Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Education Reform Lessons from an 8-Year-Old Author

Guest Post by Gwyn Ridenhour

Eva is a self-published, touring author of two books. She has sold over 100 copies. She has her own website, and she lectures about the craft of writing. Eva is my 8-year-old daughter who was given the freedom to begin developing these amazing talents two years ago when our family left school and began to home educate. She, along with my 11-year-old son, are members of a family that studies traditional subjects, such as history and math, and also devotes a large portion of our time toward creative endeavors.

It seems everywhere I look lately, teachers and parents are increasingly dissatisfied with the one-size-fits-all approach of public education. Many feel that our nation’s fixation on standardized testing is ruining the prospects of our country’s young minds. While there are many ways to approach this issue (I am prone to rant about policy changes, the inefficiencies of differentiated instruction, and the pathetic wages and support we provide our teachers), I think there is a lot to learn from my experience with my daughter.

I believe that nurturing one’s creativity, passions, and problem solving skills is the most important piece of education, and I was determined that my children would have ample opportunities to do so. Eva has always been a storyteller and an avid reader. So when she was six, I decided to let her “reading class” be devoted to telling a whole story, from beginning to end.

We used the online resource National Novel Writing Month, and I printed out their free workbook that helps kids think about characters, setting, and plot. When I gave it to Eva, she accepted it as a treasured gift. We used it sometimes in “class,” but mostly she used it on her own, jotting down notes and drawing pictures of her characters. In October of that year, I sat down with her and a notebook. Because she was still learning how to hold a pencil, I told her that for this exercise I would be her hands as she dictated to me. I asked her questions about her story, and over the month she created her framework and I jotted it down as an outline.

The challenge of NaNoWriMo is to write a book in 30 days. Eva and I set her word count goal at 2,000 words, or five or six sentences each day. Some days she would dictate 20 sentences, faster than I could type them, and some days we’d do nothing. We kept an eye on the calendar, but paced ourselves. In 30 days, she had a complete story.

Lots of kids write wonderful stories, but they are stuck in notebooks and stuffed away in drawers and boxes. I wanted Eva to experience being a writer as something special. So I printed out her story and had her read it out loud, several times. She identified a lot of her own errors, and I taught her about verb tense and punctuation. She made all of her own corrections.

Then she illustrated it. This took a couple of months, and there were many times that she wanted to quit. But we stuck with it, and eventually she had her pictures ready for scanning. I put them into her book and then sent it off to a self publishing website. By April, Eva held her very own hard-cover picture book. She was thrilled. That day she said to me, “Mom, I used to want to be a princess. But now I want to be an author!”

The next year she doubled her word count and produced a beautiful chapter book. We promoted her books to friends and family, and created this website so she could share her work. The release of her second book coincided with the publication of my husband’s first novel. So this summer, our family drove across the country, and the two of them did book signings together. I watched this formerly shy princess morph into a confident novelist and salesperson.

When we returned from the tour, she was on fire. She wanted to inspire other kids to write books too. So we devoted the month of August to “creative homeschooling.” Both kids had to clock in a certain number of hours per day for school, but their work would be creative endeavors. Eva and I co-wrote a series of five, two-minute lectures, in which Eva talks about the craft of writing using her own experiences. We filmed and illustrated the videos, and uploaded them to her website. Check them out here if you have a minute, and then help her pursue her dream by sharing them with teachers, parents, and kids.

In public school, we give kids punctuation worksheets. Eva learns it by editing her own story. Public school kids receive spelling lists each week; Eva learns it by writing and revising her own work. In art class, we teach kids to draw by copying a picture. Eva explores drawing by illustrating her own characters. In reading class, kids read texts and complete worksheets on characters, setting, and plot. Eva has mastered these concepts by creating them and teaching about them.

Kids learn by doing. By actively pursuing her writing as a career, Eva has learned all the standard lessons of “reading” class, as well as lessons on public speaking, publishing and promotion, accounting skills and profit margins. She now sees herself as an accomplished author who has a lot to offer back to the world. These things can’t be taught in a textbook, and can’t be measured by standardized tests. It’s tragic, but if she had stayed in public school, she would have never had the time to find these dreams.

I don’t have all the answers about how to bring this kind of individualized, project-based learning into the public schools. But I do know that our nation’s continued commitment to standardized testing and insistence that teachers follow a pre-set curriculum is misguided. It’s time to focus on kids as individuals instead of assembly line products, and to give them the tools they need to be successful, happy adults.

Gwyn is a late-30′s wife and mom, environmentalist, advocate of quality education with an emphasis on gifted kids, vegetarian, artist, and a lover of books, a glass of red wine, watching birds and growing things. By trade, she is a children's librarian and a homeschooler. You can find Gwyn at


  1. Splendid! I have a "junior author" who has been writing micro-books for a couple of years. Such treasures! He gave away his first one recently (a copy made on a cheap copy machine), and his friend LOVED it.

  2. That's fabulous Pamela. My husband and I have given workshops to kids teaching them to write their stories, and that's one of the things we emphasize: there are many ways to "publish," including using a copy machine. Kudos to your junior author!