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.


  1. Elliot's reluctance with writing and spelling reminds me of my own reluctance (hatred, actually) of math and numbers. By exposing him to such beautiful and moving literature, you are continually providing the spark. His fuse is there, it's just that right now it's buried under the legos and the alluring climbing trees and the sunshine, and all the other things little boys crave. But you keep providing the spark, and one day it will find the fuse, and ignite.

    I had such a good, unexpected laugh when I read that he needed it to keep from being homeless- that is too funny!

    You are doing wonderful things with him, and what you are investing in him is worth far more than gold. Some investments just take time to mature, but this one will.

  2. Thank you Shelly! Elliot is very compassionate to the men and women holding signs in our area. He says prayers for them and asks me to roll down the window so he can give them his hard earned change.

  3. I admit that in some ways I am more like a woman than a man. I am not the traditional strong, silent type that keeps it all inside. I feel deeply and I freely express what I feel. Thisisme's posts often bring me to tears. Sush's and Shelly's also do. I cried this morning when I read this post of yours. We certainly do "lift up our lives" when we focus outward and engage in random acts of greatness. I feel happiest and most alive when I am making others happy. I have a great deal of difficulty receiving gifts because I'm hooked on the high that comes from giving.

    Elliot's capacity for altruism and his ability to experience intense emotion over the plight of others, real or fictional, will expand as he ages and matures. Right now, his primary motivation to learn subjects that don't inspire him is a defense against homelessness. He is "moving away" from an undesirable outcome, much like an amoeba moves away when an unpleasant stimulus (a metal probe) is introduced in a petri dish. Your challenge is to help Elliot develop a hunger for learning so that he starts "moving toward" literature, poetry, writing, art, music, etc., regarding each as a reward unto itself.

    1. Dear Tom, your insight and compassionate nature are a gift to all who know you.

      While I was thinking about how to help Elliot find even a fragment of an answer to why he needs to learn to write, I thought of this equation. Writing = Voice. Not having an ability to write is essentially like having a mute button pressed in one corner of his mind. We are practicing silence as an experiment to show how much of a relief it is to speak again, and to help him imagine how one day being able to write fluently will feel like the mute button inside is finally unlocked. Thank you for sharing today, it helps so much.

  4. Dear Jenny, My goodness, your posts are always so beautifully written and well thought out. I think it is wonderful how your gorgeous little boy feels so much compassion for others. That is a truly wonderful thing. I think you are doing such a wonderful job (and I've told you that so many times before, I know!), by trying to talk it through with Elliot and encouraging him every step of the way. And, no, it's not always easy, when there are so many other things that you could BOTH be doing. I agree with Shelly that what you are investing in him, is worth much more than gold. I would love to know the man that he will become, thanks to your teaching. Shady is such a dear, and I admire a man who can show his feelings like that, so much more than the strong silent type. I am touched that my posts move him, as I am moved by the posts that others write.

    1. Dear Diane, What a loving friend you are to all of us! Thank you for the encouragement, and for being here. You share your compassion for so many and we appreciate how much better the world feels because you're with us.

  5. I sure would have benefitted from having you as my teacher while in school Jenny. The thought and kindness you put into how you approach every subject you bring to Elliot is breathtaking. I remember my Dad getting so frustrated with me when he was trying to help me with Math. Finally, he'd push away from the table with frustration and mutter how I would never learn math. He pretty much put that prediction in motion. Keep your gentle and loving patience going...I know it is helping him not only with his education but his spirit as well.

    1. Dear Sush, Thank you so much for being so loving and kind. I guess it really doesn't matter if people like us ever learn to be excellent calculators. There are so many who know how to do math well, yet have no social conscience to go along with their skill. It is very frustrating for everyone, the student included, when there are blocks to learning the stuff that is required for even a basic education. I feel renewed with your post to stay patient and keep going. Every child can learn, and that includes us with our number problems too.

  6. Jenny, I just left a comment but my internet is going off and on with these storms traveling through. I don't know if you got it or not. I love what you are doing with Eliot with your kindness and patience. Hope you got my other message...

  7. I am in complete agreement with what has previously been written. You are an amazing teacher, writer, friend. Your posts always - and I mean ALWAYS - stir emotion that I didn't even know I had (or if I did, how to express it). You are one truly awesome person.

    I would have loved to not only have you (or someone like you 'cause you're too young to have been my teacher - lol!) as my teacher, my children could have greatl benefitted from having a "you" in their lives.

    1. Dear Teresa, Your comment has blown me completely away! Thank you for being such a supportive, kindhearted friend.

  8. The Molasses Swamp might have something to do with the time of year. I find it hard to be inside when the blue skies, thawed lake, and the outdoors call my name. I have a hard time being the adult and making my kids buckle down and get our work done first so we can go play.

    Hoping that you and Elliot will never be homeless. :)


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