Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Teach Writing

Writing has long been one of the most feared and most hated subjects in school. Honestly? I think that’s true for public, private, AND home educators. I believe part of the reason for this is a hyper-focus on grammar & punctuation balanced by only a vague picture of what makes good writing good. Properly placed periods never made bad writing good, and good writing is only improved by such formalities. I love perfect punctuation & clear grammar, but it is no reason to make a student cry.

Writing is about two things: vivid detail and strong voice. My two older children and I finished reading Across Five Aprils today, and while we already knew the ending–that President Lincoln would be assassinated and would not in fact be the beacon of hope for the wounded nation that the main character so longed for him to be–the actual description of the loss made it so much more personal, so much more devastating, that my son and I wept for a loss we had known but never tasted. The detail was vivid.

In students’ writing, we must remind them to use all of their senses, or they will forget that the greatest beauty of homemade bread is the smell of it cooking and the way that its smell reaches inside you and grasps your heart like the hand of a loved one. They will forget that its taste is not flavor alone but texture, and remembering the airy lightness of a special bread made by Grandpa, who passed last year, can be like suddenly smelling his aftershave on the air. Remembering the sticky hardness of a bite taken before news of sudden loss, the feeling of it sticking in your throat as you struggle to swallow it past the grief brings back so much more than just the taste or the texture of the bread.

Strong voice is not as simple as reminding students to use their five senses. This aspect must be developed over time by asking students, “And what do YOU think about that?” It’s not that our personal opinions are more important than facts but that our opinions, feelings, and reactions are human, and ultimately, when we read, we are looking for human connections.
One of my students once wrote about how he decided to become a dentist, perhaps an unusual career ambition for a sixteen-year-old kid, but otherwise a typical writing assignment with its mundane response. Except his wasn’t. He wrote about being in a car accident, regaining consciousness, and immediately feeling for his teeth. He wrote so passionately about his teeth that I was laughing out loud, and I will never forget his essay.
When the humanity of the writer, with all of his or her foibles, eccentricities, pain, rage, laughter, and passion, comes through on the printed page, this is strong voice. Leave the reader laughing or leave him crying, and your story will never leave him.
Teaching the humanity of the voice of the writer and convincing a student that the image in his head is not on the paper of course is more blood, sweat, and tears than it is lovely philosophy.
One way to begin this process is by listening—let the student read his work to you, so that you are not distracted by his spelling or grammar errors.
Focus on content and big ideas the first time through, and immediately find something to praise, preferably two to three things. Give concrete examples of what the student did well—I like how much detail you gave about the dinosaur! This kind of compliment sits deeper with anyone, as it comes across more sincerely and serves as a measuring stick by which the student can remember that he is a good writer, but it’s also a subtle example of how to write. In your praise, you are demonstrating vivid detail.
Next, ask the student if there’s anything he’d change about his finished product if he could. Mine usually take several minutes with very serious faces to read back over what they’ve written while I actively bite my tongue. Listen, and either agree or disagree with his assessment, but remember that his feelings are involved. Writing is personal. You will always have greater success teaching a student who believes he can complete the task you’ve assigned than one who’s convinced he’ll fail before he even starts, so be gentle!
Finally, add a suggestion of your own. This is different from a correction. It’s an interested request for more information or guidance in reading. For example, you could say,
“I sure would like to know more about that dinosaur. I wonder what color he is. Imagine what he smells like! Try to use ALL five of your senses when you’re describing. Except…don’t lick the dinosaurs!” (See—no hurt feelings here.)
Never give more than two or at the most three suggestions. It’s overwhelming, and it’s too much information to remember anyway. The goal is to give the child a sense of pride in his work and the feeling that he’s good at this and can do even better next time. The simple change between believing that one can write and believing that it’s too hard produces dramatic results in itself.
Suggestions should be given according to importance. The most important thing about a piece of writing is NOT punctuation or grammar but coherence. After all, how long can you continue reading something you don’t understand? It’s a painful activity! If the writing is incoherent, ask the student questions to try to draw him out, and make notes of his answers, so that he can see how he might compose a better response in the future.
Second in importance is how focused & clear the writing is. Does the student respond to the assignment? Does he stay on topic? Does he support his ideas well? You may understand all of his ideas, but if he jumps around from one topic to another so much that you feel as if you’re suffering from mental whiplash, you might want to spend some time talking to him about his main ideas, making outlines, and filtering supporting details from rabbit trails. Again, though, be gentle:
“Wow! That’s really interesting information you included here about Australia. And I’d love to know more about the House Finch. But…I’m wondering what those have to do with dinosaurs?” There’s usually a silent pause here, followed by laughter as the student realizes his own mistake. If he defends his choices, though, be prepared to hear him out and offer suggestions for either writing separate papers about Australia and House Finches or changing the topic of the paper to illustrate the student’s understanding of the connection between these three topics. You may just be lucky enough to get a rare and beautiful peek into the mind of your child.
Only after the big things listed above are in order should we worry about grammar and punctuation. The good news? Some of those grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors will likely be self-edited by the student along the way.
This is where you could tell a student to watch out for sentence fragments or explain comma splices, my personal favorite piece of punctuation. However, if you see that basic grammar and punctuation are a problem but the big issues are not in order, you should make a note of the grammar problems and address them in grammar class, when his feelings and writing are not at stake. Teaching grammar within the natural context of writing can be overwhelming if approached too soon. I imagine that it feels like juggling to the student–remembering good spelling, punctuation, capitalization, topic sentences, content–it’s enough to leave grad students in tears! I think it’s best to keep the grammar separate from writing until the writing is so good that the grammar IS the biggest issue.
One final note. It’s easy to get bogged down with writing and feel as if you’re slogging through endless trenches of Nowhere, whether you’re student or teacher. Make sure to keep samples of students’ work so that you can both go back and look at the progress you’re making together. The difference between a piece of writing produced at the beginning of the school year and one produced in the middle or especially at the end, is the best piece of encouragement anyone can offer.

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