Friday, January 16, 2015

just do it

My father has set a goal to write one hundred 100-word essays. He usually writes them in the morning, sitting at his desk in the study. The other evening when we were at their house for supper, he let me read some of them. (Actually, I didn't know about this little practice of his until that evening—and he's been working on them off and on for a couple years—and only because Mom mentioned it.)

Here's one of my favorites:
So, is a suitable shoe at Bon-Ton? We’ve been here two hours. Do shoes create self-image?  
Never mind that last night’s temperature, 15°F, portends the winter to come. Only slip-on shoes with low sides or no backs will do. At least the toes are pocketed! Whatever she chooses, she’ll be graceful, herself.  After a snow, I’ll shovel a path to the car, an elegant path for elegant legs ending in elegant shoes. 
She’ll shiver and fiddle impatiently with the heater’s knobs, but when we enter the theater, she’ll be queen, having defied the elements in her wonderful shoes.
*** 

I struggle to teach writing. Aside from, “Do it a lot and you'll get better,” I don't know what else to say. One of the guys in our small group is a high school English teacher. Sometimes he tells us about a lesson he taught and I'm invariably amazed and fascinated and inspired. Such creative explanations! Such perfect metaphors! Such probing questions!

But at our house we're back at square one, battling the run-on sentence and possessives. I don't have the terminology—the facts—to explain the stuff clearly. I don't know the rules. Prepositions? Ha! I hardly even know what they are, let alone why they matter. So we (meaning, my older son) did a grammar workbook and some spelling stuff. Handwriting, too. It all helped, but only marginally.

Several months ago, I settled on the most basic thing possible: daily writing. I give my son a topic, set the timer for 30 minutes, and set him loose. The only rules: solid sentences and be logical. When the timer bings, I read over his writing and we correct it together. I'll say things like, “There are three run-ons. Find them.” Or, “Do you know the rule for when to spell out numbers?” And then we discuss and correct. Sometimes he spends another 15 minutes rewriting or fine tuning. Other times, we save an underdeveloped idea for the next day's writing.

As for topics, I sometimes ask questions based on what's been going on; for example, “What did you do over Christmas break?” Sometimes he writes a letter or email. Other times I use this page as a springboard for thought-provoking questions. I try to strike a balance between narrative (easy), comparison-contrast (super hard, logic-wise), persuasive, etc. Bit by tiny bit, he's improving.

He wrote this one last week. It made me laugh out loud.
How do male and female roles differ in your family? 
The mother does the cooking, financial work, shopping, school work, and the yelling at the kids and the father. The father does the equally hard work of bringing in the money for the selfish kids and greedy mother. The father also built the house with his own two hands, while the mother kept the bratty kids out from under the father's feet. The father does all the outside work while the mother is inside on her DELL INSPIRON 2006 that's running on duct tape and salt, a term the eldest son uses for saying the father and the mother need a new computer.
The kids sometime think that the mother is cruel to the father, but then the father yells at the kids and they change their minds in an insistent. The mother's never persuaded to do what she doesn't want to do. She rules with a staff of thunderous might, always telling the children or the husband that they need a move on in life, or that they are being lazy, or come say 'what next.' The father, on the other hand, is a mighty man who, even though he stands close to six feet tall, can never stand up to the mistress of the house. When the mother leaves, the selfish children are excited because they get to stay with the father, and because he might let them watch a movie. The father never really does all the chores the mother tells him to do, because he always stumbles on to a good article or the selfish children throw a hellish fight. During the fight the father yells at the mouthy children and says, “THERE IS NO MOVIE FOR YOU NOW.” Naturally then, the children fall apart and that's the end of a good evening.
*** 

Recently, I had to write a 100-word essay. Actually, it wasn't an essay, per se. More of a description of a seminar I'll be giving. I spent an afternoon mulling over the topic at hand, re-reading old posts I'd written, and watching a TED talk on the art of giving presentations. And then I sent a couple rough drafts to my mother and we spent another good while hashing out the finer points over the phone. All for 100 (less, actually) words. HOW DOES ANYONE EVER WRITE A BOOK?

Here it is:
Skipping School: Doing Education Differently 
What is learning? How does it happen? This often-fraught homeschooling mother of four will share her stories. This seminar is for a) anyone who has children or plans to have children, b) educators, and c) both homeschoolers and people who are appalled at the mere idea of homeschooling. Myths will be debunked, the status quo challenged, and horizons broadened. Everyone welcome! 
(This seminar will be one of the many offerings at our church's biannual convention in Kansas City this summer. More information forthcoming.)

(Title inspiration courtesy of Kate Fridkis' blog, Skipping School.)

*** 

Do you write daily?
Do you have any good pointers for teaching writing skills?

This same time, years previous: when a scholar marries a hunk of reality, on being burned at the stake (or not), day one, the quotidian (1.16.12), snapshots, Julia's chocolate almond cake, and five-minute bread.  

18 comments:

  1. I think you have described the perfect writing curriculum. EXCEPT, grammar is a totally separate subject, unless the clarity of the writing is affected. The two should never be taught together. I use grammar workbooks myself - kids hate them, but I just regard it as a one-page grammar vitamin they have to take every day to guard against total ignorance. Also, I am one of those weirdos who LOVE diagramming sentences.

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    1. Do you recommend any particular workbooks?

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  2. Oh, and your presentation sounds fantastic - good luck!

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  3. AND your father is simply a blogger and doesn't realize it yet...

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  4. "She rules with a staff of thunderous might" !!! Who cares who or what he's talking about that is awesome.

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  5. Writing: I think a daily dose of writing is great practice. I'm wondering if alternating (maybe weekly? maybe monthly?) between the snippets/off-the-top-of-the-head sort of thing and a more structured Assignment might be useful at some point. I had two main Teachers of Writing (when I was a mid-teen) who were really helpful to me. One pushed in areas of method/style - write a first-person piece - okay, now second-person - okay, now third-person - okay, now write something in the present tense - okay, now use the past tense - try writing without any "to be" verbs - try writing without any adjectives; the other went through the basic forms of essays (can't remember them now, but something like compare/contrast, story, how-to, something and... something else... bah, it's been over 15 years, I can't remember). Anyway, the foundation of the latter was reading several diverse examples of the form, discussing them, and then writing your own, which was very helpful later in college when an essay of a particular type was required - I knew how that sort of thing was conceptually built and how to pound it out. I consider both teachers to have basically set me up with tools and some blueprints, from which I could build more or less whatever. Both teachers cleaned up grammar, although I had read enough good books at that point that my grammar and spelling were already fairly established (apostrophes, homonyms, and whatnot).

    Of course, I probably could have used an entire year on "How to Write Personal Statements for Applications of Various Kinds" because I was *terrible* at that... and also hated it... and also had to do it for college and scholarship applications, etc. I don't think that's something that's usually taught, but perhaps it should be?

    Anyway, now I'm a grown-up and I write run-on and incomplete sentences all the time, abuse parentheses horrifically, and also have a bit too much of a crush on the semi-colon. But if I have to write cleanly, I have the technical ability to do so. (although now I tend to write something loosely and with informal style, then go back and clean it up, rather than writing in Pristine Formal Prose to begin with as I used to)

    Also, well-done on the class blurb; it is legitimately hard to write those well. I hope all goes well and am sorry I'm too far away to come!

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  6. What is the rule for when to spell out numbers?

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  7. I actually, you know, taught writing to high schoolers for several years. I loved it, although it was tempting for them to focus on the mechanics only and not the larger sense and structure. I think you have hit on the most important thing: just writing daily and discussing the writing and paying attention to mechanics occasionally.

    Also, 100 words is MUCH harder to write than a book because each word matters and in a longer piece, you can be careless and redundant and wordy. I read your father's piece more as a poem than an essay. It's lovely.

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  8. Oh, my...your family is so populated with authors!
    As to writing a book, your adviser is so close at hand! Ask your mother, shod in her elegant, backless shoes!!
    Q.

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  9. My father made me and my brother write 100 word "themes" every summer until we moved on to 250 word themes when we were older. Each day of the break, we had an assignment. My dad had to do one, too. I'm so glad we did.

    I love your son's essay about family. Genius.

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  10. Our daily grammar 'vitamin' as someone mentioned earlier, comes from the book "Easy Grammar" by Wanda Phillips. Even though I love grammar, my children do not. But they still get to learn it, since I am in charge.
    And I am intrigued by your dad's personal goal - such a great idea!

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  11. I think that your son has been spying on us... :-) LOVED his writing sample!

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  12. I had not even considered what it would be like to teach my children writing (our plan is to homeschool) and when I read this my first thought was alarm! But then I read all these thoughtful, encouraging, exciting comments and I thought, one step at a time. Maybe it's best for now to just keep delighting in my son's new delight in letters and sounds, and to keep laying a foundation rich with talking about the details of our days, telling family stories (over and over again), and reading together ... those have all got to be part of the process, right?

    I mean to comment here more often. I'm so encouraged and enriched by your stories.

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  13. I think books are easier to write than 100 word essays. You have to be so lean with words for the essay while books give you more space.
    Your father and your son made me giggle.

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  14. I agree with Becky! So challenging to distill thoughts to 100 words!

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  15. Eldest son's brilliant essay will only get better with age. Bring it out in twenty years at a family reunion when all the children are grown and it will bring the house down as it did ours just now...

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  16. Thank you for share this informative post.

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