“It’s a funny life,” Augustus said. “All these cattle and nine-tenths of the horses is stolen, and yet we was once respected lawmen. If we get to Montana we’ll have to go into politics. You’ll wind up governor if the dern place ever gets to be a state. And you’ll spend all your time passing laws against cattle thieves.”
“I wish there was a law I could pass against you,” Call said.
-from Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
One of the most effective ways to teach children how write well is to read great literature to them. Still another way is to read them great literature that is far above their reading level. Still another is to have them analyze portions of that literature. The best way to accomplish this analysis is to dictate a portion to the students, and then have them correct and diagram their work.
The above dictation is from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize-winning “Lonesome Dove”, which, in my view, is one of the finest pieces of fiction ever written by an American writer. (Note to my darling readers: if you haven’t read this book, stop right where you are, and click that link and buy it. Right now. Trust me.) When choosing dictations, I use a wide range of writing. I may take a paragraph from the morning paper, some lines in a poem, a verse of scripture, something from a book the kids are currently reading, or a passage from whatever I am reading. I choose dictations based on their ability to punch; that is, how well they can drive home whatever concept I want them to learn. I never discount a book based on its overall appropriateness or appeal to their age group. Doing so would eliminate a treasure trove of learning opportunities. Instead, if I choose a dictation from a piece that is meant for adults, I seek out portions that are both compelling and age-appropriate.
I dictated the hilarious gem above to my oldest two during a recent Productive Day Home-Schooling (These days are Rare, but they do exist). The kids are eleven and fifteen, and we learned quite a bit (thus that “Productive” moniker):
* Grammar: The kids practiced how to correctly punctuate quotations and attributions, and they saw how muddled a conversation looks when each new speaker does not get their own paragraph. We looked at grammatical rules about writing and hyphenating numbers. Also, the kids corrected Gus’s faulty subject/verb agreement.
* Spelling: The word ‘governor’ has now been thoroughly mastered at our house.
* Style: One of the hardest things to teach kids is how to “show” instead of “tell” the reader things one wants them to know. Writing well is an art, but it is an art that can be learned if one exposes the young to masters of the craft. By using this dictation, we were able to see a great writer “show” instead of “tell” in a manner that can only be described as brilliant. They saw the subtlety with which McMurtry reveals things about Gus and Call through their exchange. We see that Gus thinks he’s a highly educated man (“He learned his Greek letters once.”), but his grammar is sorely lacking, and Call’s succinct reply expresses his love of and exasperation with Gus even louder than his words do.
*Irony: Gus’s observation is hilarious, and true. Gus actually is brilliant, he’s just not as educated as he wants everyone to think he is.
*Editing: McMurtry does not need to provide any adverbs in his attributions so we will know the speakers’ tones of voice as we read. Their dialogue so clearly displays their mood that any adverb would be redundant.
*Use of Humor: McMurtry writes Gus and Call with a marvelous western humor. Their wit bites, and speaks to the hard lives and experiences of the characters. The laughs in this story are never silly-there’s no room for silliness in their hard world, but there is a desperate need for the release humor can bring. One can read a profound truth in the clever wit of these men: humor is often a scab over a heart’s open wound.
Teaching using great literature is a great vehicle for taking students places far deeper than “i before e except after c.” When one studies the great stories with children, they begin to open their minds to the purpose of grammar, the importance of clarity when writing, and the value of a large vocabulary. Even more than that, though, by using a piece of fine writing as a springboard, interesting discussions start: we talked about whether or not Gus and Call were men of integrity, what that word means exactly, and that discussion was the most valuable part of the day, because that is the time when hearts were molded, and a teenage girl and a young boy saw part of what it is that makes a man.
I don’t use many worksheets to teach my children. I avoid busy work and needless paper. Copying stuff, or answering fifty multiple choice questions about quotation marks and commas is okay for some, but I’d rather stick with real books. Teaching with a great story helps students begin to learn about the mechanics of writing. But stories give so much more than that. They teach us about life, about friendship, about strength of character, and about love.
And isn’t that the stuff we all really need to learn?