ST. PETERSBURG -- Roy Peter Clark calls himself "just a soldier in the revolution" of writing instruction.
No. Clark, one of the superstars of the celebrated Poynter Institute for Media Studies here, is also a recruiter, drill sergeant, tactician, scout and hard-riding Paul Revere in this largely unremarked revolution.
His newest book, "Free to Write" (Heinemann Educational Books, Inc., Portsmouth, N.H.), is both an attempt to rescue America's children before the ability to communicate has been squeezed out of them and a how-to guide for teachers who'd like to join the effort.
Clark himself learned to write -- at least in his precollege years -- almost in spite of teachers.
"I went to good schools," he says, "but I was rarely asked to write. Or if asked, I was told what to write and given little true freedom of subject or direction. I was rarely if ever asked to revise what I had written. Writing was taught as a sort of magical power that some lucky people have, not as a process that I could learn."
Process. Both his book and his conversation are peppered with the word, by which he means the things that professional journalists routinely do: looking for story ideas, collecting information, finding a focus, writing the lead, organizing the material, developing the draft, revising, editing, polishing. The emphasis throughout is on refining the idea and getting the story told.
But look at how we teach children to write. Typically, the topic is assigned by the teacher, which not only denies the student a chance to learn the skills of topic selection and refinement but also implies that nothing in the child's personal experience is worth sharing. Worse yet, writing frequently comes off as a form of punishment, "a sort of humane alternative to paddling." But "even when it isn't used directly as punishment, the consequences of attempting to write often are harmful, hurtful or negative. What usually follows an attempt to write is a lot of negative comments from teachers and papers in which all the errors are highlighted in flaming red ink."
The result: "Children no longer feel free to write. They follow the directions of the teacher in the most direct and superficial ways. And they never experience the good things professional writers associate with the act of writing: the acquisition of knowledge, the opportunity to interact with a real audience, the discovery of feelings and insights, the development of their own voices."
It may seem a bit odd that Clark, whose professional life is devoted to teaching the writing process to professional and preprofessional journalists, should have written a book that features fifth-graders in the St. Petersburg schools. But there's a point to it.
"Working at this lower level answers some questions for me. It gives me the ability to enter a time tunnel and go back and learn some basic lessons about writing and literacy and learning and teaching that we can then apply with dramatic results in college classrooms and in the newsroom."
One of those lessons is that children, natural humorists and storytellers, are so frustrated by the classroom-imposed mechanics of writing that they lose interest in storytelling, forget that they have anything worth telling.
"If children are to grow in their ability to write, they need practice time. So classroom time has to be used not sitting like pumpkins on a fence, listening to a teacher talk about writing, but in the act of writing itself. The teacher has to become more than just a marker and grader of papers. My children write far more than any teacher has time to grade in any case. In this new way of teaching, the teacher must become a resource: an editor, a mentor, a coach, a consultant.
"And they are learning to do it. I see teachers learning how to confer individually with children, learning to involve themselves in the long-term development both of the individual story and of the individual writer."
Clark's book is filled with incredibly messy work: the rough notes and first drafts, the bad grammar and misspellings that send traditional teachers digging for their red markers. No, Clark does not discount the significance of mechanics. "If you want children to turn out good work, you can't avoid the issues of grammar, spelling and mechanics. The question is: Where in the process do most writers deal with these questions? For most professional writers, their standards become higher and higher as they come closer and closer to the finished project. They turn their attention to little teeny details of language and usage, not at the beginning, when they are trying to germinate an idea, but at the end, when they are revising and polishing."
The Clark method works: for the fifth- and sixth-graders he has turned on to writing and for the struggling reporters whose careers the Poynter Institute has saved.
The special contribution of his book is that it avoids the "creative writing" approach that has children making up things out of their unchecked imaginations. Instead, it helps them to draw on the wisdom and knowledge that come from a journalistic perspective on the world: "an essential curiosity and hardworking commitment to finding things out and communicating them to others."