It’s hard to distract a guy who’s escaped New Hampshire’s frozen tundra, pedaling his bicycle along the quiet streets of sun-drenched El Mirage, Arizona, in shorts and a T-shirt, working out the kinks in sore muscles obtained in a chair-yoga-for-seniors class.
But distracted I was, so much so that I nearly rear-ended a golf cart headed for the 19th hole.
I couldn’t stop thinking about an article I’d read earlier that morning by an education columnist lamenting the sad state of writing instruction in our public schools. The writer sites a study by the nonprofit Education Trust. Of 1,826 literacy assignments in six urban middle schools, “about 18 percent required no writing at all, 60 percent demanded just note-taking, short responses or a sentence or two. Fourteen percent required students to write a single paragraph, and only 9 percent went beyond that.”
The columnist’s solution? “How about a once-a-month editing bee with volunteers who know what good writing is, including the many retired or semiretired wordsmiths in our communities?”
This writer deserves kudos for offering what seems, on the surface, to be an excellent idea. As he writes in his column, “To learn writing, you need a tough editor with the time to show you what’s wrong and how to fix it.”
That’s fine advice if you’re the owner of a newspaper, and you want your young reporters — most of whom learned the basics of news-writing in college — to get better at their craft, faster. But as a retired sixth-grade writing teacher, I learned that the “teacher” part of my job title superseded my ability to write for publication.
I mentored six student teachers during my 26 years in the classroom. All of them had good intentions. Two of them should have realized that teaching wasn’t for them. Two others, after six weeks, went from terrible to mediocre. One, through hard work, proved she belonged in the profession. Another one was a natural from day one. I just sat back and enjoyed the show.
Good intentions alone will not motivate a reluctant writer. Good teachers know how to cajole, inspire, or reveal a misunderstanding. Can a retired journalist or copy editor be able to resist the urge to take a red pen to a student’s essay and “fix” it for them?
Any parent who’s honest will tell stories of how they were just trying to “help” their child with an assignment. Looking back at my days as a doting parent, I still think I deserve that “A” my son received in the third grade, for that awesome volcano I “helped” him construct.
The columnist I referenced, rightly, states that retired wordsmiths could “relieve the two greatest obstacle to teaching students how to write: not enough writing teachers and not enough time to give students the attention they need.”
Early in my career I was labeled a deviant and a radical because I turned traditional teaching on its ear. I spent 10 minutes at the beginning of the period giving whole-class instruction on a particular aspect of the writer’s craft. The rest of the period, my students learned to write by writing, and little by little, I learned how to reveal the writer buried deep within them.
Learning to write well is too important to be left to writers “who know what good writing is,” but probably don’t know how to teach it.
There, I said it. Now I can ride my bike in peace again, and all my friends in their golf carts will be safer for it.
John Edmondson writes from Londonderry — in this case via Arizona.