31 March 2007

How much help is enough?

Last night, Sherryl and Margaret (two Western Women Writers) and I attended the FAW awards night. FAW, for anyone who doesn't know it, is the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Sherryl and Margaret were both judges in this years awards (and have been for the last several years). The FAW awards cover a broad range of categories from unpublished manuscripts, to manuscripts by a writers' group to short stories and poems and screenplays. They also include a number of children's awards.

I'm always amazed at the poise and confidence of some of the children who win awards at these kinds of things. I suppose I remember my own adolescent awkwardness, the shyness that made me dread public speaking. But a lot of these children look as though they were born in front of a crowd.

Speeches are optional at the FAW awards, so some people make them and some don't. And this is true of the child as well as the adult recipients. Last night was interesting because one of the children who got up to speak thanked her mother and father for helping her to write the story. I started musing about this, wondering exactly what this meant. Did it mean they offered editorial advice -- looked at commas, spelling etc? Did it mean they offered structural advice? Or did they help shape the piece in some more substantive way?

My son recently entered a competition and asked me to look over his work. I was loath to do this because I worried that that might give him an unfair advantage over those who don't have parents for writers. But what about those whose teachers help them with their stories? What about workshopping that those of us in writing groups do?

Over summer, I do shortlisting for a children's writing competition, and there are invariably entries that don't feel like they've been written by children -- they show a sophistication not just of language but of ideas far beyond the child's age in years. Sometimes I've raised concerns with Margaret, who organises the competition, and who runs several children's writing groups. Sometimes she'll look over a story and say that, yes, she's seen kids do amazing things. So, ultimately, we have to take these stories on trust, but I'm still sometimes left wondering whether one particular child hasn't had a whole lot more help than the other children have had.

Perhaps I'm super sensitive because when my daughter was in Year 7 I got a rap over the knuckles from her English teacher for helping too much with a poetry assignment. My daughter had no idea how to do the assignment, how to write a poem. I spent more than twenty hours instructing her, going through all the different forms. In the end I did help shape the poems by leading her with questions. For example, she wrote a poem about anger, and I said things like: "If anger were an animal, what sort of animal would it be?" She gave an answer, and I told her to write it down. The actual ideas and words were her own. It wasn't about cheating, or getting a better mark, it was about my trying to teach her something. I told this to the teacher, and said I didn't care if she only got a D for the assignment, as long as she'd learnt something. The teacher marked her down because I'd helped her, and I thought that was fair enough. I'm still uncomfortable with what I did, but it was the educator in me stepping in. I don't know if I was right or wrong, but I've backed off from giving that kind of help ever since, and especially wouldn't do it in a competition where there is a monetary prize at stake.

So how much should parents help with writing for competitions or assignments? I guess we all have to find our own line here, and it will be different for each of us. I've had teachers suggest I help my kids with their work. I've been horrified at times to hear friends confess they do their children's assignments for them. What do their children learn from this approach? And as any kind of judge for a writing competition for children, I have to hope that I really am judging that child's work and not the work of their older brother or sister, or mother or father, or teacher or tutor.

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