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The Great Game of Writing

When I had three soccer-playing kids at home, I volunteered to coach all of their teams. Far from being a chore, it gave me an excuse to spend my spare time on green fields. Okay, muddy or rainy fields too, but in my memory they’re always green.

Another entertaining hat I’ve worn is writing coach. For instance a few years ago I ran a creative writing class at North Star, a center for homeschoolers. I’m a writer by trade, and the thrill was very similar to coaching. I loved running these writing ‘practices’.

I’d introduce a writing prompt (like setting up a fun soccer drill), and the students would leap into it. After a period of focused writing I’d call their attention back to the center of the field, I mean room, and debrief the drill. What amazing plots, word choices, characters, and paragraph structures I’d get to see!

Soccer is a game of structured creativity. You discover opportunities on an ever-evolving field. Writing is creative, too, whether it’s a college essay, a short story, or a science report. Some writing has a lot of structure, but there’s always creative freedom.

To learn to coach, I signed up for coaching clinics. The biggest takeaway from that was a simple idea: Maximize touches on the ball. The ball is the best teacher, followed by the other players, followed only distantly by the coach. We coaches need to stop lecturing and let the kids play. Small-sided games (i.e. three on three in an area defined by cones) guarantee everyone is touching the ball constantly.

At North Star, two-thirds of our time was spent writing. Sometimes we’d read a famous author’s introductory paragraph to inspire us, then write paragraphs of our own. I know my students spent a lot of time writing because they did it right there, around the big circular table, practicing together.

In contrast, most school writing is assigned as homework. Class time is for the teacher’s lecture. Yawn. Can you imagine a soccer coach who lectured all practice, then told you to go home and try to learn to play soccer on your own?

The Aspen Institute published a national survey showing that kids do organized sports for twelve hours a week. That leaves out recess (remember four-square?), backyard play, skateboarding, bike riding, sledding, fishing, and many other recreational activities that involve movement and coordination–and fun.

Most of us don’t play college sports. Of those who do, less than 2% move up to pro leagues (according to an NCAA survey). Obviously, we don’t play youth sports to prepare for a pro career. We do it because…

Wait, why do we give sports more time than any other activity?

A study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity points to “psychological and social health outcomes” (8/15/03). It’s good for our bodies and more: Teamwork, leadership, communications, sportsmanship, right?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (our Congressionally mandated ‘Nation’s report card’) reveals that middle and high school students write for much less than half an hour each day. About an hour a week of writing, compared to twelve hours of organized sports. I love coaching soccer, but can I just say that I don’t think it’s twelve times as important as writing?

While a fraction of a percent of students will earn a living playing professional sports, everyone will need to read and write in their future careers. Could this actually make writing more important than sports?

One thing I know for sure is that students, writing is a lot less fun than sports. My perspective as a dyslexic professional writer is that writing can and should be lots of fun too. This is something that we professional writers keep as a bit of a secret, but let’s let the secret out. Writing is infinitely fun and engaging! You occasionally get a glimpse into this fun reality when an author lets slip a comment such as these ones:

There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people: Mystery writers and serial killers. I’m the kind that pays better. - Richard Castle

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs. - Stephen King

But my favorite quote from a famous author is this one from Elmore Leonard: Try to leave the parts out that people skip. So I guess I better get back to the point. Is writing considered a chore just because we grew up thinking that fun was reserved for the playground, field, forest, or gym—and that the classroom was something to be endured but not enjoyed? (Especially those of us who had learning challenges like me.)

One of my daughters had an amazing experience last year in fifth grade with a young teacher who loves literature and plans to get a masters in it. She brought her love of reading and writing to the classroom, sharing the joy of a beautiful passage, helping her students write wonderful stories, reports and poems, and breathing fun into almost every minute of it.

After that magical year, I now have a future life-long reader and writer on my hands. We even read our scribblings out loud to each other for fun. (Okay, she also loves soccer, but writing is right up there.)

Parents can’t rely on having turned-on literature geeks for teachers in every classroom. We’re kind of a rarity, in point of fact. But parents can support fun reading and writing in three areas: school, home and community. First, let’s ask for school time to include a lot more hands-on writing.

And for every hour devoted to a favorite sport, how about a half-hour devoted to reading, blogging or writing stories and comic strips about the sport?

The simplest thing to do as a parent is to find a really fun book to read aloud, if only for ten minutes a day. If you aren’t sure what book to read, try asking your local or school librarian for tips.

Afterschool and summer writing activities can be great fun too. Another of my children did a weekend workshop years ago called Books and Cakes or something like that. The instructor baked a new cake to share for each session and served it (with yummy herbal teas) over a good book.

Yet another memory pops to mind: At a public school in Massachusetts before we mi

grated North to Vermont, one of my kids insisted on staying for an afterschool activity billed as Textile Arts. Indeed the kids worked with yarn and fabric, but the big attraction was that one of the instructors read aloud from a Narnia novel while the kids worked. It was so much fun that they didn’t even realize it was teaching them literacy skills.

I dropped a mention of being dyslexic, which might seem like an odd resume item for an author. It’s true that I didn’t look like I had any talent or potential when I was in grade school. They had me repeat third grade because I couldn’t read Dick and Jane. But I loved good stories (which Dick and Jane definitely wasn’t!). Great writing always attracted my attention so I did what anyone must if they want to become proficient at something difficult: I logged a lot of hours, many of them outside of school.

It doesn’t matter if you start slow or start fast. To gain a level of skill that allows you to master and enjoy something complex, you need to put in a dozen years of focused, engaged, and (mostly) enjoyable practice. I may have started slow, but now that I’ve published dozens of books and taught more classes than I’ve run soccer practices, I’m definitely a proficient reader and writer. I truly love my chosen sport. So here is what I most hope to pass on as my gift to the next generation: A genuine love of reading and writing.

Okay, I confess I also hope they’ll master give-and-go passing and learn to scan the field and move to open space. But mostly I’m focused on how to help reverse the national literacy trend and make us a nation of great readers and writers once again.

To that vital end, I hope all kids will be exposed to the joy of writing often enough to discover their own talent, whether it’s initially obvious or not.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and The Oxford Adventure (available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon, or at your local bookstore). He’s also a parent and teacher who currently lives in Putney, Vermont.

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