Recently, I helped an eighth-grade student with an English paper. (We work mostly on math, but work also on grammar, writing, and whatever else comes up.) The paper was a short fictional story.
We had two fun, valuable sessions working on writing skills and thinking skills. We talked first about the big picture, about some perspectives and questions to consider when reading and writing fiction: how do the characters feel about themselves; how do they feel about each other; how do they feel about the world; what does the author (or do you) think about the world. These questions need to be answered to define the characters, define the story, and determine what the story means; they need to be answered to determine what the author is saying or what the writer is trying to say.
Being young, the student was focused more on what was outside than what was inside, on extrospection rather than introspection. I pointed out that he needed to portray what was going on inside the characters’ minds, about what the characters were thinking and how they were feeling. Discussing the internal, what was going on inside the characters’ minds, would add more power and emotion to the story. The internal would help us know why the action was occurring as it was, and how the characters were motivated. And sometimes it is a vital key to knowing why the story is developing as it is. In our sessions, we added a few items discussing the main character’s thoughts and feelings; we added back a line that the student had cut out, a line describing the main character’s feelings, a line that was a critical part of the story. Story improved.
Another important concept we discussed was context: what a reader needs to know before a writer makes a statement, and where to put a descriptor so it makes sense.
If a story is to be driven by a misunderstanding, we need to make sure the reader grasps the misunderstanding and make sure that it is plausible. We had to add some writing to make it clear that a character thought someone was dead, even though another character had said the person *might* die. This was a plausible misunderstanding on account of the character’s age. If the misunderstanding is not made clear, the reader might wonder why the main character ran away. With these changes, problem solved, and paper improved.
Another problem was saying, at a point where a character has just gone into the restaurant, that McDonald’s was a gourmet restaurant when one was starving. That is more logical when we find out the character was enjoying the food. Walking to the register has nothing to do with being starving; enjoying your food greatly beyond what is commensurate to the quality of the food, does.
We also discussed the proper use of the word “since” (in the causal, not the temporal, sense). Since needs to show a causal relationship; we need to think of what the cause is for the independent clause. The student was using “since” more like a general coordinating conjunction.
The third broad topic we worked on was grammar and punctuation. In particular, we worked on parentheses (their proper use) and the dash. While the student knew about parentheses, he did not know how to use them correctly and where to put the period: inside the parentheses if the parenthetical was its own sentence, outside the parentheses if the parenthetical was part of a sentence. The dash, signifying a break in thought, was new him. We used a few dashes to add some variety to his writing and some emphasis to his story.
We had some good sessions learning how to write, how to think about writing, and how to think. Instead of just working on a paper and going nowhere with it and taking nothing from it, we took some steps towards teaching the student how to reason: the ultimate goal of education.