Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mom, Can You Help Me with My Essay: A Mindful Way For Parents To Help

In the glow of the kitchen table lamp, as though interrogated by officers of procrastination, your son or daughter sits slumped. The table is covered with the detritus of an evening of frustration—crumpled paper, a plate from a snack enjoyed hours ago, marked-up handouts and the grading rubric. 

Your child is stuck on repeat: “I don’t know what to say” and “I don’t know what the teacher wants.” From upstairs, the sounds of other household members brushing their teeth and preparing for bed, the happy murmur of siblings untormented by an essay. 

It would be so easy to helicopter in rescue sentences that start, “how about saying this here?,” but you refuse to write the piece for them. You just wish you knew how to make this process smoother.

Short of plagiarism, your child may be willing to do anything to exit this predicament, yet it’s precisely right now that your son or daughter needs to finish this homework.

The reason your child is suffering through this assignment is that they’ve been trained to miss out on the present moment in order to prepare for a future moment when their work is critiqued and graded. Mindlessness, as Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer has documented, hurts learning. It’s harmful to critical thinking and the ability to perceive alternatives to move beyond rigid views. 
I believe that mindlessness (future- or past-oriented thinking that overlooks what’s happening now, in real time) is specifically consequential to learning how to write. Writing becomes an entirely different experience if children focus on what’s happening in the moment.

The main pipeline for this mindlessness instruction is a bit of routine advice. Students are constantly told to “consider their audience,” which really means visualizing a person in the future. After absorbing this traditional advice, your child unconsciously invites the teacher (their biggest audience) into your home. Ms. D from sixth period or Mr. K from Language Arts are not sitting on their couches binge watching Netflix: they’re in your kitchen.

The student hasn’t had time to compose that polished draft—it’s strictly a hypothetical object in the future—so what this teacher-reader “sees” is your child at their most vulnerably imperfect time—in the rough draft stage.

To avoid disappointing this teacher-reader, children delete and correct in-progress writing. Often it’s preferable to not write anything because that’s seemingly the most foolproof way to avert negative feedback.

#1 Settle into the Moment

The most important step is to help your child settle into the moment and steer attention away from that writing future. It’s a sort of mental CPR you need to perform on your child. Pick and choose from the other measures explained in this article, but this part is fundamental.

The best way for your child to more aware is to reengage with the body by observing the breath for 1-2 minutes. Breathing in, here, breathing out, now. The physical benefits of mindful breathing are the slowing of the pulse and the petering out of adrenalin. 
As young writers redirect their mind to follow the breath, self-talk downshifts from that stressful racing of I can’t write I have no idea what to write I am in big trouble
Breathing is a free and readily available method to switch perceptions of the time of writing—no special equipment required. 

In my classroom, I’m partial to what I call “yoga for hands,” directing students to focus on the sensations of typing (wrist bones, musculature, pistons of the fingers). It’s impossible to obsess on a tricky audience and simultaneously stay aware of your hands.

#2: Take Charge of Reader Proximity

To evict future-based imaginary readers, switch writing materials. Notebooks and pens install the teacher in the back of kids’ heads. To gain breathing room, avoid writing materials associated with final products.

Instead of a Word document or clean notebook, gather Crayons, magic markers, Post-Its, a coloring book, food stained paper from the recycling bin, a grocery bag—materials not normally shown to teachers. This automatically marks the writing as “private”—buys your child distance from critics. For instance, I write poems in the early hours of the morning with a $1 composition notebook and a pink magic marker precisely because I will never ever show an editor that copy.

#3 Start Where You Are

Young writers often make the mistake of believing they must start from the literal beginning of a document (title, first sentence, introduction). They’ll stare at the screen forever. The student erroneously equates the timing of reading (in English, we read from the top left corner to bottom right corner, rinse and repeat) with the timing of writing (as we write, we move all around a document). 
Any final document is actually covered with the ant tracks of time—what looks like the opening sentence to us might have been the final touch before submission to a publisher.

Instead of waiting for perfection, help your child start anywhere. A mindful and more prolific approach to writing means accepting whatever the moment offers in terms of material. Ask your child where he already has something to say and start freewriting about that spot—it doesn’t matter if it’s in the dead center of the research project.

#4 Go for Quantity over Quality

Help your child mute her tendency toward correct writing in favor of lots of writing. Between the two of you, agree that she’ll complete a number of rapid freewrites of a reasonable word count, for instance 100 to 300 words. Quality doesn’t matter—fillers, repetition, poor grammar, incomplete sentences are all fine for now.

Withhold rewriting, edits, and proofreading for later, even if only for the last fifteen minutes. When your child is deeply stuck, the focus should be on creating a full, messy first draft. It's much easier to operate from a position of abundance than scarcity.

You can improve your child’s writing experience through mindfulness—as long as you keep two principles in mind. First, you should write with your child. Reach for scrap paper or the back of a bill and write alongside him. Write about anything—scribble pajamas and novel in bed pajamas a dozen times—as long as you’re seen writing. This sends an important message that while you won’t be writing their essay, you’re engaged in writing.

Second, abstain from any criticism whatsoever—not a single misspelling, comma-gone-wild, or out-of-place sentence. Your kid is struggling because she’s crouched in a mental huddle, anticipating corrections on content and grammar. For her to access the present moment, it’s important that she writes as freely as possible from anticipated correction.

 It might be tempting to tweak your child’s writing once it starts flowing—don’t. It’ll only do more harm than good. Take a breath—I bow to you—because if you’ve followed even a few of these steps, you’ve already done a world of short- and long-term good for your child writer.

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