Working with Sam: How It Works
Students meet with me for weekly lessons that transform their connection to ideas and to the art of writing.
My approach has three main steps.
Step 1: Start With What You Care About
In the beginning, I lead students through exercises that help them engage with their own curiosity. Every child cares about things. But they don’t always know how their interests can connect to something “academic”–even though they always can! Intellectualism is based on curiosity. Fanning a child’s interests is essential; leading them to connect their interests to bigger picture ideas or history is the high art of good teaching.
Step 2: You Exist Within a Universe of Other Curious People
For thousands of years people have captured the things that they’ve cared most about by writing. Through reading what they’ve written, your child can connect to their passions and interests, and then those become a part of them as they develop their own interests. Their ideas can blossom when they’re standing on the shoulders of giants. (You can look at examples of materials my students have studied.)
Step 3: Stepping into Your Part in the Play
Through writing your child can enter the ring of voices that have come to matter to them. But writing is not just a way person can express what’s in their head, it’s a way they can discover what they think. Writing can actually be a magical creative process that helps your child uncover what they didn’t realize they thought or felt. It’s a way to get deeper into themselves; it can lead them to new interests and epiphanies. Through writing, their ideas become a part of the web of ideas in the world. That’s the real power of writing.
And the Regular Stuff, Like Grammar?
Alongside all of this I cycle students regularly through foundation work (grammar, spelling, vocabulary). I compare these to dribbling exercises before a soccer scrimmage, or interval-practice before a big running race. They are not the point of writing. Writing is much bigger than the sum of these tools, just like a live soccer game is a lot more than a combination of drill exercises! But they are very important because they are tools we use to create clear writing, and mastering these gives your writing power.
This Process Has Ripple Effects
Writing and thinking are foundational skills that affect everything else. Gaining these skills often changes a student’s entire experience with learning. Watching this happen is very exciting.
This Approach vs. Standard Tutoring
Tutoring that offers homework help, or even skill-based lessons or classes, can provide a “band aid” to glaring problems. There is nothing wrong with this in its own right, but this kind of help often fails to connect a student to the joy of writing, and so limits the depth of learning. The approach described here focuses on the true transformation of a student’s skills, attitudes, and experiences with writing.
Homework help alone isn’t sufficient to teach writing, either to a student who’s behind in school or to an advanced student, because it does not individualize the writing process. Homework, especially in elementary and middle school, often follows a scripted prompt and misses an essential opportunity for a student to discover her own topic — i.e., to get connected to material and think. Homework help also does not provide enough time with an assignment to fully learn the skills associated with it. I spend many weeks per assignment with a student; we cover the material and skills thoroughly for maximized learning.
How Long Does It Take?
Writing is a craft that takes years to hone. It takes more attention to master than any other subject. This is why English is the only subject required every year through a child’s last year in high school. It is also why beyond that, most colleges require a freshman writing course, even for students who got A’s in high school English.
When guided in the way described above, students arrive faster to a level of mastery than the homework – or skill-only methods described above. Still, it takes time. With my work, students generally begin to see real progress in writing in about six months, with a breakthrough occurring a little after a year into lessons. Most of my students find themselves enjoying our work and all that they are learning and end up staying with me for three to five years.