Writing Book Reports: Elephants and Blind BeggarsMay 6, 2022
Guest Post by Gabriel Morse
“Ugh, why do I have to write about these people?” “Who cares about book reports, anyways?”
I have to admit I used to employ these stalling tactics myself when I had to write book reports in school. It wasn’t just that schoolwork and I maintained a hate-hate relationship all those years that I sat distractedly watching the dust motes seeping through the errant rays of sunshine in public schools, mission boarding schools, and even homeschool. I couldn’t seem to concentrate or care enough about whatever the report was that I had to write about; book reports, current events, historical biographies, or whatever the topic was. Instead, I wanted to read the exciting adventures waiting for me in my comic books. I mean, really, who would want to write anything about some old, dead English poet like Rudyard Kipling or some grumpy old Prime Minister named Churchill, when Tarzan or Zorro were facing “the most terrible danger they’d ever seen?”
Fast forward twenty years from my own time struggling through school to when my wife and I were teaching our own children. By that time in life, I’d served a number of years as a military journalist, and had been blessed to use my writing skills on behalf of my country and those with whom I served. I really wanted my children to understand why good writing skills were so vital. Instead, their book reports remained so awful as to be a waste of their time and our patience. If you’re a homeschooling parent with a normal child, you may know what I’m talking about.
You may think I’m against hard work and a strong “Get’r Done, Johnny Reb work ethic.” I’m not. It may sound strange at first, but True Effectiveness is best learned Effectively, not by just working harder at something that doesn’t work because “that’s the way it’s always been done since Columbus was in short pants.” In other words, we and our children learn best when something is taught well enough to intrigue or convince us that whatever it is, it’s worthwhile.
Beating the Book Report Drum
In the same way, teaching our children to work hard at their book reports is really important, but we might want to get there differently than if we were just running a slave ship. You know, like the old pirate movie with the big, sweaty guy beating the rower’s drum and the overseer cracking his whip at the slaves manning the oars?
I still remember coming home from work to discover my beautiful but frustrated bride still cracking the proverbial whip in the midst of a small mutiny over poorly written book reports that read like badly written Third World propaganda. In a foolish attempt to be helpful, I beat away at the drums with a good “Row for your lives or else” speech. Just a hint. Don’t tell your children the gory details of how you survived school if you don’t want your homeschool ship sinking while you repeat the “Do as I say, not as I did” mantra. If you theoretically made that mistake and your mutineers use your stories as an excuse, I assure you that your frustrated bride will definitely have something to say about it. In our case though, this discussion brought to light the fact that our children did better when they learned the How and Why of things just like I did as a military journalist, rather than just repeating “official” dates, names, and events.
Taking a Different Approach
Think about it. Would you do well writing about the M198 Refit Program, a burned-out car under a bridge, or someone expressing anger with a politician, if you were assigned to write about it today? Probably not, because those out-of-context facts don’t mean anything to you.
Now, let me give you the context. The U.S. Marine Corps M198 Refit Program rebuilt parachute-capable mobile howitzers after the Army discarded them as ineffective. The M198 Refit Program meant nothing to me either until I stood right beside one as hellfire and smoke belched out its ugly mouth and something like an angry mule kicked me in the chest and dropped the ground out from beneath my feet as the firing crew blew up targets a dozen miles away.
This was the same for the burning wreckage I mentioned until the day I watched a young Marine risk his life to pull a woman from a burning car where no one else could see her. My reference to the person angry with the politician was the night an Iraqi journalist standing next to my boss, flung his shoe at President George Bush’s head and was tackled by Secret Service and military personnel. See, you probably didn’t care about the unattached references I gave you because they didn’t mean anything to you or affect you. Yet, if you’d been on those missions, you’d have told or written to everyone about what you’d experienced. It’s the same for your children.
It’s like the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant where several blind beggars argue about how an elephant looks based on whether they held its tail, trunk, foot, or ear. As parents, sometimes we have the experience to see the proverbial elephant, but our children believe they’ve been given a writhing snake. This realization made us take a step back from the rigid education box, at least when it came to book reports. Learning to write was important for our children, but the manner in which we wanted them to learn was wrong. My wife and I realized that we expected our children to write effectively about the proverbial elephant, but we hadn’t introduced them to the elephant, so to speak.
Discovering the Elephant
This changed our approach. Instead of remaining in the textbook when writing about people like Sir Winston Churchill, we discussed how he saved Britain from annihilation. Then, we went backward and discussed how this stubborn bastion of grumpy determination was born in a humble coat-room during a dance to parents who had no time for him. We discussed his strange personal habits and how he bungled his early military and political careers, and that like his parents, most people considered him a colossal failure before World War II arrived. Finally, we discussed how those challenges made him the hero that most of us see him as today.
When my oldest son had to write about English author, Rudyard Kipling, we stalked boldly past mere tombstone facts and dates and into the heat and dust of 19th Century Imperial British India. What strange customs, poverty, bigotry, and government dysfunction we found as we wandered that amazing continent in schoolroom conversations. We read Kipling’s poetry like If or the Ballad of East and West, and stories like Kim and Gunga Din. The “old, dead author” described in the school book suddenly appeared nothing like the man my 12-year-old discovered lurking in the shadows of those adventures. To this day, a dozen years later, my son can quote small portions of Kipling’s words when it relates to something we are discussing. Read East or West with your children some time to see if they can hear the sound of “breach-bolt snick” and “pistol crack” as the Colonel’s son rides after the Border Thief on “a raw rough dun . . . with the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallow’s tree”.
Cater to Their Interests
Instead of forcing all of our children to write about the same topics, we encouraged them to choose people that intrigued them the most. This change in approach meant that we had to ignore the idea that our children must start out completing a bunch of book reports. Of course, our sons chose soldiers and adventurers while our daughters wrote about nurses and missionaries. With each book report, we argued about our subject’s good and bad points and (strangely) required something similar to Purpose and Summary Statements. Obviously, someone enjoyed playing devil’s advocate in order to argue the character flaws of historical figures I admired. Someone (ahem!) may have suggested writing bullet points on index cards so they could remember the details in some sort of cohesive order. From there it was a much smaller step for them to write what we’d discussed on a larger piece of paper. A little tweaking and Viola! Now how did that book report just happen?
Obviously, not everyone’s experience will be the same. You are the teacher though. So, are you willing to let your children wander blindly around acting as if you’ve given them a snake or will you help them discover the elephant?
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