You co-founded 826 National, an organization dedicated to motivating young people to write. Was there a particular book that motivated you? A book that you find often motivates the children you work with?
The greatest motivator for a kid to write, I think, is having an encouraging and open-minded reader. At 826, we train our tutors to be encouraging of young writers, no matter how unusual the subject matter or where their writing skills are. The two things that stunt kids more than anything else are 1) the fear that whatever they want to write about won’t be acceptable, or 2) that their first drafts have to be perfect. Kids have to know, without a doubt, that writing about anything, even flatulent hamsters, is O.K., and that writing can and should be fun at that age. But when you say, your paper has to be five paragraphs long, this many sentences per paragraph, and about “appropriate” subject matter, then you’re guaranteeing paralysis from young writers. You’ve got to remove the tethers to get them started. Then you can get at the grammar on the back end.
Is there one book you wish all kids would read?
For 10 years I’ve been teaching a high school class that puts together the anthology, “The Best American Nonrequired Reading,” and from these students I’ve learned that there’s no one book or kind of writing that works for everyone. I’m always surprised at the range of reactions to just about anything. But for reluctant readers, the rule of thumb is that you have to meet them where they live. You probably shouldn’t give a reluctant reader “The Scarlet Letter” or “Middlemarch.” You can work their way up to the canon, but start with something more immediately relevant to their lives.
A lot of similarities with sparking kids’ imaginations for learning electronics…
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