by cheri block
Mr. McCarthy handed out textbooks on the first day of school, way back in 1967. They were small composition books and for me would be both the source of wild written ecstasy and tightly controlled word choice. Every week during the school year, we in Advanced Composition tackled a new skill. On Monday, we studied a short example of said skill. On Tuesday, we tried to emulate a master. On Wednesday, Mr. McCarthy gave us license to try our own version. On Thursday, we wrote during class time and by Friday, we submitted our short papers to the teacher for evaluation.
On Monday morning, Mr. McCarthy returned our attempts. Row by row, he passed back each paper, neatly folded vertically in half. The critiques were polite but direct. There were no “Good job! Write from your heart! or Huh?” comments. The suggestions were serious and sincere. They also included grammatical corrections with language such as phrase, clause, subordinating conjunction and the like. And they included a grade, rarely an “A.”
As you can guess, I thrived under such discipline and honesty. Most kids do.
Today, most people teaching English in the high school classroom do not teach composition but rather, discuss literature. It’s more fun than correcting a paper.
Did married Hester make the right decision to go for a roll in the forest with a minister?
Should Huck have turned Jim in to the authorities?
Why didn’t Kino throw the Pearl of Great Price back into the sea before his son Coyotito was shot?
While these questions are stimulating and make for a terrific class discussion, learning to avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs is more important. Learning not only to select precise vocabulary, but also to write in parallel structure adds variety to sentence construction. Alas, these skills are ignored today in many public school classrooms.
The chairwoman of my program at Stanford told one of my peers that in her (the professor’s) experience, most teachers admitted to the program can’t write.
If the teachers can’t write, how will they instruct their students to do so?