Let’s Give Them Something to Write About

When I was a kid, I really didn’t like keeping a journal.  Being the world-champ introvert I am, even putting my feelings or thoughts into a diary felt too exposed.

I think that’s one reason why I don’t really like the idea that commonly, the first encounter kids have in school with writing is an assignment to write about themselves or their feelings.  For me, it was more fun to imagine what might be, rather than reflect on my own experiences.

By now, most education people are hip to the insights that Susan Cain shared in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (whether these ideas have really trickled into practice is another matter).  I was lucky not to have had to endure a lot of group projects as a kid.  But I got pressure during my teaching career to use methods that were better suited for extroverted learners.

I’m actually not advocating that introverted people shouldn’t be stretched to be more social.  There is nothing wrong with learning how to interact well with others, even if that’s more uncomfortable for some of us than others.

This is where I think classical education has some really valuable tools to share.  For instance, formal writing can be introduced as imitations of other passages, or reflections on or re-tellings of fables.  Learning writing through the imitation of good models was known as progymnasmata, and Classical Academic Press has a new writing and rhetoric curriculum based on this approach. (Full disclosure, I do some contract writing/editing for CAP’s Latin and Greek products).

It may seem counterintuitive these days that something “creative” like writing could be taught through imitation, but I actually think it’s a pretty common phenomenon for authors to say something like, “I wanted to write like David Foster Wallace, but after a while, I realized that I couldn’t, and I developed my own voice.”

The idea with the progymnasmata is to give students something to write about aside from their own interior experiences.  I’m willing to bet that this intentional focus on inhabiting the world or mind of another is an excellent way to build empathy or at least moral imagination.

For educators  and parents concerned about a world that rewards performative narcissism, I think it might not be a bad idea to look back and see if there might be some wisdom in the methods and habits that prior ages practiced.




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