gt.school’s writing teacher used to give students a standard book report assignment: read this classic (like Shakespeare) and write a 500-word essay about it.
The kids hated it. They were bored with Shakespeare, and even more bored with essay writing, and the quality of their work suffered. The teacher thought the kids were just bad writers, but it wasn’t their writing ability that was the problem – it was their interest in writing.
Academic essays are incredibly dull, and that’s how most kids learn to write. They draft essays that are cram-written late at night, graded in red pen, shoved in a drawer, and never seen again. The grade point average at the end of the year is the closest their writing will ever come to having meaning.
The exercise feels irrelevant and boring, and for a lot of kids, that’s the only writing experience they’ve ever had. It’s no wonder they hate it so much.
For kids to love writing, they need to experience three things:
- The joy of writing about topics they love
- The tangible results of publishing publicly and finding their coven
- The benefit of experiencing a feedback loop around their writing and their ideas
When students feel those three things (and get rid of all the nonsense in academic writing like boring prompts and word count requirement), their perception of writing completely changes.
Teach kids to write by writing about what they love
When the writing approach at Alpha changed, students’ writing ability did too. The new approach was built around Naval’s tweet “read what you love until you love to read,” but tailored to writing.
Students were exposed to writing by talking about what they cared about – the latest Marvel movie that had just come out, the Houston Astros’ amazing season, or their favorite anime character. Because they were fired up to talk about the topic – we’ve all seen how much a kid can talk about a subject they’re obsessed with – their excitement about writing assignments completely changed.
Kids who chronically hated writing were suddenly thrilled to craft an essay, because what they had to say mattered. Then once they’d realized writing could be fun, that enthusiasm could bleed over into other more academic topics.
Alpha also ditched essay word count requirements, because the real world rewards shorter, not longer. Most kids don’t have 500 words worth of good ideas, and it doesn’t serve them to learn the bad habit of stretching. Kids in traditional school learn how to make essays unnecessarily long with filler content, while really only having one strong point to make. In the real world, they’d be better off posting a tweet, so why not teach them that in school?
That’s the core of Alpha’s writing curriculum: kids learning to write by writing about what they love, in the format that makes the most sense for what they’re trying to communicate.
If students in high school decide they want to take AP classes, they might need to write academic essays as part of the course – but at that point, they’re writing with a specific goal in mind (e.g. “get into college”), so the academic exercise feels like it has a purpose. It’s a self-driven activity, because kids are using it to attain a desired end.
Completely revolutionizing how students learn to write doesn’t require a new technology or a cohort-based course or an app. It just requires teachers saying “I want students to write about what they love.” That’s the first step in helping kids learn to write.
Teach kids to publish and find their coven
In the real world, writing isn’t an academic exercise that gets shoved into a drawer and forgotten. Writing gets published and read by other people and leads to real-world connections and synchronicities. When students experience this side of writing, it transforms their perception of its value.
When a student publishes their writing publicly, they put their ideas and interests out into the world, and other people with similar ideas and interests find them. This is what enables students to find their coven – their tribe of people who share their interests.
For example, at Alpha school, five students who love STEM and hate writing are doing a writing contest. Each one is writing an essay arguing why their favorite video game is the best. Through the process, they’re learning how to structure an argument, make a compelling case, and organize their thoughts in written form. Their essays will then be judged and one will be named a winner.
Because the kids care about video games, they care about the writing too. They’re writing about what they love until they love to write – and experiencing the power of connecting with other people who share their interests.
The internet gives students the power to publish their ideas and connect with people around the world. They’re not limited to the people inside their school district or grade level, which makes it much easier to find their coven.
Help kids create a feedback loop around their writing and their ideas
When kids write and share their work, they start conversations. The STEM kids writing essays about their favorite video games are going to read each other’s essays, and it will spark discussion. They’ll debate their opinions with their friends and argue the finer points of what makes each video game great.
They might realize that their arguments aren’t sound, or that they missed a point. They might see insights about their friend’s favorite game that alters their opinions. Their thinking will sharpen.
The conversations will lead them to new ideas over time – because the best epiphanies often come through conversation. Once kids experience the feedback loop that comes from sharing and discussing ideas, the writing process becomes compelling. They want to write, because of the conversations it can open up.
And once kids want to write, the problem becomes stopping them, not getting them started.
How to put this into practice
If your kid isn’t writing, try an exercise similar to the video game writing contest at Alpha. Find a topic your child likes, and find two or three of their friends who share that interest to join in a writing contest.
Have your child make an argument in their essay (e.g. why his favorite sport is the best, or why her favorite character is the best). Choose someone to judge the essays (classmates, siblings or friends are best), and award a prize to the best writer.
Your child may hate writing, but as soon as they’re given permission to write about what they’re interested in – and there’s a prize available as an incentive – they’ll be captivated. They can write about baseball, dancing, music, whatever they care most about. The goal is to just get them to write about what they love – until they experience how much fun writing can be.