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Introducing Writing with a Computer

See also the draft version Same Title (Logo Working Paper)

WRITING BEFORE THE INTIMATE STUDY
Miriam didn’t write much before she was six, in any standard sense of composition. There were, however, two kinds of activities in which she engaged that can be seen as the precursors of the stories and letters she wrote later. One was a kindergarten activity where the teacher or one of her helpers asked a child to tell the story of a picture the child had drawn. She then wrote the story on a piece of paper and attached it to the picture. My favorite of the genre:

It’s a sunny day in my picture.
People are sailing on the river.
A boy and a girl are happy together.

In the year preceding The Intimate Study, a large portion of Miriam’s drawings took the form of “presents” she made for others. A typical example of this second precursor is this: after drawing a picture of “football Fred” from Ed Emberley’s DRAWING BOOK OF FACES, Miriam prepared it as a gift for her playmate Brian. Miriam wrote at the side “football Fred” and at the top “To Brian/Love/Miriam”. (The “/” indicates a new line.) Miriam spoke of such drawings as presents many times. One formal element of these notes reflects that character. Each typically bore a “tag” with conjoined salutation and closing.

WRITING STORIES

The central idea of the writing experiences in The Intimate Study was to segregate the content and structure of writing by use of a computer language interface. The strategy embodied in the idea of a computer language interface is to pre-establish the structure of a piece of text and to form the content of the text from the writer’s direct expression; the final end, to be hoped for if not achieved, is that the writer in reading and re-reading her own composition will first perceive the structure vaguely as an envelope surrounding her content and later as a specific form into which she can cast her content for its effective communication.

Effective natural learning requires that material to be learned relate simply to the learner’s past, personal experiences. I was fortunate in being able to present Miriam as a generalized story structure a specific joke-script by which she had recently victimized me:

Miriam: Would you like to hear a short story ?
Bob: Sure.
Miriam: Once upon a time, the end. That’s a SHORT story.

Through the WRITER interface, Miriam encountered a story template whose first line was “Once upon a time,” and whose last was “The end.” In between these two lines, Miriam was able to interpolate any story lines she might wish. The WRITER interface generated a procedure whose execution would display on the video terminal the text of the story (after which it could be simply copied to a printer). When I introduced the WRITER interface, Miriam objected of the template story “That’s not any nice story !” Agreeing with her, I was able to argue that we had a beginning and an end, all we had to do was write the middle part.

Miriam confronted two major difficulties: choosing what to write; and ignorance of spelling. The content of Miriam’s early stories is idiosyncratic @foot:

P STORY
ONCE UPON A TIME
P WAS TIRED OF FOLLOWING Q.
HE STARTED AT THE BEGINNING OF THE ALPHABET.
PABCDEFGHIJKLMNOQRSTUVWXYZ.
THE END.

My prejudices would have judged this P STORY as uninteresting to a child. But it did engage Miriam, as is witnessed by her later claim of authorship when she showed the text to Robby and he said it was nice. In the first month of our study, she made several minor variants of this story.

I found Miriam’s elaborations of “P STORY” sterile and boring and intervened in major ways to alter her writing. First I removed the spelling burden by taking on the role of amanuensis and put the composition task in an oral context by introducing a variation of WRITER as a special tool for writing out the text of songs. While Miriam recited her favorite kindergarten song (“Little Rabbit Foofoo/Hopping through the forest/Scooping up the field mice/ And bopping them on the head,/…”), I keyed the text and produced printed output which Miriam copied and shared with her kindergarten classmates the following day. In the next writing session, I followed Miriam’s lead. She composed orally – and I keyed at her dictation – a version of the Goldilocks story as a play-script for her kindergarten classmates. (Miriam’s script proved of limited use (the other actresses couldn’t read), but the next day in kindergarten and subsequently when a friend came to play at Logo, the children dutifully carried their copies about as they were “supposed to.”)

THE MOST FULLY DEVELOPED STORY
These two interventions liberated Miriam’s conception of what it was possible for a computer written story to be like. The next week she asked to write another story. This story, SCURRY, was her most developed story made during The Intimate Study.

SCURRY
ONCE UPON A TIME,
WE GOT A DOG NEAR VALENTINE’S DAY.
AND WE DID NOT KNOW WHAT TO CALL IT
AFTER A WEEK WE DECIDED TO CALL IT SCURRY.
AND WE FIGHTED OVER IT.
THE END.

The protocol of her composing SCURRY shows Miriam with a much more liberal conception of what a story may be but with her production of text still much encumbered by the need for extensive spelling advice (She asked the spelling of these words: got, near, valentine’s, know, what, call, after, week, decided, Scurry, fighted.).

EFFECTS BEYOND THE COMPUTER LABORATORY

How much of this script became Miriam’s property, in the specific sense that she used it spontaneously ? Two incidents of succeeding days showed the WRITER template used outside the laboratory:

Robby called me from Miriam’s bedroom: “Dad, come see the puppet show.” They have played with, even made hand puppets for a while and enjoy giving shows — whose typical script has been “Hello. My name is Owl. Goodbye.”

Walking through the door unsuspecting, I found the children were playing “Ambush” — both were lying under covers on the top bunk. They cried “BAM! BAM!” as I walked through the door. Riotous laughter.

Suffering only flesh wounds, I managed to return their fire, then said I thought it a dirty trick for them to call me to see a puppet show and shoot me. Miriam responded, “This was our puppet show:

Once upon a time,
There were two guns.
Bang. Bang.
The end.”

Her joke was a spontaneous expression of the WRITER program’s story format. Her use of it in this explanatory way shows her recognition that it was a shared model of story structure. That same evening, Miriam, who had recently been making “late mother’s day presents,” brought me an “early father’s day present.” The present was a drawing of one of her typical flowers with this story:

Once upon a time,
A flower was sitting on a hill.
And someone came and pick it.
The end.

Miriam could not spell the words, I was told, and had dictated the story to her brother after drawing the picture.

LONG TERM EFFECTS
Miriam recalls writing no stories at all during her two years of public school after The Intimate Study. Before entering third grade in a different program, she took an entrance examination which required her to write a composition. She selected the theme MY DOG from a list of ten very general suggestions. Not only the theme, but her initial text as well shows the influence of the earlier composition. Her episodic continuation beyond the earlier Scurry material derived directly from the requirement that the composition be one hundred words long. Other compositions as well show the residual influence of the earlier story script. More importantly, that experience provided a shared, albeit simple, idea of story structure which permitted her understanding my structural criticism of stories she wrote.

My conclusion is that Miriam’s early experience with the WRITER interface at Logo left her with a stereotypical form for short story and even default thematic elements (which were easily overridden if occasion required it). Further, I speculate that the early presentation of a form with a beginning, middle, and end permitted Miriam’s comprehension of my criticism of the form of one story, as shown by the presence of a summarizing conclusion in her next composition.

The computer and the simple procedures I wrote for her were a tool to introduce Miriam to writing. Critics might argue that such an approach as I used is entirely cosmetic, disguising the child’s real ignorance with a covering of some other person’s knowledge, mechanically reproduced. Such is a penetrating criticism, but its focus is more on the finished product than on the genetic intent of the tool. A programmed machine permits presenting the structure of written material as conventional scripts into which a child can insert personalized content. The intention is to engage the child in the creation of nearly conventional artifacts through which activity she might come to perceive what the organization is, typically, and what the significance of the elements is. These observations and others on her letter writing witness Miriam’s ability to learn in such an environment.

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