I’m not teaching my kids to write. It seems like this would be shocking, since I’m a writer. But actually, I’ve taught enough writing to know that you can’t teach people to write well. This is because good writing comes from practice and from a lot of reading. So I’m not teaching them anything because we are all good writers if we keep the teacher voice out of our heads.

The teacher voice is behind most of the bad writing you see all around. And the good writing comes only from someone who is writing like they talk or think—and everyone has that voice already. Using it comes from bravery. So good writing comes from bravery and your voice and not from a teacher whatsoever.

The other thing about good writing is that writing for a whole community does a lot more to promote good writing than writing for a single teacher. No one wants to communicate poorly in front of a large group. But disappointing a teacher is more palatable.

So my nine-year-old has a cello teacher who won a big prize, and in preparation for the awards ceremony he received a request to write a bit about why he likes her as a teacher.

I knew that he would write differently if he had to type or if he just had to dictate. So I let him dictate and I typed. I’m showing you what he wrote, unedited, because I’m so relieved that it turns out, he writes well:

I like Gilda as a teacher because she always greets me with a nice voice. She always has something new to teach me in the lesson. It never gets dull with her. Well, it sometimes does, but that always happens.

Something that I really really like about Gilda is that she’ll never discourage me. The nice voice that I’m talking about is not “Hi Z how are you?” but it’s encouragement. Like “Great job on that. But here’s something you need to work on.”

Another thing I like most about Gilda is the rewards that I get from getting taught by her. There are four rewards that I get.

1. Friends and best friends

2. Treats. At the end of the lesson I always get a treat. Sometimes I don’t take it though because my mom yells at me and says I can’t eat candy because I’ll get a sugar crash.

3. Performing. This is one of my favorite things to do. I get to learn and experience people in chamber. I get to perform a hard piece in solo. And I get to play in orchestra. Although in orchestra I just sit in the back behind all the big kids and don’t really play.

4. Experience. I get to experience stuff many kids don’t get to experience and that makes me feel very very lucky. Because I am a very emotional person I feel lots of things when I perform. It depends on what kind of piece it is, whether it’s sad or happy or another emotion. Gilda is like a gate to open up my emotions and set them free from inside my body.

45 replies
  1. lisa sharp
    lisa sharp says:

    Penelope, I have stalked the pages of your blogs for 2 years now. I feel like you’re a neighbor who shares little snippets of her life over the backyard fence. I really love how sweet and kind your boys are. If I was Zehavi’s teacher, I would put this in a frame.

  2. MBL
    MBL says:

    The entire letter is beautiful, but the last three sentences, wow! I think both Zehavi and Gilda are very, very lucky. And both are worth the drive.

  3. Sam
    Sam says:

    ahhhh beautiful!
    “A gate to open up my emotions and set them free inside my body”

    When I was about 15 my dad and his friend got in a debate about the books I read. Dad was mortified that my favourite book was flowers in the attic. His friend defended me, with reading is reading and that’s the most important thing. It would evolve.

    Turns out he was right, and now my favourite writes are Margaret Attwood and Arundhati Roy.

    And I LOVE how you say that writing well just takes the bravery of letting your real voice out. I’ve been working on that and being brave enough. Oh, and finding a way of letting it out. I think I might need to start recording my phone conversations. Ha

    • Trilby
      Trilby says:

      I read every V.C. Andrews book I could find in high school. And Margaret Atwood will always be one of my favourite authors!

      I agree that the best way to become a good writer is to practice, practice, practice. Stephen King’s book, “On Writing” is a great read for anyone who enjoys writing.

      I would love if more people were taught plain language. As an editor, I spend so much of my day deciphering other people’s words to figure out what they’re really trying to say. Sometimes they don’t even know. It takes effort to write simple and short, but it’s a hell of a lot easier if you learn how to do it early on, before you’ve developed bad habits.

      I think that’s what’s so appealing about Z’s writing. He knew what he wanted to say. And he said exactly that.

  4. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    An anti-teacher rant doesn’t sit well next to the lovely message about being brave and finding your voice and the even lovelier writing of your son. (Even more ironical that it is a thank-you to a teacher).

    Anyway, I think the summary for me is that good writing = practice + reading + feedback + bravery.

    A beautiful thank you letter, love the last line, and I can tell you didn’t edit it as it has a list with an even number of points ;-)

    • Left shark
      Left shark says:

      Anti-teacher?

      Don’t you have that critic in your mind that second-guesses and saps your confidence?

      And haven’t you learned to trust your experience and (sometimes) your gut, and ignore that voice?

      Anti-teacher?
      Honestly. The things I read on the internet make me glad I’m a gill-breather.

      You know, the teacher voice tells me I can’t dance too well, but look at me! I had a prominent role in a nationwide broadcast of the Super Bowl’s Katy Perry halftime show.

      Take that, teacher voice!

      • Tracy
        Tracy says:

        Right now that critic in my mind looks remarkably like a shark ;-).

        Nice to see you have found your voice since your rise to fame. You have certainly made me rethink all my previous shark stereotypes. You keep dancing to the beat of your own drum.

  5. Jennifer Jo
    Jennifer Jo says:

    Are you equating dictation with writing? It seems to me that they are two very different things, involving different (but valuable) skills and tools.

    (Love what he said, by the way.)

    • Jim Grey
      Jim Grey says:

      I sometimes dictate posts for my blog. The voice is all different from when I write at the keyboard. I always end up rewriting dictated posts so they sound like my keyboard-fueled posts.

      Dictating also reveals to me how my mind is less disciplined in person than when I type. I would be very annoyed listening to myself talk. I need to learn how to edit my mouth.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        But Jim you’re so fun!

        You should do short podcasts.

        I love podcasts except for the part that they are so long.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      There is software called Dragon that is perfect for people with dyslexia and dysgraphia that dictates for you (except for when going through puberty it can be glitchy). No it’s not exactly the same as the physical form of pen to paper, which can be painful for a lot of people and prevent some people from pursuing creative writing.

      But it is a valid form of writing. I do voice to text when I send my spouse a quick message during the day, it is written. He doesn’t hear my voice, he reads the words.

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    That’s a great question. The short answer is yes, definitely.

    Here’s a longer answer: There are lots of ways to write and each one makes us write a little differently.

    For example I write more dynamically when I type and more carefully when it’s handwritten. Some people write on old typewriters because the Rythm helps them
    With sentence cadence and focus.

    Dictating is just another way to write with different results. Sometimes I hire a freelance court reporter who let’s me dictate blog posts. Those posts are always very well organized because I dictate from an outline.

    I’m pretty sure my son structured his note as a list because he’s heard me dictate blog posts with that structure.

    Penelope

  7. Left shark
    Left shark says:

    Dear Zehavi,

    I like performing, too. I am an awesome dancer.

    Your photo looks comfortable. How about hot-gluing some teeth on the hood there, little dude?

  8. Melani Dizon
    Melani Dizon says:

    This is so great Penelope. Right now I am battling all of the writing assignments my daughter gets in 3rd grade. The rubric and conventions are so ridiculous and the only thing they are doing is stopping her from letting her mind go and say what she feels. Because I have been writing for 20 years, I know that none of what she is learning to do matters in the world outside of school, which makes having to check items off a generic “effective writing” checklist such a pain in the ass. Writing is about communicating ideas, making your point, and learning. I don’t believe her assignments draw that out at all.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Have you talked to her teacher about this?
      Is it common core?

      That one time when my kid was in a school, in a galaxy far far away, he was bringing home 2 hours of writing homework a night. At the age of 5.

      Life can easily become consumed by continuously meeting other people’s expectations. I found it to be a distraction from what really matters.

      • Melani Dizon
        Melani Dizon says:

        Oh yes, Jessica. I feel a bit trapped by the school system right now. I have been talking up a storm but I often get brushed off. I have essentially boycotted homework because it was hours a night and causing nothing but stress. As a former public and private school teacher, I have seen the system work but it feels like it’s going nowhere good these days.

  9. Cate
    Cate says:

    What a sweet piece from your son! I love it.

    I am an editor who interviews smart (truly) people on a regular basis, in one particular field. It is fascinating to me to see how these people speak and organize their thoughts versus how I end up editing (and they revising) to the final version of the interview.

    I believe unless you are truly brilliant (I have interviewed some), your speech will not be as accurate as your written word. The most brilliant person I have ever interviewed can speak in such a way that there is very little editing needed for a precise piece that is easily read, is organized, and is clear.

    I actually support what my 4th grader is doing, by the way, with Common Core – he is learning to read text and locate evidence within in. He struggles with it, but I am in the real world and I can tell you it is an extremely valuable skill for reading and writing.

    The teachers mourn their lost time to read chapter books, but he reads plenty, nonstop, practically, outside of school. I would be more concerned if he wasn’t a reader.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I have a friend who I help edit her writing. She is brilliant, she speaks and writes exactly the same way and requires very little editing. Very smart person indeed.

      Is your kid in school? I couldn’t really tell in your last paragraph. I unschool my kids at home and currently my oldest is doing Cryptography or code-breaking, besides her daily artistic endeavors, this is the only black and white reading- handwriting she is interested in.

      • Cate
        Cate says:

        Hello! Yes, my children are in public school. I enjoy learning about home schoolers and unschoolers, however. I think there is value in public school, and there are many problems. There are paths to success you can follow through the public school to college system. There are paths more encouraged by the unschooling way too. Despite going through public school, my kids still love to learn and we do encourage it as a family, as part of our family culture. I think family culture is important. If you have an unschooler with parents who aren’t curious about the world, you will have problems.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          As an unschooling parent I agree with your sentiments, I would add that if I haven’t had any coffee in the morning then those same problems exist. :)

          I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t curious about the world yet. ;)

  10. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Not to be a wet blanket, but when you consider the importance of a quality music teacher, why do you consider a writing teacher not needed? While I agree that much of the school-based methodology for teaching writing skills is lacking, there is room for instruction to help already natural writers to be even more effective. There is no doubt that being a good reader makes a good writer, and that practice makes …improvement, if not perfect. But some constructive guidance somewhere along the line is not a waste of time. Powerful communication skills can take a person very far in life. I am not saying that public school teaches writing skills adequately. I am offering the possibility that many of the topics that seem to be “unneeded” are actually possibly needed and there are many ways to meet the need. If there are no teachers nearby, there are courses both on-line and available to borrow in DVD format. Just because kids don’t feel like doing something doesn’t make it unnecessary. Part of learning and growing is developing the ability to exert oneself to do things that are not immediately gratifying. Self discipline may not be an official academic subject, but it must be a learning objective of any human being who wants to eventually make his/her way in the world. I do not mean to be contentious, but I thought some feedback other than kudos might be interesting.

    • E
      E says:

      I completely agree with you, Katarina. We homeschool. (FWIW, we consider ourselves secular “classical unschoolers” in that my kids spend their mornings following a rigorous classical curriculum, and spend their afternoons freely exploring their passions, making art, playing sports, etc.) I absolutely agree that the very best way to become a great writer is to read and write voraciously, but at the end of the day, writing is also a skill. Skills can be learned and improved. Voracious reading will indeed allow you to “internalize” many things about writing, but there are also lots of tips and tricks and methods one can study to learn to be a particularly effective, strong writer. For instance, when we formally analyze or study the work of great writers, we can learn a lot about the craft of writing and what makes any piece of writing “good.”
      My girls are still very young (“Kindergarten” and “2nd grade”), but already they have learned SO MUCH about the skill of writing through our formal study. (Grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, parts of speech, style, etc.) My second grader, especially, has grown by leaps and bounds; the sentences she writes have gotten so sophisticated and beautiful, and I don’t think she would be writing at the level she is if not for her formal lessons. So, no doubt that the incessant read-alouds, audiobooks, independent reading, etc., my girls do will have the greatest impact on them and help shape their love for writing and reading, but I cannot deny that they are learning a TON through formal instruction, too! I think it’s also important to point out that writing is, in essence, THINKING. Learning to write goes hand in hand with learning to think. (I could go on and on about this!)

      To look at the issue another way: consider drawing. Yes, some kids are just naturally good at art and drawing. They can just magically do it, and do it well, without having to be taught. But drawing is also a skill that can be learned through various tricks and techniques. In other words, someone with just “average” natural drawing ability can work really hard at formal lessons and become, through practice and experience, a really fantastic artist. Once they have acquired the skills they need to communicate their ideas, they can express themselves to their fullest potential. So for me, writing is the same; I want my girls to be able to fully express themselves and their ideas through writing. It’s too essential (in my view) not to teach it. Like reading, writing is fundamental to all other subjects and forms of learning, so to me it seems a bit foolhardy to simply “hope for the best.” (You certainly don’t have to teach writing the way they do in schools, though! There are lots of different approaches.)

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      “I am not saying that public school teaches writing skills adequately.”

      One should be careful not to make the sweeping implication that they do not. My child goes to a highly rated public school in one of the best systems in the country and her instruction so far has been more than adequate.

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        Seems my writing is lacking as I wasn’t clear with my intended message. : )
        Since I was referring to the need to learn writing skills, I was trying to avoid the implication that one must go to school or that that school is the only place to learn those skills. Some schools teach it very well, some schools do not teach it at all. My nephew who went to a very prestigious school in the Boston area asked me to help him with his MIT application essay. It was terrible. He got into MIT and I can tell you that if he had not gotten help, it would have been iffy. He is very, very smart, but his writing skills were basically to write as he thought.

        My main point was that simply writing the way we speak is not a standard to live by. Clearly, I can need to improve my own writing!

        I tend to disregard is sweeping statements, so I fully appreciate your comment. I did not mean to imply that schools cannot teach good writing skills.

        I will add to my comment and in response to another comment that boys are not as enthusiastic about writing in general (not meant to represent all boys! Please! Do not misunderstand!) so engaging them in writing activities tends to be more of a challenge than engaging girls. I have taught all ages of students for many years in a broad range of settings (public schools, a university and in the homeschool community — not just my son).

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Katarina,

          I think the point was that her 9 year old son was able to do a pretty good job with never having been taught how to write and that came from reading and hearing how his mom talks.

          I think a better option for someone who wants to improve their creative writing would be to get a writing mentor instead of a teacher. Someone successful either blogging or has published something.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Irony! I do it all the time. I think for the most part people overlook typos here since there is no edit button. ;)

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      I was on board with you until you said “writing teacher”. When you are raising autodidacts you don’t need teachers, but a great mentor would be an awesome relationship whether it is short lived or life-long. Mentors are inspirational.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Katarina,

      I hope you don’t think I was discouraging you from offering a different perspective!!! I just wanted to help give *you* a different perspective as well. I love having a dialogue and bouncing ideas around.

      I think why having a traditional teacher do that kind of stuff doesn’t work is because they often have that critical voice that wants to “correct” all the mistakes that they see.

      My daughter was learning multiple-digit addition last year and we set up the problem something like this: ( 34289370764 + 15647839262 = ) and my daughter wrote down the correct answer. My teacher friend was quick to point out that my daughter didn’t include any comma’s in her answer instead of noticing that a 6 year old was doing math without any formal instruction. A mentor would not have criticized.

  11. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Elizabeth, I truly didn’t feel discouraged or shut down and it is kind of you to respond. I realized that it might turn into quibbling over the words “teacher” vs. “mentor” and I didn’t want to continue with that in this forum. I understand what you are saying. I’m grateful that my son who has always been homeschooled has many different people in his life who teach him many things. I call them teachers. He likes having them in his life and he learns a lot from them. He also learns a lot from other kids. He has two teachers right now who are under the age of 17 (both homeschooled). They are actually friends of his but they are teaching classes that he chose to take. Being a homeschooler or unschooler does not mean to me that a person doesn’t need a teacher or to be formally taught. We can and do teach ourselves many things. I would be severely limiting myself if I didn’t desire to be taught, even formally, by someone else. That was the point of my message.
    Penelope, I sense that you throw out ideas to get feedback and that is why I weighed in. I rarely do, but I thought I would on this point.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I read this post ( http://pernillesripp.com/2015/12/09/some-rules-we-need-to-bend-as-teachers-of-writing/ ) that was published yesterday. It’s written by a teacher. As the title of the post indicates, it’s more about the teacher helping the student find their voice rather than instructing the student to have a certain voice. And really, I think that’s what makes a good teacher – someone who is more of a guide and mentor who is learning along with the student rather than merely being an instructor.

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