Opinion Writing and Fifth-Graders
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I talked to fifth-graders at Tucker School in Milton about the art of opinion writing. Those ten-year-olds were taller than I am! It took me back to 1965 when some kids in my own fifth grade used to call me “shrimp,” “midget” or “tiny tot.” Ah, childhood and its future effects on self-expression.
As a mob of laughing, chattering children found their seats, I wondered how to convey the essence of opinion writing to such a young crowd? I distilled it down to this: Prepare well and be very, very brave.
For example, writing in the first person is powerful but scary. Yet sharing a personal experience can give the reader a new perspective. However, to be vulnerable in public is not for everyone, but that’s what makes a columnist so special.
A good opinion column raises issues just as it offers insights or solutions. Without a solution, the writer is just complaining. So I asked the kids, “What are some of the social issues among you?”
One little girl piped up, “Dating!” There was a sudden, collective gasp among her classmates, and many boys yelled, “Ugh!” In trying to create a Judgment-Free-Zone, I said, “Dating! So what are some of your opinions on dating?”
The kids were adamant. “We’re too young to date.” “It’s not appropriate at this age.” “It’s way too early to even be thinking about it!” I was relieved. Perhaps it was best to steer in another direction.
“So what other social issues might you write about?” Many hands shot up with the same answer, “Bullying.” I asked them, “So what’s your opinion as to why that happens?” and the students had lots of answers.
“Bullies need a lot of attention. They bully people so kids will pay attention to them.”
“Bullies need to feel important. They pick on people to feel powerful.”
“They’re abused at home and that’s where they learn it.”
Their answers were so heartfelt. It sounded like many had been on the front lines.
“So, kids, what solutions would you offer in your column?”
“Stand up for yourself and others.” “Speak up. Don’t hide it.”
“Tell your parents.”
“Let a teacher know.”
“Ignore the bully.”
Opinion writing is made stronger with facts and research. A good idea is to find an expert and quote his or her professional advice. “Now who could you interview for your column?” I asked. These kids were resourceful.
“A respected professional.”
I made a suggestion, “Perhaps the school nurse?”
The hour zoomed by. We talked about intelligence and courage being key when tackling a form of writing that is based on “I think,” “I feel,” and “I believe.” I said, “When you’re brave, you show others how to be brave, too.”
I left reassured. Many of those kids already have what it takes!
PS to adults interested in column writing:
I will be giving a FREE column writing workshop at the Newton (MA) Public Library on Tuesday, June 23, 2015 at 7 p.m. Details here.
What a bunch of lucking kids! And what great advice they were getting. I got some refresher guidelines myself from your column. Learning not to be judgemental can be hard to do sometimes.
Great piece, and it sounds like it was lots of fun.
Joseph, thank you. You’re a terrific writer so that is high praise.
The book was a mess from my perspective.Someone made a cemmont about “verbally unsafe” that reminded me what language is often “for”… communicating without touching. I don’t find much wrong with being safely unsafe. Angry, hurt, or embarassed is uncomfortable but way down the ladder on Maslow’s hierarchy.Often a person who has become dangerous does not look dangerous, but when that person speaks it can be easy to figure out.Acting impolitely and making a scene can many times do the job and likewise is a point of last resort before a physical response.We don’t have feathers, hackles, fangs, or claws but we do have voices, eye contact, and sign language, which beat the heck out of beating the heck out of somebody. For the erudite there is always sarcasm!
Thanks for your comment, but I’m confused. Are you talking about my appearance before fifth graders to talk about opinion writing? I don’t recall any of the kids making a comment about “verbally unsafe.” The teachers certainly did not comment during the class. I do agree that all voices and free expression are vital and preferable. Emotional writing is best, authentic and real. What book are you referring to that was a mess? Were you at the class I spoke to?