As those of you who have followed my blog from the beginning know, one of my favorite topics to talk about is education...especially the disciplines of language (i.e. spelling, literature, grammar & composition). It has been far too long since I have written about writing, which is the next best thing to actually teaching it. So I guess you could say this post is for me.
I have an uncompromising commitment to the notion that the best way to teach a child to write is through exposure to and imitation of The Masters. Often, students are immensely frustrated with the writing process because, from an early age, we ask them to complete tasks for which they are not adequately equipped. Namely, we require them to bring together all 5 main components of mature composition:
Invention - coming up with ideas and material
Arrangement - organizing the ideas and material into a coherent whole
Style - stating their ideas clearly and artfully
Memory - drawing from past learning in order to illustrate and defend their ideas
Delivery - engaging and persuading an audience (through written or verbal delivery)
A better method is to only expect them to execute 1 or 2 of these at a time while they are young. Here is an example of one way to do that:
Provide the students with material. When you give them a classic story to rewrite or an outline from which to write (narrative vs. expository), the aspects of Invention and Arrangement (which are usually the most difficult part of the process) are taken care of, freeing them up to focus on improving their Style and Delivery. Below is an example of the quality of work a 6th grader can produce if he is not expected to invent and arrange an original story (plot, setting and characters), while simultaneously using a variety of sentence structures, incorporating strong word choices, and engaging the intellect and imagination of his audience.
In the following case, I presented the students with Mary Howitt's The Spider and the Fly (about which I blogged earlier today). Is this subject matter too juvenile for 6th graders, you might wonder? Absolutely not. The classic fables, fairy tales, time-enduring morality tales, and Bible narratives, provide perfect material from which to work. I required the students to retell the story in prose, paying special attention to the Style of their writing. Here's what one young man came up with: (the artwork is his too!)
In an old doll house lived a cunning spider. He was feared as the most deceitful bug alive. And yet, many bugs, thinking themselves too wise for the infamous arachnid's flattery, wandered toward his dismal corner of the attic.
This time, it was a fly. A rather ugly fly, the spider decided. He soon devised his scheme. "I'll compliment her beauty, not that there's much to compliment. I'll show her her 'delicate and beautiful' face in my mirror. That usually works. (Except on that crazy cockroach who thought he was a moth. He screamed and ran away as soon as he saw himself. He would have been tasty too.)"
Soon, the fly was at the spider's door. "Come in," a foreboding voice dared. "Join me for supper." "MY supper," he added under his breath. She cautiously stepped inside. The fly, seeing the potential danger, fearing the spider's cunning, and knowing it was past her bedtime, boldly declared, "Um... I'm...uh... not...hungry."
"Nonsense," echoed the spider's dim voice. "You'll just die for what's on the menu today."
"I hope not," the fly mumbled. "It isn't 'Fried Fly' is it?"
"What!" the offended spider declared. "That would be like eating a juicy, mouthwatering,... I mean... disgusting butterfly!"
Maybe it was the spider's sardonic attitude, or maybe it was the fly's general distrust of anyone who knew what a butterfly tasted like. Either way, the fly came out of the house with the speed you would expect from something really fast. [not this student's most luminous moment, I admit. Perhaps coming up with "sardonic attitude" sapped his creative energy!]
The spider called to her, "O, Pretty Fly, come back! I was just beginning to get to know you. Your eyes, your hair, even your multiple arms, amaze me. Never before have I seen such grace."
The fly foolishly decided to come back. Carefully she approached the door. This time, the spider did not flatter her. He pounced. The fly screamed. She died. Soon she was just another head on his mantel.
MORAL: Don't listen to flatterers. Especially eight-legged ones.
Now that's not too bad for an 11-year-old. Because he was handed a clever story from a wiser, more experienced source, he gains on every side. He delights in a well-told story, he intuitively absorbs the elements of a finely-tuned narrative, he gains wisdom, and he discovers that he can add his own resources (humor, word bank, perspective) to creatively retell it. And all of this was accomplished with little to no frustration on the part of the student OR the teacher. And when it comes to writing...that is no small feat!