Thursday, April 26, 2012

How and Why We Learn to Write

If the board game Candyland is a map of our homeschooling journey, we are in the molasses swamp.  For the first three hours of our school day, we are working through workbooks on spelling, writing, language arts and word lists.  Every day, Elliot arrives at the table just a little bit later, and drops his pencil just a few extra times.  He is already developing more resistant blocks to the subject he enjoys the least.

So I begin every day by asking him deeper questions about how he thinks he learns, and why he thinks this stuff is important, or not important.   He says he must learn to write and spell to avoid being a homeless man.

I'm not sure who put that in his mind, but I told him that as long as I am living, he will never be homeless, unless of course, I am homeless too.  I did mention that law enforcement officials claim that there is a direct correlation between the number of men in prison and the number of boys who have not learned to read and write by the third grade.

It's tough to inspire a boy with so much stuff going on in his head to sit down and concentrate on the basic building blocks of written language.  There's so much he could be doing! Climbing trees, playing LEGO, chasing Ozzie outside or watching his favorite cartoons.  And frankly, there's so much I could be doing during that time too, like sewing or exercising, gardening or blogging.

It's hard to really get excited about this stuff, especially when progress comes in increments.  Gradual improvement is happening, so slow as to be barely noticeable, but it is happening.  But before it happens, I usually have to ask Elliot directly "how will you learn?" and "why do you think this is important?"

Maybe learning to write is important for the simple reason of appreciating great stories.  For the past week, every day Elliot has anticipated our read aloud sessions of Charlotte's Web.  Last night, we read the final chapter.

And after last night, I'm convinced that Wilbur is the most tender-hearted character in all of American literature.  While I read the final chapter, so many things were playing in the back of my mind.  The story of little Brooke and her cancer battle, the loss of my father and grandmother, the miracle of meeting my very best friend and soul mate and the birth of my children.  So I cried while I read, and Elliot put his little finger tip on my cheeks to wipe the tears.  It was so hard to get through the words, but I kept going:

       "Charlotte," said Wilbur after a while, "why are you so quiet?"

       "I like to sit still," she said.  "I've always been rather quiet."

        "Yes, but you seem specially so today.  Do you feel all right?"

       "A little tired, perhaps, But I feel peaceful.  Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success.  Your future is assured.  You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur.  Nothing can harm you now.  These autumn days will shorten and grow cold.  The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall.  Christmas will come, then the snows of winter.  You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever.  Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond.  The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again.  All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur---this lovely world, these precious days..."  Charlotte stopped.

      A moment later, a tear came to Wilbur's eye.  "Oh Charlotte," he said.  "To think that when I first met you I thought you were cruel and bloodthirsty!"  When he recovered from his emotion, he spoke again.  "Why did you do all of this for me?" he asked.  "I don't deserve it.  I've never done anything for you."  "You have been my friend," replied Charlotte.  "That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I wove my webs for you because I liked you.  After all, what's a life, anyway?  We're born, we live a little while, we die.  A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies.  By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.  Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that."

 And when Wilbur learns that Charlotte will not be returning to the barn with him,

   "Wilbur threw himself down in an agony of pain and sorrow.  Great sobs racked his body.  He heaved and grunted with desolation.  "Charlotte," he moaned.  "Charlotte! My true friend!"

Wilbur often thought of Charlotte.  A few strands of her old web still hung in the doorway.  Every day Wilbur would stand and look at the torn, empty web, and a lump would come to his throat.  No one had ever had such a friend---so affectionate, so loyal, and so skillful.


For me, this is what literacy is about.  To feel something deep and personal through the phenomenon of great storytelling. 

It's like prayer.  When I pray for myself, the spiritual feeling is flat.  But when I pray for the good of someone whom I've come to care about, the prayer has a certain vibrant purpose and energy.  I end up feeling intense emotion through the prompting of a story that contains a deep experience that attends to fact that everything we are doing here is temporary, including the beauty we see and the pain we feel.

And I don't know how to explain that when we sit down and face the workbooks.  But I think, maybe someday, Elliot will understand.

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