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Leading By Example, in the 21st Century...

How can we teach writing to our students in a high school history classroom? (or to our sons and daughters?)

Imitation: A Common Sense Approach

writing and edited (and imitated) by Mark J Biberg, Nikolai, Alaska


This article written by Andrew Pudewa asks the question “How do we learn to read to write or how to we learn to do anything?”  This is a very relevant question in today’s world of high stakes testing and pressure on schools to teach children basic literary skills.

The teaching of writing has swung back and forth like a pendulum without any real rhyme or reason.  Again what is the best approach to teaching writing?  How do children learn best?  How do they ideas, develop vocabulary, master the structure and style of writing?  What is the best approach to teaching writing?


Many teachers today subscribe to the school of creativity or a “hands off” approach to the teaching of writing.  That is the teacher may assign a journal topic or have students write independently, but that is where the instruction stops.  They seem to think by letting the students write freely, independently, and without interruption that they are developing their natural potential.  Andrew Pudewa points out that most students in there formative years do not have the maturity or experience to write or develop as writers in such an independent manner.  He suggests another way.


He uses a story about a young Benjamin Franklin to make his point.  In a short piece called “A Method of Learning to Write Well” we can see a young Franklin learning his craft by imitating others.  He would take a piece of writing and copy it; but would not just copy it. Rather, he would imitate it while paying attention to the words, the structure, the flow, etc.  Then he would change some of the words a bit; maybe the order, maybe the actual words, again paying attention to the framework of the writing. In short, Ben Franklin used to pay attention to what he read and he would imitate that writing until he got to the point where his imitation was as good as the original.  After imitating many styles of writing he got to the point where he became a competent writer who was able to draw upon many proper sources. Clearly Imitation worked for Ben Franklin.


Pudewa also brings in the teaching of music and art (painting) to help illustrate his point.  He states that master painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, when teaching, would not merely give a black canvas to a young apprentice and tell them to paint. No, he (according to Pudewa) would have them copy his best pieces until they were ready to attempt their own original brushstrokes.  This seems to make a lot of sense in the visual arts.


What about music? Can we learn anything about writing from the teaching of music?  Pudewa was a music teacher in Japan before he gained notoriety as a teacher of writing.  As a violin teacher he employed a method called the “Suzuki Method”. In this technique a young student would learn exact notes and musical sequences and master them before moving on.  These notes were not original; they were pieces of music that were part of a teaching repertoire that stressed imitating certain exemplary pieces until those pieces were mastered.  It was only after years of exhaustive training with the Suzuki method that a student could apply his skills a violinist to original pieces.  Apparently, the imitation approach has a certain degree of effectiveness in the teaching of music.


Pudewa also points out that in classical times and through the middle ages the teaching of writing was taught through imitation.  This was not a time of mass or public education by any means. However, those that were given an opportunity to learn the craft of writing were taught by transcribing (copying) from the works of the masters of the Greco-Roman world. Maybe it was Homer, Aristotle, the Bible, Livy, Cicero, or St. Thomas Aquinas.  The point is that the method that students of the classical period were people taught with was a common sense approach that utilized the idea of imitating a certain style until we have mastered it.


Young students today are often at a loss when told to write on a certain topic.  This is even more true in rural Alaska where literacy is not a cultural value and reading and reading development is at least a couple of years behind the curve.  The looks on students face when they are told to write on their own can be frustrating.  The students often tell me that they do not know what to write.


In the approach to teaching writing put forth by Pudewa and his colleagues that is not a problem.  He tells the students what to write.  He guides them through it. He shares his writing with them. He has them imitate writing that has been done before.  That is not all there is to it.


Merely copying or imitating another’s writing would get old fast. There is more to this method than that.


The next step in the process is the key word outline.  In this, the teacher and students take a piece of writing (maybe a classic fable) and take it apart.  As they take it apart they make an outline of all of the “key words” in each sentence.  Once that is completed the students use a thesaurus to find replacements words for the words in their key word outline.  Then they rewrite the original piece, using the same structure as the original, and retaining the original meaning, but are making it their own in a sense.  This according to Pudewa is an effective method for teaching young people about basic composition.


The article that I read was written by Andrew Pudewa.  It is called Imitation: A Common Sense Approach.  The author is part of the Institute for the Excellence in Writing.  This short piece in just a small part of the larger concept that he is part of.  I chose this article because it really struck chord with me as far as learning to write.  I thought to myself: “How did I learn to do much of what I know?”  The obvious and quick answer was by imitation of those around me.  I took in the influences of my environment through my senses and my brain processed it and learned it.  I feel this approach can be very effective in rural Alaska.  It must be coupled with a strong reading program and combined with some of the other aspects of teaching and learning writing such as the writing process, the write traits, keeping a writers journal, and others.


Pudewa, Andrew. 2001. Imitation: A Common Sense Approach. Institute for the Excellence in Writing.

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