My eight year old is a fiend. She read To Kill a Mockingbird in an afternoon and right now she's breezing through Chekhov. She types over 90 words per minute and sometimes writes up to twelve or fourteen pages a day. She lives and breathes reading and writing and can't understand why everyone doesn't feel this way.
Still, when I mention the word 'essay' she recoils in horror. Up until last month, that is. Getting Adora to write has always been about as easy as getting ----to-----. When children thinking of writing as a form of entertainment they begin to write on their own initiative. However, when it came to essays, I had to get sneaky. To give you some idea of my strategy...so far she has written 'All Day Candy Eating: the Pros and Cons', 'Taking Back the Power: Why Kids Should Have the Vote and Adults Shouldn't' and 'Why I Hate Fairytales'.
I think she had envisioned essay writing as some Draconian horror along the lines of the book report. My goal was to teach her to think of essay writing as what it really is: the world's best way to lay down an argument.
Adora, like most people, does her best writing when she's really interested in something, or when she's writing for herself or the people she loves most. Every time I told her to write an essay for class she'd come off sounding dull and drab, miles away from her normal vivacious and mischievous tone.
I decided there was no way she could be dull and drab when writing about one of her obsessions, so we switched gears away from the literary essay and settled on what really counts in the minds of most eight year olds: candy. As suspected, Adora found it impossible to be stiff when writing about candy. Her enthusiasm picked up like a good sugar high, and pretty soon the words were pouring out.
When she was done I broke the news: she'd written an essay and enjoyed it. Since then I've tried to broaden her understanding of the concept, pointing out that David Sedaris and Dave Barry are also essay writers, and likening essay writing to arguing, always a favorite pursuit.
Here are three simple tactics for getting kids to think of essay writing as something vital, and a form of entertainment.
If your kids complain about a household rule or request a new gadget, tell them to put it in writing. Have them state their case, giving all the reasons why they are right. In this way they will be practicing the fundamentals of essay writing in a relevant, and possibly rewarding, way.
If your kids are angry or upset with you, a sibling, or a teacher, ask them to write about it, explaining exactly what happened, why they think it's unfair etc.
When they are first starting out, don't stress organization too much. Wait until they have begun to enjoy the writing process before cracking down on errors.
Although we started out silly, Adora has lost her fear of essays and now approaches them with the same zeal she has for fiction and poetry. Now that she has overcome her prejudice she is showing an interest for more academic topics. I'm happy about this, though I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of teaching your children more effective arguing tactics. This may come back to haunt me in her teenage years.....