Students of Language Arts should become language artists. In biology, we expect students to know what biologists know; in middle school, they learn the rules of photosynthesis. But Language Arts involves learning to do what language artists do. What language artists due, primarily, is break rules. This I believe, but I forget it easily.
Today, one of my seventh grade students, “Jacob,” turned in his first properly formatted writing assignment of the year. Jacob has huge blue eyes that are usually staring at the student behind him, at the glob of gook on our classroom ceiling, at the fruit fly crawling on the classroom geranium. He has a pretty, concerned Russian mother whom he regularly lies to about due dates and assignments. But today, I held in my hand a personal narrative about a time he slammed his head into the rim of a car door, which he describes as his “first tragic accident.” His printer needs a new ink cartridge, so the text is so faint that it fades into white along the margins like fog. I read about how his head needed to “get stitched,” and I’m tempting to say that his head needed to get stitches, but then I realize how clipped and vivid the verb “stitched” is compared to the passive “get stitches.” I realize that the freshness of his writing is more important than the proper heading.
If Shakespeare were in my class, would I tell him to quit making up words and use the spell-checker on his computer?
Another student, “Brian,” is quietly subversive. He writes essays with the eloquence of Annie Dillard, but politely refused when I tried to lend him her book, Holy the Firm. In the place of a five-paragraph essay, he turned in poetry. I don’t believe that the five-paragraph essay is sacred. I believe that words should be carved, pasted together so they manipulate their reader. But I have to admit that I made him revise his essay to include page numbers and quotes from the text. The thesis in his final draft was still as wispy as cloud, and I have to admit that I lowered his grade. But I love it when he cracks up as he reads aloud E. K. Hornbeck’s egotistical ramblings in Inherit the Wind.
Surely, teaching my seventh graders all the rules of Language Arts Past will not prepare them for an unimagined world. Rather, they must be given the imaginative power not only to adapt, but also to shape. The hardest thing about teaching is to cede control, to allow my students to reach standard that I cannot even envision, cannot even see through the haze of the world as I know it.
Students of Language Arts should become Language Artists. Every time they craft a sentence, they string together words that have never been strung in exactly that way before in the history of time. I need to respect that magic.
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