Esther Wojcicki is the author of How to Raise Successful People. An internationally known journalism teacher, she is the founder of the largest high school media program in the United States, the Palo Alto High School Media Arts Program.
It’s a scary world as we watch the COVID-19 pandemic sweep the globe. Many of us never thought we would see food lines in America or having so much oil and gas that in some places, gas prices dipped below $1 per gallon. Many parents are forced to work from home, schools are closed for the rest of the academic year, and summer activities are uncertain. For nearly everyone, life is difficult and unstable. While we might think this pandemic is never ending, if we look at history and other pandemics, fortunately, they do end.
One of the greatest challenges for parents and caregivers during this time is managing their kids’ schooling. Many of us already know that it isn’t easy being a teacher, but some families are discovering just how hard it can be. It’s natural to worry that your kids are falling behind; in many cases, despite our best efforts, they are. After all, not everyone is a teacher, and trying to recreate a classroom environment can be incredibly difficult. Instead, you can try doing an activity that will teach your kids something new, even if it isn’t exactly a lesson your students would be doing in class.
If your kids are like my Grades 10–12 students, they’ll be writing on a daily basis, even during this pandemic. If you find yourself looking for new language arts lessons, the two following ELA activities are an excellent option. They can be done with Grades 3–12 students, and they incorporate many of the important skills that educators teach in the classroom, including critical-thinking, verbal, and interviewing skills. Plus, the activities are fun, so your kids will like doing them. The writing will be more intricate for high school students, of course, but elementary school kids can do the same activity.
This engaging lesson is writing a personality feature, also known as a personality profile. We’ve all read these types of articles in newspapers and magazines. Personality features are usually about one person and focus less on direct facts, like biographies, and more on the interesting stories in a person’s life. They’re usually about celebrities, like actors or sports stars, but they can really be about anyone with a compelling story, and that includes you, your friends, and your family. Everyone has a story!
Working with a Friend
For this activity, your child first needs to choose a friend to interview. They can talk over video chat (like Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangout), on the phone, or, if necessary, through emails. The goal is for the kids to write a personality profile about each other and post it on a blogging site like Blogger. They can keep their posts private, share them with a limited group, or publish them for the world to see. As your kids craft their personality features, they will practice interviewing, storytelling, writing, and classifying information.
Throughout the interview, kids should take notes, using either a computer or a notebook. They’ll need these notes to refer back to when they write their personality feature.
Before your kids begin the interview, remind them that a personality feature focuses on something compelling, like a unique hobby or talent or an event that changed the interviewee’s life. Your kids will have to think up good questions and practice active listening, so they can ask follow-up questions and find a captivating focus. Another great outcome of this activity is that kids will get to know their friends better, and the final product is something they can save for years to come.
The questioning can start chronologically, but kids should not write their final personality feature chronologically. Just like any other story, it can include flashbacks or time jumps. For example, kids can start their features explaining a friend’s passion for rock-climbing and then lead into flashback to years before, when the interest started. There are many ways to write a personality feature, so remind kids that there are no wrong answers.
Working with a Family Member
A second activity that I recommend is to conduct a similar interview but this time with a parent, grandparent, or older family member. This activity will give the family member an opportunity to talk about their life and get to know the child better. It’s easy to get frustrated while we’re all stuck at home, but you can frame quarantine as a chance for your kids to have interesting conversations that they may not have had time for before.
Here are some questions kids can ask:
- What were you like as a child?
- What were your favorite games?
- Were you afraid of anything and why?
- How did you feel about your brothers and sisters?
- What was school like when you were in elementary school?
- What was your favorite food?
Feel free to offer these examples to your kids, but also let them come up with their own questions. Try not to be overly directive with either of these activities; the goal is for kids to be creative, think critically, and write without fear of being criticized.
You can offer to “edit” your kids’ work like editors do for professional journalists, but if your kids don’t want to, don’t force it. Instead, you can ask them to peer edit with their friends or siblings. If you do correct your kids’ writing, try to do so with care. Over correction can cause writers block. Make sure you explain that no one writes an article perfectly the first time, or even the second or third time. The process of writing and editing and writing again is called “revision,” and it’s something all professional writers do.
There are many ways to add on to these activities. Kids can make a “lockdown book” to help them cope with being confined and give them something to do to during this time. They can write about anything and everything, but one way to start is with these interviews. They can interview family members, friends, and neighbors and collect different perspectives on how others are dealing with quarantine.
Another way for kids to build on these personality features is to illustrate the stories or, if the features are online, take photos of the interviewee and include them in the profile. Kids can also add different types of media, like videos, vlogs, or podcasts using a computer or their phones. If this interests your kids, encourage them to write out plans and scripts for these new versions of the story, just like they would for an essay.
The goal of every one of these activities is to get your kids to write and have a good time. Research shows that when kids write every day, even without someone correcting their work, it improves their fluency and writing abilities.
Keeping kids learning during quarantine doesn’t mean dropping everything else in our lives and creating professional lessons like experienced educators. As long as you provide your kids with inspiration, a few instructions, and the materials they need, they will learn something new.
For more resources to help your kids write a personality feature, watch Esther Wojcicki teach this lesson to her students and use the free student worksheet and teaching guide.
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