Somebody Say Amen
In this age of quarantine, my son is about to finish 8th grade and my daughter is about to finish 6th. For the most part, they have had a solid education as well as many great teachers. But as the years have passed I have noticed one increasingly obvious deficiency that I can no longer ignore: their ability to write is falling short.
As for my own capability, I do know how to express myself, write a professional report, compose a proper email, perhaps even write a blog. This ability, however, pales in comparison to the real deal. I know I am a pretender on the page.
But I did have the fortune to receive early instruction from two exceptional English teachers. I will never forget the method of my 6th grade teacher. Every Friday afternoon, we would write an essay with a list of forbidden words written neatly down one side of the chalkboard. These words were – in her terms – “lazy” words. For example, we could not use any of the “be” forms of verbs: no “am”, “is”, “are”, “was”, “were”, or any other form of “be”. She would also, on some afternoons, include other words in the forbidden list such as “there” or “very” or “you”. Sometimes no passive verb tense. We were never allowed to begin any sentence with the word, “The”. With new items added each week, the list of rules and forbidden words gradually expanded to literally cover the chalkboard by the end of the year.
Even forty years ago, this teacher came from the stone age. She required our compositions to be written in ink, in cursive. We could not fix our mistakes. If we inadvertently wrote anything we did not intend, we could not make a correction. If we struck a line through any word to rewrite, that was at least a point off. If we misspelled a word, we could not do anything about it. Every word we included from the forbidden list would be circled in crimson red. She would seek and destroy grammatical errors inside grammatical errors. Often, when she returned our essays on Monday, we could hardly see the blue ink within the sea of Shining red spilled across the page. I am certain this blog would have been painted red.
Today, my kids write their essays using Google docs. They have spell check. They can rewrite several times. They do not have to carefully plan what they are going to write before they type. Often, they take their assignments home to polish their composition and receive our help. When I have tried to correct their grammar, their stock response is often that they are not “graded on that”.
I wish I could remember her name. Most likely, she is not alive today. Of course, we all hated those essays at the time, but - looking back – she forged little writers in her classroom. She did not ask the students to mark each other’s assignments. She did everything herself. And – even though we did not realize it at the time – she trained and pushed us to be technically perfect. Which brings me to Mrs. Shipley, my 9th grade English teacher.
Mrs. Shipley shredded my perceived mold for a teacher. While my 6th grade instruction was highly organized and regimented, Mrs. Shipley’s style was, to put it charitably, more free flowing. In one quarter she conducted an experiment using our class to see if we would still do our work even if we were not graded. Everyone received an “A” no matter what. Guess how that went.
While my 6th grade teacher had been a neat and tidy older lady, Mrs. Shipley’s primary concern was never her appearance. She was shorter, stocky, never clear if her hair had been brushed. Many of her classes functioned at the edge of chaos, with the only genuinely quiet moments while a movie played.
But Mrs. Shipley brought a spark into the classroom that I had never experienced: she exuded creativity. She was neither concerned with grammar nor with spelling. She wanted our ideas to flow freely. Among our many scattered assignments, we kept a notebook of random word combinations. In this notebook, we made lists, page after page: “froggy belch”, “pampered lettuce”, etc. Now consider how useless this must have seemed to a 9th grader who already despised English classes.
After we had amassed literally hundreds of these word combinations, Mrs. Shipley began to require their use in our compositions. We had to write poems and stories using these unconnected thoughts. One poem had the specific instruction that “it could not make any sense”, and I received a deduction because my poem sort of did make sense. What none of us could understand at the time was that Mrs. Shipley was guiding us to our creative core, forcing our minds to discern and deploy seemingly unrelated connections. Whereas my earlier instruction had been highly regimented, Mrs. Shipley pushed to remove all structure and constraint. And I cannot overstate how immensely valuable this has been with all aspects of my life.
Mrs. Shipley opened a door that will never close.
As a parent, I have sometimes lain next to my children at night playing Mrs. Shipley’s word combination game. I will say one word and they will respond with the first word that comes to mind. Just as with Mrs. Shipley’s direction, I have told them not to worry about the connection.
So which approach is better? Should we follow a detailed plan or allow creativity to flourish without restraint? Perhaps it is both. Before we begin to break the rules, we need to know the rules. Before we break technique, we need to understand technique. We need to first be able to write with specificity, avoiding ambiguity and lack of precision. Once that skill has been honed to perfection, we loosen the constraints. Release the Kraken. Of course, great writing involves much more than simple word choice and creative impulses. “More advanced” teachers emphasize content, conciseness, clarity, sentence structure, originality, and cliché avoidance. Once again, structure with rules made to be broken – but only with conscious purpose.
Which brings me back to my own children. We are running out of time. I will only have them for a few more years. We are all under quarantine. No summer vacation. Online school will finish mid-May, and an abundance of free time away from friends will follow: no swimming, no camps, no summer jobs, perhaps only Youtube church, only online connections. This summer presents the perfect opportunity. Written composition – just as with music and art – exists at the intersection of rules and unrestrained creativity.
I am going to try. I am going to try to teach my children the way I was taught. At home. I did not intend this blog to be a homeschooling anthem, but this is one perfect example where home instruction does hold an advantage. While many teachers care greatly for their students, no one will care more for your child than you. While each teacher has their preferred approach, a parent without a canned curriculum has greater freedom to surf multiple styles.
If you know others who would find this blog interesting, please share. The ability to write is open to everyone. Effective writing requires practice, repetition, as well as hands-on instruction. Perhaps home instruction is one of the most conducive ways to remedy this situation, but my hope is that a few small changes in a few key classes would be equally effective within our schools. Parents need to speak up. Not everyone can be a great writer, but most can be taught to write well.
I do not know what happened with my 6th grade teacher. I cannot even recall her name. But I greatly owe her. She forged an ability to write at a very young age. I took Mrs. Shipley’s class in 1982-1983. Born in 1931, she was a widow by 1960 with two children and one on the way before earning her teaching degree in 1964. She was a teacher her entire career, had many of her poems published in various literary magazines, was a finalist for Teacher of the Year in 1990, was named Chamber of Commerce Teacher of the Year in 1991, and was the designate Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for 1997-1998. Betty Forsythe Shipley won the 1998 Oklahoma Book Award on March 14, 1998 for her own book of poetry, “Somebody Say Amen”. Her editor accepted the award for her as she was dying at the very moment it was announced.
I never said thank you to my 6th grade teacher. I never said thank you to Mrs. Shipley.