Writing Beyond the Lines

My fourth grader is a minimalist. Ask him a question as a homework assignment, and he will answer it correctly but without the expected embellishment. Give him a form with a single line, and he will make sure his answer does not go beyond the line. It’s about neatness over substance. He gives you what you asked for, and nothing more.

That’s not what writing, or even being successful in school, is all about. One of the great lessons of life is probably that if your teacher asks a simple question, she expects you to give her an elaborate, complex, complete answer. Answer her question, and then add everything else you know that is even slightly related. It’s the only way to get an A. I was a natural. He is not, even though he is probably smarter than I am.

My son’s teacher has been encouraging him to elaborate on his answers on tests, in daily homework assignments and reports all year. It has been the main subject of our parent-teacher conferences, our emails back and forth, and his report card.

As a kid, I always got a thrill out of telling my teacher more than she knew and proving, without her asking, that I could go well beyond her expectations. So I am struggling with my fourth grader.

Over the last week, my son has been working on an Inventor Biography Report. He loves non-fiction. He is fascinated by inventors and wants to be one if he does not make it as a tight end in the NFL. He chose Orville Wright, who like my son, was a daydreamer.

The assignment included eight simple questions, as follows:
My name is_________________________.
I was born in _____________________ on ________________.
As a child, I liked to ___________________________________.
My family __________________________________________.
I received my education at _______________________________.
I am famous for ______________________________________.
Because of me, _______________________________________.
I died in ____________________________________________.

Trying to encourage him to take responsibility for his work, I told him to do a rough draft on his own. I recreated the one-page form into two pages, so that he could tell more of the story through his responses, and I reminded him that his goal was to say as much as he could think of, not just respond to the questions. I wanted to see what he wrote about Orville, who fascinates him.

He filled in the blanks with half-sentences. His responses were literal with no elaboration despite the ongoing discussion with both his mother and his teacher.

We spent the next two hours rereading the book, looking Orville up on the Internet, and talking about what made Orville and his brother really amazing. I let him talk while I wrote it all down.

The next day, when he was ready to try again, I told him to take everything we had talked about the day before, and put it into his own words.

He wrote exactly what he had written for his rough draft.

“But that’s the answer!” he cried when I shook my head.

“Honey, why do you think we worked for two hours yesterday trying to give more information in your answers? This is what we’ve been talking about all year.”

“But I answered the questions!”

“When you do a report on any topic, you want to convince the teacher and the kids in your class that you have the most interesting topic in the world. Do your answers make Orville sound as amazing as you think he is?”

Sigh. Eye-roll. “I’m hungry.”

“Let’s start again. Read what we worked on the other day. Only write two sentences before you check with me to make sure it’s a good answer.”

“I’m hungry.”

It took two more days to finish answering eight questions about Orville Wright. Lots of “what should I write now” from him and “you tell me” from me.

A few days ago, Orville Wright was the guy who flew an airplane for the first time. Tonight a proud but grumpy fourth grader can talk about a guy who didn’t finish high school, but with the help of his brother (who was also his lifetime best friend) was able to observe things that everyone else knew and translate them into a brand new knowledge that led to a great invention. He was a man who was born when a horse was the fastest mode of transportation and died when we could fly faster than the speed of sound.

I’m not saying the next report will be easier. My guess is we will have more minimalist first drafts. More daydreaming. More neatness over substance. More “but I answered the questions!”

But we have survived this one and given Orville his due.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Beyond the Lines

  1. homemadekids says:

    Hi, I’m not entirely sure I know the age of a fourth grader (I’m in the UK), and I can see why you so want him to expand his answers. But…. a lot of learning is about making mistakes & if that’s not extending the answer if his mum doesn’t help with his homework then it’s a good thing to learn when young. I know loads of mums who do their kids’ homework (my friend says her sister just rewrote her uni son’s dissertation!!!) but for me it is the ultimate taboo. Everyone has to (or hopefully evenutally will) learn that it’s up to you and the effort you are willing to put in it. Nicola http://homemadekids.wordpress.com

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