Tuesday, October 05, 2010

More writing education woes

So I wrote the last post on writing after I did Anda's English/writing curriculum (for English this year, she's learning about parody/fractured fairytales, Shel Silverstein, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, plus a little on grammar, punctuation, homophones, synonyms/antonyms, storytelling, touch-typing. cursive writing, and spelling).

Today I did Caleb's English curriculum (word roots and origins, The Hobbit, Around the World in 80 Days, A Christmas Carol, Stories from Shakespeare, writing effective paragraphs, figurative writing and other fun language stuff like puns and palindromes, descriptive writing and a smattering of grammar, punctuation, spelling, handwriting, touch typing, and editing skills).

As a writer and as a teacher, I find the writing curricula out there absolutely agonizing to dig through. I can't find good materials to save my life! I think I mostly resorted to college writing lab materials for some of the stuff I needed because the materials written for elementary school were so unbelievably awful I couldn't use them.

Biggest flaw I found: examples that clearly illustrated only that the person who wrote the material didn't understand the concept themselves. (Take this worksheet as an example: http://www.abcteach.com/free/p/poetryprompts_similes.pdf.  Their example simile is "The tree was as tall as a house."  It IS a sentence comparing two things using like or as. It is NOT a simile because it is an actual measurement. The tree really was probably as tall as a house. That's a legit quantitative comparison, not an example of figurative language. So now how are the kids supposed to figure it out?). The teaching materials out there are rife with non-examples of personification (just having an object do something uncharacteristic is NOT personification), simile, metaphor, puns that really aren't (these were the worst! Like this non-pun from Buzzle's pun page: "A gossip is someone with a great sense of rumor." -- http://www.buzzle.com/articles/pun-examples.html-- It's a nice play on words. Not a pun, though. Not even by their definition.)

Second biggest flaw (and probably more damaging): Using examples that are so poorly written that they are almost unreadable. How are we supposed to be enticing children to write and read if the stuff we feed them is unpalatable? The very worst of these examples were on the "show, don't tell" lessons. They would give an example of "telling" and then an example of "showing" that was more descriptive and much much worse writing than the "telling" example, leaving me saying, "But why would I want to write like that?!" (like here: http://www.writing-world.com/basics/dawn02.shtml "Squeezed into the corner of the room at the foot of the bed was a chest of drawers. On top of the drawers was a single electric hotplate. Opposite this was a sink piled high with dirty pots with a toothbrush just visible, peeking out through the handle of a mug. Facing the bed was a small table with a fold up-chair. On top of the table was an overflowing ashtray and yesterday's newspaper. Behind the door stood a mouldy wicker waste bin full of ash and cigarette ends."  Might be descriptive, but it's choppy, unimaginative writing that has no beauty, no life, and no character in the words or the images. Plus the images are strung together in a way that doesn't really paint a picture for the reader....)

One of the ways teachers manage to accomplish these two awful mistakes is by following the ongoing trend of using student writing as examples. I can see what they're thinking, sort of, but student writing is rarely good writing. Even good student writing is not usually good writing in the broader sense. Writing teachers are taught that this is good pedagogy, but it's not if you want your students to a) like writing and b) get good at it. They need examples of good writing from the best writers. 

Another flaw is the teachers, being poor writers themselves, are too prescriptive in their writing education. That's funny coming from my mouth, because I am a HUGE fan of teaching people the skills they need to write, rather than making them read a lot of mediocre writing and expecting them to learn by osmosis, which is how the majority of writing is taught K-12.  The trouble is, when elementary teachers aren't expecting people to learn writing by osmosis from bad examples written by other children, they are out there laying down laws that are so restrictive they take all the life out of writing. Take any lesson on "The five-sentence paragraph" and you'll see what I mean. No space for expression. It's awful. There is absolutely a place to for teaching structure in writing. Good writing DOES have a structure and even bad writers can learn to adequately express themselves given the right guidelines, but teaching all students at such a young age that there is only one way to do it right is a mistake! The focus should be on, in this order: 1) having something to say, 2) expressing it convincingly, and 3) making it clear to the reader. The "5-sentence paragraph" lessons aren't completely wrong. They're just too restrictive in saying there is ONLY ONE WAY to do it right.

Yet another thing that absolutely grates on me is poetry education. Anyone who has children write acrostics as "poetry" education has no idea what poetry is.  I have spent years successfully teaching poetry to kids who've been taught to HATE poetry by the elementary curricula. How do you do it? Number one biggest thing is to have them read a BUNCH of REALLY GOOD poetry in different styles, expressing different things, from different poets.  You cannot teach children about poetry by having them write pseudo-poetry that always comes out bad. The kids know it sounds bad. They know it doesn't make sense and doesn't express any of their own thoughts or feelings. How is that teaching them anything except that poetry is dull and they can't write it anyway?  Poetry education should not include assignments to write poetry except for extra credit. Good poetry should inspire those who can write poetry to write it, and there's no use forcing people who don't have the interest or gift to try, especially since writing poetry is not a vital life skill (and I say that as a person who loves to both read and write poetry).   

So, to teach poetry, children should read and have read to them (even up to college age) good poetry. They should have a chance to examine the techniques poets use (which, when skillfully used, are amazing!). They should be exposed to the inner workings of poetry, like rhyme, meter, figurative language, repetition, etc., in great poetry. They should be told that they are expected to not like every poem and that THAT is okay. 

That said, it hasn't been a total waste of time searching for resources, and I didn't end up writing all my own materials for the kids.

There are a few really really good resources out there for teaching English. For example, Scholastic has writing lessons by some of the best writers out there. You can access them free here: http://teacher.scholastic.com/writewit/?lnkid=TNav:SA:Write%20and%20Publish&ESP=SA/ib//acq/write_publish_tnav_SA///nav/txtl////
With even more great stuff here: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/clf/tguidesitemap.htm?lnkid=TNav:SA:Computer%20Lab%20Favorites&ESP=SA/ib//acq/comp_lab_fav_tnav_SA///nav/txtl////

There are a lot of GREAT activities here: http://learner.org/interactives/

Some good stuff here: http://www.ngfl-cymru.org.uk/eng/vtc-home.htm (but some of it is only in Welsh!).

Also TONS of great stuff here: http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/ and at its sister site: http://www.primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk/

I've also found fantastic resources coming out of museums, libraries, middle schools, and individual author websites. So there is hope out there.

But I do feel sorry for all the millions of kids who are expected to somehow learn to write using the trash the teachers are giving them!

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