Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stephen King's "On Writing" is a Useful Classroom Guide

If you're an English teacher, and you haven't read Stephen King's memoir On Writing, you might just be missing out, or, like me, you might have had an original elitist refusal to taking advice from the writer of thrillers and supermarket paperbacks. That's probably a position you should reconsider. Jess Lahey, an English educator and education writer for The Atlantic, has a great piece in Business Insider where she interviews King about the value of his book and his thoughts on teaching English. Both King and Lahey have a lot of great  insights about English education.

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of "On Writing," but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?
King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like“Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but "The Elements of Style" is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.
Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?
King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learndoesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.
Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?
King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.
Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s "The Elements of Style," E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?
King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

Read more: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/09/how-stephen-king-teaches-writing/379870/?single_page=true#ixzz3LGWVh525

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