Earlier this week, I attended a training seminar about the teaching of writing with a stellar group of first grade teachers from Headstart School, Islamabad. The session was one of an on-going series of professional development workshops led by the brilliant and inspiring Hareem Atif Khan.
Hareem began her presentation by highlighting how important it is to distinguish between reading (with understanding) and decoding (like our tilawat of Arabic), which is mere recitation without comprehension. In that same vein, she pointed out the difference between handwriting or “calligraphy” and writing as authorship, which involves the creative expression of genuine thoughts. She went on to describe what educators the world over recognize as “the writing process”:
- Finding ideas to write about
- Sketching a draft
- Revising (improve characters, story elements, plot, etc)
- Editing (correct conventions; spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc)
People who grew up attending traditional Pakistani schools, and many with children studying in one now will recognize what Hareem identified as ”our problem”. Typically, the teacher eliminates step 1 by assigning a creative writing topic (my pet, my summer vacation, my favourite relative, etc) and then front loading student composition with lots of possible ideas and suggestions about structure during a “brainstorming” session.
As a result, each class produces 25 or so near-identical pieces and hands them over for checking. Then we skip step 2 and step 3, the teacher takes full responsibility for step 4, which is editing - she marks up the story in red. When the student receives his work, he silently, and often, uncomprehendingly, accepts his copy, handwrites a few lines of spelling corrections and prepares to face the next creative writing topic.
"In the real world," Hareem explained, "there is no assigned topic." Most successful writers produce work when they have something to say; they have an idea. "How to find something to write about; we don’t teach that at all in our schools."
Additionally, all of the world’s best writers revise their work beyond the first draft. They go back and add details, they insert dialogue, they rethink their choice of words, or the structure of their sentences. “If we’re not teaching students to read and revise their own work, we are not teaching writing, we are not teaching them how to be writers”.
Hareem went on to argue that though we teach grammar and spellings and conventions, when the student and her peers play no part in editing, they are effectively being robbed of the opportunity to learn how to edit themselves. Not being invited to “publish” or present their writing in its most polished form to instructor and friends, similarly diminishes that connection which every writer must have with his audience. By rushing on to the next topic without pause, we fail to acknowledge each completed piece.
My favourite quote by far from this seminar was when Hareem said, “all writing is creative, if it is not copying”. It inspired me to share some of the work our students have been doing in first grade at NJ’s - stay tuned. Follow the #writing and #thinking hashtags.