Eldest and I had a conversation last night about writing. She was concerned about not knowing how to write college essays, which are different from school essays. After some thought, Eldest decided that college essays require tone. I agree with this: school essays are descriptive, college essays need to be evocative, drawing the reader into the story. My husband the editor would say it's the difference between writing, "She cried," and making the reader cry.
Eldest wondered why her school doesn't teach students how to develop tone. Perhaps because the skills needed to succeed in school are generally not the same as the skills needed to be a writer. I've had a couple of interns this summer; most of them have good basic skills, but they write as if they are producing term papers. I realize that they've spent years honing this particular skill, but now they have to unlearn it and focus on writing for an audience.
As my conversation with my daughter morphed into a general discussion of schooling, I opined that while schools are good at divulging information, what very few do well is nurture passion. Passion is left up to the individual. Eldest immediately protested, "But why don't they tell you that up front?!" Good question. It might not be a bad thing for a teacher to begin the year with a talk something like this:
"This year we'll be learning about [topic X]. I can promise you that you will learn a lot, and you will work hard. I can promise you that I will prepare you for [whatever], and that if you do all of the assignments, you will grow in knowledge and understanding. However, I also know that along the way there are likely to be topics you find particularly interesting, or questions we won't be addressing in class. These are the seeds of intellectual passion, and whether they grow or not is ultimately your responsibility. If you come to me and say, "Ms. X, I really like this topic. Can you suggest other materials?" I will bend over backward to help you find resources to feed your curiosity. There is nothing I like better than a hungry mind. But there's a difference between giving someone food and teaching him to grow his own. In the long run, you're the one who needs to be able to nourish your intellectual passions. Take responsibility for it now."
Although Eldest is generally self-motivated, I think this kind of prelude would have given her permission to think bigger, take more initiative. It would have sent the message that wanting to know more is normal. And it would have acknowledged that even in the best schools, it's not all up to the teacher.