Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Writer's Workshop by Maggie Hogan (review)

Writer's Workshop: Getting Children Excited About Writing
by Maggie Hogan
Copyright 2009 The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, LLC

Do you know what a Wee-book is?

I don't know if the term is unique to The Old Schoolhouse magazine, but it's a clever update on an old concept.

In a nutshell, you pay a small price ($1.95 US) to download very short e-books, many if not all of which have appeared as articles in the magazine.

If you want several articles on teaching math, or just the first part of Homeschooling The Rebel, because you liked the second part and don't want to send for a whole back issue, Wee-books make sense. In the old days you would have had to write to the magazine and pay for a reprint; now it's self-serve.

I downloaded Maggie Hogan's Writer's Workshop as a sample. It printed out as five sheets (I printed the book two pages to a sheet), and, while not fancy, the layout, quotes and so on are well-organized and easy to read (even two pages to a sheet).

Mrs. Hogan is a familiar name for anyone who's been around homeschooling for awhile; she has written books on homeschooling gifted children and teaching geography, among other things. She inspires confidence in her topics by letting us know that whatever it is has worked for her children and/or others; she begins this article by saying that she could see tremendous growth in her sons' writing because of the writers' groups she led, and "they wouldn't let me quit!"

So it's hard to dispute the value of writing workshops (I am a survivor of several myself); and yet, coincidentally, I read a book this past month that does exactly that. Reading Like a Writer is written by novelist and college writing teacher Francine Prose, who used to run creative writing classes in the usual workshop format, but changed her teaching style when she felt that her students were missing out on something vital. (Think Mr. Donner's class in "Throw Momma From the Train.") Prose points out that workshops can be of limited value if other people try to make you write their way; and their somewhat casual, verbal format can limit readers' reactions to "how do you feel about this" instead of drawing close attention to technique, style, rhythm, and voice. (Consider how some of the best and most innovative published writers might be treated in a workshop. Or the reverse, how something that gets praised in class can still lack meat; what gets approval may not always be the most original or most worthy writing.) Francine Prose now emphasizes close reading of published writing, taking the best short stories and looking at the why of each word, the techniques of dialogue and so on.

But here we're not talking about college writing majors who may forget that they have to read as well as write. We're looking at ways to encourage young writers in a homeschool co-op or other home-based setting, and Maggie Hogan says that her groups have done just that, so maybe the workshop does have a place as well. There are good suggestions for keeping it friendly but organized, presenting mini-lessons at the beginning of sessions, group writing activities, having students take turns in the "author's chair" (otherwise known as the hot seat), and conferencing with students. For those who have no idea how to get started, there's a whole breakdown of a first meeting with the students and their parents.

This isn't a how-to-write e-book; if you need technical help about things like plot, you'll want some secondary resources on writing itself. But it's probably enough to at least get a group off the ground. There is no specific range of ages suggested for a writer's workshop; Mrs. Hogan suggests that having a range of ages can be a good thing, but it seems to me that the very youngest or oldest writers might need a time of their own, if their interests and attention spans don't line up well.

Controversy aside, how does a ten-page e-book succeed at outlining the how-tos of a homeschool writing club? I think quite well, assuming that you can round up a handful of interested children, and that you can find a facilitator who understands the writing equivalent of painting the earth blue and the sky yellow. If that ends up being you, you'll probably be glad to have Maggie Hogan's help.

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