Taking Dictation

To help teens write, we believe that a mentor must begin with a willingness to listen to a teen and to value what the teen has to say. But after those qualities, mentors who offer the right kind of structured and supportive writing activities can help young people who have never done well at expressing themselves.

Taking dictation is a wonderful technique for offering this structure and support because it forces a mentor to listen and focus on the teen’s written work, and it provides the mentor an excellent context in which to help with ideas, questions, suggestions, and praise.

To us there is an important aesthetic behind this activity, however, because a mentor can so easily dominate this writing experience with questions and suggestions. The aesthetic is that a teen must be given every opportunity to create on his or her own. The mentor must be involved as little as necessary, but as much as necessary, to help the teen complete a poem or story. As an example, I don’t initiate dictation with a teen without first offering the teen an opportunity to write independently and privately.

For the teens who choose to dictate their thoughts to a Pongo mentor, as many do, here’s an outline of the process:

  • A mentor can take dictation with a pad and pencil. In many settings there is no option. But it’s preferable to use a computer, if possible, so that a teen can read, change, and respond to words as they are transcribed (and so that a mentor doesn’t have to retype the poem later).

  • The first question from a teen is often what to write about. This question may come up before a teen and the mentor even sit down to work together. We always assure people that we can help them come up with ideas.

  • Before turning to pad and pencil (or computer) we will use the techniques described elsewhere in How We Introduce Ourselves to Youth . We will talk to the teen about whether he or she writes and what he or she writes about. WeI will also share some writing by other teens and ask the individual what pieces he or she likes. We will also explain the range of possible topics, from a love poem or a tribute, to a dream or a fantasy, to writing about an injustice or a personal experience. We will also explain our criteria for good writing – that it be honest and say something about who you are as a person. In other words, a mentor should present many models, ideas, and possibilities up front.

  • To begin, a good practice is to put the teen’s name and the date at the top of the page, to reinforce the sense of purpose. We then ask, “First, is there anything on your mind that you’d like to write about?”

  • If the teen starts talking, We start writing. The first line may be something hesitant or resistant or seemingly banal, such as “You don’t want to know about my dreams,” or “No one listens to me,” or “I don’t like being here.” It’s important to begin transcribing. Often a banal initial statement has profound emotions behind it. A mentor can write down the statement and ask a simple but provocative follow-up, such as "Why?" Also, writing down a teen’s words right away can easily slide into a creative process with the teen.

  • It is very important to frequently read people’s work back to them, even while the teens are creating, by taking advantage of natural pauses in the process. This reading reinforces what has been accomplished, stimulates new thought, and gives the teen an opportunity to make changes.

  • How do you turn a dictated narrative into a poem? A mentor should use line breaks to reflect inflections in the teen’s speech, pauses in recitation, and the mentor’s own sense of emotional emphasis.

  • If the teen gets bogged down, this is the mentor’s first opportunity to provide structure by suggesting writing ideas, based on how the session began. For example, if a teen is having a hard time continuing a poem about his mother, you might suggest:

    Would you like to describe a favorite memory with her?
    If you could give your mom a gift, what would it be?
    Is your relationship with your mom complicated? Would you like to write about that?

  • If the teen is still having difficulty getting started, this is where the mentor can change tactics and move on to another technique, such as Improvising a Poetic Structure or Using a Fill-in-the-Blank Activity .

  • If the teen starts dictating but then stalls, the mentor can begin a process of asking questions and making suggestions that are more and more specific:

    What was your mom wearing when you went to the zoo?
    What type of car would you like to give her? What color?
    You say your mom was angry when you dropped out of school. What did she say?

  • If necessary, a mentor can suggest actual lines, including a first line to help a teen begin. But it’s important to always directly query the teen and to assure him or her that the poem and the decision on every line belong to the teen, not to the mentor.

  • Once a beginning is made, if a teen needs help winding the poem out toward a conclusion, a mentor can use questions and suggestions to provide internal organizations of different types:

    Make lists (“What other qualities does your mom have?”)
    Ask for detail (“What color interior would your mom’s car have?”)
    Move ahead chronologically (“What happened after your mom left?”)
    Suggest situations (“If your dad knew what happened, what would he have said?”)
    Suggest images (“Are there poetic images that come to mind for the zoo trip – Did you feel bright like the tropical bird or dark like a bear’s cave or ???”)
    Ask for feelings (“How did you feel when your mom kicked you out of the house?”)

  • A very important stage in the writing process is to help the teen create an ending. You might ask a simple question, such as "How would you like to end your poem?" or "Can you give me a last example of the things that make you angry?" You may have to help the teen suggesting options for an ending. But this should be done carefully, by representing a range of emotions both sad and hopeful. It’s the ending of a poem that represents its ultimate resolution, and hence its meaningful insight for the teen who is dictating. It is especially important at this stage, even if you have to help with a poem’s ending, that you check in with the teen to make sure that the ending is a reflection of his or her feelings:

    “I wish my mom and I had more trips to the zoo, more trips together.”
    “My mom deserves the gifts I give her, especially the gift of love.”
    “When does anger stop, and a new life begin?”

  • When the writing is done, a mentor should read it aloud again and give the teen every opportunity to make corrections and changes. It’s important to connect with the teen about the work and find out the teen’s opinion and level of satisfaction with the writing. Without being forced or insincere, a mentor should compliment the teen on the effort and on appropriate aspects of originality, images, word choice, depth of feeling, thoughtfulness. If a teen is willing, a mentor can encourage the teen to share the work with others. A mentor should provide the teen with handsome copies of work, to keep and share.

  • Of course a mentor should always respect a teen’s discomfort and shyness and allow a teen to keep the written work private if desired. To protect teens, a mentor might want sometimes to suggest or offer the option of privacy when a poem describes sensitive, personal experiences or feelings. In many cases, a mentor should check back with a teen later, or the next day, to talk about the writing experience.