7 Ways to Strengthen Democracy Through Language Arts

This political season has me thinking about the importance of teaching democratic skills to children. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it with the kind of starry-eyed civic hope that maybe only elementary school teachers can summon. It’s the kind of hope a person gets when they are in position to do something about something that matters. In this case, through language arts, I can teach my students the following essential civic skills:

DSCN2384

1. Critical Thinking

One of the most important civic skills is simply not believing everything you hear. Critical thinking is the art of asking questions about information: Why does the author think this? What is their evidence? Do I trust their sources? What is the context? Do I agree with the author? What am I basing that opinion on? These are the kinds of questions lively citizens ask constantly. They are also the kinds of questions used to interrogate a text.

This skill can be practiced in formal academic discussions, but also in informal family conversation in the car or at the dinner table. Talk about what you read, view, hear, and experience. Dig deeper. Ask: Why? In what way?

2. Understanding the Difference Between Fact and Opinion

This is such a crucial skill that it is almost invisible, and so somehow has become a really puny civic muscle. When we can’t (or don’t deign to) differentiate between fact and opinion, our judgements cloud our vision of others and there is no steady ground on which to build bridges.

This skill seems to click for my students starting when they are eight or nine. We practice it by doing observational writing — writing down just what we notice, not what we think. Later, we practice having opinions and backing them up with observations. This skill can also be practiced through noticing when we are using opinion words (great, bad, important) instead of observational words (green, loud, broken), and beginning to untangle our judgements and our vision.

3. Developing Respectful, Fact-Based Argument

Once we can navigate the difference between agreed-on reality and personal opinion, then we can begin to talk about issues in useful ways, and the national blood pressure doesn’t blast up like a rocket during every presidential debate.

It is also the central skill of essay writing. I think essays should be a foundational part of high school level language arts, but their foundations can be practiced long before that. Essays are basically the assertion of an opinion about a topic there is disagreement about, backed up by convincing evidence with the opposing viewpoint in consideration. That sounds kind of complicated, but every kid knows how to do this. The challenge is in tackling complicated and abstract questions in a well-thought-out way. It’s tricky, but worth the work, since through doing this we learn clear writing skills, stronger critical thinking skills, and the ability to engage with differing opinions.

4. Strengthening Empathy

Fiction writers like to say they are in the empathy business. And it’s true. Through literature, we get to step into the shoes of all kinds of different people facing all kinds of dilemmas. We experience their humanity, even if on the surface it isn’t like our own. Is this a skill I wish for every child? Of course.

The prescription? Read good books. Read aloud. Listen to audiobooks. Watch good films. Read graphic novels. Tell stories. Listen to fairy tales. Read more good books. And then engage with them imaginatively. When I tell stories in class, I often have my students draw a picture from the story. This allows them to sink deeper into the story imaginatively without over-intellectualizing it. (And yes, this is kind of opposite of what I said about developing critical thinking. Different stories, different times, different tactics.)

 

5. Enquiring into Larger Human Questions

A healthy democracy isn’t just a bureaucratic structure, it’s a result of a vibrant social conversation about the big questions of being human: what is fair, what matters, how should we treat each other, etc. This is the stuff that makes literature tick.

Reading, thinking, and writing about big questions isn’t just intellectually satisfying, it gives us a chance to wrestle out nuanced opinions and to weigh opposing ideas in a respectful way. Sounds like practice in democracy to me.

6. Trusting Their Own Voice

Voting is an act of believing that your opinion matters, and as far as I can tell, believing that it won’t matter is a major reason people don’t vote. So it seems to me that it’s essential we encourage children to believe in their voices.

Writing is a great way for children to begin to articulate their own opinions and speak up. To encourage this, I have my students write both about things that matter to them, and in lots of silly and creative and free ways. For instance, we write tons of poetry, and most of the time, unless something doesn’t make sense, I can read their poem and be 100% positive about it (and then sit down with them to work on spelling and grammar). This is an experience in being able to say whatever they want to say without being told they are right or wrong — to write for themselves instead of for approval. We also do very friendly poetry readings, where students get to try sharing their work.

7. Engaging in Issues

When children can feel the power of their own voices, they get excited to use them to speak up about things they believe in. This is civic engagement writ bold.

We approach this head on through the Letters for Change project, but many of my students write about issues they care about in their poetry and other projects. Reading socially engaged poetry, doing research reports, dissecting current events, and academically observing things like Women’s History Month, Veteran’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day are all great ways to make language arts more socially active, and students more civically skilled.

Want to hear more about Frog Hollow’s language arts program for homeschoolers, and its educational philosophy? Come to the Open House.

 

 

Posted in Essay Writing, Literature, Ruminations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Look and You’ll See: Observation as Writing and Social Practice

1280px-mexican_douglas_fir_pseudotsuga_lindleyana_branchWe began this year by doing observational writing. I took my classes to different places — a community garden, a meadow — and had them write down things they noticed. I asked them to only write down things they had observed, not their own opinions, and we talked about the difference. I see a green tree is an observation. I see a beautiful tree is an opinion. It seems to me that knowing the difference is a crucial interpersonal — and even civic — skill.

I urged them to be meticulous in their details. Is the tree really green? What about it’s bark? Maybe it’s really a tree whose needles are dark green on top and white on the bottom, whose cones are a warm brown and whose bark is several grays, and whose trunk also has minty-green lichen on it. Suddenly that’s a much clearer picture than green tree, and a much, much clearer picture than beautiful tree.

I also urge them to just describe what they know, not to make any guesses. If they know that this tree is a Douglas-fir, they can say that, but if they just think it’s some kind of pine, well, chances are they are wrong.

From here, we’ll continue to build on careful observation and attention to detail in our writing — observing and then developing opinions, writing detail from memory, writing about cliched things in new ways. This work will improve our creative writing, and will help build a foundation for developing arguments, since we will have practiced the difference between opinion and evidence. But this practice goes much further than this, especially for older students and adults.

This exercise gets particularly interesting when you start observing people. We want to say things like “the sad old man is walking with his granddaughter,” or “the beautiful Parisienne friends in skinny jeans are laughing outside the cafe.” These both sound like facts.

But how do we know these things? Are they observations or assumptions?

How do we know the man is sad and old? Maybe he has gray hair and a fragile gait. Maybe he is frowning or crying. If this is what we can see, this is what we should write. Because maybe he isn’t very old — maybe he’s just tired. Maybe he’s confused or angry or has onions in his eyes. The child might not be his granddaughter, or even a girl — all we can see is that they are young and of the same general coloring, and that the child has on a purple sweater.

And those beautiful Parisienne women? (Whom I should say I observed in Paris a few years ago.) What do I mean by beautiful? Looking closer, there is nothing remarkable about their faces. It is more that they carry themselves a certain way. And while at first glance they are all in skinny jeans, even that isn’t true. Also, I can hear they are speaking French, but I can’t really understand them, and I have no idea if they actually live in Paris or even France, or are truly friends. Yes, sometimes they are laughing, but sometimes they are talking intensely, and the one with the cigarette keeps waving her hand.

If I had just looked at that group outside the Parisian cafe and thought my own stale opinions about them, I doubt I would remember them. But because I slowed down and wrote what I could actually see rather than what I thought about what I saw, the whole street outside the cafe is burned in my mind. I can still see the honeybee investigating my coffee, the Coca-cola bottle at the next table, the thin street trees.

So not only is this exercise fun (especially when you’re killing time somewhere new), but it allows us to see more clearly. We see details. Individuals. We begin to question our assumed knowledge about other people. We allow things about them to surprise us. We stay in the unknown rather than jumping to faulty conclusions.

All of this is great writing practice, but it’s also great human practice. The more we let our observations rather than our prior prejudices inform us, and the more we know the difference between fact and opinion, the better off we’ll all be.

(This exercise grew out of one from an article about teaching for social justice, but I can’t remember the magazine or the author. I wish I could give them more credit — it was a great article.)

Posted in Language, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Disaster of the Cranky Crankie

ufo-1194320_960_720So Lady Gaga had just gotten back from space and was wearing a hotdog costume.

Hitler came up to her and said, “You look like a Wiener Schnitzel.”

She says to him, “This is a bad romance, Adolf.”

But I get ahead of myself.

It all started when Hitler, Mitt Romney, Obama, Hans Solo, a fried egg, and a boy named Mychal decided to make a crankie together. A crankie is a scrolling paper movie, but this was The Disaster of the Cranky Crankie. It was all going fine until Mychal decided to draw a tree.

“NO TREES!!!” cried Romney. “Money!” Then he and Hitler got in a big fight about it that went pretty much like this:

Hitler: “Nature!”

Romney: “Money!”

Hitler: “War!”

Romney: “Money!”

Hitler: “Art!”

Romney: “Money!”

“Noooooooo/neiiiiiiiiiiiiin!!!!!!”

Meanwhile aliens were landing.

“Help me, help me!” cried the fried egg, running straight towards the Tower of Mordor.

Obama and Hans Solo went to greet the alien, who turned out to be Lady Gaga in her hotdog suit.

“I’ve just come back from Uranus,” she said.

A giant slug slimed out of a tree and across the entire crankie. “Yuck, slug slime,” said Squinchy the dog. Then the giant slug climbed onto Lady Gaga’s head.

No one was working on the crankie. Hans Solo was playing holographic chess with Chewbacca and the politicians were still fighting about trees. Mychal decided he would have to finish the crankie by himself. Squinchy wondered when he would be done so they could go play frisbee.

Hitler, Romney, and Obama finally came to an agreement: there would be no trees. Obama was sad about the compromise and nobody saw anything of him after that.

“Hey guys,” said Mychal, “I finished the crankie, and I added a bunch more trees.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

“NEIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN!”

Their heads were enormous, their eyes bloodshot, and they were suddenly missing most of their teeth.

And off flew the giant slug on Lady Gaga’s spaceship.

“Now can we play frisbee?” asked Squinch.

That’s the plot summary of the crankie some kids I was working with a while back made. Can you see why I like my job?

Posted in Games, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Chinook Jargon

Continuing in our explorations of translation, my class has been playing around with Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon is the trade language of the Northwest, a pidgin of English, French, and several Salish languages. It was widely spoken through the 1800’s, and gave the English language words including “muckamuck” and “salt-chuck.”

the_discovery_on_the_rocks

It has about 500 core words: enough to say a lot of kinds of things, but little enough you can get a sense of it quickly. Some of the words are clearly English — stick, sun, cole (for cold), waum (for warm). Some clearly came from French — mausie (from merci for thank you). Some are very much not English and French (Salish being from a totally different language family) — illahee for place/ground etc. Lots of ideas are made up of stacks of words, such as cole illahee, which means winter. There are also lots of great onomatopoeia, like piu-piu for stinky, and wau-wau for talk and skwis-kwis for squirrel.

You can see I think Chinook Jargon is fascinating.

I introduced my class to the premise and some of the vocabulary, as well as the idea of a pidgin language, and a little of the story of how and why Chinook Jargon came to be. Then I  set them loose with a Chinook Jargon dictionary The idea was they would either write something directly in Chinook and then write an English translation, or vice versa.

Each way had its interesting puzzles. There are very few synonyms in Chinook Jargon, which means that something written with subtle variation in English is going to have sonorous repetition in translation. There is no way to do direct translations, since the grammar is toddler-simple. Often, we couldn’t find a desired word in our dictionary, so we had to figure out how else to say it. No hello? How about good day! No grass? No leaf? No grow? How about green fingers! Things got poetic quickly. Things that sounded too simple in English were often beautiful in Chinook Jargon, and things that were elegant in English had to be rendered with frustrating simplicity in Chinook. It was also interesting to see what things were easy to write about and what were difficult. The boy who wrote about his sick, crazy cat had almost every word he wanted. The boy who wrote about outer space, not so much.

We learned a lot about translation and how languages work, the poetry and metaphor of everyday words, and the history of our region. Plus, we may have contributed significantly to the sheer volume of poetry written in a language meant for simple transactions.

Posted in Language, Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,