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Friday, March 30, 2007

On Writing

We are participants in a homeschool co-op. Of the twenty or so families involved, two of us are unschoolers. This year my 11-year-old signed up for a writing class that is structured like a traditional academic class, with assignments and homework. She's been taking it for three months. She's done almost no writing in it at all.

Oh, she puts pencil to paper every week, works on her word lists and her phrase lists and her re-writes of the instructor's paragraphs. She copies and edits and inserts and deletes and tries to remember all of the instructor's rules. She turns in her assignments, she does her classwork, but it has been one exercise in frustration after another. And it's not writing.

If you want to learn to swim, you don't spend your time reading articles about how to move your arms and legs, you get in the water and you move your arms and legs. Maybe you watch how others move, maybe you try to imitate what you see, but mostly you gauge your success by how well you stay afloat.

In this class, my daughter is bobbing around wearing the instructor's life jacket.

We learn a thing by doing it, over and over, until we gain a sense of mastery. To learn to write, we must write. Rules of grammer and sentence structure are learned along the way, just as they are absorbed when we learn to speak and read -- imperfectly at first, and then with increasing facility. We learn to write by writing: by putting pen or pencil to paper and getting it down.

Once we have our words on paper we're free to play with them all we want. We can edit, revise, insert and delete to our heart's content. But without the words on paper -- our words, our thoughts, our expressions -- we may as well be trying to bake a cake using pictures of the ingredients. All the parts are there, but it'll never add up to anything we can sink our teeth into.

My daughter wants to finish out the session, because she doesn't like to quit. Fair enough. Her desire to write does not seem to have been diminished by anemic "instruction." She is working on a book. She began writing it long before taking this class, and works on it with relish, in spite of this class. I suspect it will eventually be one tasty read.

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