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VIII. REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON COMPOSITION IN
THE TENTH, ELEVENTH, AND TWELFTH GRADES (SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL).
I. PURPOSES OF TEACHING COMPOSITION. The purpose of teaching composition is to enable the pupil to speak and write correctly, convincingly, and interestingly. The first step toward efficiency in the use of language is the cultivation of earnestness and sincerity; the second is the development of accuracy and correctness; the third is the arousing of individuality and artistic consciousness.
A definite point of view must be kept in mind by the teacher if : this general aim is to be realized; that point of view is that he must meet the needs of the individual pupil. The development of the expressional powers of the individual pupil should be the aim of the teacher rather than the teaching of specific form and rules. Each year of a pupil's life brings a broader outlook through added experience and more mature thought. Each year, consequently, there is need for an increased mastery of technique and of more mature forms of expression. Only from a realization on the part of the teacher of this growth of personality can an adequate course in composition be organized.
Such individual treatment requires that each pupil do much writing and speaking on subjects familiar to him. If material for ora! and written work is taken from the experience of the pupil, familiarity with the subject will enable him (a) to give attention to correctness rather than to the mastery of the thought, (b) to write or speak convincingly by reason of his own interest, (c) to give some attention to the arrangement and presentation of his thoughts in a manner likely to arouse interest in others.
The classroom activities in teaching composition when arranged in the order of their importance are: (a) Letter writing; (b) relating of some simple incidents and explanation of familiar subjects; (c) analysis of pieces of writing; (d) reports; (e) literary composition; (f) debate.
Letter writing is placed first as being of most importance, since it is the form of writing the pupil will use most frequently. The pupil should be able to write a courteous letter according to the forms in general use, and of the degree of formality or informality appropriate to the occasion. Second in order of importance is exposition. The second aim, then, is to train the pupil to compose a
clear and readable paragraph or series of paragraphs on familiar subject matter, with due observance of unity and order and with some specific details. Third, is the ability to analyze and present in outline form the gist of a lecture or piece of literature, and to expand such an outline. The fourth aim comes when the pupil is more mature and has developed in power of expression. He should be able, with due time for study and preparation, to plan and work out a clear, well-ordered, and interesting report of some length upon his special interests—literary, scientific, commercial, or what not. These four aims should be kept in mind for all pupils. Other aims should be kept in mind for those who have special aptitudes; for those who have the argumentative mind, ability to arrange the material for a debate in an effective way; for those who have literary tastes, ability to write a short story or other bit of imaginative composition, with some vigor and personality of style and in proper form to be submitted for publication, and to arrange suitable stories in form for dramatic presentation.
The above aims have to do chiefly with content and the arrangement of the thought for effectiveness. It must be remembered also that correctness as to formal details is an aim throughout. These details are: A legible and firm handwriting, correct spelling, correctness in grammar and idiom, and observance of the ordinary rules for capitals and marks of punctuation. These, however, being not specifically literary, but the essentials of good workmanship in all kinds of written work, are the concern of all teachers, and should be enforced in all classes by the authority of the principal. Beyond these general requirements the writer should, through his English work, make an effort to gain an enlarged vocabulary through reading, and to use a vocabulary in his written work suitable to his audience and the occasion. A concise and vigorous style may often be gained unconsciously by the reading of authors who possess these qualities, but mere imitation of style may result in “fine writing.” A pupil may be set to work on the same project, however, that an author has worked out if there is no conscious effort to use phrases or words that are not his own. Firmness and flexibility in writing may be gained by reconstructing sentences and paragraphs of one's composition.
II. CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES. Classroom activities in composition should be founded upon and should grow out of the experiences of the pupils. These experionces may be classified as follows: 1. Those that school life provides :
(a) School work.
2. Those that outside interests provide :
(a) Work-past, present, and future.
(e) Reading. School work itself furnishes a vast amount of material for composition. Heretofore there has been a tendency to base much of the theme work on the English classics. The introduction of the sciences and of vocational training, however, has made a great amount of material growing out of the actual experience of the pupils available. There is a growing tendency to use this material and to reduce greatly the amount of composition, work based on the classics.
All theme work should be made as real and vital as possible. The following examples illustrate how school work may be adapted to this purpose and suggest methods of giving practice in different types of discourse. A pupil makes a field trip with his geography class; this trip furnishes more vital narrative material than "A visit to England at the time of Ivanhoe; ” it is fresher material even than “Last year's fishing trip.” Another visits a big chemical factory; extreme interest in the subject will tend to produce a good description of the factory. A third becomes interested in radium in the physics class. He reads all that he can find and assembles his knowledge in a good exposition. A senior has devoted some time to deciding what he will do after he leaves the high school. An argument in defense of his decision, whether for a certain college or for a certain vocation, has as its basis the mental experience of the pupil himself.
Outside interests—play, amusements, work, home activities, reading-will furnish a vast amount of material if the teacher is able to direct the pupils to it. For example, in the class is a boy living in a crowded section of the city who has taken a prize for having the best home garden. He tells how to have a successful garden. A boy whose father is assistant to the city forester has a collection of moths and writes well about these beautiful creatures. The list of such topics is well-nigh unlimited, and they are extremely interesting to the class. Moreover, the pupils feel that these topics are worthy of their efforts. Such exercises can often be presented before the entire school, sometimes with stereopticon views. · The sports furnish good subjects; for instance, a talk on “Swimming” might be given by the boy who takes the prizes in the contests; or on “How to win a foot race,” by the boy who won a race in a field-day contest. In general, subjects should be suggested, not assigned.
For the very small minority who seem to have no developed interest, subjects may have to be assigned. Even in these cases a nucleus of interest may be found. A visitor in the house talks about the glass industry.” A boy listens and wants to know all about the subject. He reads (magazine articles preferred) and gives a talk. making the subject as interesting as possible, not a résumé of one article but assembled knowledge from many articles. Problems and questions of the hour may have interest for some who read the newspapers. This nucleus of interest should be in the mind of the pupil, not in the mind of the teacher. The problem of the teacher is to get at this nucleus.
Not only should the activities on which composition is based be real, not only should they touch the life of the pupil in some way through interest or experience, but the exercises themselves should have, as far as possible, a purpose. Much of the work in English may be used for definite ends in the school itself. A school paper and an annual furnish means of presenting the best poems, stories, and editorials produced in the English classes. By skillful management the local newspapers may be induced to publish some of these exercises. In large cities a report of school athletics is made for the local papers every week by pupils, who often receive remuneration. Programs may be arranged for the presentation before the school of the class work in English. Speeches of acceptance at the awarding of medals for various sports may be given as class exercises; and so may the after-dinner speeches for class banquets.
The orientation of the English work should be the constant aim of the teacher. The pupil will be able to get freedom of expression if he chooses an audience, and does not write with the vision of a teacher, blue pencil in hand, looking over his shoulder.
The activities so far described have value in that they are likely to produce clear and definite expression. They also furnish material for organization. What the organization of the material shall be is determined in each case by the purpose in view and the audience for whom the composition is prepared. Now, by carefully outlining each subject the pupil learns unity without being burdened with rules. By working out details with the help of the outline he learns coherence and emphasis in the same way.
To sum up: In the composition course, content should appeal to the pupil as first in importance; organization, second; details of punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, choice of words (matters of careful scrutiny), third.
Besides these general and practical activities, there are certain others by means of which special capabilities may be developed. Fact writing and imaginative writing come from two types of mind. The pupil who can write a short story should be given an opportunity
and should have special training, but excellence in short story writing, or even fair work, should not be made a standard for passing pupils, nor should inability to write a fair story be made a basis for failure. All pupils should be encouraged to try, however, otherwise ability in this line may not be discovered. Many times this ability can be discovered early in the course. If a pupil can tell an incident or write a good description showing “ vigor and personality,” he is likely to be the one who can manage a short story. Some trials at verse writing will reveal pupils who have ability in this direction. The same is true of dramatization. Easy exercises in the writing of conversation that shows character will reveal pupils who, with special training, can dramatize. Here again the work, i. e., dramatization, should be based on the interests of the pupils. Material for dramatization may often be found in local history.
In short, there should be frequent exercises in imaginative writing as “trials” in the early years of the high school. Special training in dramatization, advertisement writing, journalism, and short-story writing should be placed in the last year.
What has been said of the short story is also true of debatingnot every pupil has the debating mind. The one who has will discover himself in classroom argument and should be encouraged by the teacher to debate. Debating societies, where the pupils take the initiative, should be organized for those who can profit by them.
Pictures may be used at any time to suggest a theme or a train of thought. Some profitable work may be done by the use of the right type of picture. For example, the cartoon may often be used for the development of a short theme. The chief editorial of the day in many newspapers is often put into the cartoon.
Letter writing should be a frequent class exercise. Pupils should be given constant practice in the writing of letters that have a real purpose; the body of the letter should grow out of the interest of the pupils. The boys take more interest in ordering a bill of goods from “Spalding's” than books from a publishing company. The boy who has a garden would prefer to write for seeds. Letters of application should, if possible, be written for real positions, to real persons. Invitations to school parties and banquets should be made class exercises. Letters may, in some cases, be written to the prin·cipal asking for class standings.
The spirit of informal letter writing may be stimulated by the simpler letters of Stevenson, Dickens, Carroll, and Lincoln. The pupil should feel that in the letter he has absolute freedom to write on a familiar subject, with more revelation of personal feelings and tastes than in any other form. The problem is to show the pupil that he has mental and emotional experiences worth while putting into a letter.