If computers can write, why not students?

Computer software can now generate interesting short news stories – if only America's students were so skilled. What the country needs is a new way to teach writing. Forget the academic and unnatural "five-paragraph essay." Go for the rhythm of storytelling.

John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor/File
Teaching writing the right way: Andrew Mackay, a student in Nancy Barile's class on mystery reading and writing, listens to feedback from Ms. Barile in 2006 about a suspense story he wrote. Barile is an innovative English teacher at Revere High School who won a College Board grant to restart the school's literary magazine.

In a world where your iPhone comes with a woman who answers your questions, reads your texts aloud, and gives directions, it may not seem like a big deal that computers are now writing stories.

But it is. Because storytelling is one of the activities that distinguishes humans from other species. Only we tell stories to remember history, impart values, and entertain ourselves.

Without stories, there would be no religion. And there would be no drama, which to the ancients was the highest form of art and the mother of the novel and the film. Without stories, history would be a long list of events, and kids would never go to bed. To tell a story is to participate in the act of being human.

Enter Narrative Science, a software company that has essentially taught computers to write short news stories through artificial intelligence. Some of their first clients are sports networks that use the software to write short recaps of games. The program analyzes events to pick the best leads and angles upon which to craft the narrative: the comeback, the team effort, the individual as hero, the drama of the streak.

If we can teach a computer the elements of story telling, why can’t we teach our students the same thing? (I taught college writing for eight years and now I hire writers – and believe me our educational system clearly doesn’t teach kids how to write so that a reader will want to follow along).

We can do better, but we need to reinvent the way we teach writing.

Remember THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY? It’s still around. Still being promoted as if it were a literary form. The sonnet is a literary form. The FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY is an unnatural invention, one that must have been conceived by academics who don’t write much themselves.

Writers engaged in the act of trying to say something on paper don’t write artificial thesis statements, followed by three explanatory paragraphs and a conclusion that restates the thesis statement.

Writers needn’t shrink from using “I,” especially when telling about a personal experience or expressing an opinion. And yet in another unthinkable act against nature, many English teachers prohibit the use of our favorite pronoun in expository writing. These are the folks who teach kids not to use the same word twice, so that if you’ve described a box as “small” in paragraph one, it must become “diminutive” if it shows up in paragraph two.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction, as I’ve just done. Or write a sentence fragment like this one.

Many teachers also frown upon dialogue in essays. Why? The problem with teaching writing as if it were disconnected from speech is that students start to see it simply as an unnatural activity they do in school. And yet we all tell stories and engage in long “he-said/she-said” conversations.

If we start there with students, we can help them see the threads that exist between speech and text. Students can learn a lot, for example, by being asked to tell a family story aloud and then to write it down.

We can also teach students the elements of storytelling. Most stories have a hero who must overcome obstacles on the way to solving a problem. Teaching the elements of story and plot also connects reading to writing. At school, we read stories but we write FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAYS.

If we teach students to write stories, we’ll also be teaching them the communications skills businesses actually look for. The business world, where I spend much of my time, has lately discovered the power of storytelling. Google “storytelling and business” and you’ll get over 30 million hits. There are seminars, how-to business books, conferences, speaker forums, storytellers for hire, story coaches for CEOs.

Companies are spending lots of money to send highly paid professionals to workshops where they learn how to turn a 120-slide power point into a story-like presentation. They are taught to use anecdotes, dialogue, dramatic pauses, story arcs, foreshadowing – all the tools that are natural to humans, but which have been ground out of us by our schooling.

Daniel Pink, in his bestselling book, “A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age,” makes the case that American society’s obsession with left-brained rational thinking is finally giving way to a more balanced approach, one where we start to value and reward right-brain thinkers – the artists, the designers, the entertainers – the people who know how to tell stories. According to Mr. Pink, the future belongs to the storytellers.

So let’s give kids an early start. Let’s help them learn the craft of writing in a way that’s natural, expressive, and human. It will be a lot of fun. And if we have to break up a few topic sentences along the way to allow a story to emerge, so be it. And that, dear reader, is my thesis statement.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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