(Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
Now that the semester is a few weeks old I thought I’d like to address a subject where I am very much in the minority.
The teaching of writing, like most high school subjects, has changed very little since I was in high school in the 1960’s. I think my teachers were wrong then, just as I think the teachers I meet at national conventions or on the pages of scholarly journals are wrong today.
Here’s how I think writing is taught nowadays.
At the beginning of the school year teachers face a new crop of young folks. The first question they want answered is, how much do these new students know about putting ideas on paper?
So they poke around a little. They ask a few basic questions like, what’s a noun? Can you use a verb in the past tense when that’s called for? Can you find the subject of a sentence?
The answer almost invariably, is no, to all these questions, or at least not consistently enough to satisfy the skeptical perception of the new teacher.
And so we enter the circular world of writing instruction.
The new teacher exclaims, how did these kids get to ___th grade without learning anything? I’m going to fix that. It’s remedial English 1.0 for you kiddo’s. Worksheets on subject-verb agreements and proper nouns abound.
We can’t have these kids writing actual essays until they know the basics, is what I hear.
Thus weeks are spent, every year, re-teaching “the basics.” State tests are trotted out to demonstrate that Johnny can’t tell an adverb from an adjective. Who and whom are misused abundantly.
If things go according to schedule students are permitted to write actual paragraphs by December, and a five-paragraph essay by March.
I do not want to bore you with sophisticated, “research-based” theories about how children learn to write—though I’ve read dozens of books on the subject. But just this once I will call in the heavy muscle.
Frank Smith is, to me, the eminence grise of writing instruction, at least in the English language. I’m going to risk a long quote here mainly because Professor Smith is better at saying all this than I am:
“Like singing, dancing, and play,” writes Smith, “writing may be one of those activities that all children enjoy—until all too often, they become discouraged or disinterested because something happens to inhibit their free and natural expression. And that something that happens can often be associated with education or training; it results in a loss of spontaneity, a painful self-consciousness of 'error,' a reluctance to perform and learn because of a perceived inability to achieve certain extrinsic standards.”
Which is why I think the best thing I can do as a ninth grade English teacher is to get my students to write and write and write without undue concern for the mistakes they make—and they do make some whoppers.
I do show them their errors—when time permits. Since I have 140+ students that means many pieces of writing go un-commented upon. Enough spelling errors to fill an ocean pass through my hands without being red-penciled.
In addition to asking for a great quantity of writing I do my best to show them the purpose of writing. I give them an audience that, I hope, they care about.
My faith, obviously, is in the healing value of practice. My most-often cited metaphor is shooting layups. I don’t critique each shot; I believe there is a natural self-adjustment that takes place. My part is to, occasionally, offer helpful suggestions.
As the man said, we don’t need no stinkin’ extrinsic standards.
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