Author Tim Whitaker and students in the Mighty Writers after-school program, which Whitaker founded in Philadelphia. It provides free after-school writing instruction for kids. (Mighty Writers)

Teaching young people to write has always taken a back seat to reading instruction. Consider this part of the introduction to the 1917 book by Sterling Andrus Leonard, “English Composition as a Social Problem":

English composition has been one of the least interesting subjects taught in the schools. The ordinary student has found the task of linguistic expression a dull exercise. Largely because he was provided with no initial enthusiasm for composing speaking and writing in the classroom have been formal matters unrelated to his personal need to express or communicate his feelings and ideas. The pupil has been forced to observe the rules and niceties of the English language without ever being aware in any vital way of their uses to him. The result is that expression through language has been the most formal and artificial of all the social studies. In spite of years of training, our students fail to become easy, clear, and forceful writers. 

What’s more, the actual act of writing was not always as easy as it is now, according to a 2009 report published by the National Council of Teachers of English:

In school and out, writing required a good deal of labor. We forget how difficult the labor of writing has been historically—the “sheer physical difficulty of inscribing alphabetic characters on some sort of surface” (Murphy 5), especially for children; how pencils weren’t widely available until the early part of the twentieth century, which was forty years before the invention of the ballpoint pen; how messy and sloppy it was to try to compose in ink that dripped all over the page — and then smudged. The labor of composing was such, in fact, that for a few years in the late 1920s manual typewriters — and we know how hard it is to pound those keys on the page—actually seemed a viable alternative to pencil or pen for children in elementary school.

Writing tools improved, but instruction still suffered. As the same report says:

In the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, we saw a new conception of writing emerge, one that came to be called process writing. Process writing was informed by nascent research and enthusiastically adopted by many teachers in classrooms large and small and throughout the curriculum. Some scholars studied the writing processes of famous authors, while others — Emig and Sondra Perl, Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell, Donald Graves and Mina Shaughnessy — learned from students how composing works. These studies and others like them provided a new curriculum for composing located in new practices: invention, drafting, peer review, reflection, revising and rewriting, and publishing. And this new work in composing, in part because it was language-based, supported other scholarly and pedagogical advances of the time. Such an advance is captured in CCCC/NCTE’s 1974 position statement “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” a document authorizing students as legitimate language users in ways not imagined a mere 20 years before nor obvious to the culture at large, even now. During this time we also saw new assessment practices develop from this process-rich model of composing, most influential among them the portfolio. 

At the same time, however, the promise of composing process as developing theory and classroom practice was truncated by several factors, among them two that are related: (1) the formalization of the process itself, into a narrow model suitable for (2) tests designed by a testing industry that too often substitutes a test of grammar for a test of writing and that supports writing, when it does, as an activity permitted in designated time chunks only, typically no more than 35-minute chunks.

So what are best practices when it comes to teaching kids to write well? Here to discuss the topic in a Q&A are author Dave Eggers and educator/writer Tim Whitaker.

Eggers is a nationally renowned author of numerous books, including “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” “The Circle,” “The Monk of Mokha,” “What is the What,” and his newest, “What Can a Citizen Do?” In 2002, with educator Nínive Calegari, he founded 826 Valencia, a San Francisco nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids learn to write, and it gave birth to a separate organization, 826 National, to help launch similar writing and tutoring programs in other cities.

Whitaker is a Philadelphia educator who in 2009 founded and is now the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit organization that provides free after-school writing courses to low-income K-12 students. He taught fifth and sixth grades before becoming a writer and editor. He was, among the positions he has held, the longtime editor of Philadelphia Weekly, a head writer at NBC Radio and the co-author of “Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen."

Here’s the Q & A:

Q: Getting kids to write well, and enjoy writing, has always been a struggle for teachers, but the problem may be even worse in the age of screens and texting and multitasking. So first, I’d be interested in knowing how you think teachers can get kids interested in writing and how you teach them to do it. What do you do with kids who have trouble focusing or hate to read, much less write?

Eggers: When it comes to reading and writing, especially for kids who are reluctant or don’t think they’re “good” at either, we have to start with content. Ignore form at the start. That is, if you want an 8-year-old to start loving to write, let them write about anything they want to. Let them write about left-handed gerbils from Uranus. Let them write about Lionel Messi. It doesn’t matter. The point is if they’re given the chance to write about what they love, they’ll be engaged. You can’t go wrong with “Write about something you love. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar for now.” That always works. You can fix the grammar once they’ve put some passion on the page.

Same thing goes for reading. If you give kids at least some control over what they read, and don’t make semi-arbitrary rules about what’s appropriate reading material, you will get kids, even the grudging ones, interested in reading. Let them read a biography of Serena Williams. Let them read a magazine about LEGOs or a comic about Thanos. If they feel good about reading, period — reading anything — eventually, they’ll build up their reading muscles and feel comfortable with the heavier lifting.

But the fastest way to make writing and reading unappealing is to make overly formal, overly rigid and overly rule-bound demands at the start. If you tell a student to write a five-paragraph essay — truly the worst beginning to any writer’s path — and burden that assignment with 14 other arbitrary and useless rules, you will guarantee an unengaged and uninspired student.

The thing we taught at 826 Valencia from the start is writing should be fun. Anytime you’re trying to encourage a young writer, you have to think of how to make it not boring. Rule 1: Make it not boring. My God, make it not boring.

Whitaker: The best way to get kids to embrace writing is to have them write about the things they’re impassioned about. For our little guys, that’s often comic books or superheroes or any of our girl-power workshops that focus on historical and modern role models. In our comic book workshops, for our most resistant writers, we’ll often have the kids draw a comic strip without words, and then get them to create a story line once they’ve scored support from us for their drawings. That builds their confidence, and they’re soon ready to move on to straight-ahead narratives.

For our teens, we get the best results when they’re writing about the hot-button issues they hear about at home or in their neighborhoods — i.e. police abuse, immigration, the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, all quickly come to mind. They express their opinions in our teen-scholar discussion groups, before organizing their thoughts and writing essays on the topic at hand.

All our Mighty centers reflect the vibe of the kids, not the administrators’ or program directors’. The kids are in school all day, so it’s critical they don’t come to a place that’s more of the same. We don’t have offices at MW; we’re embedded with the kids, so we hear what they’re talking about and outfit our centers accordingly — the art and photos on our walls run the gamut, from Michelle Obama to “Spider-Man” to Allen Iverson to “Black Panther” to Maya Angelou. Our centers feel like clubhouses.

These are their centers, not ours. We’re the anti-school writing school.

Q: So kids really come to your program and only know how to write five-paragraph essays? Do they talk about how they learned to write in school and, if so, what do they say? I’m also interested in how well the average student you see understands even the basics — spelling, grammar, punctuation. How do you rate their skills? And from what kinds of schools do they come?

Whitaker: All of our Mighty centers in Philadelphia are located in economically challenged neighborhoods. The schools our kids go to — a mix of public and charter for the most part — are challenged, as well. Many of our kids transfer schools frequently in search of safer or more structured classroom environments.

In many Philadelphia schools, the buildings are in disrepair and the budgets so squeezed that school libraries, once a haven for young writers, were long ago scrapped. At most of the schools, the priorities are math, science and standardized testing, and not necessarily in that order. Writing as a classroom subject sits alone in the back of the bus.

We’re always trying to make the case for emphasizing writing by asking: What good is being a math or science whiz if you can’t clearly communicate your findings in words? In terms of grammar and punctuation, most kids come to Mighty Writers well behind the curve. But their verbal storytelling skills are frequently stellar. Being city kids, many are natural mimics and possess great comedic timing. They tell engaging and often hilarious stories about the characters they run into on the corner or in their rec centers.

When kids first come to us, we work to hone those storytelling skills by getting them to put their stories down on paper. During the revision process, we work with the kids on grammar and punctuation as we go, rather than make it feel like a major dose of medicine upfront.

Eggers: We are supporters of the public schools, and almost all our work is with the public schools. For our after-school tutoring, we work to support the students’ teachers’ lesson plans. In addition, we offer extracurricular writing opportunities, from book publishing to podcasts. When it comes to the students’ abilities with grammar, it is as varied as the students themselves.

Q: The approach sounds like it makes a great deal of sense in drawing kids out to write, though, as you both noted, schools don’t do it enough. Have you found that the joy of writing that you can inspire in students makes it easier for them to do the less colorful or less personal writing that school requires?

Eggers thought Bita Nazarian, executive director of 826 Valencia, would be best equipped to answer this question, so here’s her response:

Nazarian: At 826 Valencia, we believe offering open-ended writing prompts and a high degree of choice helps engage students in their writing tasks. The one-on-one attention we provide helps them build their resilience during the writing process. And when they get published in professional-level books and share their writing with the world, they see themselves as proud, confident and skillful writers. This absolutely translates into better performance at school and beyond.

Whitaker: We tell kids at Mighty Writers all the time you can’t write anything of value unless you spend time thinking about what you want to say first. It’s why we spend a lot of time with the kids at our centers thinking and talking through their writing topics before they put pen to paper. Over time, the kids start to see all kinds of good things that come their way from the exercise of thinking clearly — praise, confidence, a receptive audience. Clarity of purpose begins to transform their personalities and spill over into everything they do.

Yes, generally, the kids would prefer to write about topics and issues that are fun as opposed to a homework assignment or having to compose a letter for a school application or a summer job. But they’re able to see that if they take the time to do it right, they’ll achieve success — a good grade, acceptance at a school, scoring a job. We celebrate those victories with them, which reinforces all the positivity (we call it Mightiness) they feel every time writing gets them something they want.