icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle



The mountains are so beautiful. Photo by Carol Bergman
"As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability. We can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision...this ability is language."

--Steven Pinker in "The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language"

I was sitting next to Thea , an adorable four- year- old, in the back seat of a truck. Her father was driving, my son-in-law was sitting next to him, my daughter was on the other side of Thea's car seat in the back, her mother was waiting for us at a restaurant. It was late in the day, near dusk, and the mountains were already in shadow. The road was winding, the sky and clouds majestic. Thea had a lot to talk about, lots of stories to tell, lots of observations to make. Just four-years-old and stories and interesting words came pouring out of little Thea. Of course, she has wonderful, attentive, verbal parents. They talk to her-- and with her --non-stop. They don’t silence her in any way, though they do suggest a quiet moment or two, especially when they are in the midst of an adult conversation. At bedtime, they read her stories. So when Thea says, “The mountains are so beautiful,” with a Sarah Bernhardt inflection, she has either heard that somewhere or devised it herself. Or when she points to her hand-made bracelet and explains that it’s “homegrown” she’s evoking the flowers and vegetables in her garden. She shares the sweet peas she’s picked with everyone in the truck. And there are quite a few charming sentences to go with that generosity, the perfect condiment so far as this writer—who loves sentences—is concerned.

It’s a marvel how much complex language Thea has acquired in just four years of her life. She’s a chatterbox and I mean that in a complimentary way. Not long ago, when children were expected to be obedient—the seen but not heard tradition—the word chatterbox was a slur, especially when targeted at girls. But times have changed: being a chatterbox is a good thing for a four-year-old and for writers, by the way—on the page or in company. Which gets me to thinking: how can this chatterbox model be replicated in our classrooms? Is conversation being encouraged or stifled? Are vocabulary words being memorized or are they used in context? How much, in fact, do we expect of our children and ourselves?

What if instead of testing our kids every five seconds our tax dollars were spent on intelligently devised language and knowledge interventions? What if we taught all parents how to do what Thea's parents do without a second thought? What if our hard-working teachers still had time to enrich lives rather than grade them?  Read More 
Post a comment


I remember the first time a student brought a laptop into my writing workshop. His eyes were on the screen as he was taking notes and, even worse, he was hiding behind the screen. I asked him to shut it down and have not allowed laptops into the workshop since—unless a student has a disability that requires the amplification of the computer. Otherwise, no. And here’s why:

The workshop is real, it is dynamic, it has three dimensions, perhaps more. And, most importantly, it is interactive. We read, we talk, we talk to each other and make warm, solid eye contact.

Please understand, I am not a cyber luddite, not at all. I am in love with my iPhone and iPad. I am writing this blog post on my computer. I use a Kindle app, look up words on my electronic dictionary, donate to Wikipedia every year, and occasionally ask a student to look something up on her smart phone in the midst of a class. But I also still have notebooks, pens and journals. They slow me down. Hand to paper, I think differently. I don’t want to skid along all the time, I want to pay attention. And what I’ve found over the years is that my students really appreciate the opportunity to write by hand in their journals too. In just a week or two, they are showing off the rich, thickening pages in their hand-made, hand-written books. Every writing project begins there before it is transported to the computer; one technology does not preclude the other. In the silent, serene space between their hand-held pens and paper, there is no hurry and no fear of making a mistake. Nothing is written in stone (as in a cuneiform stone), nothing is permanent, it’s all process. And writers, especially beginning writers, need this gentle freedom.

And so it is a bit alarming to hear that instruction in cursive writing has been abandoned as part of the “common core” curriculum changes in America’s schools. What are the implications for writers? They will grow up only knowing how to print! Or, they will only use the computer which has many other drawbacks, most significantly the illusion that everything we enter into the computer is final and perfect. It is not.

Yes, we want to be slowed down, but print is too slow! Cursive—which means “running”—was invented to create fluidity in writing (and to spare delicate quill pens).

There has been the suggestion—once again, in educational circles—that italic script is a possible compromise. Certainly it would be for writers. That is the only hand-writing English children learn in school and they learn it right away; it spares them shifting from print to cursive in third grade, part of the pedagogical problem, apparently.

I’ll weigh- in on this debate: let’s think about italic. It’s clear, it’s simple and it’s fluid, a writer’s dream. I learned it myself when I lived in England though I have retreated to cursive in recent years. I’d pick it up again in a heartbeat. I love those nibs.  Read More 
Be the first to comment