Tuesday, December 23, 2008


A friend of mine brought me a Hanukah gift today: a mostly blank book of prompts to make me start lists--lists of favorite activities, music, books; lists of valued experiences and intangible treasures; lists that can define who I am in a minimum number of words. What a great gift for a poet who values conciseness and meaningful word choices! I have written "list poems," as well as assigned them to my students. A list of groceries, or the contents of one's desk, has the power to reveal a personality. I have coached young writers to get to know their own characters by devising highly specific lists of their favorite activities or possessions, their passions, their most embarrassing and proudest moments, etc. Lists offer tools for learning about people and the worlds in which they reside. As a tool for introspection--which is what the book/journal gift aims to be--list-making provides insights for personal growth.

But the greatest growth potential posed by list-making lies in its ONGOING NATURE. Never finish a list, for it will always change as you age. Leave blank spaces to fill in, and contemplate the shifting values evidenced by the changes in your lists over the years. Likewise, as a writer, you may ask yourself how one of your character's lists might change over time, and in reaction to certain experiences. Characters, like their authors themselves, must evolve, and sometimes a great way to study their evolution is via list-making.

Thanks, Tina, for the gift. I like it because:
It will force me to put pen to paper (not fingers to keys) when I'm NOT teaching;
It will provide me with insights into myself at THIS age, later, when I'm an octogenarian;
It will remind me of you every time I write in it;
It will help me practice my specific word choices to show, not tell, who I am;
It will make me think about who I was, who I am, and who I plan to be.

How's that for a list?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I think the best way that high school and college English teachers can counteract the product-oriented influence of the education system, which precludes in-depth self-analysis and revision of writings, is to assign a final paper about the student's own evolution as a writer. The paper would require that they cite examples from their own previous works as evidence of their progress. I call this the "Introspective Analysis of Writing Progress" essay, which doubles as a comparative literature paper. Using literature THEY have created, students can find new meaning in the typical comparative essay, by comparing their skills and style from one essay to another. They could address issues such as:

~strength and clarity of thesis
~strength and clarity of main points in support of thesis
~conciseness/elimination of superfluous words
~logical progression of points
~effectiveness of concrete details as illustrations of main points
~evocative quality of commentary
~specificity (versus vagueness) in word choices
~smoothness of transitions
~subtlety in expressing opinions
~quality of technical details, such as grammar, punctuation, spelling
~liveliness of writing style (active vs. passive phrasing, vivid words)
~the degree to which the opening entices reading
~the degree to which the conclusion leaves readers thinking.

I think that assigning that kind of essay, toward the end of a semester, or even as a final, can allow students to leave a writing or literature class understanding their overall growth. But they do need to know about the introspective analysis essay from the beginning of the semester, which will heighten their consciousness as they write. The most meaningful means of progress is introspection.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How To Get the Most out of Your Child's Writing with the Least Amount of Hair-Pulling

1. Listen to the student read the entire work before making comments. Better yet, read the work aloud to the student. By listening, you will focus more on substance than on mere proofreading errors that catch your eye.

2. Ask questions about what the work conveyed (what you ask will also show what the piece has NOT conveyed.) Read only what appears on the page, without “filling in the blanks” for the student, even if you DO know what he/she meant to say. Address questions line by line, as needed. Rephrase Q’s if the writer seems exasperated.

3. Offer to help the child come up with a better line, as needed, based on the explanations he/she provides in Step 2, above. Suggest alternative words ONLY if your child has accepted your offer.

4. Ask the child to reword lines you suggest, so he/she can own the revised words.

5. Separate substance from form, if possible. In other words, leave proofreading (corrections of spelling, grammar, format, and punctuation) for the final editing phase. Focus first on meaning, flow, power of language, clarity--how the piece touches you, as a reader, overall. Focus on writing as a means of verbal communication between the author and the reader.

6. Suggest that the student double-space all writings (to allow room for editing and revisions), and type the work, if s/he can.

7. Proofread the revision with the author by your side, asking the child to identify errors and omissions, before you correct them.

1. Never interrupt the first reading of the child’s work, whether you read it or he/she does. (Often the author will stop him/herself during this initial reading to self-edit.) Never disrespect a young author by rushing the editing process.

2. Never tell the child what’s wrong; SHOW it subtly via your questions (see “Always” column), which help the student discover necessary revisions on his/her own. Never say “That made no sense!” or “What were you SUPPOSED to write?” or “You can’t turn in something so sloppy to your teacher!”

3. Never dictate: “I think you should say...,” or “You need to add this…,” or “Change that…,” or “Why don’t you write...;” and never make any suggestions until your child answers “yes” to your offer of help.

4. Never let the writer simply transcribe your words. It’s not your homework.

5. Never focus on form or proofreading before substantive editing. Never say, “What kind of grade do you expect, with all those misspelled words, and such a messy presentation?!” Your child will think of writing as filling a paper with neatly printed words, and revising as fixing misspellings and errors in punctuation and grammar. Grades will take precedence over clear communication.

6. Never recopy or retype the student’s work without your child asking you to do so. AND, if you do recopy or retype, never edit as you go; rather, preserve the errors for him/her to catch on the next revision.

7. Never mark up the paper and say, “Here.”