Phillip Lopate JOSEPH J. McHUGH - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Being With Children] might be misread as still another romantic critique of repression and lack of creativity in the public schools, or as a string of recipes for teaching creative writing by a teacher who could afford to be creative…. After all, Lopate simply recounts his experiences of being hired as a supervisor for a funded program in New York's P.S. 90, which was sponsored by the Writers and Teachers Collaborative and Columbia University for "training graduate students to be writing specialists in public schools." If this were all the book was about, it would be directed to a specialized audience indeed. But it is a good deal more.

It is a sometimes funny, sometimes tedious, but generally insightful series of questions and reflections about teaching and writing. Seriously committed teachers, Lopate and his associates progressively explore the logic of their classroom behavior. The book could be aptly described as a record of the questions, reflections and practices certain teachers have posed, undergone and implemented to keep from becoming "sleepwalkers": teachers teaching children without reference to the real lives of either group.

Creative writing becomes, in the course of the book, a paradigm for the many ways of learning and teaching. Any teacher should be able to see enough connections between his activity and the process of teaching creative writing described by Lopate. He and his associates search for the shared human experience to unlock the creative process: in their case, the common adventure of writing "from," not just "about," experience and feeling that can bridge the gap between child and adult. Part of the excitement of Being With Children is watching Lopate struggle to make creative writing more than imitation and an "ingestion of adult genres." Once the blocks to expressiveness are pushed aside, if only momentarily, Lopate, his colleagues and the children shape the low-level artistry of raw expression into genuine literature appropriate to the age and development of the children.

For anyone teaching creative writing, Being With Children is a mine of practical suggestions. But for any teacher, the book is an important example of the kinds of personal questions and reflections that undergird good teaching.

Joseph J. McHugh, in a review of "Being with Children," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1976; all rights reserved), Vol. 134, No. 10, March 13, 1976, p. 215.