Our “Incidentally” column shares English Teaching Resources & opinions about the state of education, from a teacher who has worked the systems for almost 25 years.
L.L. Barkat is K-12 permanently certified, holds a Masters in English & American Literature from New York University and a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and has taught at every level of education preceding graduate school.
From college teaching of business and group dynamics to elementary teaching at a troubled urban district, from high school teaching at a private Hebrew day school to high school teaching at a leading U.S. public school, then on to K-8 of home educating two daughters (who are now enrolled in accredited distance learning schools for 9-12), Barkat has managed to form a few enthusiastic opinions about education along the way—and a whole lot of love for learning that she now pours into the business of Tweetspeak Poetry.
She is now sixteen years old. She writes things like…
“The unnamed narrator, whose existence is from the first liminal, also has the power and freedom of the role which comes not from the situation but from the intense self-possession of the character, that carries through even toward her death, and with the long-ago sense of the poem, even beyond the grave. Yet, even the narrator is not clearly the character that is spoken of, but becomes her through the telling. This sense of mutability exists on every level…” (read more Poem Analysis: Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind”)
At fifteen, there was this…
The end of the day does not break, like glass—
maybe; you can catch it, with broken string
on an old piano, black notes white notes
falling out the window and the shatter—
bends. Breaks. The other cacophony sits
silently watching, fingers bend like wood…
I’ve written a little about how I educated my children, in Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing, but people ask for more. They want to know: how do you teach kids to write the way your girls write?
Read aloud to them, I say. A lot. And let them sit for hours and lose themselves in books. Without demanding “a response.” (Fastest way to kill the love of reading in a child: make them respond and respond and respond. Don’t let them dream the reading deep into themselves.)
People think it can’t be that simple. Reading won’t make good writing. You must teach a child to write.
So teachers compel students (albeit because teachers are compelled by standards and common cores and no-student-left-behinds) to write. I did it myself when I was a public school teacher. I apologize to my students now, especially the elementary level students.
Must we teach children to write?
All children are writers. We ruin many of them by putting paper under their noses and pencils in their hands and demanding: write. They cry. (Oh, I’ve heard stories and seen it myself). They lie. (The dog ate my journal is alive and well.) They despair. They don’t care. Some make it through the system. And then they spend years unlearning what we compelled them to do.
When I left public school teaching, I took a risk with my own children. I had a hunch, based on my habits as a professional writer: you don’t need to teach children to write. Just give them space to play, to talk, to dream.
It was a risk, a very real risk. What if I ruined my kids? What if they entered high school and took the PSAT and proved to the world how wrong I’d been?
I took the risk.
It is not cool to brag about a child’s test scores. So consider this to be something besides a brag. Consider it to be part of your personal research into the question: must we teach children to write?
My eldest has now taken the PSAT twice. Once as a tenth grader and once as an eleventh grader. Her respective percentiles for the English sections (critical reading & writing skills): 99th and 98th the first year; 97th and 99th the second. I’m happy with that. Relieved, even. There’s been so much pressure all these years, as people spoke their doubts to me.
Here is how I taught the girls to write (all the way through middle school):
1. Took time to read to them, a lot.
2. Let them read to themselves (or listen to books on CD). A lot.
3. Never once asked them to write. Anything. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.
4. Never once graded them on anything they wrote. Not once. Ever. Never. Likewise, no writing tests.
5. Let them “play story” for hours on end. They would come downstairs after a marathon session with dolls, blocks, legos, string (oh, the Barbie zip line contraption was memorable).
“You just wrote for three hours, ” I would tell them. They told their friends. Their friends balked. “That’s not writing!” Quibbles would ensue.
6. Wrote, and wrote, and wrote. The girls saw me do that. They asked for paper and pencil. When they wanted to, they wrote, and wrote, and wrote too (last year, my eldest wrote 45, 000 words of a novel, just because).
Must we teach children to write? I don’t believe so. Instead, we can say—as they play and “story” the days away—“Incidentally, you just wrote for three hours.”
Teaching Tool: Children will play if we let them. Even up through middle school (okay, and won’t adults even play?). Provide ample space for play in the day and the classroom. Is your district cancelling recess? Don’t let it go unchallenged. And while you wait on the powers-that-be, consider giving the kids recess in your own room.
Writing is primarily an act of the mind, not of the hand. Writing comes from living, reading, speaking. 99% of it never gets put on paper.
Decide that this is okay. Give your kids a bucket of legos. A lump of Playdoh. Read to them while they play. Or sit down and let a CD read while you play along. You could even simply let them talk-story amongst themselves. Talk precedes written language! Trust that if they want paper and pencil, they’ll let you know.