Thursday, February 18, 2010

Good Writer, Bad Person

Pie has been coming home from kindergarten lately with some strange worksheets.

"What do you want more?" one sheet asked. "A new car or a new house?" Pie answered by drawing a picture of a house and writing beneath it, "I need a new house." (A bigger one, she explained later, with an extra room to allow her best friend to move in and become her sister.) Our house is already new; we hardly need a new or bigger one, and it seemed odd to me that teachers would encourage kindergarten students to press their parents for such large-ticket items.

"I want an iPod Touch," another petition urged. The school has purchased a set of iPods, presumably for educational purposes, and the students have been urged to buy raffle tickets to win one of their very own.

As far as I know, the purpose of these writing/colouring exercises is to lay the foundation for the persuasive writing curriculum. The teachers are harnessing the children's natural greed and attempting to use it for good: by writing their parents these letters, the children begin, in a rudimentary way, to express their desires in writing, to take a position and back it up with argumentation.

The trouble is, my children are not naturally acquisitive; they almost never ask me to buy them things. They zealously defend their property rights in relation to things they already own, but the idea of begging for new stuff - especially high-tech gadgets like an iPod or, um, a new car - is foreign to them. In the name of teaching persuasive writing, the teachers are actually fostering acquisitiveness and greed.

A friend of mine who is a grade five teacher has a similarly troubling story. The principal at her school made an announcement one day: the school board has cancelled summer vacation! The students were, naturally, up in arms. For a week they pooled their resources to write persuasive letters to the board, demanding a return to the ten-month school year. At the end of the week, the principal confessed: the whole thing had been a stunt, a white lie told in the name of education. Naturally, the students felt betrayed. The exercise had worked - they had learned a lot about how to marshal arguments and express them clearly - but the sense of empowerment they had achieved through the exercise proved to be illusory.

Is there something about the act of persuasive writing that is vaguely shady? E.B. White ends his novel, Charlotte's Web with the following famous remark: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." I have always assumed that White was referring to the notorious artistic temperament, to the selfishness of those who devote their lives to a creative muse. But does it go deeper than that? Can something as apparently useful and innocuous and persuasive writing be inimical to the development of one's character?

I teach persuasive writing to adults, and it strikes me that in doing so I often take open-minded students who are able to see all sides of an issue and bully or cajole them into taking a side. The art of persuasive writing is the art of twisting the facts, carefully framing sentences so that contradictory evidence appears to support your cause. Rhetoric is about manipulation and deception; it's about making your case look better than it is. My students come to me unable to pull off this feat, and if I do my job, they leave my class savvier and more corrupt.

Of course, that isn't all I do. In an expository writing course I also take students who are wholly wedded to their own point of view and teach them to anticipate opposing arguments, to consider the beliefs and values of their audience, to characterize their opponents fairly and even charitably. When they write rebuttal papers, students repeatedly make the mistake of overheating their rhetoric; I counsel them to tone down the vitriol, to assume a more reasonable tone and give their readers a chance to see for themselves how bigoted and absurd their opponents' arguments are. If I do my job, they leave my class equipped to represent themselves as open-minded and fair people. But at the end of the day, they do this for one reason only: to win the argument.

Persuasive writing is, in some ways, the opposite of learning. We write persuasively in order to get what we want, to bully people into coming around to our point of view. It may well be the case that the two qualities that most necessary to the success of any essay-writer are (1) arrogance and (2) the ability to conceal one's arrogance from others.

These reflections are all the more disturbing because I have recently made it a priority to develop Bub's writing skills. Writing is his Achilles heel, academically, so I've come up with a solution: blogging. Each school day, before he's allowed to use the computer recreationally, Bub must write a post in his "diary." His first few posts included a short story, several calendars marked with special days, and a number of how-to guides on topics like soccer and Pokemon. But yesterday he spontaneously shifted gears and attempted a persuasive essay. Sniff Your Bum Please was the title of his post, and the body of the post went like this: "please please please please do what the title says and do not change your mind."

Well, at least he's polite.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My son doesn't know how to persuade. He doesn't know how to negotiate. If he wants something that's been denied, he just repeats his initial request louder and louder. So we've been working on that. It's dismaying, like you say. We have been teaching him to flatter, to wheedle and -- what's harder -- to figure out why he's being opposed so that he can make a counter-argument. That intuitive leap is hard!

BTW an iPod Touch? For elementary school kids? Those things have internet access -- they have YouTube and a web browser & with the right password you can spend $1000 on music & podcasts pretty fast! No way I'd give my kids an iPod Touch. ---- Or wait. Maybe it's for the parents!

Carrien said...

I still have that problem with persuasive writing. I have to stop myself all the time from spending half of the time pointing out how my argument falls short and here are all the good points on the other side that have merit.

Nicole said...

That seems like a strange exercise for a kindergartener. I don't know. I wouldn't want my kids to have to do that "House or Car" exercise. But then I'm biased, my kids are the ones who watch a commercial and WANT IT AND NEED IT. This includes the horrible Slap-Chop that they begged my mother for and received for Christmas.

Carol said...

I think that their method of encouraging persuasive writing is all wrong.

I think a lot of can and does come from greedy, manipulative places. But I think it can also arise out of an understanding of someone else's point of view, and an ability to eloquently express your own.

Charlotte was this kind of a writer. She had the psychology of people figured out, and was able to use her own talents to sway their point of view.

And she did it for unselfish reasons.

Why not get children to write persuasive essays about things which would help others? Or get them to write two essays, each defending and opposite point of view?

Tapping into greed does not help them understand other people's point of view, it only motivates them to express their own.

But you need both.

planetnomad said...

Yikes! Teaching children unmitigated greed--and for big ticket items? Um...I have a problem with that! But hopefully, an adult in a persuasive writing class is learning much more than how to simply manipulate--and honestly, to have even that skillfully and subtly done would be a nice change from most of the rhetoric in today's world.
And good luck with the blog! I tried that with my 3, hopefully to get them to practice writing in English, but they have fallen by the wayside. It was always hard to get them to write, and eventually we all just gave up.

Carol said...

Also, can I say that I have been looking through Bub's blog and I LOVE it. I think he might be a genius. I wouldn't be surprised if this went viral because it is so brilliant in its hilarity. PREPARE FOR CHILDHOOD FAME, BUB!

Margaret said...

Would Bub like a pen pal? I've been trying to find someone for my son to write to, to improve his writing. He turned 8 today, and he is going to be a scientist, too.

Anon said...

I consider myself a fan of Bub's and have always been impressed with his humor and wit. Linda

Bea said...

Margaret - Well, in school on Friday Bub had to write a letter and here is how it went: "Dear Bad Teacher, I told you I didn't want to write a letter. From Bub." So it's probably early days yet for him to be acquiring a pen pal. :)

Mommy to Ander and Loki said...

I'm a decent persuasive writer (as an attorney, I'd better be), but I don't know if I want my kids to be THAT persuasive. kid starts pre-K in the fall and now I'm nervous. Maybe the teachers at my school will have them persuade people to carry out world peace or recycle. Maybe...or maybe not. :/

Beck said...

My son LOATHES writing. HATES HATES HATES. Which means that all of his creative writing thus far this year has been as follows:
my mom is meen


Andrea said...

It's interesting, isn't it? From the other side, you often see writers using their 'calling' to excuse completely unjustifiable behaviour, eg. "I'm a writer, therefore I have to be an asshole!" I don't buy it.

I can see where you're coming from, and it's a skill that can be abused, but it's also a skill that, used properly, can be enormously effective and accomplish a great deal of good. Those who were arguing persuasively for suffrage and against slavery, for instance, I think we can say were on the side of the angels.

mayberry said...

This made me feel better about myself, because I am most of the time not able to take a strong stand on anything (at least in print). I can always see the other side, predict the response, understand the other person's POV. And I often feel like this means I am a wishy-washy person with no opinions of my own.

I love your strategy of setting Bub up with a blog!

Gwen said...

Never underestimate the persuasiveness of good manners.

But I still won't sniff my bum.

ewe are here said...

Perhaps for older students, but I always found it useful when learning to write persuasively to deliberately choose the side I didn't initially agree with. Maybe it's the lawyer in me, but it made me work harder ... and if you can learn to argue/persuade re a side you're not passionate about, you can argue anything effectively.

Kelly said...

Can I just tell you the pleasure I got out of Bub's post? Politeness mixed with potty humor isn't used nearly enough.

Terresa said...

Hmph! Strange kindergarden worksheets, indeed. Sounds like some teachers could benefit from reading Schor's, "The Overspent American" and then applying what they learned to the classroom. Or being more mindful of the type of worksheets they assign.

My 3 school age kids now want a Wii. That's all they really want, especially my oldest son. I'm still putting him off...

PS: Luisa P. pointed me to your blog, in mention of a 6 word memoir you've done, but I haven't had much luck finding it on your blog. (I'm currently hosting a 6 word memoir contest on my blog and became curious at Luisa's comment...)

Kyla said...

I hate persuasive writing and debating. I can do it, but I never enjoy it.

Couldn't the school encourage the children to write persuasive papers on causes they find important or ways they would like to improve their school?

Luisa Perkins said...

A thought-provoking post, as always.

Run ANC said...

I've always thought that blogging would be an incredibly great writing exercise for school kids. The teachers could check the work from home/school easily to make sure it was done on a regular daily basis (as opposed to journals which can, and have, been "fake written" the night before. Plus, the kids could access each others blogs and leave comments. I think it would be exciting. [I haven't solved the privacy concern, but surely you can make them accessible only to a certain group?]

Maybe not the point of your post? I do go on sometimes. Perhaps I need to get out more..

kittenpie said...

You know, this was my problem in school - the further I got along, the more I could see all sides and the more difficult I found it to discard the contradictory evidence. When I was younger, it was easier, and my essays were probably better.

But I quite agree with you about the notion of fostering desire of objects in kids. Isn't it wonderful when they aren't into that yet? Blech.

John Ross said...

Ok, first - kindergarten...persuasive writing? Private school, but NOT a Montessori? Second, House or car?

Ok, you're scary-ing me(as my kindergärtner would say).
Granted Aaron is considered borderline autistic with language issues, but those are mostly speech(the phisical part) Ok, not the autism part, 'nother story.

Really, I'm pretty sure your kid's school is getting ahead of itself or perhaps going places that just never need gone to, i.e. persuasive writing for elementary kids re: BIG "wannas"

As always, love yer post, though.

Mad said...

The stories you recounted make me weep for the education system. An i-pod touch? Pie is in JK for crying out loud. What happened to the days when your homework sheet asked "What do you like more? Spaghetti or macaroni and cheese

There seems to be a failure of the imagination somewhere.

Call me arrogant but I used to think I was a pretty good persuasive writer. Having a blog taught me just how ineffectual I am at the craft. The blogosphere keeps humming along in ways that make me chafe despite my best efforts to lobby for a better, more utopian sphere.

Laura said...

As a mom, I wouldn't be too thrilled with such writing exercises -- especially their emphasis on material things.

Your kids are blessed that they have a teacher mommy who can guide them in their writing.

I'm a high school teacher with four sons -- come on over for some mom inspiration and encouragement.

AliBlahBlah said...

I noticed that between ages 3 and 4 my daughters letter to Santa went from 'candy and choclit' to 'barbies, my little ponies and dresses'. As she goes to Kindergarten this year she will not doubt be asking for a car this Christmas. Good luck!

aimee said...

Oh, Bea! I've read my way, delightedly, through your entire archive over the course of four or five consecutive all-nighters with my newborn. My pleasure was tempered, though, when I arrived at the most recent post and observed that it was NEARLY A YEAR OLD! Nooooo! Say you haven't permanently abandoned the blog! More importantly, tell us that you and B and P and husband are all happy, healthy, and well.

Bea said...

Hi Aimee! We are all very well indeed. Although I never formally said farewell to this blog, it is feeling kind of finished now - I even printed up bound copies of it as a Christmas gift to myself this year. I have been posting photos for the 365 project on my Corner Master Store blog (it's on my profile) if you want to see how Bub and Pie are doing.

doreen said...

My grand children are like little attornies. They are very persuasive, expert debateors.Scary I tell you; very scary.

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Annette said...

I think that by having Bub blog on a daily basis a great approach to developing his writing skills.

I've read over the posts of Bub and Pie and (I'm not just attempting persuasive writing like mentioned here in your post) but your blog is definitely a must read for parents all around the world, which is why I would like to ask if I could feature it on our mommy blogger and parenting expert community

If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please email me back at

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.


Mary Jo Graves said...

Did you stop blogging? I miss you.

Mary Jo
aka Matriarch, Redstocking Grandma

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