Mark Terry

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Nuts & Bolts

May 3, 2008
My youngest son, 10-years-old, was nominated by his teacher to attend a "young writers" conference, which was from 8:30 to noon today. I went with him, or rather, I chauffeured him there.

I think he enjoyed it. Mostly I sat in the waiting area with my iPod, listened to music and made it through an issue of Time  Magazine.

But in the middle of all this they had a little talk aimed at parents, "Teaching Your Child To Read Like A Writer."

I kept wanting to interrupt her. She was fine, an academic, clearly, probably with at least an MA or PhD in literacy education. I kept wanting to add things to what she said. At the end, she asked for questions, and I raised my hand and said, "Just so you know where I'm coming from, I'm a writer, editor and novelist. It's what I do for a living. I would recommend two things: First, you mentioned how the this author used a long sentence followed by sentence fragments. (And then she babbled on about 'implied prepositions' or some nonsense that annoyed me no end). I would suggest that when your child is reading something and you see the author does certain things like that, ask your kid why they think the author did that. Because the author is trying to achieve certain effects and simply by asking why they think the writer did that, they'll learn something."

The other thing, I added, "Was if there's one thing you can do to help your kid's writing, is to suggest they start killing adverbs, that instead of saying, 'he ran fast' or 'he ran quickly,' that your kid think of good verbs to use, like, 'he raced' or 'he sprinted' or 'he rushed.' And if they can get into that habit, their writing will improve a lot."

Then I shut up, because it wasn't my lecture to give.

But afterwards a couple women stopped me and said, "Thanks for that. We got more out of what you said than in the whole talk. She was talking at 50,000 feet in the sky and you just gave two things to actually do."

I thanked them, chatted for a minute, but I also suggested that if their kids were already writing, my philosophy is to pretty  much praise them and stay out of their way. If your kids are actually reading and writing on their own, don't turn it into another aspect of school and start criticizing it. 

Anyway, I reflected that there were a couple things going on here for me. One is that I'm not much of a theoretician. I wasn't in science and I wasn't in music and I sure as hell aren't one in writing. When I worked in cytogenetics, I didn't really want to know all the theories behind chromosome spreading, I just wanted to know how to do it. (And ironically, the journal I edit has an article in the upcoming issue where a lab spent a couple years in talks with the company that manufactures the glass microscope slides chromosomes are spread on and why in the late-90s so many labs had problems getting their chromosomes to spread...)

I'm pretty much like that as a writer. I want to know what works, not so much why. I do understand that if you have a long, run-on sentence followed by a fragment, for instance:

The moon was high in the inky sky, the wolf moon I guess they call it, though why I don't know, perhaps because it connects to werewolves, which was not a happy thought for me, having gotten lost in the woods and now sitting and shivering under the spreading branches of an oak tree.
Leaves crunched.

I understand, really, what's going on there. I do. But it's easier to show someone a passage like that and ask, "What does this do here?"

That's kind of my problem with upper-level educators. Academics in general, and believe me, I can be pretty damned academic myself, but all too often academics get all tangled up in theory, having the belief that if you know the theory, putting things into practice is no problem. (They just don't actually seem to do so very often, and often ineffectively, in my opinion. Probably because, in my opinion, there is a big difference between theory and practice).

I'm reminded of a friend of mine who runs his own media research company. He used to work for Leo Burnett, the Chicago ad agency that handles accounts for little-known companies like Coca Cola and McDonalds and Kellogg's, and then he went to a private firm, then he went to General Motors, and now he runs his own company. While at GM, he went back to school to get his MBA and took grad level courses in media research.

"How was it?" I asked.

He said, "There's good stuff there, but it's unrealistic. The professor didn't have a clue what the timeframes and problems are in the real world. He was talking about projects that ran on for months and I had to raise my hand and say, 'Usually you have 2 weeks, if that.'"

I'm not always sure all practical people such as myself are always good teachers, though. Sometimes they can be. There are certainly high-level professional musicians that don't make for great teachers and I imagine it's the same with writers. "Those who can't do, teach," is something of a joke and an insult, but sometimes it's true. And vice versa, I would add.

I don't know much about teaching writing to kids. But I know a lot about writing. So sometimes you look at what people are saying when they're teaching kids and think, "What are you, a moron?" She also had reading lists and I wanted to choke her. That subject came up quick: Any book lists for boys? I got to throw out a couple names on that one.

Oh well, what're ya gonna do?

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Oh . . . Mark . . . I could write a book on this. LOL!

I have four kids--all (well, we don't know about Demon Baby) on the high end of gifted. All . . . uniquely a challenge to teach, motivate, inspire etc. Of course, I am avidly interested in how their teachers teach, in what they teach. I admire teachers greatly. But I grow increasingly frustrated at the ones who live smack dab in an idealized teaching world. Case in point, Oldest Son. Gifted in all topics--but an actual genius in math. He THINKS in math. He is a reluctant reader--by that, he has to LOVE what he's reading or he becomes bored and frustrated and really and truly unhappy. Yet for years and years in schools the focus has been on forcing them to read an hour a night for "reading points." Nowhere in that scenario are they even THINKING that all this has done is make him LOATHE it even more. . . . that boys are not offered good choices that inspire them (a few, but no, not like the girl series) . . .until he discovered manga. I'm a Buddhist, and have a lot of Buddhist friends from Asia. He watches anime on the computer--from Japan. Subtitled. He loves the culture. He studies Ninjitsu. He DEVOURS manga. And I GET it. I get it, I get it. The emotions in it are sweeping and deep and complicated, and the good-guy/bad-guy rules are unique. It is good storytelling. But though he will READ these complex 400-page manga books and graphic novels . . . of COURSE they don't "count." WTF. He can tell you the plotlines of a series with such detail. It captivates him. But it doesn't "count." Well, f*ck it.

The same is true of his science teacher. I told him to fail her class. I literally don't care. She wanted a meeting and I told her she was so out of step and cruel as a teacher I wouldn't sit at the same table with her. She looks at his scores--off the charts. He WON the engineering Olympics. He has WON everything he ever entered. But because he "looks" spacey (wears his hair long and sort of appears less focused in his gaze) she says she has no "proof" he is "even smart." The only one who "gets" him is his Math teacher. Who says in 20 years she's only met a kid like him twice before.

No matter the subject, you are SO right. Pull them into it. Ask a "why" question. Find their passions and get the hell out of the way. Embrace them--they are sponges!!!


2:01 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I know, Erica. A lot of times I think it just comes down to: One Size Does Not Fit All.

And I do understand that teachers have a problem. Even if they have a class size of about 10, that's probably 10 different ways of learning, 10 different ways of processing information, 10 different levels of fundamentals.

It's got to be a real hassle for teachers. But what often dismays me is teachers, some of them anyway, seem to take the philosophy that: this is how I'm going to teach and they just have to adapt to me.

And why not? That's probably how I grew up and learned.

But that selects for a certain type of student as well, one who CAN adapt, and not all can.

No solutions, from this end.

4:09 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I adored Francine Prose's book, Reading Like A Writer. One of my all-time favorite books. Not exactly for kids, though.

I'm pretty practical myself. In school, the hour long discussions of where the CODA began used to drive me mad. WHO CARES? There's obviously no right answer, and we can't ask Beethoven, so why waste an hour???

And Schenkerian Analysis? Okay, cool idea. I learned all I needed about it from a ten minute explanation from my friend. No need for a whole semester of it.

Everything, to me, comes down to the question: how is this knowledge going to effect my performance of it?

I agree with your approach most: staying out of their way. I mean, come on. Writing isn't exactly a field where they're expected to be advanced at a young age.

Reading list? Just drop them off at Borders or the library. What would they need a reading list for? Why take away the delight of discovery?

There is a section of a musician's learning path where quantity is proven to be better than quality. So let 'em write, write, write. The NaNoWriMo has a really cool program for younger kids.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I agree with you completely. It wasn't really like anything the woman said was, in my opinion, inaccurate. It was just that it was, well, like: "So what?"

When it comes to kids and writing, particularly grades 3 through 5, it all comes down to get them to read--a lot--and if they're writing on their own, encourage it. You're not going to create a Norman Mailer et al in the 5th grade by fussing with their metaphors. Teach them to love to read and if they're already reading for fun, good for them. Encourage it. Want to encourage that? Give them access to a computer with a word processing program and make sure they have lots and lots of blank lined paper and pens and pencils. Read what they write and say, "I like that! Great job!"

Otherwise, you're thinking too much.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, and I would also point out that she was pretty much preaching to the choir. The kids at this event were nominated by their teacher, 2 from each class, so presumably they were pretty much into reading or writing anyway.

To me the bigger question is: how do you encourage the other 97% to read and write?

Much trickier, and I guarantee you, the answers weren't to be found in this particular talk.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I agree. I see how hard it is for teachers to teach nowadays. My kid isn't a behavioral problem--he gets good grades. It's that there's little flexibility for him to explore what interests him--the schools total focus are on passing the No Child Left Behind benchmarks, the state tests. They spend the year--a big portion of it--teaching them how to be test takers. NOT learners. Most especially not lifelong learners. And that is a shame with the system as a whole.

11:25 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Erica, I'm not sure that's a problem with the system; it's a problem with the parents, or maybe society. Parents want to SEE what their child is learning.

Problem is, you can't really see learning. You can only see tests and scores and homework.

Just like this year, I had a student who learned three pieces last summer, and has learned nothing new since then. To their view, no matter what I say, they think he's gotten nothing done this year.

But he has. He's made more strides than he has in his whole "career". It's mostly in his head and in his technique, though, and I can't "show" that.

They're patient, but most parents are not. If they pay money, whether it's tuition or taxes, they want to "see."

8:56 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Spy:
I agree. But I do think it's systemic---and this is about a societal issue. We're a capitalist society--we don't (or very little) reward the arts and passions in school, we reward a systemic, show me the test scores kind of thing as a competitive society. It's ALL (for some people) about competition. My kid came in first. My kid got into Harvard. My kid got a six-figure job. Some people are so achievement oriented. Add to that a school system that is, indeed, failing some segments in droves. So they institute testing/benchmarks. Only what's hidden from most people, unless they care about the issue, is the school spends HALF A YEAR prepping for the test. In a class, of say, 30, in some areas, there are four or five with learning disabilities, a couple with behavioral problems, a couple of ESL students, some kids whose IQs are simply lower, and so on. And then you have a handful that the entire year is a waste because they START the year able to take and pass that test that is then--so the goverment can feel better about schools--half their year of learning. Those kids pull up the test scores of those around them, and in essence, the system uses them without inspiring them. Teacher's RAISES in some systems DEPEND on those scores. Depend on them. That is so wrong--one, because look at that classroom of kids--it's so diverse and problematic. And two, there's no motivation to "place out" the bright ones.

I could go on, but . . . it's just something that makes me insane. :-)

7:57 AM  
Blogger sexy said...


8:27 PM  

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