Talking your kids down from the research paper ledge

It happens at least a few times a year for most older students. A research paper.  A big project. Some assignment where they need to reach into their brains, pull out a cohesive argument and supporting points, and commit it all to paper. 

Oh, if only it were that simple, right? I remember a passage in Anne Lamott's excellent book about writing (and life), Bird by BirdIt's the experience that gave the book its name:

"...thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

The Little Table by Alberto Morrocco

The Little Table by Alberto Morrocco

Her point in the book is that writing is a little by little, incremental proposition, which is painfully true. My purpose for quoting it here is this: often we the parents are the ones who talk our kids down from the writing ledge when they're at home, stuck in the process and banging their heads on the table. As my kids have gotten older their need for this kind of pep talk has gotten less frequent but now and then I still feel like I need to put on my coach hat and give some moral support. At this stage this has meant less "bird by bird, buddy" and more being a sounding board armed with some good questions to help them get unstuck. 

Recently someone recommended a book--Engaging Ideas, by John C. Bean--intended to help professors coach their students in deepening their thinking and writing. It's given me a lot to think about not just professionally but also at home. I think his tips are equally terrific as helps for parents in supporting their kids' writing without interfering with the writing itself. For example:

If ideas are thin:

- Encourage your writer to make an idea map and brainstorm for more ideas
- Play devil's advocate and help the writer deepen and complicate the ideas
- Encourage the writer to add more examples, better details, more supporting data or arguments

If you get lost in the paper's thoughts or organization :

- Ask the writer to talk through the ideas to clear up confusing spots
- Help the writer sharpen the thesis by seeing it as his (the writer's) answer to a tough question; get the student to articulate the question that the thesis answers
- Make an outline or, even better, a tree diagram together to help with organization
- Help the writer clarify the focus by asking him to complete these starter phrases:
  "My purpose in writing this paper is..."
  "Before reading my paper, my readers will think this way about my topic: __________;      
  but after reading my paper, my readers will think this different way about my  
- Show the writer where you get confused ("I started to get lost here..." "I thought you were going to say x but you said y here...")
- Show the student how to write transitions between major sections and between paragraphs

If it's hard to see the point:

- Nudge the writer to articulate meaning by asking "so what" questions: "I understand what you're saying but don't quite understand why you're saying it." "What do these facts have to do with your thesis?" (adapted from p. 307)

. . .

Do you have any tips or experiences to share about kids and writing and homework? Recently I said all the wrong things, accidentally stressed more than helped (which sent me on the search through this book for help) and had to ask for a do-over. 

On a related note, last year I wrote this post on figuring out the right amount of help with homework by asking what do you want? what don't you want?

The help


We've all been there. Maybe your son has an English essay deadline looming but feels stuck and wants your help. Or your daughter brings her history research paper to you for final editing.  How much help is enough and how much is too much?

For example, I'll admit I can be a pretty ruthless editor. I was a proofreader and editor when I first got out of college; I do love leaving some lovely red marks in those margins! And yet, when it comes to helping my kids with their school essays, I am stymied. Of course I want to help. And getting others to take an objective look at their work is a good habit to encourage in our kids, right? 

At the same time, I want to encourage them to own their work and to make sure the papers stay theirs. (And also? While I weigh these options, images of helicopter parents, tiger moms, hockey dads, and stage moms float through my mind. Yes, it gets crowded in there.)  I do think that somewhere in between leaving them alone and doing it for them there's a learning zone where we can be helpful.

(Warning: child development geekery ahead!) The education and child development worlds call this the zone of proximal development. Basically, it's the space between what a child can do unassisted and what he can't do yet at all. It's where the skills might be too difficult to do on his own but can be done with the right amount of support and encouragement ("scaffolding") from a knowledgable person. It's thought that it is in that zone, given some good scaffolding, where learning happens best. Or at least that's what Vygotsky thought. (Thanks for indulging me.)

I like what Brene Brown said in an interview with Krista Tippett recently:

I was editing a story [my daughter] wrote last night and she [asked] “so, are you saying you don’t think that’s good?”

And I looked at her and I said “I don’t know how to do this. I know how to grade papers, I know how to get things back from my editor (which is always really bloodied), but I don’t know how to do this with you.”

And she [said] “what do you mean you don’t know how?”

“I don’t know how. This is the first time I’ve ever edited a piece of fiction of yours. I don’t know how to do it.” And I said, “What do you want and what don’t you want?”

And she said, “I want you to fix the things that make the story not good but I don’t want you to make it your story.”

Brilliant! I love the idea of starting with the question what do you want and what don't you want?  Because--newsflash!--this is not actually about us or for our learning. Letting students determine the level of help keeps them in charge of the process. (Of course, if your child says "I want you to rewrite my paper" or "just do this math problem," you might have to reframe a bit.)

How is the homework situation at your house? How do you find the right balance in helping? What's worked and what hasn't?

. . .

p.s. Here are a few other hints that we've heard about or tried and liked:

-Try reading the essay out loud to your student writer and invite him to notice what works, what doesn't, and where he wants to make changes. Someone first did this for me when I was a university freshman and it gave me a fresh perspective on the essay and changed my writing approach.

-Don't just wholesale edit somewhere off on your own; go through it together.  When you notice a typo, explain the correction you'd suggest. Without rewriting it, note where a passage leaves you confused and talk together about ways to clarify it. Then send her off to rewrite and correct it herself.

-Keep it appropriate to the grade level. Your sixth grader does not need to compose an essay at college level standards (and shouldn't). If you have a chance, ask teachers what they expect and how much parent editing is expected or optimal. 

-Let them make mistakes. This is tough, I know, but we parents are the training wheels here and eventually those training wheels have to come off. (I read an article that said a staggering 1 in 5 parents continue to do substantial edits on their college-age children's papers.Yikes.) The goal is that our big kids and teens eventually take off and do this on their own. Swooping in at every difficulty or wobble can rob them of the chance to find their own balance and competence.