Monday, February 22, 2016

Creative Writing - Teaching our Children to Fish OR Giving Them the Fish?

About 9 months ago, the kiddo brought home a piece of homework which is to write a personal recount of her field trip. As with my usual approach towards her homework, I did not hover. For English writing, what we would do is to usually jot down the ideas that come to her mind and the few key points pertaining to each angle she has thought of.

By talking it out and planning it through, what I aim to teach is for her to learn to plan the story and the flow. We also spoke about ideas on “story openers”. I then sat down to work on my blog and she proceeded to write on her own, stopping me only twice to ask for assistance on the spelling of some words.

A day or two later, she brought back her piece and a 5-page piece written by her classmate which was shared by the teacher with her class. Yup. A 5-page essay. And before you need ask, my kid was only in Primary 1 then.

So you can imagine my surprise when the 5-page essay came back as a “sample” along with paragraphs written by her other classmates, printed on a separate sheet. I understand that through sharing, the teacher is hoping to share some good phrases but I struggle with how a 5-page essay is shared as a “model” composition.

3 reasons:

Are the children expected to churn out 5-pagers for their P1 tests too? I am sure that they are not but is that what is implied? For parents who do not know better, they may mis-read the intention behind the sharing and start scampering to work on a similar 5-page wonder, thereby increasing the stress level of their households! 

Parental involvement:
The piece was meant as "homework" where the children brought back what they did in class and they further edit / work on it at the home-front. So, it seems likely that there was heavy parental involvement in the essay. Therein lies the question “as parents, are we teaching them to fish or are we giving them the fish”?

Overuse of flowery superfluous language
The attempt was of good effort I have to say, but what did not particularly impress me was the use of adjectives, or in this case, an overuse of them.

Like a model essay that is typically published in books which showcase “super model” compositions, the over use of adjectives to describe a simple field trip gave me a headache. As a first-read, the starting sentences were impressive but it quickly became “draggy” for me. The focus of the essay was a personal recount to the Science Centre but as I read on, the first page mainly consisted of sentences and sentences of description on the weather and the surroundings. It did not even lead into the field trip (which should be the gist of the essay) even when I got to the beginning of page 2. So are those phrases necessary? 

At Primary 1, the usual requirement is to write about 5 - 8 sentences (varies across schools) about a picture composition (it can consist of 1, 3 or 4 pictures). To produce a 5-page essay during test / exam time, to me, at Primary One, is neither practical nor doable. 

More importantly, are pieces expected to be so “manufactured” where all the starting sentences of compositions are expected to be filled with superfluous sentences? It seems many such phrases are memorized and some are not even related to the composition. A quick check with my friends confirmed my worries. It seems that many teachers do look out for such use of adjectives in essays (which they deem as "good") and it is because of that, parents are sending their children to writing classes to be exposed to adjectives and expressions, and apply it, cookie-cutter manner, to their compositions during exams.

I do not agree with that at all.

Clearly, there should be better ways to write and to engage. Of course there are common phrases which we use and yes, it is perfectly fine to be inspired by authors where we sometimes use similar phrases in our writing, but I find it a shame to encourage our children to use “short cuts” such as through memorizing. More than that, are they using the phrases meaningfully?

The kiddo has been to writing workshops during the school holidays where one centre was also heavily focused on using suggested power phrases too. That prompted me to ponder and think: whatever happened to reading good literature (across a wide genre) and the good old practice of journaling? Am I the only naive parent here and the only one who feel this way? 

As parents who aim to support, are there better ways to go about this? Should we then be so involved in these "homework" where we are giving them the fish (or the answer) than teaching them the skills to fish? Please, do share your thoughts and suggestions with me! J

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  1. You have expressed my exact sentiments. I have a child in P3 and one in P1. I have been all for expressing her own thoughts, and putting things in her own words. But my older child comes home saying she needs to learn more 'good phrases'. One piece of homework even consists of using a list of 'good phrases' to write a composition. No creative writing here, just cookie-cutter writing.

    i think we really ought to bring up this issue, and hopefully gather enough traction to make some changes in the system.

    1. Thank you for sharing Oskyomy. It is quite worrying to actually read and see how often these recommended lists are dished out. While I understand that it does add dimensions to the essays, I discourage my child from using it meaninglessly.

      She does use some "power" phrases but are those that she picks up from good literature and that add flavours to her writing. I understand that some schools give out those lists to aid students who do not read as much but I wish that they would also encourage children (and parents) to read more and be inspired by those authors.

  2. Er, why are they expected to do 5-page essays?!

  3. Ahem, not expected. IMHO, mum could have delivered it over-enthusiastically. :p

  4. Thank you for your articles that you have shared with us. Hopefully you can give the article a good benefit to us.Primary 4 English Writing Class


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