At the first parent-teacher night we attended when our older son entered kindergarten, the teacher took a poll:
“How many of you consider yourselves to be readers?”
Almost every adult in the room raised a hand.
“How many of you consider yourselves at least a little athletic?”
Again almost everyone’s hand went up.
“And how many of you consider yourselves to be writers?”
Only 4 of the 30 parents in the room raised their hands: My husband and me, both writers, and two others.
The room grew silent. The teacher, knowing a teachable moment when she saw one, commented: “This isn’t unusual. Most adults were intimidated out of writing years ago. Yet as parents, your job is to help your children learn to write as well as to read.”
I’ve pondered the ensuing discussion ever since. Just what is it that makes it so hard for people to put their thoughts down on paper? And how can we make it different for our own children?
Most of the current crop of parents grew up in a time when the principal measure of whether we knew something in school was what we were able to write down. We wrote book reports. We wrote papers. We wrote answers to essay questions. We wrote stories in the styles of the authors we were reading. Sometimes we even got to write stories of our own. Except for the occasional dreaded oral presentation, we wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more.
Some of us were lucky enough to get the occasional inspired teacher who taught us to love language and use it courageously. But much of the time, perhaps even most of the time, we got red-penciled.
In their efforts to teach us how to do it right, our teachers showed us all the things we were doing wrong. In their efforts to teach us the intricacies of grammar, they had us parse sentences and practice using past participles. (I can still diagram a prepositional phrase but that doesn’t mean I always know how to use one.) In their efforts to make writers out of us, they quite often terrified us out of ever wanting to write again.
For many students of that time, the act of sitting down to put thoughts on paper became more and more discouraging. Unwilling to face more red comments and corrections, these discouraged learners figured out how to play it safe by keeping things simple or gave up trying, focusing instead on areas where they could succeed. (I wonder how many mathematicians or artists or scientists were born of a retreat from the task of writing paragraphs.) Writing became something someone else did.
Righting Past Writing Wrongs
Fast-forward 10 or so years. Now these discouraged writers have to face the whole issue again. Their kids are coming home with assignments for book reports, papers, essays, stories, and tests.
Fortunately, school and learning theory has changed some over the past 20 to 30 years. Alternative methods that focus on creativity, fostering self-expression, and enjoyment of language have been developed to help kids learn how to write. My kids have made up songs about diversity, poems about geography, and stories to show what they know about history. Spelling and grammar didn’t count.
Alternatives to writing often are offered to kids as the means for showing what they know so that even the kid who has difficulty with writing can get decent grades. This past year, my youngest made dioramas for book reports, board games to demonstrate the life cycle of a frog, and traced the route of the Underground Railroad on a map. She made star charts to show understanding of the seasons, and posters and murals to explain science lessons. Writing wasn’t an issue.
And yet, kids still do need to learn to communicate information and ideas through the written word and in conventional English. Their ability to advance in the world still depends on it. Although the advent of the computer has changed the nature of the task markedly, kids still have to know how to write coherent sentences. (No, they can’t rely on the computer grammar check to succeed. As useful as that tool can be, it is often dead wrong.)