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?

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10 Responses to “Why You Should Teach Your Kids to Steal”

  1. Michelle Proulx May 29, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    What a cool theory! They do say that good writers are avid readers – you just take it to the next logical step 🙂 I imagine you had to remind them several times that, while good for a lesson in class, they can’t actually do that sort of thing in real life, lol.

  2. Climbing Tree May 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Brilliant idea. to actually lift the words from the pages and them change them out. It is a perfect way to show rather “teach” things like description, detail, and dialogue to students. Cool beans.

  3. Jeyna Grace May 30, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    Stealing words is a way of learning to write better… however… most people tend to steal ideas, not words, and thats when its wrong.

    • thatwritinglady May 30, 2012 at 9:35 am #

      True! It’s a tricky line–I always teach my students how important it is to cite sources in any nonfiction work that they do. How would you teach your kids the difference?

      • Jeyna Grace May 30, 2012 at 11:12 am #

        I wouldnt really use the word steal, rather the word learn. Learn from writers, but dont steal from them. Though, i think you have a cool concept going.

  4. Montessori Motherload June 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    What an interesting idea!

  5. Stephen Lewis June 12, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    Thanks for reading my short piece ‘In Praise of English Teachers’. I like this idea a lot. Years ago, for ‘fun’, I translated Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) into English. The need to read closely not only enabled me to translate it but also meant I could study the form and style. So I’ll try it in English. Just need to pick a book I like. Stephen

    • thatwritinglady June 12, 2012 at 10:10 am #

      Thanks for commenting! That translation exercise is a great idea–I might even get some of my bilingual students to work on a project like that next year….

  6. microrrelatososhortstories June 19, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    This semester I introduced them to the fine art of BORROWING…that is using someone’s words but giving them credit…it has been complicated but practice will turn this random act into a habit, fingers crossed…btw, I have also used translation as a way to aid my bilingual students in paraphrasing and summarizing… I learn as I teach, I just wish they were as eager to learn as I am 🙂 thanks for all your wonderful ideas, tips and posts, read you soon, Alexandra

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