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If you teach writing, you must write

FOR two weeks we wrote together. We shared each other's stories, told each other what we enjoyed, what we didn't understand, what we wanted to know more about. We had a very good time of it. By the end of the two weeks the stories were livelier or funnier, closer to the bone or more evocative. They were filled with the sound of the writer's voice and captured the interest of the audience.

This was not a group of professional writers bent on publication in a prestigious magazine. We are teachers, dedicated to working with children, to educating in the true meaning of the word: leading out.

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To write requires listening, reading, speaking, and thinking. Writing is working with definitions: What do I know? What do I think? Does this make sense? Is it clear to me or my friends? In short, we write to learn about ourselves and about others. We write to inform or persuade or to entertain. Or we write to satisfy the demands of ``others.''

It is old hat to say that children arrive in school thinking they can write (what preschool child has not drawn pictures in the sandbox or tried to spell her name with crayon?) and knowing they cannot read. By the time they enter second grade, they can read, but are reasonably convinced they cannot write.

And sure, writing (real writing, we say smugly) is hard work, as those of us know who have tried it, whether in a terse, pithy memo to the boss or in a poem that captures the Weltschmerz of the moment. How to start? What do I want to say? Can I say it more effectively? Will anyone else listen or care?

All these questions lurk more or less consciously in the minds of adults when they think about putting their thoughts on paper.

Not so for children (at least young children) when they write. They have endless stories to tell or make up; they will start anywhere; they say it directly and without artifice or design; they know the whole world is listening.

But for those of us who have had this childish innocence buried under six feet of boring assignments or beaten out of us with braided whips of rigid rules, writing has become tedious at best and impossible at worst.

We then become teachers and, feeling perhaps frightened or unequal to passing along the accumulated dicta, we either ignore the issue or resort to the shovel and whip method of teaching writing. And so it goes.

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How much better it would be to start with the child's optimism and confidence and a pedagogical stance that provides ownership and support to the child's powers of storytelling.

If we are permitted to begin with our own stories, what James Moffett has called the ``I,'' we can be encouraged to shape our thoughts for the ``you,'' and then taught to extend our skills to the more abstract needs of the ``it.'' We can write to satisfy many audiences if our first audience comes from within and is received with enthusiasm by our parents and teachers.

What this group of teachers was doing during two weeks of writing, sharing, encouraging, rewriting, listening, and talking with one another was developing empathy with the generations of students who have papered the world with summer vacation essays or ``my favorite pet'' stories.

They discovered they had stories of their own to tell, ideas they cared about to explore, memories that tickled their fancy and that others loved hearing.

If you teach writing, write, says much of the recent research in the field. These teachers were learning to hand in the whip and the shovel in exchange for a pen, pencil, or word processor of their choice. And they were somewhat amazed to discover, not only that they became better writers, but that it was an exhilarating and empowering experience.

Winifred W. Skolnikoff teaches writing at Lesley College, Cambridge, Mass.

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