A random bit of Mr. T’s personal writing, discovered on the kitchen table.
I’m going to start this post with a dubious act. In order to explore why mentoring might be preferable to teaching when it comes to writing, I’m going to share an article with which I fundamentally disagree. This Atlantic article came to me last week when I found myself in a brief Twitter conversation with its author, Robert Pondiscio, a former elementary teacher and current vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. (I opted out of the conversation early on because I simply didn’t feel like arguing with the man.) Pondiscio’s organization promotes a very specific curricular outline that (from their website) “provides a clear outline of content to be learned grade by grade so that knowledge, language, and skills build cumulatively from year to year.” The foundation supports the Common Core Standards Initiative, which you may have heard about: a controversial plan to bring public schools in all U.S. states into curricular alignment, so that every kid, in every classroom, in every state in the U.S. can learn the same basic body of knowledge. Forty-five states have already adopted the plan.
It’s an approach to education that’s about as far from interest-led homeschooling as you can get.
Because you may not care to read the article, let me summarize: Pondiscio was a fifth grader teacher in “the lowest-performing school in New York City’s lowest-performing school district.” He used a daily reading and writing workshop in his classroom—and later decided that this was a terrible idea because it prevented students from learning vocabulary, grammar and the mechanics of writing.
“Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong. I should know. I used to damage children for a living with that idealism.”
Well. The article is full of the sort of inflammatory writing and children-damaging that invites publication, but overstates the point. Pondiscio makes his dramatic statements, but then retreats and concludes that “…there should be no war between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics. It’s not an either/or proposition.” (Guess your writing education damaged you, Mr. Pondiscio. A good writer never riles up readers for a bang and then backpedals.)
So why am I sharing a demagogic article with which I vitally disagree? Because I want you to read this paragraph:
“And so it is, all too often, for struggling writers in low-performing schools. They’re missing something essential, because we model and coach and they still can’t write. But good writers don’t just do stuff. They know stuff. They have knowledge of the world that enlivens their prose and provides the ability to create examples and analogies. They have big vocabularies and solid command of the conventions of language and grammar. And if this is not explicitly taught, it will rarely develop by osmosis among children who do not grow up in language-rich homes.”
Did you catch that last line? And if this is not explicitly taught, it will rarely develop by osmosis among children who do not grow up in language-rich homes. (I do not entirely disagree with Pondiscio here. Although I still believe that underprivileged kids should be encouraged to write from personal experience. There are plenty of teachers sharing how this might be done successfully. For instance.) It’s that osmosis notion I want to direct you toward. And if this is not explicitly taught, it will rarely develop by osmosis among children who do not grow up in language-rich homes. What’s the implication? That kids who grow up in language-rich homes can pick up what good writers do by osmosis.
Understand something important, dear reader: If you are reading along here, your child is almost certainly growing up in a language-rich home. You likely read aloud to your child, day after day. You make regular trips to the library. You let your child interrupt your reading and talk about what they notice. You discuss books and movies and news stories. You make up riddles and puns together. Your child has questions and opinions and you respond to them. Together you research instructions for making books, or quilts, or Minecraft servers, or catapults, or insect traps, or blogs, or hexa-flexa-mexagons from tortillas. Your child is immersed in a world of words and communication.
Your child is almost certainly developing a writer’s skills via osmosis. You cannot underestimate the power of this.
People who draw up educational standards, who design writing curriculum and textbooks are trying to meet the needs of all students. Because some students may not come from language-rich homes, they develop materials that attempt to make up for this. Since all students don’t likely have that osmosis thing going for them, these standards-writers and textbook authors try to mimic it by breaking learning down into a set of skills, and then distributing those skills across a series of school years, in the hope that this will guarantee the sort of mastery that kids who learn in language-rich homes pick up naturally.
This is a second-rate, artificial formula for learning; a poor imitation of the learning that happens via immersion and engagement and osmosis. Although our own school experiences may have led us to believe otherwise, writing is not a series of skills that must be learned in a particular order, and at a particular age.
Isn’t it funny that the skills we learn before we typically reach “school-age”–skills like walking and talking–are left for us to learn at our own rate, and in our own way? And we almost all manage to learn them! Yet the skills that tend to develop after age five, skills like reading and writing, are hijacked by professionals, with rules about what ages we should acquire them, and in which manner?
This is the teaching approach in a nutshell. “Professionals” and other adults decide what a student should learn, and when, and how. The focus is almost always on preparing the child for the next stage, for the next set of necessary skills. Little faith is given to the child’s ability to develop and learn in an individual way. There is no sense that helping the child with his or her current stage or set of interests might be enough, that this will allow a child to develop naturally into something more complex. The teaching approach is all about a specific set of skills, skills, skills and a timeline to go along with them.
The teaching approach can cause homeschooling parents to worry about their kids’ penmanship when they are seven, about their spelling when they’re nine, and about their ability to tackle academic writing when they become teenagers. The school model of learning can be tenacious, even if we think we’ve moved past it. Without meaning to, we may hold our children up to school standards, forgetting that those standards are merely a 13-year course of study designed teach a fixed set of skills to all students, regardless of background.
(If you are inclined to worry about your child and the school timeline–and who among us hasn’t worried?–you might enjoy reading the comments on the introduction to this series, especially Erin’s concerns about her teenage daughter and academic writing, and my response; and then the response of veteran homeschooling mom Kristin.)
I had planned to go on and contrast the teaching approach to the mentoring approach (using a writer rather than a curriculum writer as our mentor) but dang, I’ve rambled on! So let’s dig into the mentoring approach next time.
Meanwhile, remember that even “professionals” like Pondiscio and his cohorts at Core Knowledge, who claim they can break down learning into predetermined chunks of necessary knowledge, recognize that kids like ours are different. They “know stuff.” And I’m here to remind you that kids like ours don’t need to follow a school’s curriculum, or a writing textbook’s curriculum, or anyone else’s curriculum.
They are learning and progressing and intuiting the skills of writers every day. What they really need is a mentor.
Please keep sharing your thoughts and concerns in the comments. Have you ever held your child to school standards when it comes to writing? Which writing “skills” do you worry about? Have you been able to move beyond your concerns? What have you learned from your child?
You can read all posts in this series here.