Last night my sister told me she’d used my Humory blog as part of a lesson plan in creative writing, and that her students actually enjoyed hearing it (and trying to guess who “Ella Shoe” was). Hm, maybe I’m writing for the wrong age group!
Anyway, we chatted awhile, and she was telling me how all of the fourth graders in North Carolina are required to take a writing proficiency test at the end of the year. From what I’ve read, the fourth graders are expected to be able to write creative and personal pieces. To me, this sounds like loads of fun—creative and personal pieces are my favorite types of writing—but, my sister told me that, by the end of the year, after so much hard work and focus on writing, many fourth-graders (sadly) become burned out and actually develop a dislike for writing.
Ack! It makes me think of when people become turned off to hiking because they get tired of the bugs, or the sweat, or the uphills. You want to say, "Keep going ... this is all worth it. Just wait and see!"
I try to think about fourth grade and writing. I don’t particularly remember writing in fourth grade, though I do remember being madly in love with Bo Duke, and being obsessed, like everyone else, with smelly stickers. If I think about when I learned to write, and when I first learned to love writing, I have to look back further back than that, to my pre-Hazzard County life--before we discovered smelly stickers (remember the pizza sticker?).
It all started, I’m certain, because I loved stories. Whether they were stories in picture-books at the library or Bible stories in Sunday School, I always loved the way stories seemed to take me to another place imaginatively. And the words of the Bible, in particularl, instilled in me a love for language, for the rhythm of words and phrases as they were weaved so skillfully into parables and poetry.
My love for stories turned into a passion for books—those treasure troves of stories—and later, to a love for words and finally writing itself. I guess that, since other writers had shared their stories with me, I felt a natural desire to share my stories with others. By the time I was a teenager, I had a full-fledged, very romantic and teenagerish sense of destiny that I was meant to be a Great Writer. But then again, I was kind of a weird kid. :)
Anyway, the first time I remember doing creative writing was in Mrs. Evans’ second-grade class at St. James. She had a routine.
“Take out a sheet of paper,” she’d say, and while we rustled through our desks and the click-click of binders opening and closing filled the room, she’d write “Name” and “Date” on the board, followed by a school subject. It looked something like this:
Math (if the subject was math)
We, in turn, would write on our papers something like this:
October 5, 1977
Then we’d get our written assignments.
Of course, I never got all that excited when she wrote “Math.” I liked this one better:
Yes! I’d feel like I’d scored a point when she wrote that wonderful word instead of “Math.”
Then we’d get a topic: “The Happiest Day of My Life,” “If I Lived on a Spaceship,” or “The Oldest Man in the World” or whatever. Then we could WRITE.
I always welcomed the chance to make things up and “pretend on paper.” I still do.
Sometimes Mrs. Evans would write:
And then she’d sit in front of the room and dictate ten or so sentences to us, and we’d have to write them down. Each exercise would focus on whatever sound we were learning. Sounds tedious, but for me, this was almost as enjoyable as Writing; the sentences were often very silly, which actually made dictation kind of fun.
For instance, one day we were apparently learning various spellings for the /oo/ sound. One of the sentences was this one:
Lou had his eyes glued on those new blue suits.
What an odd sentence.
Someone snickered, and then Mrs. Evans started laughing. The class started laughing—partly at the silly sentence, and partly because Mrs. Evans was laughing. We laughed for a long time. We laughed until tears were running down our faces. I think Mrs. Evans did, too. We calmed down a bit, and she tried to re-read the sentence ... but broke into giggles again. Which, in turn, set us all off again. It took forever to get through Lou and those new blue suits.
Now, it’s normal when the kids can’t stop laughing about something, but when the TEACHER couldn’t even stop laughing, well, that delighted us even more.
Writing was fun in second grade, and I guess that had a lot to do with my early love for writing. I do remember one thing that was not fun, despite its title: Fun with Phonics, a despised workbook. Phonics were not at all fun for me, partly because the exercises were so laborious, and partly because I had already learned some of the concepts in the process of reading at home. Still, the creative writing activities and silly dictation sentences incorporated the concepts from ever-tedious Fun (ha!) with Phonics, so phonics weren't all bad. Learning them definitely made me a better writer as a child. And they were "fun" in the context of the kinds of writing that I did enjoy.
I guess that’s part of why I think learning really is such an adventure. Like a long-distance hike, much of it is hard, slow, and tedious. Sometimes it seems like you’re ascending such miniscule steps in the process, but then one day you look back and are amazed at how far you’ve come.
And it's when you get to use those hard-earned writing skills for other things--like organizing a story, or explaining a process, or composing a mini-essay to show your dad how much you love him--that those smaller struggles become worth it. Just like, for an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, reaching Mt. Katahdin--or even a good view mid-way--puts all of the daily pain and effort of the past few months into perspective.
Even the hard, slow, and tedious part of learning is kind of exciting when you look at it that way. Though it sure helps to have people like Mrs. Evans, my sister, and Lou, with his eyes ever-glued on those new blue suits, to make the journey fun.