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?

Launching notes: School/college edition

This installment of launching notes addresses what I want my kids to know about the student years (see also: mistakes I would avoid, things I wish I would have known, and things that occurred to me too late).

Lauren as a freshman in an impossibly empty bookstore

Lauren as a freshman in an impossibly empty bookstore

17.  Dream big*. I think those dreams were planted inside you for a reason. Listen to them, shoot high, and buckle down and make it work. We believe in you.

18.  Browse the university book aisles to find classes/ideas/subjects you might love to take next semester. Oh, and buy the used books as much as you can, keep the receipts, and sell back the ones you don't need longer term (that's probably four in one but this is my list so I'll multiply if I want to :).

19. Ask questions. Literally, in class. You never know unless you ask. Go ahead, raise your hand.

20. Make connections. Between ideas and different classes you take. And, especially, with people: professors/teachers, friends, fellow students. And us, your family. Still connect with us :) 

21. Take advantage of these years*. They're unique and pretty much all about you. Fill 'em up.

22. Be silly sometimes. Have a blast.

23. Learn from your mistakes. You'll make them. It's okay.

24. Take some classes Just Because. Even if they don't count a bit toward your major or graduation. Now's your chance to take ballroom dance/moral philosophy/flower design/golf/whatever.

25. Sit up front now and then.

26. Start those term papers early. Bit by bit is better. Just trust me on this: everyone thinks they can crank out a paper in one procrastinated all-nighter. I'm here to tell you that it will show.

27. Don't walk by yourself after dark. Pretty please.

28. Ask more questions.  Nudge your assumptions, look at things from another perspective, open up to other ideas/explanations/approaches.

29. Remember how very much we love you. We do. We really, really do.

Do you agree with any of these in particular or have something to add? Chime in in the comments. 

* Borrowed from Lee Woodruff's advice to her son when he left for college. Check out her terrific series of posts about sending a child to college: preparingdropping off, and recovering. Couldn't have said it better myself.

I'm writing occasional launching notes (read more about them here), bits of advice to my kids about how to be a gracious, grown-up type person--both trivial bits and major advice. 


Ten word pep talk

One of my favorite mantras lately is if you can’t get out of it, get into it. I picked it up from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and I've used its simple wisdom of reframing life’s requirements into something more enjoyable and engaging as a ten-word pep talk for myself. There are so many givens in our days—things that we just have to do—that we might as well lean in* and enjoy them, right?  

It might not surprise you that it’s showed up in several conversations with my kids lately; it’s pretty much tailored for chats with teenagers who, (ahem) let's face it, at one point or another will drag their growing feet about chores or practicing or requirements imposed on their free will or free time. (I think occasional foot dragging is in their super secret handbook, actually.)

A recent case study:  Our schools here—typical Australian Grammar schools—are organized into groups of students called houses (yep, like Hogwarts). The schools hold several mandatory competitions each year (called, in a genius bit of spin and branding, “carnivals”) for houses to compete for pride and points and trophies in categories such as swimming, running, track & field, and music. The running carnival is coming up for one of my kids and, in preparation, each student is required to train by running at least 30 kilometers on their own time over the course of the previous month, either coming early to school and running the course under the supervision of teachers or by running at home under parental supervision. All of that sounds doable unless, as someone in our household might have done, you wait too long and are suddenly faced with running lots of kilometers in uncomfortably few days.

Suddenly we had a gloomy Eeyore on our hands here. Normally I would be tempted to use that other worn and serviceable parent mantra you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it. But I noticed that one doesn’t really help reframe the activity; it just restates the demands. So I pulled out the if you can’t get out of it, get into it pep talk. I like that it emphasizes that, while we don’t necessarily have a say in everything we have to do, we do have a choice about how we approach it.  

Did I suddenly have a beaming Pollyanna on my hands thanking me for the wisdom? No. But the running started and the attitude seemed less Eeyore, more Little Engine That Could. It's a good start and—who knows?—maybe the mantra will eventually show up on its own.

Last night as we loaded the dishes, I overheard the kids chatting with each other about a situation with a group of teens where they all had to get some things done. There were some complainers in the bunch, which was frustrating everyone else.

“You know what I told them? ”
“If you can’t get out of it, get it into it.”

*Regardless of your take on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (and I know there have been many opinions voiced; for what it’s worth, I’m midway through and really like it), I think it’s exceptional advice for anyone: lean in to your life. Be engaged. Be enthusiastic.

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.