Know The Rules Before You Break Them
A fantastic article about teaching writing, by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic:
“Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not.
About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be ‘caught, not taught,’ explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University.
Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will ‘catch’ what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.
The catch method works for some kids, to a point. ‘Research tells us some students catch quite a bit, but not everything,’ Graham says. And some kids don’t catch much at all. Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, ‘can’t catch anywhere near what they need’ to write an essay.
For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in ‘peer editing,’ without much attention to formal composition.”
A very different approach, Tyre writes, is taken at the Windward School, “a small private school for first-through-ninth-graders located in a leafy section of White Plains, a suburb of New York City . . . the writing program there, which was developed by the former Windward head Judith Hochman, has become something of a legend among private-school administrators . . . The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be unfamiliar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950.
Children do not have to ‘catch’ a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.
It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. ‘I prefer “recipe,”‘Hochman says, ‘but “formula”? Yes! Okay!’” Read more here.
Reminds me of what my own beloved English teacher, Mrs. Goppelt, taught me: You have to know the rules before you can break them. Kids need to be taught the basics so that they can use them to express themselves creatively.