My family went for a drive last night. My little four year old is just learning about the letters of the alphabet; what they are, what they do, and how they sound.
“Just,” he said. “ju, ju… just. G… S… T. That spells just.”
I heard him from the front seat and replied. “Son, you are wrong. Gst does not spell just. You are not as smart as your brother.”
Earlier that day my toddler pointed to a banana and said, “Nanna.” It was the first word I had heard him say. I pointed my finger at him. “NO!” I said strictly, “That is not a nana. That is a banana. You need to learn to say it right, like your older brothers.
OK, I’m lying. That is certainly not how I act around my kids. When my son attempted to spell just, I praised him for knowing the sounds. He is thinking about forming words with letters, a significant leap. I encouraged him and he was very pleased at my attention. When my toddler tries to tackle new words, I cheer him on and give him a hug. Even when they are flat wrong I praise and encourage.
So why is it when children start to write, we have to grade them? We have to correct their spelling, grammar, and prose? Shouldn't a significant amount of time be spent doing nothing more than cheering them on?
After reading fan fiction this week, I’m beginning to understand the appeal. I was quite frankly shocked as I read the comments. I have been blasted many, many times on the internet. I share my opinion and I’m flamed. I ask a question and I’m flamed. I post a smiley and I’m flamed. In places I'm know I've been flamed on what I'm 'probably going to say'! But with fan fiction it’s different. Oh sure, there are the occasional flames, but for the most part people go out of their way to praise and encourage. That, in an and of itself, makes fan fiction a powerful learning tool. Why do kids (and adults) go and post stuff here? Could it be because they don’t get all of their errors shoved in their face?
But there is more. If I had to teach writing I would do three exercises. First I would have students read good literature. Second I would have them read bad literature. Third, I would ask them explain to me the difference. I would ask them to show me how to make the bad literature better.
Critiquing is a very difficult thing. It seems easy. You read a bad story and say to yourself, “That sucks tacos.” But that isn’t critiquing, that is merely criticizing. To critique you need to explain why something sucks tacos. That is much, much more difficult.
When I first started writing for fun, I wanted the opinion of others. I went to writing groups and asked for opinions. In exchange I was more than happy to give my opinion on their work.
But I found this to be very difficult. I would read a story, find it to be ‘bad’, but not quite knowing why. Their sentences were grammatically correct. It seemed like they had a great plot going. Why didn’t it grip me like Orson Scott Card’s books? Or Douglas Adams? What was the difference?
I certainly don't have all the answers as to what makes a good story, but I feel like I’m starting to have a better idea. Now, after much work, I can read a story and find specific problems; common errors that writers make. Maybe the plot is too heavy handed, predictable, or without conflict. Maybe the writer uses a particular word too many times in a paragraph. Errors I make all of the time, but now recognize because I’m looking at other’s work, and asking the difficult questions; what is wrong with this? how can it be better?
The long and the short of it is that people are finding a voice online. Because of the sheer number of individuals, participants can find a group of peers that have about the same writing level, and the same interests. They can think about each others’ work, make it better, and learn. This could be (is?) a powerful method of teaching literacy.
I found this assignment, and the reading that went along with it, to be both insightful and enjoyable.