My girls used to always ask me what it would be like if they were students in my class… so I finally decided to do a little “homeschooling” on the weekends. :)

So, this holiday in addition to regular homework, chores and piano practice… I’m requiring my girls to write book reviews. (How do I motivate them do this? I pay in iPad time of course… more on using screen time to motivate kids in a future post…)

WRITING IS IMPORTANT!

(Yes! I wrote in all caps because I want to scream this from the rooftops!)

I believe writing is one of the most under-taught skills in schools. We all know reading is critical and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) is on everyone’s list… But I honestly don’t think you can be successful in work, school or life if you don’t know how to communicate your ideas to others… And the primary way we communicate is via the written word.

“Writing is thinking,” my dad always said. Thus, it’s one of the primary ways teachers use to understand what students are comprehending from what they read. This idea becomes clear when asking students questions about a poorly written essay or report. It makes sense students would have trouble expressing their ideas when don’t actually know what they think.

So… how am I teaching my girls to improve their writing (and thinking about what they read in the process?)

My kids are writing book reviews!!!

Having kids write book reviews is a great way to help them improve their writing and thinking about what they read. I like structuring reviews for social media posts, because they are concise and to the point. (Also, kids get out of the “how much do I have to write?” mindset when they don’t think of it as an big essay.) To do this, we write on 5″x7″ notecards which is enough space to write ideas, but not too big to be overwhelming.

Having my girls do everything BY HAND with paper and pencil ensures they are actively involved in the revision process (“No, you don’t just type and click ‘publish!’ You have to revise it first!”) It’s tactile enough for them to write, erase and revise. They don’t have to worry about technology or typing skills either which allows us to focus solely on their writing. (We focus on typing and/or posting the reviews later.) It also gives them instant gratification for their work.

Book Review: Immi’s Gift by Karin Littlewood

Here is an example of a book review, written by my ten-year-old daughter:

“Immi is an Inuit girl. She lives in a white snowy place with no color. Suddenly she finds colorful flowers and leaves. Then she finds a little wooden bird… The colorful wooden bird is important because it brightens her white world. It colors her life. Children and adults will both love this book because it shows our connection even with people who we don’t know.”

Have your kids write book reviews, too!

Below, I’ve posted my directions for this assignment, with images from the book and pictures of their notecards.

Notice that at the bottom left I’ve included a picture of one of my daughter’s rough drafts as evidence that “good writing is good rewriting!” (another Dad saying… thanks Dad!) When kids only see finished writing they tend to believe writing is a gift. You either have it or you don’t. Either writing comes out “perfectly”, in which case students won’t dare revisit their writing again or listen to feedback on improvements. Or alternately, students quickly thrown their pencil down and stop writing altogether at the tiniest hint of frustration or writers block they encounter.

bookreview

Directions:

  1. Write a 1-2 sentence summary describing or explaining the book. (REMEMBER: Don’t give away the ending!!!)
  2. Choose a detail that stands out for you. It could be a quote, illustration, plot line, theme, or character you find interesting. Explain why you chose it.
  3. Wrap it up! Who will enjoy this book? Why? Think about reader age, skill and interests. Think of the “BIG PICTURE”! Preach!

Some advice…

Start reviewing “easy books”. We’re reviewing favorite story books for younger readers. My girls are ten so the reading load is very easy which allows us to focus on writing. As my girls get more proficient at this style of writing, we’ll move onto harder and harder books. Eventually, they can eventually use this same format to write a several paragraph essay (Ha-HA! I made then LEARN when they were least expecting it! Another sneaky teacher trick gleaned from the classroom!)

“Talk it out” and give lots of positive feedback from the start. I ask a lot of questions and give LOTS and LOTS of praise. Young writers (really ALL writers) need lots of encouragement. Tell kids what you like about their writing. Is it funny? Did they use a good word to describe something? Did they say something perceptive or insightful? Tell them what they do well and they will be motivated to work harder.

Don’t accept anything less than AWESOME! When we as parents or educators accept half-assed writing (Yes, I said it… but this is IMPORTANT!) we teach kids that half-assed writing is acceptable. If we REALLY want to help our kids/students, we need to demand they THINK about what they are writing and that they are using precise, interesting and thoughtful language!

Don’t be fooled by neat writing or LOTS of it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “good” students turn pages and pages of crappy writing in (crappy thinking really) that was written very neatly. These students were often surprised to get B’s and C’s from me because they were used to being rewarded for quantity and neatness over quality. I always tell students, “I don’t care how much you write, as long as your writing expresses good thinking!” Additionally, perfect spelling and grammar do not clarify poorly written ideas! 

Write, revise, revise, revise, edit… Tell your child/student it’s OK to scribble, cross out, erase, and reorganize! Make them write/re-write their thinking until they “get it write”! Don’t be dissuaded by tears! Talk it out, ask questions, suggest word choices, capture their thinking by writing notes as they speak… but don’t accept anything less than quality writing!

Now Publish!

Publishing is important because it shows kids their writing is IMPORTANT. It validates them as writers. And, if/when they get feedback, it also reinforces them to write more!

Once you have a final draft, there are a variety of ways to share it with the world:

  1. Take a picture of their notecards and post to Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr etc. (You will need to sign up for these social networks beforehand.) You can also make it look fancy using collage makers like Pic-Collage (as I did).
  2. Post the review online at sites like GoodReads or Amazon. If your child is practicing typing (as my girls are), they can email you the review for you to post on their behalf.
  3. If you are a classroom teacher, you can do a book talk or gallery walk. Have students share their book reviews verbally or post a picture of the book with the its notecard on a poster or bulletin board for other students to share favorite reads!

As we have been doing this for a day or so, my girls are getting better and better (their writing is improving!) I’m looking forward to adding this to my list of educational activities during winter break (along with lots of reading of course!) Stay tuned!

How do you encourage writing in your home or classroom? What ideas do you have for students to share great reads? Post your thoughts in the comments below!

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Bookworms, Language Arts

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