Going through some files this morning, I ran across this speech I delivered at Middle School Parents Night at Porter-Gaud a few years ago.
My principal, the excellent Maureen Daily, asked if I’d address parents on the subject of stepping back and allowing their sons and daughters to learn through trial and error. It seems that a rash of them had been overly involved in essay compositions.
Anyway, what follows is the speech I gave that night, which I, of course, consider good advice.
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Hi, I’m Wesley Moore, Chair of the English Department, and I’d like to share some advice on your involvement with your son’s or daughter’s writing.
Writing, of course, is a process, so we teach it in steps. In class, we conduct exercises in stimulating thought for germinating ideas (what the vulgar call “brainstorming”). We work with introductions, body paragraphs, conclusions. We talk about diction, especially verb selection, how action verbs bop down the boardwalk whereas passive verbs are not all that interesting because it takes seemingly forever for them to get where the reader wants to get to. Each teacher spends focused time with each individual student in instilling the virtues of good writing.
A student who learns to write well needs to propel the two-wheeler herself. If you insert your diction into her essay, she doesn’t get to hear in the editing process that “maybe you could find a more specific word here” or “read the sentence outloud.” It’s through individual labor and through repetition that writers learn their craft, not from their editors. Parents who rewrite their children’s drafts actually retard the process.
So please, as difficult as it is, remove yourselves – the training wheels – and let your children have a go at it. Skinned knees are rarely fatal. As someone who has taught here 27 years in both the Middle and Upper Schools, I assure you that if allow your children the academic space to inhale the air of our classrooms, they will be become excellent writers. I personally guarantee it.
One last thing, a grade is merely a snapshot in time. No one in the media is brandishing Rick Perry’s 6th grade report card. You can fail the 8th grade twice and get into Harvard. Grade obsession creates unnecessary stress and can lead to shortsighted pettiness – students haggling over a point on a quiz that equals one-ten-thousandth of a point on a yearly average.
The thrill of the A never compensates for all of the day-to-day fret that grade obsession spawns. I myself have a son who made a C in 6th grade Spanish for the year – O, tears and lamentations! – who later graduated magna cum laude in German and received a Fulbright to teach American literature in Kiel to German high schoolers. Now, he’s back home unemployed. Who knows, maybe in two more years he’ll be teaching at a university.
Go with the flow.
 What I didn’t add was that his Spanish name was Jesus, and the first sentence of the report card comment read, “I’m so disappointed in Jesus.”
 Update: He later went on to get a Masters in linguistics, taught for a few years at a Florida prep school, and now is back in Germany getting a Masters in American Lit.