Anne Schultz is one creative-writing teacher who will not ask you to describe the most exciting summer vacation you ever hand. "That's when writing gets sanctimonious and dull," she says. "What can you possibly say that ever measures up to the title?"
What Mrs. Schultz is after in her five-week artist-in-residence stays at various Chicago elementary schools is helping students learn to be precise and straightforward in describing their experience and observations.
"Writing is not just the part you want to put on display -- the good and the beautiful," she insists. "What I really enjoy about writing is the honesty of it."
Mrs. Schultz, who was working with 6th-7th-, and 8th-graders most recently here at St. Martin's School on Chicago's South Side, often asks students to respond verbally to questions before putting their thoughs on paper. The idea is to help them gain confidence in their ability to see and tell what they see.
"I want to you think of a dream you've had at night or a place you'd like to go," she begins. "Go to that place right now in your imagination. . . . What is the first sound you hear?"
The answers vary: "Raindrops on the roof . . . . the wind blowing . . . Music . . . ."
But Mrs. Schultz, a writer herself, is after precision: "What kind of music -- live or stereo?"
Soon she moves on in an efforts to keep observations sharp and help students become comfortable in finding the right words to describe them.
"What's the first movement you see? . . . The first object?"
It's a very expensive sports car," shoots back an eighth-grade girl who is clearly warming to this game of questions and an"swers. "It's bright blue with shiny hubcaps and everyone is looking at it."
"Who does it belong to?" Mrs. Schultz asks.
"Me," comes back the proud and emphatic answer.
As the giggles break out around the classroom, Mrs. Schultz knows that the aim of her warm-up exercises has been accomplished and that the students are ready to move from talking to writing. The rest of the period is quiet as students take their pencils in hand.
What Mrs. Schultz says she is particularly trying to avoid is the writing that results in a tendency toward stilted vocabulary, self-consciousness, and too much concern for proper grammar and punctuation.
"My primary tool is random writing," she explains. "The only criterion is not to stop. . . . . All writing has to be discovery. Some of the most interesting writing comes when people surprise themselves."
Although back-to-basics enthusiasts might not agree, she argues that the mechanics of correct English and spelling can come later.
"First one must find out what he wants to say. . . . The aim is to keep the focus on the whatm of writing rather than the how."m
Mrs. Schultz, who is on the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago and an instructor at Roosevelt University, has been teaching in Chicago schools under the auspices of Urban Gateways, the nation's largest Arts-in-education program. With its support she also conducts workshops for elementary school teachers in the hope that they, by sharpening their own observation and writing skills, will grow more interested in teaching more of the same to their own students.