Once in awhile, a writing project comes along that requires us to marshal all of our resources, knowledge, contacts, experience and, it seems, everything good to which we were exposed about the subject. In other words, it requires the skills and tools developed over the course of a career. Such a project has come my way.
The other day, I presented an outline and was green-lighted to produce a K-12 pilot writing curriculum for a school district. There is an alluring proviso: if it makes the impact anticipated by the superintendent, it could be adopted on a more widespread basis.
You can only imagine how I feel about taking on this project. For the past 20 years, I have moved through my careers as a magazine writer and editor, book author and editor, and writing workshop teacher, while concerning myself greatly with literacy in America – in particular, writing literacy. Our students’ ability to communicate through effective literary, transactive and/or expressive writing has plummeted since my school years – when teachers issued writing assignments in conjunction with every subject we took. It is no coincidence that, as writing was de-emphasized or diluted in education, our overall intellectual prowess as a nation started slipping. You can teach facts, figures, concepts and memorization all you want, but nothing creates lasting comprehension better than writing a paper or essay about it – and thinking through what you write.
Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, schools and teachers have been so consumed with “teaching the test,” as it’s known, that such “soft” subjects as writing have been de-emphasized. While curricula are extensive and miss nothing in the grammar and punctuation requirements they spell out, the fact is harsh and clear: Writing has been de-emphasized because of all the testing.
There are many teachers, administrators and individuals working very hard nationwide to reverse that trend. I know teachers that are openly defying the approved curricula to present writing in the way they know best. How would they know best? In all cases, because they are also writers.
I’m a huge supporter of these teachers. They’ve got it right: If we teach writing from the perspective of a writer, then kids are going to ignite with their natural creativity. They’re going to feel the passion that pours through their teachers’ eyes, and they’re going to have fun with it. And “it” includes grammar and punctuation, believe it or not.
The perilous decline in writing proficiency is what prompted me to start teaching summer writing programs for kids, which led to presenting writing workshops to aspiring and professional writers of all ages. My passion for bringing the fun and mind-opening promise of writing back into young peoples’ lives has prompted me to join and participate in several vital organizations: 8-2-6 Valencia, the collaborative author-student writing mission fostered by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; the George Lucas Educational Foundation (publishers of Edutopia, the most progressive public education magazine in the U.S.); the Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement, which produces outstanding web-based exhibits that contain related curricula; and Capitol City Young Writers (I am a board member), founded by my friend and literary agent, Verna Dreisbach.
More recently, I’ve created systems of facilitating writing that have resulted in an award-winning book, Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences in Everything You Write (winner of the 2007 Independent Publishers Book Award); an award-winning website presentation with accompanying curricula, Poetry Through The Ages; my latest book, The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life; and a book that Verna and I are getting ready to write (you’ll hear about it soon).
Now, a full-bodied curriculum, complete with explicit marching orders: “Show us how a writer would present and teach writing.”
First off … I hope to convey the spirit and approaches to writing that have been conveyed by the six greatest author/teachers to whom I’ve been exposed in this life to date: T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, Annie Dillard, the late John Gardner, and American haiku master Don Eulert. Between them, this group has written more than 200 books, including some of the best books on writing available. Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and On Writers and Writing are masterpieces. I’ve been to some of their workshops, I’ve taken private classes with a couple, and I’ve spoken with a few after their readings. These people comprise the Mount Rushmore (plus two) of modern writing instruction. I share their purpose: to create a society of great writers.
One thing this curriculum will feature, above all: the sense of adventure and discovery that I recall my earliest writing teachers instilling in me. Furthermore, those pesky thorns in every student’s side, grammar and punctuation, will become allies in a curriculum that makes them co-participants in a sentence – not the necessary evils. I will weave copious amounts of library science and online resourcing and writing into the mix; after all, if our kids can’t combine these two skills and understand how to write on and through the Internet, what chance do they have in the interconnected 21st century world? Bearing that in mind, the curriculum will focus on the two most important aspects of writing anyone can carry into their adult lives: transactive writing (especially when it concerns business communication), and creative/expressive writing.
I’ll write more about the project as it develops, but my overarching goal is that it triggers the love of writing in one student, then another, then a few more. I fully believe that my generation, the latter-stage Baby Boomer Generation, is the most highly educated in U.S. history for two reasons: 1) Because we were afforded the most opportunities by our parents’ generation in a world that opened up academically and economically for us; and 2) Because we wrote, and wrote, and wrote in class for all 12 years from Kindergarten through High School.
I’d like to see writing become central again. That is why this project takes on the importance of a life mission for me. Because, it is.