Children Writing: The Story of an Experiment


I love to shop with mom
And talk to the friendly grocer
And help her make the list
Seems to make us closer.
—Nellie, age 11


When they are
in the street
they pass it
along to each
other but when
they see the
police they would
run some would
just stand still
and be beat
so pity ful
that they want
to cry
—Mary, age 11

Nellie’s poem received high praise. Her teacher liked the rhyme “closer” and “grocer,” and thought she said a great deal in four lines. Most of all the teacher was pleased that Nellie expressed such a pleasant and healthy thought. Nellie’s poem was published in the school paper. I was moved and excited by Mary’s poem and made the mistake of showing it to the teacher who edited the school newspaper. She was horrified. First of all, she informed me, Mary couldn’t possibly know what junkies were, and, moreover, the other children wouldn’t be interested in such a poem. There weren’t any rhymes or clearly discernible meter. The word “pityful” was split up incorrectly, “be beat” wasn’t proper English and, finally, it wasn’t really poetry but just the ramblings of a disturbed girl.

My initial reaction was outrage—what did she know about poetry, or about Mary? But it is too easy to be cruel about the ignorance that is so characteristic of the schools today. That teacher did believe that she knew what poetry was, and that there was a correct language in which it was expressed. Her attitude towards the correctness of language and the form of poetry was in a way identical to her attitude towards what sentiments good children’s poems ought to express. Yet language is not static, nor is it possible a priori to establish rules governing what can or cannot be written any more than it is possible to establish rules governing what can or cannot be felt.

NOT LONG AGO when I was teaching a class of remote, resistant children in a Harlem school, as an experiment, I asked these children to write. I had no great expectations. I had been told that the children were from one to three years behind in reading, that they came from “deprived” and “disadvantaged” homes and were ignorant of the language of the schools. I had also been told that their vocabulary was limited, that they couldn’t make abstractions, were not introspective, oriented to physical rather than mental activity. Other teachers in the school called the children “them” and spoke of teaching as a thankless military task. I couldn’t accept this mythology; I wanted my pupils to tell me about themselves. For reasons that were hardly literary I set out to explore the possibilities of teaching language, literature, and writing in ways that would enable children to speak about what they felt they were…

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