing topics throughout highschools. None of them had any difficulty having to write on given prompts in college. (Btw, most college lit classes give quite a bit of freedom with the essay prompts)

Additional thought: is she a perfectionist? Introduce the idea of the "shitty first draft" (credit to Anne Lamott for the expression). The draft does not need to be perfect. It does not even need to be good. It just needs to be words on page. 
For some students, organizing and structuring the paper beforehand is not how their brains work, and being forced to present an outline seriously cramps their style. Some writers begin by simply writing, and the structure crystallizes while they are doing so. They are not served well by being forced to outline/state thesis etc. before they have spent some time engaging in the actual writing, and the typical writing programs just cause them frustration. 

 

Edited by regentrude
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On 1/9/2021 at 5:56 PM, regentrude said:

...For some students, organizing and structuring the paper beforehand is not how their brains work, and being forced to present an outline seriously cramps their style. Some writers begin by simply writing, and the structure crystallizes while they are doing so. They are not served well by being forced to outline/state thesis etc. before they have spent some time engaging in the actual writing, and the typical writing programs just cause them frustration. 

Yes. I have had a small number of students like this -- they figure out what they want to say by writing. They usually write a number of paragraphs before their idea finally starts to crystalize.

If the student "thinks BY writing", AND if the student doesn't mind doing a lot of writing that they know won't be a part of the paper (that this "pre-idea-writing" it is "fuel writing" that is expended to get them into their idea and into their essay) -- then this can be a good way of approaching brainstorming -- thinking by writing.
 

On the other hand, if writing is a painful process for the student, and they fight about revising ("don't touch/change/cut my hard-won words on that page!!"), then I would NOT advise the "think BY writing" method, but would instead heavily scaffold and ask guided questions and brainstorm and organize *with* the student to help them get a very complete "writing roadmap" so that their rough draft has virtually everything needed for the complete paper, and so only a very small of revising is needed -- the second pass through the paper is mostly about style changes, minor tweaks, and proof-editing.

Edited by Lori D.
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