CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 5. . . .September 30, 2011
Rock & Roll Literacy.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2011.
128 pp., pbk., $19.95.
Creative writing-Study and teaching.
Literacy-Study and teaching.
Review by Betty Klassen.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Set aside for now all the academic stuff: the symbolism, characterization, writing mechanics, the curriculum connections. These are all just pieces that need to work together to produce a singular result.
Name an emotion. A good story will use that emotion to make the audience curious, keep it in suspense, make it laugh or gross it out.
At the risk of repeating myself, it really is this simple: If a story – or song or any other form of art – doesn't produce or provoke an emotional reaction, it's not working. There is a big difference between recognizing a good story (simple) and creating a good story (not so simple, but still not as complex as you are sometimes led to believe).
Sigmund Brouwer brings his enthusiasm for reaching out to reluctant readers and writers, as well as his experience as an author and seminar leader, to this book. A prolific author of books written to captivate early and reluctant teen readers, Brouwer invites teachers to take another look at how they teach these same students to become writers. Using anecdotes from his "Rock and Roll Literacy" seminars, Brouwer's humor and heart clearly illustrate his sincere interest and skill in engaging students and turning them into writers.
The book is divided into four parts: Understand Story, Teach Story, Write Story and Revise Story. Short chapters maintain the reader's focus on Brouwer's main point and are written in the way he advocates we should teach: short, fun lessons that allow students time to write since they "learn to write by writing."
This easy-to-read book may, at times, seem cavalier, but it does provide teachers with important advice on motivating and providing the right conditions for students of all ages and abilities to become better writers. Part One, Understand Story, includes four chapters that describe the power of story, in that story is what makes us human and connects us emotionally. Brouwer distills this down for teachers and students to remember as R-R-R: The Right story at the Right time for the Right audience.
Part Two, Teach Story, which includes seven chapters, opens with a discussion of the complexity of writing using the analogy of a very large orchestra. This section also introduces the only reference Brouwer makes to another author. He encourages his readers to read The Myth of Laziness by Dr. Mel Levine (2003). The audiences Brouwer specifically addresses in this book are teachers and home-schooling parents who, instead of assuming their students are too lazy to write, are advised to examine their students' non-productivity more closely for learning disabilities and to ensure that students feel equipped for the task of writing. We are cautioned to remember not to interrupt children's stories, to remember that, even when students act like they don't care about writing, it is a piece of themselves, and, therefore, our criticism is always personal to them. Brouwer's absolute promise to teachers is that, if we show an "appropriate emotional reaction to [our] students' stories, they will happily work hard for [us]." His points are illustrated by interesting personal anecdotes that resonate and will touch readers' hearts. Included in this section is also a chapter on gender differences with a special focus on motivating boys to read and write, suggesting that we need to be careful not to take the story away from the student since, if we ask too many questions and require significant revising, it becomes the adult's story and no longer belongs to the child.
This advice is based on Brouwer's experience, and so, if you are looking for a book based on documented research with a list of references to explore further, you will not find it here, but, if you read Rock & Roll Literacy, you will be armed with sound advice and creative ideas for rejuvenating your lessons. The accompanying website rockandrollliteracy.com is a companion to this book and provides useful lesson resources.
Part Three, Write Story, offers three broad principles: 1. Daydream the story, 2. Structure the story, and 3. Use words to make pictures. Brouwer's basic premise is that motivating students to write is more important than trying to teach them the mechanics of writing. He suggests we focus on "why" we write rather than "how" to write. Teachers should encourage students to daydream while researching to make researching more fun, even in history and science.
In Brouwer's opinion, literary analysis and curriculum can make writing too complicated, so he has written two succinct chapters to bring home this point. Chapter 14 on Story Structure and Chapter 15: Seriously, what is story structure? are each one page long and contain effective and memorable teaching suggestions for teachers who sometimes get too wordy as we explain our lessons! One example is "Hide the Thumb" which uses four fingers to have students identify Where, When, What and Who, which, together, create the opening scene or setting for a story. The hidden thumb, which pops out last, represents the Why or What Next of the story, representing the story's "engine" as it is the emotional reactions from readers that keeps them reading, not the structure of the story. A key point in this third section of the book is to have fun writing, have fun making the problem in the story worse and worse until you solve it.
Part Four, Revise Story, reflects Brouwer's skill as a writer and provides teachers with steps for teaching revision and many lesson plan ideas, analogies and illustrations. Brouwer states that acknowledging that writing is difficult for many students, at times also for published and prolific authors, relieves children of their silent misery and feelings of failure and thinking that they are the only one in the room struggling with writing. Brouwer's suggestion is to break writing into 20 minute segments, with stretch or activity breaks in between. This approach will motivate students to work hard during the writing time, knowing a reward or fun activity break is coming up.
Brouwer describes revision as "self-editing", and he advises teachers to start by having students help them in revising a piece of their own writing, a process which results in an interactive discussion that allows teachers to use student suggestions, include many voices, and also to sometimes explain why you would like to keep it the way you have written it (something we need to also do for our students). Brouwer cautions teachers to remember that revising is not about what is wrong with student writing, but, instead, the focus and purpose is to strengthen the writing. He describes rewriting a story to create a good copy as de-motivating punishment, or a handwriting exercise, and suggests we not require our students to do this final step.
Chapters 21 to 30 effectively use a pyramid as an analogy for the focus of revising, with story as the foundation, working through revising story, word choice, adjectives and adverbs, redundancy, five senses, word count, spelling, grammar and punctuation to get to the tip.
Rock & Roll Literacy will definitely enable teachers to plan many ways to "Keep writing fun" by having students "Write from the heart, and edit from the brain."
Betty Klassen teaches in the Middle Years Program in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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