|Posted on May 2, 2016 at 8:00 PM||comments (0)|
As a language arts teacher, I don't get droves of kids lined up to take classes from me because they LOVE writing or can't wait to diagram a sentence. Most of the time, my students are in my class to satisfy some requirement. That's a hard thing to overcome for a teacher who loves writing and literature so much it has become her life's work. I will admit, here and now, that, in my first years of teaching, I couldn't understand why the students in my classes didn't devour books like me and liked writing even less. It was actually quite shocking. I can't remember a time that I didn't love reading.
I remember trips to the public library resulting in bags full of Dr. Seuss books, which I begged to be read to me over and over again. I remember a series of anthologies that held wonderful renditions of fairy tales gracing the bookshelves in our home, I even remember the first book I ever checked out from the library all by myself and read. It was a book about Greek Mythology that featured a picture of the severed head of Medusa prominently on the cover. I was hooked on mythology from that point on. It wasn't long after that that I discovered Raold Dahl and his wonderful novels about Charlie: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I had fabulous teachers along the way who fed my reading addiction. Mrs. Lawson was my fifth grade teacher. Every afternoon after lunch, she would dim the lights in the classroom and read a chapter from a book. The one I remember most was The Lion's Paw, about two orphans who escape from an orphanage in Florida aboard a sailboat. I borrowed the book from her after she finished reading it to the class and read it cover to cover two more times before I reluctantly returned it to her. Then there was Mr. Westfall, my freshman English teacher. Every Friday was silent reading day, and my favorite day of school for that reason. He had a classroom library filled with novels. In his class, I met Madeline L'Engle and read A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. L'Engle still ranks among my favorite authors. Then there was Sunny Schork, my senior English teacher, who introduced me to classic literature like Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Dickens' Great Expectations, Shelley's Frankenstein, Shakespeare's MacBeth.
Growing up, I was surrounded by books and people who loved to read. My father and grandfather were both voracious readers. At the dinner table, during a card game, or anytime we found ourselves together, one of their first questions was always, "What are you reading these days?" As I moved into high school and adulthood, whenever they came across a book that they thought I would like, they would hand it to me with a, "Here. Read this." From them, I learned about J. R. R. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, Gore Vidal, Larry McMurtry, Stephen King, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and many, many others. Whenever we were together, we would talk about the latest books we had read, what we liked about them, our favorite characters, and why they captured our attention and drew us in. As a teacher, now, I know they were teaching me to respond to literature and begin to analyze it, even though they never asked me to write a single word down on a sheet of paper. Books and reading were ways for us to bond, and it was fun. What I didn't know then, that I know now, is that my dad and grandpa were modelling what it meant, to use an educational catch phrase, to be a lifelong learner. If either one of them wanted to learn something, they both found a book and read it.
Unlike reading, I don't have as vivid memories of my developing love of writing, but I do know that my mother was my first writing coach. Mrs. Lawson, again, challenged her 5th graders to write about a group that they belonged to and how that group had influenced them. After I received the assignment, I was distraught because I didn't see myself as part of any group--I wasn't a girl scout and was not athletic. As I was lamenting this fact to my mother, she didn't tell me what to write about; she simply started asking probing questions, like "What's the definition of a group?" "What does a group do?" "How do you join a group?" I remember realizing, at some point in our conversation, that a family is a group and that I did, indeed, belong to a group. And I chose to write about my family. After brainstorming a topic, we talked through some of the ways a family is like any other group someone can be a member of. When I sat down to write, I was confident and could generate the ideas that I needed to develop the essay. Through out the writing process, she never told me that I did anything wrong. She never picked up a red pen once. What she did do, was read what I had written to me, pausing frequently so we could discuss what I had written. If something "sounded" funny as she read it, she would stop reading and ask me what I thought of it, and then we would talk about how best to make it sound better. My ten-year-old self didn't know that she was teaching me the entire writing process through that one assignment--invention, drafting, editing, revising, publishing. And I am sure she didn't know that she was engaging me in metacognition--thinking about writing--like the writing teacher me knows.
So that first year of teaching, I was shocked and dismayed that my students expressed such reluctance to write and groaned at reading anything longer than a magazine article. I wanted to know why and started asking them why. They were blunt and honest. Here are some of the things that they said:
- I don't get to pick what I want to read.
- Everything I write is wrong, so why try?
- I always have to write a book report about everything I read. Why can't we just talk about it.
- I never know what to write.
- The topics are boring