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Remembering English: One Student’s Voyage through K-12, and Beyond

Over the past weeks, our editorial staff has been reading and discussing excerpts from several classic books about teaching writing, including so far Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, Ken Macrorie’s Writing to Be Read, Donald Murray’s Learning by Teaching, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, James Moffett and Betty Jane Wagner’s Student-Centered Language Arts, Nancie Atwell’s second edition of In the Middle, and Donald Graves' Writing: Teaching and Children at Work. Our conversations have been rich, with each of us bringing to the table different insights into the texts. These are lively discussions by professional writers fascinated with the subject of how best to teach the craft they love.

Recently, while reading the Student-Centered Language Arts selections, I was interrupted by an overwhelming urge to freewrite (a practice Elbow prescribes) about my own experiences as a writing student. What did I remember learning about reading and writing from kindergarten through grad school? What insights might these memories give for teaching other fledgling writers? To give you an idea of distance from the earliest memories, I’m currently 52 years old.

Kindergarten: I had a crush on my teacher. She would take us outside on warm days, seat herself against a tree, and read to the class. Even today, I have a crush on her.

First grade: At home, I read and reread Go, Dog, Go, which slightly edged out Put Me in the Zoo as a favorite, which in turn edged out Green Eggs and Ham. Reading was a joy!

In class, we read about Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot. While I remember being fascinated by the characters’ visit to their grandparents’ farm, the whole-class readings were frustrating. Why did I have to wait for everyone else? Why were some students forced to embarrass themselves by struggling in front of everyone. I recall mispronouncing “sweat” as “sweet” during one of the read-aloud sessions and being irked at the laughter that generated. In a private reading, I’d have corrected the word immediately, given the context.

For writing, we laboriously formed print characters with a big pencil on paper containing wood pulp large enough to give splinters. (Okay, the splinters are an exaggeration, but the pulp chips were big and slick enough to distort my letters.)

Second grade: We began learning basic parts of speech. While I enjoyed getting answers right, there seemed little practical use for the information. Even today, in my community of professional writers and fiction authors, that information seems of little use.

Third grade: We started learning cursive, which I recall primarily because the shapes assigned for capital F’s and T’s seemed ugly—but we had no other options. (More about this below.)

This year is otherwise memorable for the amount of time I was allowed to roam the school library, in particular depleting its store of dinosaur books. This was also approximately the time that the school picked up an SRA program, which I enjoyed devouring—partly because I could go at my own pace.

And for Christmas that year my maternal grandmother gave me a much-appreciated copy of Tom Sawyer and of Huckleberry Finn.

Fourth grade: I remember nothing about fourth-grade English class. On the other hand, I discovered a copy of Robinson Crusoe in the school library, a novel so moving that I vowed to become a writer some day.

Fifth grade: English was notable largely as a time of spelling drills. Sometime during the year our principal let the best spellers opt out of class on Thursdays if we would attend a Spanish lesson broadcast by the University of Illinois. I jumped at the chance, though I felt bad for those left behind.

Sixth grade: This year was endless, boring grammar drill. Every night we were sent home with a page of exercises from the textbook. Every day I’d arrive in class without having done that homework. The teacher would start with the first student in the leftmost row and ask the answer to question one, then move to the next student for question two, and so on. I’d count to see which question would be mine, note its answer and the two or three above (in case someone missed an answer and a question passed to the next student or the next), then quickly fill in the remainder of the answers, just in case papers were collected. I’d spend the rest of the period creating sculptures from a kneading eraser, or making a racing car with thumbtacks and a regular eraser, or removing the clicking part of a ballpoint pen to play with as a three-stage rocket.

As I recall, I got caught without my paper finished only once, and I otherwise always pulled an A in the class. Were I to be a sixth-grade student nowadays, I fear I’d be flunked for not showing up with the properly filled worksheet in the proper pocket of the proper folder.

Sixth grade was also the year of sentence diagramming, a practice that I swear has no real interest to anyone but grammarians. Sentence diagramming is to writing what frog dissecting is to animal husbandry.

Seventh grade: I received my first C for an English assignment. It came as enough of a shock that I still remember the teacher’s name (though I won’t share it here). Our assignment was to cut a photo from a current magazine and write a descriptive paragraph about it. I found a still from the John Wayne movie The Green Berets, a photo in which an explosion tosses several soldiers through the air, and wrote a paragraph thick with adjectives and adverbs. I understand now why it deserved a C, but at the time there was no guidance for improvement. A middling or low grade without feedback is simply a “No Admittance” sign, a message that “You aren’t cut out for this.” Given how many adults today believe they can’t write, I fear that sign is posted in far too many classrooms. Fortunately, I didn’t believe the sign.

Eighth grade: Eighth-grade English class is memorable for three things. First, our teacher wrote such beautiful cursive F’s and T’s that I stole her style and made it my own. Second, she gave a test early on that had instructions to do its last exercise first—and that last exercise said to leave the others blank. The fury of erasers as students reached the final exercise certainly made a point. Third, she introduced us to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, for which I will be forever grateful. This is the second English teacher whose name I still recall. Unfortunately, both her physical and emotional health were too delicate to withstand the strain of the unruly bunch that were my classmates. She didn’t last the year.

Freshman year: Freshman English brought about another negatively memorable creative-writing exercise. I wrote a science-fiction short story about recruits for a space agency, whose final test was to figure out where they had been dropped off and then find their way home. The twist was that they’d been shrunk to microscopic size and placed on the head of a pin. This paper drew an A and the comment, “I don’t understand this sort of story, so it must be good.” But even an A grade without constructive comments is an empty pat on the back, only marginally better than that C.

Fortunately, this was a good year for research writing in science and social studies classes. The practical matter of putting together research reports taught me more about communicating well than any English course I can recall to that point. Here was writing with a purpose!

Junior year: My final memory of high-school writing was as a junior, co-authoring a new chapter for David Copperfield, in which my fellow writer and I spent twelve pages describing a drinking straw. Lampooning can be extremely therapeutic. (Satire is the safety valve of the repressed.)

Undergraduate studies: English courses in my undergraduate years seemed equally divided between transcendental and just marking time. On the one hand was a British Romantic Literature class that restored my fourth-grade dream of becoming a writer, an early creative-writing course that instilled priceless skills in workshopping, and a technical writing course that convinced me to write clearly no matter the subject. (If you have something to say, obfuscatory language only gets in the way.)

On the other hand were far too many literature courses in which research meant reading journal entry after journal entry full of erudite language but little substance, apparently just to back up one’s own erudite language and paucity of substance. I decided to ignore the torpedoes and proceed full-speed ahead by applying technical writing techniques even to literary essays—and it worked! Even having started college as a B student pursuing a Nursing Degree, I graduated Magna cum laude after switching to English, with a 4.0 in my major.

Grad studies: Grad school was another mix of frustration and fascination. For one thing, I experienced a sort of flashback to seventh grade and high-school freshman year, in that a short story I’d had accepted as an undergraduate honors project (sans commentary) was later dismissively tossed out by an instructor in a creative-writing workshop (still with no feedback). The same story had received both kudos and scorn! In retrospect, it deserved the scorn, but it also deserved constructive comments.

As for coursework, there were some great classes about teaching writing (featuring many of the writers mentioned in the introduction to this blog entry), and an extraordinary course entitled “Applied Grammar and Usage for Writers,” which despite that yawn-inducing name turned out to be a lively discussion of the ongoing evolution of language and the nature of human verbal development. (Even sentence diagramming found practical use in the context of that course!) At the other extreme was an “Advanced Rhetoric” class in which we were supposed to read five full books a week, in order to cover “the whole field of rhetorical thought” in one semester. Naturally, in the process of skimming so much material, we learned nearly nothing.

I ended my grad years having completed all the necessary coursework for a degree, with an A in everything except that rhetoric class, as I recall, in which I pulled a B. But I didn’t get my degree. Halfway through the comprehensive exam, I got up and walked out and never returned. It’s hard to imagine now—like looking back on a different person—but I remember being utterly fed up with school, with collegiate writing, with literary discourse. I had entered grad school with a perfect score on the English GRE exam; I left with little but added student loan debt and a sick feeling.

Professional years: Fortunately, partway through those college years I had found a part-time job as a proofreader for a game-publishing company. Almost immediately, that expanded into a full-time position as a designer and editor. What landed the job was a single clearly worded memo of recommendation about a project I had proofread. Technical writing had yielded a creative-writing job, which further solidified my belief in clarity. That publishing job ultimately led to my current position at Sebranek Inc. as a research writer, poet, and web publisher.

Game design is creative content conveyed through technical writing. To succeed, it must excite readers with its ideas while providing them a stepwise rules set for reference during play. In this, it is like poetry—which is art expressed through a formal structure. (Even free verse creates a structure of its own.) Or like computer coding—mathematical expressions that output something magical onscreen.

Or like teaching writing—the purpose of which should be to help students acquire the language skills they need to capture and convey their otherwise disembodied thoughts.

Conclusions: Looking back, I’m struck first by how great an influence reading has had on my development as a writer. It instilled a love of text, a distinctive sense of being spoken to across time—even centuries. (Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719.) And I realize now that the language in all those texts became a model for my own writing.

Second, it seems remarkable how little good the English classes themselves actually did. If you’ll forgive my saying so, when school served best, it did so by staying out of the way and letting me develop on my own. All too often, however, school put up roadblocks that I had to find my way around. The exception would be the great effect of practical writing assignments such as research reports. In those papers, I had to work to explain information to the reader, which required quite a bit of attention to the language itself.

Note that while I continue to love literature—having recently read War and Peace, for example, and more recently Ernest Bernbaum’s English Poets of the Eighteenth Century, both for the joy of it—I must confess a great aversion to most literary discussion in class, and especially to response-to-literature writing assignments. Given that most reading is assigned reading, and that teachers lead the discussion of theme, characterization, and so on, I can understand why so many students believe English class is a game of “Guess what the teacher is thinking.”

Perhaps more importantly, to attempt to teach writing and literary criticism in the same course is to confuse both issues in students’ minds. Unlike the aforementioned research papers, response-to-literature reports seem to call for an artificial language of “elevated discourse.” But as a working writer of instructional materials, whether game rules or writing instruction, I’ve seen time and again the success of straightforward expression. Even Shakespeare cast the depth and elegance of his thoughts in language the groundlings could parse.

But what about the teaching of mechanics? you might ask. As a poet, I’ve learned how little meaning actually depends upon punctuation. I’d add that correct spelling and grammar are only slightly more important to meaning. A mechanical error is usually more akin to a distracting spot on a shirt than to a dangerous splotch on a windshield. Good grammar, good spelling, and good punctuation are not good writing—they are merely its servants.

Am I bitter about my years as a writing student? Yes. But note that despite that, I’ve gone on to become a successful writer. This is not the bitterness of sour grapes, but rather the remembered taste of the vinegar our school system too often tries to pass off as fruit juice.

So why do we make writing so hard for students? That seems a good topic for another freewriting exercise. I’ll get back to you afterward.

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