Saturday, October 20, 2007

Helping my kids with writing

When I was scrawling in my notebook on what became this post about outcomes, I ended up with a thought that surprised me. I'd been writing about what kind of positive outcomes this research might result in, particularly in helping practitioners improve their situational effectiveness in the heat of actual practice. And that got me on to thinking about helping my kids (both now in their teens) with their school assignments, especially writing (as they get farther on I'm not of much use with science, math, or Spanish, but writing is still something I more or less can do).

When I help them with their writing, I don't give them much by way of general principles and big ideas. Instead we look at specific sentences, words, paragraphs in the context of what their assignment is about, and I try to help them see what works or doesn't work in that context. Sometimes I can gloss the specific example with a general principle -- for example, don't use passive voice -- but the real help I provide is very close-grained. Little formations in the immediate context of the whole. It's not giving them the answers, instead it's (hopefully) helping them to see how to come up with the answers themselves.

And I realized while writing about this that I love doing it. Working up close with the materials they are trying to shape, helping them to discover what works and what doesn't and why, which they have to do for themselves because telling them doesn't help. It has to come from the inside out. My role is to help that process along, and it happens by the simultaneous close engagement with the materials and medium itself (what they are writing about and how they are doing it), with my interactions with them as people, with an attitude of love and hope and respect for their own intelligence. I know they can get it, they just haven't gotten there yet. There is something about that close work with the words and sentences and meanings, with the styles and effects, with thinking through the consequences of different choices, with providing an example but only to help them to see why it does or doesn't work in the context, helping them towards being able to do it on their own, that in doing it I feel like my life may be worthwhile, that I have given something that matters to someone whose flourishing I deeply care about. It's kind of like when I taught them to ride bicycles. That skill, too, has to come from inside, I can't ride the bikes for them or tell them in the abstract how to do it. I had to help them to learn the little tricks of balance and navigation and the confidence that they don't need me holding the bike up straight, but ultimately what mattered was when they could get around the running track on their own, that look of pride and freedom on their faces when they had done it. Then I felt like I had done something worth doing.

This area, the fostering of capability, is a huge motivation to me in the research work. Somehow among all the scrabbling, setbacks, and long hours of video analysis, if something emerges that can be of help to people trying to achieve and express what they are trying to do with these new media, seeing for themselves why something does or doesn't work, coming up with their own inspirations, it will have been worth it.

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