Archive | May, 2012

Why You Should Teach Your Kids to Steal

29 May
Two of Beerbohm's self-portraits. "The Th...

Two of Beerbohm’s self-portraits. “The Theft” depicts him stealing a book from the library in 1894. “The Restitution” shows him returning that book in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I taught my students how to steal. It was the best lesson I’ve done in ages.

No, I’m not talking about petty shoplifting or muggings. I’m talking about a blatant, shameless, grand larceny of ideas. I’m talking about stealing words.

Typically, we teachers frown on copying, but I argue that copying other writers–stealing their syntax and flow right from under their noses (or proses?)–is one of the best ways that students can learn to write. In our focus on originality and personal expression, we can often forget that human beings learn best through mimicry. The same way that we learn how to cook by watching Mom and copying her recipes, we can learn how to write by stealing from better writers’ stories.

Recently, a fellow teacher and I showed students how to write the first chapter of a novel by having them copy the first chapter of the Hunger Games sentence by sentence–mimicking the exact structure and purpose of each Hunger Games sentence (description of setting, action, dialogue, etc.) but changing the individual words themselves to suit their own stories.

My students have never written so well in their lives. The scenes were full and detailed, the sentences were varied and interesting, and the dialogue was punchy. And my students noticed the difference, too–they began to get the feel for pacing and structure in a way that they never had before. Far from being bored or annoyed, they were inspired by having such a clear road map (and I imagine they enjoyed as the sneaky fun of intellectual theft as well).

Do you ever ask your students to steal from other writers? If so, when and how do you do it?


The Most Important Thing We’re Not Teaching Our Students

9 May

Last week, the CRCT (a local standardized test) swooped down upon the Chatham County Public School System. With its intimidating blank answer sheets and telegraphic “STOP DO NOT TURN THE PAGE UNTIL INSTRUCTED STOP” commands, it bullied students through a battery of tests on math, reading, social studies, and science.

Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These tests try to cover all the bases of a good education. Though we can debate till the cows come home whether or not standardized tests measure student achievement in these areas reliably (I, myself, am still forming my opinion on this topic), there is no arguing the fact that these tests completely fail to measure one extremely important element of a child’s education: emotional intelligence.

Though we may be teaching our students basic academic skills, are we teaching them the emotional intelligence they need to use those skills thoughtfully? How can we tell?

Studies show that students who demonstrate emotional intelligence (which includes being aware of, understanding, and managing one’s own emotions and the emotions of others) are far less likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. They are also more likely to become successful leaders and entrepreneurs.

Writing teachers are in a unique position to teach this skill; studies show that reading and writing increase emotional awareness and help students to put themselves in others’ shoes (see this New York Times article for more details). So why isn’t this kind of emotional growth just as big of a focus in schools as the ability to comprehend a scientific passage on toads? Why don’t we try to measure this, too?

There are lots of interesting “EQ” (emotional IQ) tests available to educators, and I am thinking of using them in my classroom to assess my own students’ emotional growth over the course of the year.

What do you think? Should we give our students “EQ” tests? What are some other ways that we can measure the effect that we have on our students’ abilities to handle their emotions?

To Bleep or Not to Bleep? (Ideas for Solving An Age-Old Teacher’s Dilemma)

2 May
Vector drawing based on Image:Profanity.JPG En...

Vector drawing based on Image:Profanity.JPG English: swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuvahahmo Nederlands: Schelden en vloeken in strips 粵語: 粗口 中文: 罵髒話 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing teachers are supposed to encourage students to express themselves openly on paper–but what about when students want to use profanity to do it? Should we let them?

I face this question all the time, especially since I often work with students from neighborhoods where profanity is an important part of the vocabulary (and I don’t mean this sarcastically–words that might be offensive to me are often, to these students, signifiers not of disrespect but of cultural identity, familiarity, and even affection). Should I play it safe and tell these students to censor themselves (risking turning the students off to writing and stifling their voices), or should I let them express themselves openly in their writing (risking making principals or PTAs upset or, worse, failing to teach my students how to speak in a formal setting)?

Here are some of the solutions that I have come up with that have worked well for me:

1. Separate “casual writing” from “publishable writing” and provide a time for each. I ask my students to keep a free write journal in which they are free to use whatever language they like, including profanity. I comment on their free writes, but only in a social, “pen pal” kind of way. This has a huge effect on their motivation in class, including on the more academic assignments (which I refer to as “publishable pieces” since the goal of a Deep writing workshop is publication).

2. Have an open discussion about why profanity makes for boring writing. When you ban something because it is “bad,” you only make it seem cooler to your students. But when you show them how it makes for lazy, uninteresting writing, they will decide for themselves to abandon it. (For example, why would you use a lazy and extremely vague word like “b*tch” to describe an annoying person when you can make your writing much more interesting by telling us something that this person did that illustrates who they are and what makes them a unique and memorable character? Taking the lazy shortcut just makes your writing sound mundane.) This tactic has had a tremendous effect on my students’ writing without making any of them feel like I was censoring them.

3. Allow profanity if it is in a direct quote or if the word itself is a subject of major importance in the piece of writing. Great modern authors use profanity all the time–but they always use it for a specific reason. I tell my students that I will accept the same from them. I would have missed out on a lot of fantastic writing if I had not allowed this exception! Honesty is a crucial element of truly great writing, and if a student grows up in a family where profanity is commonly used, and you ask them to write a story about their family, you can’t in good conscience expect them to lie about what other people say–that would make the writing bland, and it would also make the student feel as if they have something to be ashamed of. (Though if I publish these pieces, I usually warn the student that I will bleep it out for the sake of the principal, etc. The students don’t usually mind this.)

What do you do to deal with profanity in your students’ writing? Feel free to share your ideas!