Friday, December 05, 2014

Teaching Children about Writer's Block

Last year, I explicitly taught my third graders about the term "writer's block." It was a remarkable thing to see how it changed their view of getting stuck or not knowing what to write about. They still got stuck, but suddenly, they knew this didn't mean they "couldn't write." They knew, instead, that this was something real writers, published writers, experienced and gifted writers, have struggled with throughout history. It made them part of the writing community.

Mind you, I didn't just tell them what writer's block was, I gave them some strategies writers use to try to break through writer's block. Their faces lit up in recognition as they realized some of these strategies are things they themselves have done, or could try. "I do that!" "That's what I do!" Getting up and stretching intentionally, in an effort to break through writer's block, with the goal of getting back to your writing, is very different than aimlessly wandering around the room sharpening pencils and annoying other writers.

It wasn't a fancy or complicated lesson. I simply told the kids that getting stuck happens to even the best writers, that it has a name, that they are not alone in this struggle, and that there are things they can try to help them get past it. I gave them a list of strategies, told a little about my own writer's block experiences, and about which strategies I or my writing friends used, and asked them to mark any of the strategies they thought they could try. I also gave them a visual, a quick sketch of a stick figure walking into a wall. We talked about the strategies as ways of dealing with the wall - one brick at a time, or digging underneath the wall or flying over it or going around it, etc. - thinking differently about it, in other words.

I revisited this lesson this year, with similar results. Suddenly, my students are seeing themselves as writers (which has been the goal all along, but it hit a new level after this conversation). "Is there an age limit on how old you have to be to publish a book?" asked one young man. "Can writers get ideas from other writers?" asked another, whereupon I told him about critique groups, and how writers plan times for working alone and times for connecting with other writers, and that it's important to know how to help yourself move through writer's block when you are working alone, but that another day I could teach them about writing groups.  At the end of the lesson, as we transitioned to the computer lab, the room was still buzzing. "Ms. McGean," announced another young author, eyes shining, "I broke through my writer's block today!"

When your enemy has a name, it loses power.

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