Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

teaching and learning

I've never had a knitting lesson, and it shows. I can do the basic stitches (wrong, as it turns out, until fairly recently), and I can count (sometimes), but changing colors or actually shaping anything eludes me. This is fine with me, at the moment, though I'm starting to feel the itch to do the work better. Practice helps, but a lesson would help even more. I know it in my bones.

My brother sat down with my daughter not too long ago and told her the same thing. He's self-taught on guitar, and has always enjoyed just playing around. "But every lesson I take," he told her, "I get almost exponentially better." Sometimes it just takes five minutes for someone to show you how to do something you've been struggling with for hours, maybe years.

Mariah is taking voice lessons now. Voice lessons always seemed like a luxury to me. Everyone knows how to sing, right? It's like talking, only a little more interesting. It's not as if you have to learn where to place your fingers on the keys, or strings, or frets: it's almost magical, how the voice finds its way.

Only it's not, of course. Learning anatomy and breath control and projection and phrasing can make a huge difference. Being self-taught can be personally satisfying, but study can increase both satisfaction and quality.

Teaching writing is a little like teaching voice, I think. The people who study writing, like the people who study voice, have already been doing the thing for some time. They know how to manipulate words, to put them together on the page; they read a lot (or they should--as the voice students listen to music) and they've picked up a lot just from being around words all their lives. Sometimes writers resist learning new things, as musicians do, fearful of losing the unpracticed spontaneity that has served them so well so far. Sometimes the exercises feel forced, the practice is boring. It's the easiest thing in the workload to blow off, if you're already good at it; you figure you'll skate by, as you always have, on talent.

Studying tae kwon do has taught me a lot about learning. It's something I came into with no prior knowledge. Oh, yes, I know how to stand upright and to walk and sit down, but kicking and punching are foreign notions. I felt awkward and slow for months after I started going to class with Nick (for whom, I must say, kicking and punching seemed a lot less foreign).

The other day, though, we played dodge ball in class and I learned that I do know something useful for tae kwon do. I was great at dodge ball in elementary school. I have brothers, after all: I know how to get out of the way. And it all came rushing back to me in our small studio space, as we dodged a pair of balled-up stinky socks. Through two rounds, I remained untouched, still standing after everyone else was out. Carytown champion of dodge ball.

It helps to know you know something when you're trying to learn. It was nice to know my instinctive dodging was actually a valuable skill. But it also helps to practice with some humility, to know what you don't know. A friend told me the other day about "white belt excellence: The ability to let go of everything you know and be open to something else." When I began to study tae kwon do I paid attention, I watched what everyone did, I even asked Nick to break things down for me at home so I could practice again. I can break a board with a kick, now. I have a decent roundhouse and a pretty good front snap kick. I've got some techniques beyond instinctive dodging, and I couldn't have gotten them without studying, practicing, making mistakes. I have a long way to go, too, and it's only going to get harder.

Writing's like that, too. It often feels instinctive, especially for readers. Too often words just flow out and they seem right because they made it to the page. Most of them, though, are just instinctive dodging, unpracticed knitting: they work, for a while, but they're not very polished and they won't get you far.

This piece is itself unpolished and raw, of course. I've got some metaphors, maybe too many, some thoughts, but I haven't assembled them as I'd like. I need to do some research, I think, and mull over this more, but I'm (as always) both impatient and rushed, and this will have to do for now.


  1. I remember when it hit me that I needed to actually plan out/organize papers... I think it was senior year of high school, although even then I was still able to skate by because I could make the words sound good enough, and had lots of quotes, even if the general layout (let alone the thesis!) was a bit dodgy.

    Creative writing is lagging for me, big time. I spew emotional baggage, I try to be honest, and then I edit. There isn't much forethought - or not nearly enough, anyway. Sometimes I think there's something to be said for spontaneity -- when it comes to capturing honest emotion, perhaps, or a sequence of thoughts, but there is a lot more to be said for well-constructed work; there are so many more things you can do when you know _what_ it is you're doing.

  2. I've been thinking a lot about this too, of course, as I sign up for another writing class. I teach writing, what do I need a class for? because you never really stop benefiting from taking a class.
    Meanwhile, cheers to the Carytown Dodgeball Champion!

  3. Just found your blog today. I love this post. I have decided to work on learning to write better. I am finding out some of the very things you mentioned here; humility, watching and listening, the need to practice, and the benefit of a good teacher. You put it all very well here!