Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, March 5, 2012

Watching Kids Write, I

When I began teaching seventh graders in 1966, I had no idea what to do for writing assignments.  I had written very few in my own school years (I remember one awful term paper on the White House--the building, not the institution--that I wrote--well, copied from the World Book Encyclopedia--in eighth grade; a classmate, mishearing the assignment, turned in his effort with Turn Paper written in bold blue crayon on the cover).

Philip Freneau
And in college--except for the two creative writing classes I took--I wrote nothing but "scholarly" papers (the quotation marks say it all, in my case) on such subjects as Frank Norris, The Glass Menagerie (my professor, perhaps hurried, perhaps too depressed at my text to do little else, wrote nothing at all on my eight-page effort except the grade, a circle around a typo, and a marginal comment near one particularly troubling sentence: weak passive; then, I presume, she poured herself a stiff one), and the poetry of Philip Freneau.

These are not assignments that translate well into a classroom full of twelve-year-olds.  I shudder to think what would have happened if I'd written "weak passive" on a paper.  A boy might have thought I was denigrating his ability to execute the screen pass.

Salem Searches for Satan
But I did have some good topics I remembered from my creative writing classes.  So I had my students write descriptions, dialogues, and short stories, and I offered them wisdom plagiarized verbatim from my professors: "Don't give your characters problems," I declared.  "Give them demons."  I'm surprised I didn't get a call from an angry parent about satanism in seventh grade--the sort of call I did once receive when I was talking about the Salem Witch Trials (I taught American history that year too; don't ask) and read aloud to them some rather unambiguous passages from the Bible on the subject--like Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22:18).  A very supportive parent called that night and asked if I needed any help with this community-cleansing effort of mine.  She was serious; I was more than alarmed.  And it took me awhile to explain that I was talking about the Biblical passages the Puritans used, not initiating a new student club.  ...  She seemed a little disappointed.

Those first years, it never dawned on me that I could have kids write in class (I certainly had never done so as a student--except on tests), but as the decades drifted by, I found myself doing more and more of that, initially (confession) because it took some time, and early in my career I was often baffled about what to do with all those hours every day.  But later, I realized that having kids write in class--while I circulated about, answering questions, helping them solve problems, unsticking the stuck, and putting out the occasional brush fires always igniting in a middle-school classroom--was far more than a time-filler; it was one of the best ways to help kids learn, and improve.

And, as I've written before, the other great way I discovered--quite by accident--was by writing with them.

So what did I notice, watching kids write?  And did anything change over the decades.

Short answer: A lot.

Long answer: See my next blog post.


Mercenary Moment: And remember--my two e-books (biographies of Poe and Mary Shelley) are available for Kindle-users on Amazon.com.

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