As my students are composing literacy autobiographies, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own early relationships to reading, writing, books, poetry, words. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, though obviously there was one. This may be because I learned to read fairly early (which I did) but also because I am too old to remember that far back (which I am). In any case, some of my earliest memories of literacy are of doing writing worksheets at the kitchen table because I’d been bumped up from preschool to Kindergarten mid-year and had a lot of catching up to do. I loved the huge stack of paper that lived on top of the refrigerator. I can still feel the tingle of excitement when my mother pulled another sheet down. I remember trying to manage the pencil, and feeling delighted at my own work.
I also remember asking my first-grade teacher, the following year, for some homework. I wrote the note containing my request on a tiny scrap of paper and handed it to her during a quiet moment when I had finished whatever desk work we were all supposed to be doing. She looked at me scathingly (at least, that’s how it felt), and said, “We don’t have homework in first grade.”
It’s only just this minute, as I recall the enormous quantity of what I called “homework” in Kindergarten, that I realize why I assumed I ought to have the same blissful pile of work to do in first grade.
Also, this minute, I am realizing that I have been an impossibly nerdy person since at least the age of four.
The next deeply vivid memory I have of my own eagerness for reading and writing comes in third grade. We had to sit alphabetically at the lunch tables in the cafeteria, and so I was not with anyone who was my friend. One day, I had the happy thought that since I was always bored after my sandwich was gone, I could sneak a pencil into the lunchroom with me, and write stories on my napkin until the lunch time was over. I am pretty sure I knew that this was not allowed, but–ever stubborn and self-assured when it came to school work–I figured it was probably stupid that it wasn’t allowed.
Of course, on the first day I tried this, I was so content with my writing that I could hear nothing but the soft press of pencil on napkin, feel nothing but the tremendous care it took not to rip the too-thin, bumpy paper while writing. Within moments, my teacher was standing behind me, her arm reaching over my shoulder. I remember the shock of her long, red fingernails darting into my bliss, scraping along the back of my hand as she snatched the pencil away, hissing, “We don’t bring pencils into the lunchroom!” Filled with shame, I said nothing. My burning ears matched the angry, smarting welts on my hand from her fingernails. In my memory, at least, I never saw her face. The entire vision is one of hands, mine small and happily clutching a pencil, hers larger, and marked with authority, descending violently and without warning to enforce a rule whose purpose I could not fathom.
But here is the thing: I did not stop writing. Oh, I stopped taking a pencil into the lunchroom (though I have no idea how I subsequently passed the time). But her assault–for that is what it felt like to my seven-year-old self–her assault did not dissuade me from writing in the slightest. If anything, I became more determined that words and I would not be parted.
And this is where my question comes in. Why? Certainly, some children who felt as traumatized as I did by that moment would have put down a pencil for a very long time. I was never the loud or defiant type, and yet, I could not be dissuaded from writing entirely. I wonder if this suggests that there are some people for whom language, and interaction with words, is a primary mode of being, while for others individual athletic accomplishment, or music, or team dynamics, or making others laugh, or a thousand other kinds of communicating are more central to how they define themselves? I have always thought of myself as a reader. Always imagined I would grow up to be a writer. Perhaps even very young children have propensities towards particular modes of expression?
And if this is the case, then perhaps this might tell us something about best practices for education. Not simply that it is bad to sneak up on a child who is quietly writing and shock and shame her into giving up her pencil. (Though this is undeniably bad.) But that perhaps if we can identify the different ways that children instinctively strive to communicate, we can think about how best to teach them to access language too.
You hear a lot about trying to “appeal to boy readers” in upper elementary school, for example, which seems to mean choosing books with male protagonists and lots of adventure. But what if, instead of thinking in terms of subject matter, we thought in terms of modes of communication? What if we tried to be more creative about teaching poetry, for example, by tying its rhythms to physical movements? Or what if we appealed to the children whose preferred communication mode is class-clown by choosing stories with lots of dialogue that had to be read aloud like a drama?
In short, I’d like to suggest that perhaps there are better ways of engaging children very early on to reel in those who do not intuitively love books and words. If only we could think beyond the institutional rules that say that pencils in the lunchroom are dangerous, we might find that sometimes, doing the unconventional can be the key to inspiration.