Coaching the Lethargic Writer

200px-PhantomtollboothI find much irony in a child that loves to read, and can express himself verbally, yet resists writing. An even greater irony is the latest challenge surrounding a book report on The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.

Primo read the book about three years ago, but picked it up again by chance and decided to read it again. This seemed like a good opportunity for another book report.

Some would ask, “Why book reports?” The answer is fairly basic: to assess the student’s understanding of the material. With Primo this is essential as he tends to skim material and miss important details. But the plethora of book-report forms available online and elsewhere tends to encourage this behavior by only having the student list the most mundane details.

This shallow approach to information, knowledge and understanding is also a recurring theme I am seeing among participants in online forums: snacking on top-level google searches, headlines and talking-points, and rarely critiquing that which they believe they know.

We really want Primo and Secondo to delve deeper, passing from simple knowledge into wisdom. We know that the journey takes time, but it won’t occur unless we press, albeit gently. So, in an effort to achieve this I created a list of what I believed to be some essential elements for a simple book report:

  • The report must summarize the story, including a description of where, when, and the essential plot elements.
  • The plot elements should identify any back-story, the story threads that lead up to the climax, the climax, and resolution.
  • The main characters must be identified, including at least the protagonist and antagonist (recognizing that some characters are not people).
  • Minor characters should be identified if they actually help steer the story (i.e., cause a turning point, thus directing the plot).
  • If the minor characters did alter plot direction, then this direction change should be identified.
  • If there were other characters in the story that seemed to appear without purpose, those should be identified.
  • Explain what is likable and/or dislikable about the story.
  • If your could change the story, how would you change it, and why?

We set Primo off on his book report using the above list as a guide, expecting that we would only get some of the above, but at least we would be pushing in the “correct” direction. After a couple of weeks we realized we must have made a mistake, as Primo was still trying list all of the characters and had not even begun to summarize anything.

After some tears we relented by letting him follow a simple form, which produced the following result 🙁 :

By: Norton Juster, Illustrated by: Jules Feiffer
# of pages: 256

Time: Not stated
Place: mainly in The Kingdom of Wisdom

Characters: Milo, Tock, the Humbug

Summary: Milo is bored with life when the phantom tollbooth appears in his room. He passes through it to a land beyond expectations (literally)! There he makes friends, learns about lot of things and embarks on a quest to rescue and return Rhyme and Reason! But he eventually learns to be interested and enjoy life!

Evaluation: VERY GOOD BOOK!!!! It combines a boy you might know, a fairy-tale-like world and school-related worlds, people and things. Absolutely nothing I don’t like about it!

There are several things about the above report that disturbed GranolaGirl and myself, in particular that the summary read a little too much like the back of the book. From this description you could not ascertain whether the child even read the book. Having pulled this stunt myself in 7th grade (Boys From Brazil), this was clearly an unacceptable effort.

So here we were, back at the beginning of our dilemma. We need Primo to write more deeply, yet clearly we were not communicating what must be done. After much searching on the web we found Mr. Curtis’ Blog that help break down what a 6th grade book report should look like (at least it matched what I remember from my youth). This, and a little discussion regarding the level of effort we expect, we set Primo off on each step one at a time.

The interactions were much more illuminating, giving us the opportunity to discuss concepts we often take for granted as adults, like “what is genre?” Each step was completed faster than the previous one, with Primo gaining some comfort in drafting simple bullet lists into paragraphs.

While some would argue against the practice, we opted to perform some editing with Primo’s work, mainly focusing upon sentences that we felt were difficult to understand. Still, the rewrites were minor.

The results of this effort are dramatically different, which you can read here. In my estimation, this latest effort was much closer to what we are seeking and I am hoping this sets Primo off in a better direction for further writing.

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