We parents and teachers must remember that despite the state of our culture, it is still possible to develop lifelong readers. Many of my students are living proof. But in the age of cable television, DVDs, video games, and the Internet, it has never been more difficult. This fact must not discourage us. As Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure:
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
If we do make the attempt, we may have a student like Luis. Like many of my students, Luis volunteered to participate in a Saturday class I teach for former students who miss Room 56 and want to keep this haven as a part of their lives. These middle and high school kids practice for the SAT, read literature, and prepare for college.
One Saturday we were reading Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun. In a few weeks we would take a field trip to the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, where we would see Hansberry’s play and many others, and I wanted the kids to be prepared. I took the time to find copies of the play and guide the students through it while providing context on how it changed the face of American theater. As we read the final lines of the play, many students sighed with the joy and contentment that comes with finishing a masterpiece. But Luis sat there with tears rolling down his cheeks. No one laughed at this fourteen-year-old student as he choked back the sobs. When he had regained his composure, I asked him what moved him so deeply about the play. His answer was simple. “I am crying,” he said, “because this is my family.”
He is a reader. He makes connections. He understands. He is able to investigate great ideas and see their relevance to his own experience. It may very well be that years from now a young student will be reading something Luis has written.
This I believe: If young people develop a love of reading, they will have better lives. That objective is not listed in our state curriculum standards. Our assessment of reading may begin with standardized test scores, but in the end we must measure a child’s reading ability by the amount of laughter exhaled and tears shed as the written word is devoured.
In general, students today are very poor writers, and it’s no wonder. Given the cumulative effect of lack of practice, poor teaching, text messaging, e-mail jargon, and a culture that practically celebrates illiteracy, it should come as no surprise that the majority of students cannot write even a cohesive paragraph, let alone an essay or report.
We teachers and parents have our work cut out for us. Despite these hurdles and roadblocks, we need to find strategies and activities that help children become better writers. Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a full man, Conference a ready man, and Writing an exact man.” I want my students to be able to express themselves with precision. I want them to write well not because of the test coming up, but because writing well will help them for the rest of their lives, whether they are applying for college or a job. Here now are four things I do with my students to improve their writing:
Step I. Start Me Up: Grammar
Our school day officially begins at 8:00 A.M. Although the majority of my class voluntarily begins school earlier than this, all of my students are in their seats by then. A grammar assignment is already on the board and worksheets are on their desks (workbooks of grammar exercises can be found at any teacher supply store).
Each morning begins with a grammar exercise. Perhaps the students are asked to identify proper nouns or to choose the correct verb tense for a sentence. Before attendance is taken, before homework is collected, before the kids have a chance to even consider being distracted, they are working on grammar. I do take a moment to wish them good morning and tell them we have an exciting day planned, but by 8:01 we are hard at work while other students saunter by our door. We do not waste time in Room 56. Even a few squandered minutes at the start of the day can add up to twenty or thirty hours over the course of a year. Our children cannot afford such waste.
They work hard for three reasons. First, many of the students come to enjoy grammar. All of my students speak English as a second language, and they appreciate learning to write their new language correctly. They see themselves improve and, because they feel comfortable in Room 56, they do not worry about making mistakes. They know no one will laugh at them or scold them.
The second reason is to avoid having to take work home. In class, the kids are given thirty minutes to answer twenty questions. After I teach the skill for five or so minutes, and check to make sure the kids understand it, they have perhaps twenty-three minutes to finish. Whatever questions are left will be assigned as homework, so they have learned that it is always better to finish work in class. Here they have peers and their teacher to consult when questions arise, and the classroom is almost always more conducive to quality work than home, with siblings screaming and television sets blasting.
Most important of all, the kids want to do this work because of what we call the “Dreaded Rewrite.” This idea arose from hearing former students complain that in most classes, when they turned in an assignment of any kind, one of three things happened: It was either returned with a good grade or a poor grade or, most often, not returned at all. In Room 56, rather than receive poor grades, my students are told they must get at least 90 percent or better on grammar assignments or do them again. They are not punished, disgraced, or any such thing. They simply have to do the assignment over and over until they have mastered the skill. At the beginning of the year, practically every child in the class rewrites his or her grammar on a daily basis. By the second week, only two or three students need to redo work each day. The Dreaded Rewrite makes kids understand that Room 56 is a serious place and they might as well listen, try hard, ask questions, and get things right the first time.
The next morning, as the students work on their new grammar assignments, my graders come around and pick up the previous day’s work. At recess, the graders quickly and accurately correct the papers and prepare a list of Dreaded Rewrites. The list is posted at the front of the room and is greeted with delirious sighs and cries of exultation by the many students who have done their work correctly. My favorite part of all this comes a few minutes later, after the exhilaration or despair is over, when the students who mastered the skills are sitting right alongside those who did not, helping the less fortunate with the problems they missed and encouraging them to succeed that night and the next day.