Tuesday, March 15, 2011


(well I think so anyway!)

So, in my quest to get my writing students to increase their English grammar and writing skills as quickly as possible, I have decided that they will begin hand copying excerpts from interesting, well-written texts that indicate proper spelling, grammar, and sentence mechanics. They will be required to copy the text in its entirety in their best penmanship, making sure to write it verbatim. This will be given as homework, and I will encourage them to then read the passage aloud once they've written it, so that they will get a sense of what they've written in relation to how it was typed. I'm anticipating that it will A) allow them to pay more attention to grammar and mechanics, B) help them with reading comprehension by processing the text through writing it, and C) expose them even more to academic writing, especially since most of the reading we do is from the NYT.

I got the inspiration for this exercise from Malcolm X's "Coming to an Awareness of Language" where he explains the process by which he became a world class writer and orator. Because of this, my classes first task at hand copying "example texts" will be from this very essay:

It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there—I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn't articulate, I wasn't even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way I would say it, something such as, "Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad—"

Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I've said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary— to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn't even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riming uncertainly through the dictionary's pages. I'd never realized so many words existed! I didn't know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I'd written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I'd written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn't remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that "aardvark" springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary's next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary's A section had filled a whole tablet —and I went on into the B's. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors... and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

SO! I'm excited to see if they'll do it and to what degree this will affect their writing. I'm making it mandatory and telling them if they miss one assignment they will have to wait until June to test instead of the one coming up during the 2nd week of April. That will get them because they are REALLLLY jonesin' to take the test and get out of my class! I anticipate that it this will also help to train their eyes to know what to look for while proofreading.

So, wish us all luck!!!!! If this turns out to be a slam dunk, I'm about to doing this for the rest of my time as a writing professor!

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