I wasn’t planning on teaching writing to my kids. I taught undergraduate writing at Boston University, and the experience convinced me that you can’t teach people to be good writers. People who love to write, write a lot and almost always improve. People who don’t write a lot never improve.

Also, I have good reason to think that we are nearing the end of long-form writing in the history of literature. Mostly because people don’t read it. A novel that sells 10,000 copies is a huge success. Compared to a successful online audience, that’s nothing. So people are reading, but they are reading different ways, mostly online. Just like people are watching television shows, but they are watching different ways, mostly binging on Netflix.

Then I found out my son is going to have to write an essay for the SAT. Clearly he will need to be taught how to do that. It’s a specific form with specific expectations.

I am terrible at test-taking and terrible at following rules, so I hired a fancy SAT writing tutor from NYC. She tutors a lot of kids at Saint Ann’s, which is a school that is super-hard to get into, and caters to parents who have alternative ideas for education but still want a top-tier school’s seal of approval for their kid. That sounds like me, I guess. I say that reluctantly. But if I didn’t hate school so much, that would be me.

The tutor is $165/hour. Each time I paid it I told myself it’s worth the peace of mind that he’s learning and I don’t have to teach him. After all, I’m teaching him a lot right now. And I’m tired.

First, the tutor wanted to assign him books. But I am doing a great job of finding typical high school reading books that he likes reading. And it’s fun. I love those books. So I told her that I’m choosing the books.

Then she starting teaching him the elements of literature. Plot came naturally to him. Next was character development and he got stuck. For three weeks they worked on character development. And then I remembered all the math/science kids I knew who read only science fiction.

Science fiction is very heavy on plot. That’s why my son is so good at plot. Science fiction presents a new set of rules for the world and then tells a classic plot line (though really, all plot lines are classic) using the new rules.

Character development is hard for kids who read science fiction. So I fired the tutor and I sat down to read one of my son’s books so I could teach him character development in terms of a book he liked reading. But I couldn’t bear to read science fiction. I hate it. I like character-driven books, not plot-driven.

So I looked around for character-driven books my son would like. I am obsessed with Holocaust books. So I suggested Night, by Elie Wiesel. The plot is: there’s a boy in a concentration camp; it’s all character development.

My son said,”I’m not reading any more holocaust books. They’re all the same.”

I took the opportunity to tell him the difference between plot and character development. In the context of “here is why you are sick of Holocaust books” he immediately understood character development.

So I gave him a rule: Suffering in a story is always about character development.

Then I decided to try having him read short stories instead of novels, so he could read character-driven writing without committing to 200+ pages. I gave him Cathedral by Raymond Carver.

He said, “Mom. You gave me a story where the only thing that happens is people eat a meal together.”

We talked about the meal and he pointed out I chose a story about people using drugs. (I had forgotten they get high after dinner.)

I asked, “How do you know what the characters care about?”

He said, “From what they talk about.”

I explained how when characters eat a meal together, it’s a writer’s excuse to have them talk so the reader can learn about the characters.

The rule: Eating a meal is always about character development.

Next thing I saw him reading was the Best of Craigslist. Have you ever read it? Anyone who finds a particularly hilarious ad can flag it. The Best of Craigslist captures all those, and the category became so so popular that now people write specifically to try and make the list. So I snuggled up to my son on the sofa and read the ones he thought were really funny.

The first one he showed me is a “looking for a roommate” ad. The ad said “I’m white and weigh 7000 tons.” And “The rent is steep because they charge me every day.” And it turns out the guy lives on a ship docked in Seattle.

Then he showed me one titled, No More Sex with Fruit. It’s about a guy who is trying to stop having sex with fruit and in the process tries sex with peanut butter. (So it’s in the “Free” section of Craigslist in case you’re wondering.)

I said to my son, “What’s the plot?”

My son jumped up off the sofa, complaining, “What? I’m not doing essay writing now. We’re reading Craigslist!

But then he gave an answer: “The guy’s girlfriend liked sex with fruit so he started liking it, then she dumped him and he wants to stop thinking about her so he wants to stop having sex with fruit.”

I said, “What do you know about the guy?”

Answer: “He’s sad about the girlfriend. He’s having a hard time not having sex with food.”

“Right. He’s struggling to have the self-discipline he wants for his life. You learn about people through their struggles.”

“Like you’re struggling to get me ready for the SAT by talking to me about sex with fruit.”

“Yeah. Right. I’m obsessed with helping you learn what you want to learn.”

“Okay,” he said. “I get two cookies for putting up with this conversation.”

“Wait! I said.

Another rule: Sex in literature is always about character development.

I tell him, “There’s no point in writing about sex unless you learn something about the character. Except porn. If there’s sex with no character development then it’s porn.”

Now I see how to teach the elements of literature using anything my son likes to read that I am willing to read. You don’t need classic literature. You don’t need essay writing. You can write an essay about anything you understand. And if you don’t want to write the essay, you can hire a legit essay writing service to do it for you.


Enter your name and email address below. No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

25 replies
  1. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    Yes, lots of drama in these Best of Craigslist posts:

    I am going through a difficult breakup and impulsively
    adopted 16 different types of reptiles over Craiglist.
    I have made a huge mistake. My roommates are furious.
    I have 1 ball python, 7 various geckos, a bearded dragon,
    and 2 red slider turtles.

    They are all named “Amanda.”

    No rehoming fee.

  2. Dajana
    Dajana says:

    So has he written an ad on Craigslist yet, aiming for ‘best of’ ?
    I’m sure he can find something of yours to sell. (decluttering and all). It’s more rewarding to sell other people’s stuff :)

    Six word stories are also great (Hemingway’s ‘For sale; baby shoes. Never worn.’ Is the “classic” as you might know)

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I’ll confess I’m a little out of it-when I took the SAT it didn’t have a writing section. And my oldest hasn’t taken the contemporary SAT yet. But I’ve always been under the impression that the required writing is a persuasive essay rather than original fiction it literary criticism.

    I also seem to have read somewhere that the essay is rather formulaic and subject to gaming (showy vocabulary in a standard structure), because the graders don’t have much time.

    It sounds like you are having fun talking about fiction writing with your kid. I am not clear on how that relates to the SAT though.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      There is no creative writing section on the SAT. There are the POV essays where the test taker is given a prompt, and the multiple choice questions to revise sentences and grammatical errors, etc.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        So maybe the elements of rhetoric would be a better study? Tropes and fallacies and all that? I always thought that would be a good class for adolescents.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      The essay portion is optional. Half the Ivys want it.

      They seem to change things all the time, which is one reason why teaching to a test is problematic.

      When he is planning to go to college?

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Writing for the SAT is all about the test taker’s POV based on a prompt given. You write your POV in a clearly structured essay. You don’t write a novella or develop characters or plots for the SAT.

    The problem with essay writing in general is that there is no audience for them. If your son can write well and can clearly express his point of view on many topics that are of interest to him that might work out a lot better for him.

  5. Lucie
    Lucie says:

    Fantastic post, Penelope. It shows the care and effort you put into your son’s personalised learning. This really shows homeschooling at its best, and why you are so passionate about it.

  6. Erin
    Erin says:

    I just have to say: this post really made me laugh. Great fun read.

    RULE #4: Homeschooling in a blog post is always* about character development.

    *for the interesting ones, anyways.


  7. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    P – do you listen to the Slate podcast Getting In? It’s a former Stanford Dean of Admissions and a changing cast of other college prep/counseling professionals. One of the most recent episodes advised that the March 2016 SAT is changing to become very like the ACT, so focus on ACT preparation, especially for current hs juniors. Even though my oldest is only 10, this is one of my favorite podcasts.

  8. ROSE
    ROSE says:


    FABULOUS story Penelope. Thank you.
    Its given me ideas for my home ed of my son.

    You have a great mind for this constant creative work as home school mothers.

    something teachers seriously lack.

    that’s why I also like Robinson’s CREATIVE EDUCATION.

  9. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I talked to one of my friends who scores this and other tests. For the essay portion they look for a thesis in the intro paragraph and carried out through the essay, sentencing and paragraphs; complex sentences, transitions, grammar and syntax. Comprehension, did they cite the sources… And typically for SAT there are more options than just literature to choose from. I chose to write my essay using the historical source/prompt they gave. So much easier for an INTJ than discussing the ramifications of Animal Farm et al.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      So YMKAS, would you agree with the suggestion that the essay is graded based on writing accurately rather than writing well?

      I am somewhat curious, as I have never written a standardized test essay to be graded. I did write essays for college admissions, and in those essays I concentrated on displaying erudition through accuracy and complexity rather than trying to convey the feels. It’s academic work, not fiction or memoir, and the form follows the function.

      I’m wondering whether, even if one accepts PT’s statement that you can’t teach someone how to write well, you can teach someone how to write accurately. It appears to me that you can, though (as with most things) the learner has to be engaged.

      My son has recently written a passel of admissions essays, and I worked with him to correct grammar, paragraph organization, and sentence structure. I definitely noticed improvement in his work through the series, as well as improvement in his work methods – by the end, he would write a complete first draft in one go, print it out, and give it the first editing pass himself before he showed it to me.

      Though it might not involve writerly development of voice, it is teaching how to write better.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I agree that as long as the learner is engaged they can be taught how to write properly. Thesis statement paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and closing paragraph. All the very basics can be taught and explained, but if the learner isn’t interested then I wouldn’t push it.

        When it comes to choosing literature for one to read is what I am having a hard time understanding. Why choose character driven over plot driven? I consistently choose British literature as reading material over American, I like the fantasy involved that captures ones imaginations vs. the moral story lines. That is a personal preference, but my children are enjoying having The Hobbit being read to them vs the hard life of say…Tom Sawyer, for example.

        I also don’t enjoy writing about the “feels”. That is why I was glad that there were more options to choose from on the essay portion where I could be more scientific in my essay on the SAT. I have a hard time with standardized tests in general, they don’t measure the whole child. But, I understand that a child with college ambitions today needs to prepare and take these exams to attend select universities. I still think that one can tailor their child’s education while dedicating certain hours to test taking skills. I don’t think one needs to throw out child led learning to accomplish good scores.

        With your example with your son, that is the way I would do it as well. I don’t like being overly involved and leading the charge for my kids education, although I do want to support them fully in whatever they choose. With these posts of late I’m wondering where the balance is?

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:

          Engagement is the key to homeschooling, innit? The schools have the mass efficiency of the classroom schedule, and we have the individual efficiency of studying those things that interest you.

          I find it odd that my son doesn’t like to read very much, as I was a regular bookworm at his age. Sometimes I give him crap about it. He says he prefers a two-way conversation. And he reminds me he scored in the 98th percentile for verbal reasoning. So I shut up about it. It explains why the only books he reads are for book clubs – because he gets to have a conversation about it later. This shows me that if I want him to read more books, I have to create more social occasions to talk about them. Also, it doesn’t matter anyway.

          I have an easy time with standardized tests. I always thought of it as like getting an A for free, without having to study or do any homework. I wish I could just have tested out of school, which I kind of ended up doing, so I think standardized tests have been my friend. I’m glad my son inherited that facility from me (as I did from my mother), because I don’t find it easy to explain and I don’t know how you’d go about teaching it.

          I read another good column by the director of Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles, in the New York Times. Interestingly, in the print edition it was titled “Is School Making our Children Ill?” and online it was retitled “Is the Drive for Success Making our Children Sick?” I guess she had to back down a little, maybe she sounded like a homeschooler, but I’ll say it seems to me that there’s no better time to have your kids out of school.

          I swear sometimes I think if people asked me what my greatest achievement as a homeschooler is I’d say that my son still sleeps ten hours a night at age 11.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Haha! That’s a great accomplishment! I’m not sure what mine would be, perhaps keeping my kids unprocessed. :)

            Just read that article, and the research echoes what I have seen here starting in middle school. It’s crazy. As your son prepares to re-enter traditional school what efforts will you take to help keep him healthy?

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            I always scored really high on standardized tests, they came super say to me, but I’m not sure what they really measured. That I could regurgitate facts really well?

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Auto correct…so irritating. Should have said that the tests have always been super *easy* for me.

  10. Madeline
    Madeline says:

    I teach literature to my son and his friends during school breaks. They love reading science fiction, and I love reading short stories (especially works of dead writers), so I came up with the following reading list: (1) “Flowers for Algernon”; (2) “The Bicentennial Man”; (3) “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed”; (4) “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”; and (5) “Harrison Bergeron”. Perhaps your son may like one of these stories, and there’s character development in each one. The kids I taught liked the reading selection so much, they trusted me when I told them they were going to love our next segment on magical realism. And they did.

  11. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    “As your son prepares to re-enter traditional school what efforts will you take to help keep him healthy?”

    YMKAS, it concerns me. It is something we talk about. It’s something we worry about. We talk to folks at the prep schools and listen for the buzzwords and then process some more. We talk to parents of current students at the exam schools about the troubles they’re having. When we hear schools say things like “We’re trying to cut homework down to 30 minutes per subject per night,” we notice that indicates they haven’t succeeded at that yet. I know that the phenomenon Abeles talks about is alive and well in this area.

    Perversely, I think some of the competitive prep schools might actually give the kids an easier time of it than the competitive public schools. They’ve done such a good job filtering and selecting at entry that they don’t have to be as anxious about placement on exit. They graduate only successful kids because they only accept successful kids. Perhaps the most selective schools can use their institutional prestige as something of a barrier behind which they can try to take care of the kids as individuals, in both their weaknesses and strengths. This is something my son and I hear as subtext when we talk to people at those schools. They can’t come out and say it, but it’s back there behind discussion about morning meetings, counseling, and support.

    I recently read a book by the departing head of Eton, and he seemed to feel that keeping boys away from their parents helps with reducing their stress level. At this point, my son is not considering boarding schools, but I honestly think he’d love it for the 24/7 camaraderie. I guess one lesson I can take from Tony Little is that one of the most important things I can do if my son goes back to school next year is not add to his stress by piling my expectations on top of the school’s.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      That all sounds great. When does your son need to make his decision? Kudos to you for being so present for him.

  12. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    The character in this story sounds like she is having a hard time balancing her desire for her son’s success with her compulsive need to control things. Despite putting in all the work to pick the ideal tutor to give her son the best chance, she then sabotages it to focus on not what the test is but what she feels it should be. Through her struggles we learn more about her character, and in turn more about our own character too.

Comments are closed.