Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Writing Teacher Who Was...WRONG.

I went to a homeschool conference this Saturday. I'm not homeschooling my first grader this coming year, but I did homeschool this past year and hope to again. My four year old swears she's never going to school, so I thought it would be worthwhile. There were various seminars to choose from throughout the day and the first one was about Classical Writing-- specifically, using the Progymnasmata. Don't know what that is? Don't worry. It doesn't matter.

I used to teach writing to middle school kids and learned about using writing workshops with elementary kids and I was intrigued by her seminar description, "starting early." I won't say reveal her name or what curriculum she sells, because, I don't know, it just seems rude. BUT. As I was listening, she said two specific things that made me decide, "Nope, this woman is just WRONG."

First, she said, "It's getting to where I just can't take my daughter to Barnes and Noble anymore. There are just no good books on the shelf these days."

Her statement practically made the hair rise up on the back of my neck, especially when she added a little smug smile. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if she'd read anything recently from the children's section, from middle grade, from YA... I know she was referring to children's literature, though, because A) we were talking about teaching young children to write and B) she referred to seeing a book series involving a cat whose author apparently studies astrology, which means she must be an Awful Writer, apparently.

After she said that, I started doodling on my page the names of great modern books, in a slightly passive-aggressive manner... The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. Missing May. A Wrinkle in Time. The Outsiders. Ramona the Pest. Percy Jackson. Tuck Everlasting. The Light at Tern Rock. Lots and lots of lots of fabulous children's books, that used to not exist at all. Not moral, preachy lesson-books for kids. Beautiful literature that touches and inspires. Clearly, she doesn't know where to look in the bookstore.

Secondly, she was talking about how this classical approach teaches kids to really THINK about books, to analyze and make proper judgements about them. She scathingly commented about how public schools these days all ask, "How did the book make you feel?" and then said, "It's not about how the book makes you FEEL. It's about what the author was trying to TELL you."

To this, I reply, "BZZZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER!" If you are reading pure non-fiction, okay, sure. You've learned something. But I'm reading fiction, I want an experience. If I'm not moved emotionally, I'm not going to keep reading. We vicariously triumph, suffer and grow along with our favorite characters.

Check out what Randy Ingermanson says on his blog Advanced Fiction Writing about creating a perfect scene:

"Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience." and "If you fail to create these emotions in your reader, then you have failed. If you create these emotions in your reader, then you have succeeded."

So I'm not the only one that thinks it actually IS about how the book makes you feel.

I left that class feeling frustrated that I didn't say something to her, but I knew it wasn't the time or the place. She wasn't going to change her mind. I wasn't going to change my mind. But I was pleased, at least, that I have grown enough as a writer to not believe everything someone tells me about writing wholesale.

In my opinion, she had no idea about how to teach fiction writing. Maybe she will create great essays and arguments, but that's not what she was talking about at the time. Happily, I have the freedom to ignore her advice, since she's clearly coming from a worldview that does not match my own. I can take the one or two things she said that made sense to me and use those, and ignore the rest.


  1. This woman is clearly missing some great stuff out there. Is she's worried that her kids might be exposed to some contrary view points? I'm not familiar with the home school community at-large but my impression from growing up would have been typified by this woman: fearful but making her stand!

    Since then I've met a ton of intelligent and thoughtful parents in the HS movement. But it's interesting to know that the crazies are still out there.

    When we first started reading the Harry Potter series I always challenged haters to find me another children/YA series that was not only adventure but also actually funny. A few folks would say that Cooper's 'The Dark Is Rising' series was good but that series is mostly humorless. The only other series that came close was *maybe* the Artemis Fowl.

    Lara reads a ton of YA stuff and if there is anything she really loves she'll read it to me while we're driving. Because of this I've actually been exposed to several of the authors you've mentioned - and they're great!

  2. How could anyone forget the Harry Potter series?? I mean, come on. Those series were humorous, full of twists, and had a great theme behind them. I love the series so much that I'm making this week Harry Potter week on my blog..haha. To say, kids need to read books that make them think and analyze..I don't agree. They're kids. Let them use their imaginations in a fun way reading entertaining books. I wouldn't want my kids sitting at some desk trying to analyze Faulkner..

  3. LOL-- Thanks, guys! Shannon, yes, we love Artemis Fowl, too. I think too many adults really miss out when they think MG or YA is just "for kids" and not "real writing." There are so many great books out there. And Melissa-- I enjoyed your Harry Potter tribute week! :) Thanks for commenting!


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