November 19, 2013

I don’t know what it is about English and writing. In math, it’s understood that the way you learn is to practice. Pay attention as a concept is explained and then practice it over and over. It’s the same in history and science. You study. Maybe you go visit a historical site or you do a lab experiment. Those are both practice.

But with reading and writing, people don’t quite seem to get that it works the same way. Even among educational materials, there are a whole lot of “new strategies” that seem to offer a magical formula for better understanding a text or writing better essays.

It filters down. A great many of my students want to believe there is a magic trick to understanding a poem or a story. But you can’t just punch numbers into a calulator. In order to properly understand metaphor, read closely lots of poems and stories that use it. In order to become a better writer, write often and revise constantly.

I teach several different classes. Today, in one, a writing class, they spent the entire class working on one paragraph they had already written with the directive that none of it should be merely “acceptable.” That’s a hard thing to do. Students don’t want to be told (over and over again) that they can do better. And they don’t want to spend 70 minutes working on a single paragraph. But let me tell you something, by the end of class, there were some really good paragraphs, and I think they got it. I think they understood the work of writing a little bit. Sometimes you have to struggle to get anything worth keeping.

In another class, we spent half an hour on a pretty simple ten line poem. We’re learning about metaphor and how it’s used to convey the theme of a poem. They can all spot metaphor, but they can’t usually tell you why it’s there. That’s my job. It takes time and they get frustrated, but if they try, they get better.

It’s practice. Everything is practice. If I teach my students anything, I hope it’s that.

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