Saturday, October 31, 2015

Teaching Kids to Write

I’ve always told my kids: Good writing is good thinking, clearly expressed.

But both had a high-school teacher who used something called the Jane Schaeffer method, which is popular with high-school educators, though it was originally meant as a temporary step for middle-schoolers struggling with writer’s block.

It is completely formulaic and unconcerned with meaning. Students are required to write introductory paragraphs consisting of two sentences, then a thesis sentence. Each of three body paragraphs has to be exactly so many sentences long, containing, in an exact sequence, three of what are called “concrete details,” each of those followed by two, exactly two, “commentary sentences.”

I watched my children quickly come up with ideas, then spend most of their time trying to fit them into the formula. The end result would make no sense. “That’s OK,” my daughter would say. “It doesn’t have to.”

Oh. My. God. This so entirely misses the point, I want to cry.

There is no divorcing form from meaning. Writing is all meaning.

This approach actively teaches kids to be bad writers, putting down meaningless words, just because.

The idea behind such a teaching method, I’ve read, is to introduce kids to the 5-paragraph, academic essay. I suspect another reason is that it makes it far easier to grade papers: You don’t have to read them, just tick off items on a rubric.

No. If you are going to teach someone how to write, you have to get into what they write.

Many writers, from Joan Didion to Stephen King, from Flannery O’Connor to Barack Obama, have said, basically, “I write to find out what I think.”

That’s what kids need to know: how to think, how to put their ideas into words, how to explain and prove things clearly to themselves and to other people.

Friday, October 30, 2015

This Is Halloween

Someone's a Halloween grinch.
It’s as inevitable as crisp weather and fall leaves. Every year, worry warts, control freaks and all-around grumps go into overdrive about Halloween. 

Why? Halloween is a nice and perfectly simple holiday.

Last year, this report surfaced: a woman in North Dakota was going to give children she judged to be overweight a letter telling them so, rather than a piece of candy, when they came to her door.

And this New York Times reporter described how he was going to give kids an economics lesson, pointing out to them that it was better for them to take the money he was offering them ($2 bills) rather than the candy. (He’s clearly a rookie at Halloween, saying that he was going to let kids “dig” in the candy bowl and see which they picked. Kids are not stupid: allow them unfettered access to the bowl and they will take it all. How’s that for logical economic behavior?)

This reporter’s miffed when kids don’t say “Trick or treat,” and even found a woman who insists that the kids sing before she gives them any candy.

Others complain, rather than feel grateful for what they’ve got, when kids, usually poor kids, travel to their wealthier neighborhoods to trick or treat.

And lots get angry or scared when teenagers trick or treat, with some towns actually having laws on the books with age limits on trick or treaters.

Oh, and those people complaining about “too much candy”? I don’t even get the premise of your complaint. What’s this “too much candy” of which you speak?

People, this is simple.

Give out candy or toys or something fun -- not apples, toothbrushes, pennies or anti-abortion literature (really) – to everyone you come across. 

Hey, maybe have a piece yourself and sweeten up a little.

For your listening pleasure. This song has been in my head for at least the last two weeks:

(The link for this.)