Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

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The right to call someplace home

A federal trial court judge’s clerk usually handles the prisoner petitions.  When I clerked, I would read the petitions, research them, and write an order for my judge to sign deciding the case.  Most of the research was in constitutional law because prison administrators have a lot of leeway in running their prisons with only their prisoners’ constitutional rights circumscribing their policies.

One day my judge refused to sign one of my drafts.  The inmate in question had petitioned the court for damages after debris had allegedly hit him in the head and injured him on a work site.  The prison administration was at fault, he said, because it hadn’t issued him a hard hat.  My order would have permitted the case to proceed to a hearing.

My judge smiled. “There’s no constitutional right to a hard hat,” he said.

One of my students earlier this month came up with a new inalienable right.  When I asked the class what rights he would add to (or specifically enumerate in) the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, he included “the right to call someplace home.”

Consider the virtues of a right to call someplace home.  It’s vague, like due process or equal protection.  Everyone can pay it lip service.  A faction could read it as requiring the government to find housing for everyone.  Another faction could hold “English only” legislation unconstitutional since it infringes on a penumbral right to speak only the language of an immigrant’s homeland.  Others could weaken it, or perhaps use it in a way my student may not have intended, by discovering in it only the right to call the United States home, first holding that the government decides what “someplace” is for everyone.  Some may find the right only aspirational: we are a rather nomadic people as well as a melting pot, and perhaps we feel the need for place more acutely for our relative rootlessness.  And some may find it merely tautological.  After all, calling someplace home sounds quintessentially unalienable.

Anyway, it’s a step up from a constitutional amendment delineating the right to a hard hat.

Propriety & usage

An irate parent called the school office this week. In her most recent newsletter, his daughter’s teacher had ended a sentence with a preposition. He told the office he was going to take the matter up with the school board.

The young teacher’s principal confirmed to her that she had erred. The teacher was pretty upset about it, Victoria said.

I was indignant. I asked Victoria to write an email to her teacher friend for her to share with her principal, her school board, and any other inquisiting body this parent and I could imagine. When Victoria wasn’t writing the email to my liking, I took the laptop from her and included this quote from Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

. . . recent commentators – at least since Fowler 1926 – are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety. Fowler terms the idea a ‘cherished superstition.’ And not only do the commentators reject the notion, but actual usage supports their rejection. (763)

Acknowledging her email’s sudden shifts in tone, Victoria explained at the email’s end that I had written its middle portion.

The teacher told Victoria the next day that the email had made her feel a lot better.

Are these the moments I live for? As a former quasi-fundamentalist, I’m pretty sensitive to the bad effects of a rules-oriented approach to spirituality. Maybe someone who equates a mastery of the often-whimsical rules of grammar with propriety pushes my buttons, too.

Webster thinks that Dryden first came up with the no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-clause rule. Dryden described it as a modern rule superior to what had come before – preposition-trailing clauses and sentences stretching from Old English clear through Shakespeare. Dryden’s rule eventually infested three of those popular, powerful, nineteenth century American textbooks. “The topic entered the general consciousness through schoolteachers, and, as we have seen, it persists there still” (764).

What did the teacher’s impropriety signify to the parent? Evidence of moral relativism? A lack of rigor in today’s public education?

This year, I feel the strongest tug ever between good writing instruction and the strictures of public education. The stakeholders – the parents, the administration, the government, the kids, the teachers – all expect certain things, and it is impossible for a teacher to change that. Good teaching is a subversive act, I’ve heard, but can’t we refabricate all of society to make it somewhat less so?

The night after our email, I attended Warren’s back-to-school program. His civics teacher handed us a short introduction, each paragraph of which included a different species of punctuation error. “God,” I thought. “American public education.”

Posted October 3, 2010.


“But pray, sir, why must I not teach the young gentlemen?”

“Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed. Yet curiously enough this does not seem to apply to tutors: perhaps it is scarcely possible to lay the prima donna to an audience of one. Fathers, on the other hand -“

— Dialog between Mr. Martin and Stephen Maturin on page 92 of The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian

I’ve logged hundreds of hours over twenty novels (most of them two times over) enjoying your company, Dr. Maturin. It is difficult to accept that, all the while, you have seen me as unfit to associate with grown men. I appear to myself now like one of the bores in the wardroom with whom you are trapped for months on end.

I wasn’t always a schoolteacher, Stephen; is there anything to be said for that? In fact, I held your opinion of schoolteachers for years until I was brought by the lee fifteen minutes into my teaching career.

I made a grammatical error in front of my first class. Some verb I used didn’t agree in number with one of those indefinite pronouns that can go either way; I don’t remember the exact details.

Some smart girl called me on it in front of the whole class, and I thought it was a good time to introduce my teaching philosophy.

“Hey, I’m new to teaching this. I’m going to make some mistakes. I want you to feel free to point them out to me, but I expect you to take it well when I may have to correct your grammar on occasion. In other words, I’m going to model the humility and the excitement about learning that I hope I’ll find in you guys.”

You get the idea, Stephen. I deliberately shed the image of the all-knowing and infallible teacher, and I was up there modeling learning. You probably would have approved.

Anyway, a few kids on that first class of that first day exchanged sneers, and, if I had had more than fifteen minutes’ teaching experience, I’d have known that I was in deep trouble.

For the rest of the year, that class refused to believe me when I taught grammar. They called out objections when I told them that the past participle of “drink” is “drunk.” They looked at me with exaggerated incredulity when I explained that one might end a sentence with a preposition with impunity. They didn’t even believe me when I insisted that “grammar” ends with “ar” and not “er.” Everything I taught in the grammar line was suspect.

During that year, I read an entire book on grammar and scoured two grammar textbooks I happened to have around. I tried to explain to my students that rudimentary English grammar isn’t rocket science. I’ve got a doctorate, admittedly not in English grammar. Kids, I can learn this in a few weeks!

It was no good, Stephen. Kids – especially kids in that unforgiving stage of life known as ninth grade – want infallible teachers.

I finally picked up the signals. The following year, I admitted to no mistakes until Christmas. I learned how to deflect unwanted challenges with a slight smile, with a turn of the lip, or by just moving on. I learned to answer a hard question with, “What do you think?” delivered with a knowing look. I sent kids to the grammar text or the dictionary to answer their own questions. I’m not at the point where I can make up answers to questions I don’t know and then insist on my answers long after some smarty-pants proves me wrong. But I could get there. I could become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous. I could become “horribly warped indeed.” Sure, I could become the pedagogue of the world, Stephen.

But come to think of it, doctor, you never commanded anything except your sick ward and an occasional surgeon’s mate. What do you know about classroom management? You are to consider how you react given the slightest authority – how imperiously you often treat your patients.

Consider Jack, for all love. Jack’s crew doesn’t want him to be just another mate, someone to learn the ropes with them. Despite his never admitting mistakes, Jack almost always commands happy ships with only occasional floggings. It’s lonely at the top, Jack and I can tell you.

Face it, doctor. Infallibility may be part of good classroom management until kids reach the age of understanding, which I now think is sometime after ninth grade.

“He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater.” What a fellow you are, Stephen!

Posted August 2006

My unit assessment

Each summer I organize the new academic year in units.  Until this summer, I did the job in three to five hours.  This summer I have spent weeks at the task.  After learning more about writing instruction at a summer institute, I want to tie most of my ninth-grade English curriculum – literature, grammar, oral expression, and vocabulary – to writing.  I thought I was struggling simply because of this major refocusing.  I don’t think so anymore.

Here’s my problem.  No one really learns writing in units.

Why teach in units?

Do I teach in units because everyone else does it?  Because some parents may freak when they learn that I teach without them?

Do I teach in units because many people, if the thought of teaching without units were to occur to them, would insist on a false dilemma: units or chaos?

Do I teach in units to pretend that something has been mastered?

Do I teach in units to validate my subject?  Do I imply that writing is complicated enough (and therefore important enough) for units?

Units say my subject is too complicated to understand as a whole.  But what puts the pieces back together after we break the writing down into units? A final exam?  Who sews up the patient after the anatomy lesson? The writing is dead; just wheel it away. Leaning parts of a thing is not the same as learning a thing.

Units say you can master a thing and move on to what’s next.  It works pretty well in math, I think.  You can teach one thing at a time in writing, too, but the next thing sheds new light on the first thing and teaches it all over again.  Or it might, without units.

Units say that strategies are good for only one aspect of writing – one genre (if each unit is a genre) or one part of the writing process (if each unit is a writing stage).  Writing breaks down into strategies, but locking the strategies away into parts of some pedagogue’s idea of the writing process keeps students from using the strategies when they need them.  Why, for instance, should I outline before I start writing?  (Why do I have to even think before I write?)  Why can’t I write my first (and perhaps only) outline for just part of an involved revision?

I’ve read books on writing instruction in which the authors describe the struggle they had with deciding where to place certain material in the books.  (“I wanted to put this in the first-draft unit, but it seemed so important to revision . . .”)  Good writing instructors feel that struggle.

Good writing instructors know that writing is recursive, but it’s worse than that, I think.  “Recursive” suggests a nice spiral – maybe a falcon’s widening gyre – to replace the linear writing process usually taught in American primary and secondary schools.  After the end, we go back to the beginning, better informed.

But writing isn’t even that tidy.  In fact, what serious writer follows any deliberate writing process?  Any such center cannot hold.  A different writing sometimes requires a different process.  A good writer experiments, learns from other writers, and lets her writing teach her.

But I believe – maybe for the first time – that writing can be taught.

I’m putting together a writing toolbox modeled, in a way, after Stunk and White’s The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style serves as a textbook, a reference book, and an inspiration.  White arranges the rules and suggestions (the equivalent of my tools) in categories – usage, composition, form, misused words, and style – but there is no suggestion that usage must be mastered before composition, composition before form, etc.  And, within most categories, the book’s rules and suggestions come at the reader in no apparent order.  I think it’s best that way.

I’ll introduce the tools in the order the class writing generally needs them.  I’ll mix up literary terms with stylistic notions and writing strategies.  Some sample tools (all of them lifted from books I’ve read in the past few years): question showers, implied metaphors, great first lines, misplace your modifiers (i.e., replace your modifiers with action), show (don’t tell), detail discovery, sonnets, exploding a moment, snapshots, “thoughtshots,” freewrites, and “golden lines.”

Some of these tools are learned most easily when studying and writing narratives, and some when studying and writing poetry, say.  But I have to be careful: my poetry should inform my research writing.  I don’t want students to use their imagination – and their tools for imaginative expression – for only what we’ve called “creative writing.”  (Research papers aren’t creative writing?  No wonder they’re so awful.)

Students need it broken down.  But if all we do is break it down, we’ll get broken-down writing.

Some of our students’ dislike for writing is natural: writing is, after all, hard work.  Some of their dislike comes from the artificial writing taught at most schools.  Some of it comes from the critical way in which we assess writing.  Some of it comes from writing to a bored, artificial audience (the teacher).  Some of it comes from having teachers who have no interest in, or time for, their own writing: students have no model, no writer in the classroom.  But some of our students’ dislike for writing comes from the way we pretend writing develops.  Some of that pretension – that artificial tidiness – shows up in our course organization – our units.

Right now, at least, I count units as extremities of dead, pedagogic writing.  Do we really have to teach writing in units?

Did your parents raise you in units? Do masters and mentors teach in units?  Did Buddha?  What did Jesus do?

Like real writers

I teach high school English to hang around writing.  Like most people, I learn best when I teach, and I hope to learn writing by teaching it.  It has always worked for me with the other strands in our English curriculum.  Teaching grammar, for instance, has helped me to learn a lot of grammar I was never clear about, and the grammar has helped my writing.  Teaching literature has helped me consider new ways for close reading, and that has lead to some new writing.

But until recently, teaching writing has taught me little about writing.  I have taught a lot of scaffolding – a lot of structure that I have long ago stopped using in my own writing.  I have gotten student papers that feel like fatigue and mental strain and hopelessness and pretension all mashed together.  I have rarely mentioned to students that I like to write, since my admission only seems to put distance between them and me.

My five weeks this past summer with the Northern Virginia Writing Project have made me hope that my writing and my writing instruction can find each other.  I understand now that students need a writer in the classroom, one who is not afraid to model frustration and patience and poor-quality first drafts.  The books I’ve read and the teaching lessons I’ve experienced this summer validate me as both a teacher and a writer, and I have already trusted my instincts as a writer a lot more during our first two weeks of school.  My ninth-grade students are beginning to respond.

I’m teaching as a writer now, so I’m teaching from some deep water inside me.  But I’m teaching mostly to students who feel no connection with writing. I am rediscovering that teachers aren’t the only ones in class separated from their own writing.

Writers know how to write, and teachers know how to teach.  Students need writing teachers who are both writers and teachers.  If the teacher is a writer, it is more likely that students will see themselves as writers, too.  Students’ writing won’t improve much unless they know that they already have a voice for writing and unless they have a teacher who will help them uncover and refine that voice.

Writers also support each other and gain inspiration from real audiences, if blogging has taught me anything.  I’d like to make my classroom more like a writers’ workshop and a writers’ support group, and I’d like my students to write for authentic audiences.

These three big ideas – kids need to write like writers, interact like writers, and be rewarded like writers – stand behind fourteen changes I am making to my writing instruction.

1.  Have students write, to start with. I’ve never liked prewriting graphic organizers.  I figured it was because I didn’t learn to write that way.  But now I know the real reason: I’m a writer, and writers don’t prewrite much.

Sometimes writers work from an outline (I’m working from one here), but they usually start off writing.  When I’ve assigned outlines to my ninth-grade students in the past, some students have usually written their papers first, and then they have made their outline.  It annoyed me.  But they were only acting as writers do.  I was just acting like a poor writing teacher.

How do you know what you think until you write it? Students who write first often discover what they have to say as they go along.  Graphic organizers rob students of that discovery, since they force students to think as if they were writing.  To “envision” writing is like envisioning vision.  Instead, just write.

As if psyching students out of writing well were not damaging enough, graphic organizers also keep students from discovering where their writing could take them.  No matter how many times I’ve told students that they need not follow their prewriting organizer or their outline, they have tended to do so.  Such writing is usually slavish and spiritless.

I won’t deny students graphic organizers.  (See section 2 below.)  I won’t introduce but a few organizers, though.  For those that like them, I’ll insist that they sometimes try writing without them for an exercise.  This week I suggested that students use some organizers as “midwriting” organizers to help them see where their earlier writing took them.

I’ll encourage students to make a mess with their writing.  Do freewrites.  Mix in fragments and lists as the inspiration comes.  I’ll have students experiment with graffiti writing (not on buildings!) and show them how some of it may become poetry.  I’ll train students to pick through their messes for the raw energy needed for expanded writing.

In fact, I’m looking at everything we teach our kids about writing, and I’m saying to myself: “I’m a pretty experienced writer.  Do I do this?  Does any writer I know do this?”  I’ll trust my gut more, now that I’m in class as a writer and a teacher.

2.  Be both linear and flexible about the writing process. Many poor writers have poor writing processes, but most poor writers don’t have an ownership stake in any writing process, not even in the one that they use.  Early on, they discovered that their teacher’s process didn’t fit, so they decided that writing wasn’t for them.

Let’s get honest about the writing process.  It’s not rigid.  It’s not even linear.  Good writing instructors know that writing is recursive, but it’s worse than even that, I think.  “Recursive” suggests a nice spiral – maybe a falcon’s widening gyre – to replace the linear writing process usually taught in American primary and secondary schools.  After the end, we go back to the beginning, better informed.

But writing isn’t even that tidy.  In fact, what serious writer follows anyone else’s writing process?  Any such center cannot hold.  A different writing sometimes requires a different process.  A good writer experiments, learns from other writers, and lets her writing teach her.

I started some great discussions about the writing process last week with this: “Do you like to think before you write, or do you like to write and think at the same time?”  [Pause.]  “There is no wrong answer.”

I realize now that my question validated the kids as writers.  Writers develop preferences.  They may try a lot of things, but not everything fits.

I tell the kids that they are experienced writers, that they have been writing papers for seven years now.  I commiserate with them on their having been bounced from one teacher’s emphasis to another’s for years.  I present the upside: they have been exposed to a lot of techniques, some of which probably work for them.

I admit that I’ll insist on their trying different techniques, but that they’ll be calling the writing-process shots when they work on their major pieces. I’ll be looking for good writing in their major pieces, not adherence to a structure or a technique.  When we learn a writing technique, we’ll spend time experimenting with it and reflecting on how, if at all, it may fit a student’s emerging writing philosophy and style.

So we’ll learn technique and process, but we’ll also learn good writing.  That’s where the literature comes in.

3.  Read like writers. We’ll take favorite excerpts from novels and short stories we read and ask ourselves, “How did he do that?”  We’ll analyze and then imitate.  What sticks becomes part of a student’s emerging style.  (My favorite book along these lines is The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing by Robert Ray and Ann Ray.)

I’ll teach the kids to spot a favorite passage, to look under the passage’s hood, and to lift some of the parts from it for their own hot writing.

4.  Allow content to dictate structure. Most states’ standards of learning (or the local school systems responsible for implementing them) require teachers to have students produce a certain number of papers per year.  The standards specify the kinds of writing required: expository essays, research papers, personal essays, etc.  So teachers dutifully teach by the genre.  For instance, we explain what an expository essay is, we teach its components, and we tell the students to write one.

This is not a good idea, usually.  If structure drives a paper’s content, students learn not to trust their own voices. Students conform their voice to what they perceive to be the tone of a model essay, and they write only to connect the dots on some outline.

Besides, when we teach structure before content, we’re not teaching structure at all.  Real writers learn structure by finding out what fits the writing as it develops.  Part of writing is learning how to structure content appropriately. (See my recent post “The Tyranny of the Secondary School” for a more comprehensive indictment against premature writing structure instruction.)

Of course, structure can challenge an excellent writer to write better.  In his book Collected Poems, Robert Bly points out how the limits of poetry meter can force a poem against those limits, creating great energy in a poem.  I will challenge students with form this year, particularly poetic forms.  But such challenges should be the exception for my ninth graders.  Most writing, at least on the first draft and the first revision, usually should be without much consideration of form.

This year, then, we’ll make lots of first-draft messes.  We’ll learn some revision tools, and then we’ll learn some structure.  We’ll meet in writer support groups and discuss how our writing may develop into a commonly recognized structure, or, as I suggest in my next point, to discuss how it may come to resemble some combination of established structures.

5.  Speak the words and listen to them, too. Though I’ll deemphasize structure, I’ll emphasize the sound of words, which poetry forms sometimes force us to consider.  Most of the words pelting down on us each day bring little music. But good poetry (and prose) often amounts to an ode to the alphabet, a reconnection of sound and meaning.  We can be the ones who listen to and use the sounds in the words to create meaning.

Oral expression can be part of the writing process.  Reading our work out loud to ourselves and to others will be tools in the writers’ toolbox.  People often wish to revise their work as they perform it.  Sometimes, we hear our work most strongly in the community context, so why not make our performance part of the revision process?  It was this kind of revision – an oral poetry tradition – that probably produced The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I think one reason modern works haven’t matched the greatness of these classics is that we use ink, and ink dries too fast.)

Also, we’ll broaden our understanding of publishing to include performance, and performance can involve as little as a public or private reading.

6.  Blend and loosen the modes. Blending modes has to do with my fourth point (above): content should dictate structure.  Instinctively, many teachers may see the blending of writing modes as a means of confusing students, of undermining the students’ understandings of what the modes require.  I think it’s worth risking the confusion.  Students need to experiment with writing, with purpose, and with audience to see the benefit of a particular mode of written rhetoric.  There really is enough room in the essay genre, for instance, for all kinds of purposes and styles of writing.  Let kids break the rules.  As students’ writing develops, I’ll let it tell them what structure may be best.

Some of this genre-loosening could return us to a genre’s roots.  The classic eighteenth-century novels, for instance, are far faster and looser with the genre’s “rules” than their modern counterparts.  The essay – that staple of high-school writing – started off with no rules against first-person references and no rules against text-to-self connections.  Expository writing also never proscribed humor until schools got involved with it, I bet you.  Genres can be co-opted, partially or completely, by pedagese.

7.  Make class like a writer’s workshop. Writers don’t get much support if the teacher provides no buffer between the writers and the state’s standards of learning.  A teacher’s job is to teach skills and not just the specific terms and products that the school systems emphasize. Besides, if I emphasize the skills, the state standards will be a lot easier to get across.  If my kids are writing, it also will be easier to negotiate with them in order to have them bend some of their writing to meet the school system’s product requirements.

I’m not teaching writing in units this year because the unit model seems to hinder more than it helps.  Learning writing in units would be like learning life in units, I think.  Life and writing both go too deep and explore too much to turn over to units.  Besides, writing is recursive (as is life), and students feel bad if they have to go back to previous units.  The unit approach, then, is too simplistic, too artificial, and too linear.  I’ve taught writing in units for years.  I just didn’t know anything better until I asked myself why my classes couldn’t be more like writers’ workshops.  (I develop the idea that students don’t learning writing in units more fully in my post “My unit assessment.”)

Hopefully, a writers’ workshop atmosphere will help students see themselves as writers.  Students will have daily writing practice, and they will jot down brief, individualized goals for each writing session.  During the session, I’ll be working on my own writing (see point 12 below), meeting with students on their writing, and helping students “push their pieces” by reading over their shoulders and slipping them small slips of paper on which to try out a suggestion.

8.  Teach self-assessment. For years, I’ve lost many weekends and around half of the waking hours of my winter breaks grading papers.  I’ve learned some ways to speed grading up and to get students to pay attention to the comments I jot all over their papers.  I’ve learned a lot of tricks to standardize my comments, and I’ve presented lots of carrots and sticks to get students to read and apply my comments to subsequent drafts.  Most students do the minor changes I request.  However, most students don’t do the deep revision my comments suggest.

If I do most of the assessing, students won’t assess their own writing.  Instead, they’ll leave all of the assessment for me.  (They’ll also be writing for me, and, as I acknowledged before, I’m usually a boring audience to write for.)

Does every paper have to be assessed?  No.  Kelly Gallagher, author of Teaching Adolescent Writers, applies a four-to-one ratio between his students’ writing and the amount of it that he reads for any form of assessment.  My students need to write a lot more than I can possibly assess.

An external assessor should always be trying to work himself out of a job.  I want my students to learn to assess their own writing more and more.  Lifelong learners are necessarily lifelong, skilled self-assessors, too.

Portfolios will help students develop a sense of their own development as writers.  I’ll give them exercises to reflect on what their portfolios teaches them about their emerging writing.  The portfolios will also give me the opportunity to get to know each student better as a writer instead of as another ream from a paper mill.

I want students to write about their writing.  What do they like about it, and how could it improve?  Whom do they wish they could write like?  What is it about that author that appeals to them?

I want students to reflect on their writing process.  As they do so, they begin to connect with some of our grand writing theory.  They see what they prefer; they see what works for them.  They begin to see themselves as individual writers with their own A-game and B-game writing processes.

After some written reflection, students will illustrate and map out their writing process.  We’ll put them on the walls. Students may find ways there to improve their process to help them write like fellow students whose writing they admire.

I won’t grade individual papers so specifically.  I’ll give students a sense of where the paper is against where it could be, and I’ll let the student know what he or she might do to improve it.  But I’ll communicate this less with letters than with face-to-face conversations in writers’ conferences.

I will train the students to run writing conferences between them and me.  The student will bring a bulleted agenda, and we’ll follow it. I will resist the urge to correct or to suggest more than the student raises in his agenda.  To make this work, I have to be a fellow writer, too.  Hopefully, I’m the best writer in the classroom (as things currently stand), and my feedback is worth something.  But having students write for my grade has not tended to help them become better writers.

9.  Talk like writers. We’ll discuss writing with an underlying premise: we’re writers.   Part of reflecting on our writing is talking about our craft and our choices.

Writers have their own lexicon, too.  As we try different things out, we’ll learn the names for them, and those names will enrich our discussions.  We’ll have a writers’ toolbox on the wall to which we’ll add a small poster of each tool as we learn the tool.

Our state’s standards of learning include a lot of literary terms I have to teach.  I hope to be able to put most of the terms we have to learn, whether it is “lyric” or “allusion” or “connotation,” in our writers’ toolbox.  I want them to know those terms as writers and not just as readers.

10.  Write in class. Writing is valuable enough to do in class.  Sure, ninth-grade English covers four other strands besides writing: literature, oral communication, grammar, and vocabulary.  But all of these can enhance writing.  Even oral communication can get into the act with poetry performances and read-arounds.  (See point 5 above.)  But I plan to make writing the main thing this year.  See if you can identify these other four strands in this year’s “is about” statement I’m using this year: “English 9 Academic is about discovering, channeling, performing, polishing, and publishing our writing.”  (“Channeling” refers to learning about genres our writing may gravitate towards.)

If writing is important, we need to do it in class.  Some strong communities of writers get together just to write near each other.  There’s something about the experience of several people writing nearby that enhances our writing sometimes.  Many adult writers cherish such opportunities!  Occasional choices of engaging, common prompts, quiet music, and frequent writing opportunities to push pieces to the next level also give a classroom a community writing atmosphere.

11.  Write to publish. Before this past summer, my underlying motivation to write well has been, “Fear my red pen!”  My students have written at pen point instead of for genuine audiences.  A teacher rarely constitutes a genuine audience since students often can assume that the teacher knows more about the paper’s subject than they do.

But I am being optimistic when I say that a student audience is the teacher.  Really, the audience in a typical student paper is a construct, a kind of dramatic convention the student and the teacher pull off to make the paper sort of work.  The students and teacher pretend that someone will read the paper to be informed or entertained.  It’s a fake audience, and the cost is often a strained, pretentious, and fake voice.  The greater cost is a learned loathing of writing.

It’s better to have a real audience.  I have discovered already that students put forth more effort when they know other students will read their work than when they know that only I will read it.  They are also far more likely to turn the paper in, for one thing.

I would like to have every piece of writing geared for an audience other than me, whether it is the writer herself, other students, or the general public.  We will publish on blogs, on social networks, in class anthologies, on sidewalks with chalk, in class read-arounds, and maybe in a book through, a print-on-demand site.  We’ll send lots of material to the school newspaper and to the school literary magazine.  We will have days when we write cover letters and query letters to periodicals.  We’ll post our rejection letters in the room as badges of honor.  We’ll have writing contests with prizes and outside, distinguished judges.

12.  Model writing. Pouring less red ink onto student papers should give me more time to write outside of class.  (Of course, I write to relax, and I’ll usually find a way to write even if it means going without sleep.)

If I write when the students are writing, it makes the atmosphere more like a writing support group.  If I demonstrate my writing struggles and genuinely seek the class’s help (as I did yesterday, with great success!), then students will no longer see some great gulf fixed between good writers and them.  We all struggle with writing. The earlier in a student’s writing career we demonstrate it to her, the better.

My students will be in writer support groups (see point 14 below), so I plan to talk about my own writer support groups.  (I’m in one currently, and I’m helping to start a second one.)  “Two of them liked my poem, but one of them had some reservations about the tone.  Let me see what you think.”

I’ll also submit some of my writing to publishers.  This will be difficult for me because I’ve been quite happy with self-publishing.  But why not.  I need to get some rejection letters up on the wall with the students’ rejection letters, and it would be gratifying to have someone publish something of mine.

13.  Revise a lot. I’ll try to break the students’ fixation with putting almost all of their work into first drafts.  I’ve read two books this year (Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers and Barry Lane’s After the End) that have given me ideas on how to make revision writing more interesting.   I’ll also model this with my own writing.

We’ll also revise from the beginning.  I want them in the habit of seeing revision as a natural part of writing. (I’m ignoring Kelly Gallagher’s advice here.  Gallagher believes that you have to get students writing before they’ll be interested in revising.  But Gallagher’s revision ideas are so much fun that my students like revising!)

I will introduce most of my writers’ toolbox tools through revision writing.

14.  Meet in writer support groups. Many students have had bad experiences in peer editing groups.  Charged with finding mistakes, other students have hurt their feelings.  Most ninth-grade students are not qualified to edit other ninth graders’ papers, anyway; many students suggest changes that would only hurt the other students’ papers.

Writer support groups are different.  The members start with only a few, positive chores with respect to the others’ papers.  If the groups advance adequately, teachers can train members to take on more critical functions.  Editing, which is usually the last stage of writing, is not one of these functions.

Writers take turns reading their pieces.  Reading to others is a powerful experience, often both reinforcing and revisory.  Members give specific, positive feedback, such as: (a) What was your favorite part, and why? (b) What possibilities do you see for this writing?  (Structure (see point 4 above), purpose, and audience) (c) What questions do you have?

This last question – a solicitation of questions – is often helpful for deeper revisions.  Even if the group members don’t criticize the work, their questions show a writer how her work is perceived by others, or at least by someone other than herself.

Groups stay together for at least a marking period to allow the development of trust and to permit students to gradually understand the source of a member’s position better.  For more information on writers’ support groups, see my post “Blogging and Writers’ Support Groups.”)

Teachers should model writer support groups by reporting frequently on what happened in theirs.  (See my point 12 above.)  A fishbowl activity with teachers playing roles (the domineering member, the lazy member, the discouraging member, etc.) may also be a good way to start the groups off.


Reconnecting my teaching to my writing feels like reconnecting a hose to a hydrant.  But I’m also on fire to reconnect kids to their own writing. I don’t know which motivates me more: my newfound cohesion or my students’ lack of it.

I want my class to be the kind of writer’s workshop I wish I had the time and money to take.  The fact that it’s on a ninth-grade level shouldn’t keep me from fully participating in it as a writer.

How I screw up the literary analysis essay

[This article appeared first in The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project‘s winter 2008 issue.  I have made a few minor changes to it for publication here.  My thanks to the Project for permission to republish.

I discuss the philosophical underpinnings of my objections to the prevalence of literary analysis essay assignments in high school in my article “The Tyranny of the Secondary School.”]

You’re back in ninth grade.  Take a moment to reorient yourself, and then say these words out loud, slowly: “Literary.  Analysis.  Essay.”  Repeat.  How do you feel?

Hmm.  Maybe you don’t remember ninth grade.  There were those moments when your mind showed signs of catching up to your body.  In them, you laid claim to adulthood. But there were those other moments – moments too protracted to be “moments” – when your disorganization, your concrete thinking, or your lapses in behavior made you look like a misidentified middle-school student.

Reoriented now?  Let’s start again.  Your English teacher introduces you to something his county’s ninth-grade pacing guide describes as a “literary analysis essay.”  If you’re an academic student, you write two of them that year.  Double that if you’re in honors.

Snap out of it.  Now you’re the English teacher.  Oh, all right: I’m the English teacher, and I might as well switch to the less theoretical, more confessional past tense.

Last June I wanted a little affirmation from my departing charges before I hit the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s summer institute, so I read some of the responses to my end-of-year survey.  Peg, an honors student and one of those sweet, positive, and brilliant kids you’d like to stock your classroom with each year, wrote the following as part of her response:

Though I enjoy writing and reading, I don’t like analyzing what I read. It loses all power and becomes boring and hateful. I once liked the story of Romeo and Juliet. I now despise it. Many of the poems we read that would have been rather enjoyable turned into crummy pieces of literature upon analysis.

Peg (not her real name) was kind enough, though, to make clear that I wasn’t alone in screwing up literature for her.  She perceived it as a trend in her language arts and English classes over the past few years.

I started the institute a week after exams with Peg’s words still irritating me.  After three years of teaching ninth grade, am I still messing up this essay assignment, this chief manifestation of all the wretched analysis Peg complained of?  In the process of meeting my county’s benchmarks, am I alienating kids from the very subject I love?

This is not the story of how this summer’s NVWP institute changed all that.  Here’s my thesis: Through my three-week immersion into writing instruction theory and practice at the institute this summer, I discovered that I was not alone in opposing the literary analysis essay’s prominent role in the ninth-grade curriculum. I also learned some new strategies in teaching that essay, and I met with some success and some failure in trying out those strategies this past fall.

Ninth grade is a big year for literary analysis in Loudoun County.  Peg’s past language arts teachers introduced her to most of the literary terms I use, and Peg has been writing essays since at least fourth grade.  But I introduce my kids to formal essays analyzing literature.  From the written analysis standpoint, then, it’s zero to sixty from middle school to high school in my county.

Peg was one of my few students to get the literary analysis essay this past year, or at least she figured out how to write one.  Most of my students’ first drafts sound like book reports – long plot summaries sandwiched by superlatives such as, “This story will make you hold on to the edge of your seat with excitement.”  That kind of writing drives me to teach model essays, which only makes my students’ papers come across as cheap knock-offs of the models.  So then I teach structure, such as the five-paragraph essay and a formula for writing its body paragraphs.  Those papers, in turn, come in sounding fake, strained, and pompous.  Meanwhile, a vague feeling of alienation begins to pervade the classroom: I’m losing the kids, and the kids are losing literature.

Peg’s comment was my focal point this summer.  She had been astute enough to spot what I consider to be my biggest failing as a teacher: I have never taught writing about literature well.  Worse, she had argued what was becoming my own opinion about ninth-grade literary analysis essays: they do more harm than good.  Not only had Peg pegged me as one of the heavies in her literary analysis drama, but her thinking about literary analysis in the classroom was also a step or two ahead of mine.  I also didn’t want to have another year of turning off even my brightest students with this essay assignment.

The institute’s mock trial of the five-paragraph essay really got my juices flowing.  Each fellow had a role in the trial, and, as fate and Don Gallehr would have it, I was picked as the lead prosecutor.  Our team put an elementary school teacher, a high school teacher, and a college professor on the stand to demonstrate the corrupting influence of this popular essay structure on the writing of students at every age.

You know our defendant, the five-paragraph essay?  The introductory paragraph grabs the reader’s attention and orients her to the subject.  The paragraph ends with a thesis statement promising three ways in which the essay will address a central point.  Three body paragraphs flesh out these three ways, and a final paragraph restates the thesis (careful to use different words) and either suggests an extended application of it or sums up the essay’s findings with an apt quote or witticism.  The body paragraphs’ topic and concluding sentences sport transition words – words like “not only” and “second.”

I poured my three years of essay-teaching frustration into some frantic trial preparation.  (We had one day to prepare for trial.)  I found lots of ammo in the mass of used books I had purchased at the suggestion of the institute’s reading list.  For instance, in his book Crafting Authentic Voice, Tom Romano says that the five-paragraph essay produces “a voice of serious-minded pretentiousness, statements of the obvious, and high-flown diction.” I researched Amazon and found no five-paragraph essay anthologies in print (big surprise).  I showed up the next morning with a stack of books and a smug look for opposing counsel.

But the jury split three to two against us.  I’ll spare you a difficult post-mortem.  Suffice it to say that the adverse outcome was more of a verdict on my lawyering skills than it was on the five-paragraph essay.  None of the summer’s twenty-five fellows supported Ms. Essay (as we called her) without reservation.

My trial preparation made me a believer in my cause, but – along with Peg’s comments – it focused me on the chief reason for the five-paragraph essay’s persistent use in ninth-grade English classes.  Most students seem incapable of writing a literary analysis essay without a lot of structure, of which the five-paragraph essay is the most famous example.  I spent much of my time this summer researching the history and use of the literary analysis essay.

The literary analysis essay, of course, is a kind of secondary writing.  Secondary writing is writing about another’s creation, and it is a rare teenager (or adult, for that matter) who can make his secondary writing a fresh creation.  I think many writing teachers can relate to what Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones:

The terrible thing about public schools is that they take young children who are natural poets and story writers and have them read literature and then step away from it and talk “about” it.

I think most high school English students can relate to the concluding stanzas of former national poet laureate Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry”:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I love really creative literary criticism, but I find a vague brutality in most written analysis of literature.  The brutality isn’t deliberate.  It’s like the brutality one feels when another talks too much about what one considers holy.

If you don’t see the discussion of a poem’s meaning as something akin to desecration, perhaps you would concede that secondary writing is often a fumbling attempt at expressing in words something that, ultimately, cannot be expressed. Essayist and poet Thomas Merton believed that aesthetic experience “transcends reason” and “leaves all analysis far behind.”  Francine Prose describes a similar experience in her book Reading Like a Writer when she writes about reading sentences from celebrated passages of literature:

The sentences affect us as much as music does, in ways that cannot be explained.  Rhythm gives words a power that cannot be reduced to, or described by, mere words.

I need to push my concrete-thinking ninth graders toward appreciating and expressing the abstract.  But I would rather spend most of my efforts having my students read such celebrated passages as a writer might instead of merely analyzing them.  I want my students to discover what an author is doing so they can learn to write more like her.   If students can make elements of a writer’s style their own, then they will have learned far more from her work than if they had merely made it the subject of their written analysis.

Of course, most of my students don’t argue their case against the literary analysis essay as well as Collins or Goldberg or even my former student Peg.  They don’t tell me about how my assignments violate their sense of the holy or prevent them from reading like writers.  Most of them – at least most of my academic students – suffer through their essay writing and end up with unpleasant memories of the literature I assign as the essay’s subject.

As a result of the institute and my reading this past summer, I reoriented my writing instruction this fall to bring out the natural poets and storywriters that Goldberg speaks of.  I couldn’t eliminate the literary analysis essay, of course, but I used some creative writing to lead into this year’s first foray into the essay.

I oriented the school year’s first quarter to prepare students for the essay, and I assigned the essay at the end of the quarter.  At the outset of the school year, I had my students write a story about themselves, and then I had them map their individual processes in writing the story.  Then I had them write a sports column or a movie review.  My idea was to use the writing process to break down and to demystify the essay, and to use the column or review to segue to the essay.

When I assigned the essay – a literary analysis of Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” – I pointed to the students’ successful columns and reviews.  “Remember the difference between a sports article and a sports column?” I then asked.  “The article tells what happened, and the column analyzes the game.  It is the same difference between a book report and a literary analysis essay.  The report tells what happens in the short story, while the essay analyzes it.”

I made a puzzle out of a list of twenty-two literary terms the county’s vertical planner says my students should have learned in seventh and eighth grade, and I compared those literary terms to tools a mechanic might use to fix a car.  “An auto dealership has a sales and service department.  Up until now, you’ve been in the sales department,” I told them.  “You’ve written book reports selling your readers on the book. Now you’re in the service department.  We’re looking under the story’s hood and describing how the story works.”

Then we moved into high gear.  Based on my essay debacles of previous years, I was determined not to teach structure and not to give them a model.  Instead, I engaged them in a number of brainstorming activities:

  • We put the plot together using plot progression arrows.
  • We wrote freewrites based on great lines we found in the short story.
  • Each student designed two “fat” questions – questions calculated to lead to good discussions – and we used the questions in a class discussion. (I hoped that the questions would lead students to interesting theses.)
  • We moved our class discussions to online forums.  The forums permitted students to participate only in discussion threads that pertained to the story topics in which they were interested.
  • Each student designed his own calendar for the writing process he would employ for the essay.

I even wrote my own essay and showed them my horrible first draft.  As I had hoped, they laughed at my writing.  I then read them some of my much-improved second draft that I had written after a good night’s sleep. The kids seemed to respond to all of this.

Most of these ideas came either directly or indirectly from the summer institute’s presentations or recommended books.  (I’m having a grand time trying so much new stuff out!)

But the papers?  My honors kids generally got the idea, but my academic kids generally didn’t.

It may not surprise the more experienced English teachers that, despite my analogies and other efforts, most of the first drafts I received in my academic classes again looked more like book reports than essays. Students used the text to summarize the story and not to support their points.  A lot of papers really didn’t make any points in the first place.

One positive result, though, were the improved hooks.  I’ve never read better hooks in a set of student expository essays.

Then I did what I always do when a paper flops.  I re-taught it under the guise of teaching revision.  My special-education team teacher helped me streamline the assignment: I had them reread their papers, identify the emphasis they had found in the story, and identify one or two literary terms that they might employ in a revision.

I even taught structure – even – gasp! – the “McParagraph.”  The McParagraph is a body paragraph with a topic sentence top bun and a concluding sentence bottom bun.  Each of the three “patties” in between is a pair of sentences: one support sentence and one proof sentence, which is usually a quote from the text that tends to prove the preceding support sentence.  The upper-grade English teachers in our high school consider the McParagraph as being too formulaic, but I was getting desperate.

I also figured out that I could use the structure students had already learned.  This put the assignment on familiar ground.  My wife teaches her third-grade students that an essay’s body paragraph has five sentences: a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a conclusion.  Why not use this?  So we went over the third-grade, five-sentence paragraph (the students actually taught it to me), and then we added proof from the text to it.

Whenever a student asked a question that told me he needed more space, I relented.  “Can we combine the proof into the support sentence?” one student asked me.

“Sure,” I said.  “Just make sure every point you make is backed up with some evidence from the text.”

I asked them not to sacrifice readability to sticking with an eight-sentence paragraph method.  Some body paragraphs could have four sentences, and others could have eleven sentences.  Just think topic, support, and proof.

Do you think I sold out on my new ideals by requiring some structure?  Maybe just a little – maybe just to make a connection with prior knowledge.  Besides, no matter what I feel compelled to do, in my heart I’m still sticking it to the literary analysis essay, the reason for all of this thumb-sucking structure.

I haven’t graded the final drafts yet, but the early signs are encouraging.  And even though most of the first drafts weren’t really essays, they had voice.  Thanks to Tom Romano, I stopped banning first-person pronouns and text-to-self connections in essays.  Most of the writing wasn’t stilted.  Overall, the papers were more fun to read than in past years.  That’s important around the ninety-fourth essay when I begin to lose my sanity.

In my bout with the literary analysis essay, this past summer’s NVWP institute felt like a welcome trip to my corner where the best trainers – my fellow writing teachers – gave me a lot of moral support.  They bandaged me up and bolstered me with some great strategies for the next round.  But there’s always more to learn in the ring.


Posted March 28, 2008.

Intimidation-free grammar

You took driver’s ed to learn how do drive a car; you didn’t have to take a course in automobile mechanics to get your license. Am I right?

So how about English grammar? They tried to teach me about adverb clauses, past participles, and indefinite pronouns. Just so I could write, I guess. But I never got the connection, and I graduated high school without a clear notion of what any of these grammatical terms mean.

Now I’m teaching ninth grade English, and I’ve just read Patricia T. O’Conner’s little book,Woe Is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Its humor and logic are a bit beyond most of my students, but its approach is right. Why not just explain the whole thing? Why not give an overview to demonstrate that this grammar thing is manageable, and to demonstrate grammar’s connection with writing and talking? We can always go back and learn about the subjunctive when we’re in that mood.

Ms. O’Connor’s material is organized well. She gives a general rule and follows it up with examples– humorous examples, often involving sitcom and cartoon heroes from years past. The index works. She stuffs the grammatical terms into the glossary where you can find them if you want to. The chapter headings make sense, and the book is well cross-referenced. She repeats herself when necessary to carry a chapter off, and there is no harm in that.

She dedicates a chapter debunking grammar myths (e.g., don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t split an infinitive). The myths either were never true or were true only long ago. Her relativistic leanings seem to match those at Merriam-Webster, whose Dictionary of English Usage takes an historical approach to debunk similar myths. For instance, and happily for the preceding sentence, the Dictionary of English Usage traces the rule, “Don’t use whose to refer to an inanimate object” to a footnote in a seventeenth-century grammar book. In short order, the footnote became gospel and overturned at least three centuries of precedent, including lines by Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope. Ms. O’Conner also takes issue with this whose rule.

[book cover]The most fun chapter is titled, “Verbal Abuse: Words on the Endangered List.” This past Christmas, my family and I made a game of the specific words in this chapter that Ms. O’Conner says people either misuse or confuse with other words frequently. (E.g., “When would you use anxious in writing, and when would you use eager?” “What are the differences among eminent, imminent, and immanent?”)

Ms. O’Conner also has a helpful chapter on common stylistic writing errors and a chapter on email, which won’t tell you much new, but will at least give you written ammunition in your arguments for better-written email.

Now, if Ms. O’Conner would write a book like this for ninth graders, I will beg my school to purchase them.


The building inspector as foreman: teaching grammar as a strategy for writing

Teaching grammar to children who don’t see themselves as writers ensures that they will neither see themselves as writers nor learn grammar.

Teaching grammar as a strategy for writing will ensure that students who see themselves as writers will write pinched prose.  Writing is a way of thinking, and pinched writers become pinched people.

When I first started teaching, I taught grammar separate from everything else.  The kids never learned it.

Last year, I made a big push to teach grammar as a strategy for writing.  We practiced grammar by exemplifying it in our writing.  We created proverbs out of compound sentences.  (Many proverbs from many traditions are translated into compound sentences.)  We Twittered complex sentences.  The kids’ writing improved some, but they still didn’t learn much grammar.

I’ve come to believe that grammar as a strategy for writing, no matter how cleverly I connect grammar to writing instruction, unduly subordinates the writing to the grammar.  Learning to write through learning grammar makes writers focus not on the creative process but on making the writing manageable (i.e., limited and unchallenging) for editing.  Writers end up writing with their inner editor watching over their shoulder, if that is possible, even metaphorically.

To switch metaphors: writing builds, and grammar inspects.  But what if the contractor hires the building inspector as her foreman?  Nothing would get done.  Most counties allow builders to schedule the inspectors at certain phases of the building process in order to keep inspectors off of the job site until the builders say they’re done with a particular stage.  This helps workmen understand that they’re building for the builder and not for the inspector.  Editing works that way, too.  Generally, writers need to keep their editor side away during the creative process.  It would help this separation of functions if I would relate but separate my writing and grammar instruction.

Writing and grammar go in different directions not only with their mindsets but also with their concepts and terminology. For instance, when we use complex sentences to teach writing, we necessarily learn the rules regarding subordinating conjunctions and punctuation.  In the process, writers somehow learn to put the most important information in the most important clause – the independent clause.  But putting the most important information in a subordinate clause instead can add a layer; there may be a reason, for instance, why a narrator or other character may use a particular syntax to downplay certain information, and that choice may build characterization and mystery or may bury a clue or an instance of foreshadowing.

Even the name “complex sentences,” a phrase I’m required to use, hurts writing instruction.  The name is fine for grammar, suggesting as it does the combination of two different kinds of clauses.  But should a writer consider the use of two clauses of any kind as complex – either as too difficult for a writer or as too demanding for a reader?  Writing short sentences sometimes makes writing clearer, but writing only short sentences, whether simple, compound, or complex, makes students’ writing dull, undeveloped, and simplistic.  Ernest Hemmingway himself didn’t write mostly in short sentences, and either do most other good writers.

Grammar instruction emphasizes nouns and verbs, and it trains students to modify them with adjectives and adverbs.  But modification is best done with phrases and clauses, and most nouns and verbs in good writing don’t serve only as the cornerstones of subjects and predicates, respectively, of independent clauses, but also as objects or participles in phrases or as verbs in dependent clauses.  Consider this sentence from the foreword to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire:

As a rule, Shade destroyed drafts the moment he ceased to need them: well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fé.

Try using grammar to teach writers to write anything as informative and enjoyable as that!  If I ask my students this fall to characterize this Nabokov sentence, at least some of them will size it up rather quickly and call it a “run-on sentence.”   A run-on sentence is another unhelpful grammar term for writers: students learn from it that long sentences are bad.  (Of course, the term “run-on” is a bad one from a grammatical standpoint, too, since it refers only to improperly joined clauses and not to long sentences.)

We don’t teach students how to write anything like Nabokov’s sentence because even we teachers can’t translate such sentences into grammatical terms.  The thinking seems to be that if we teachers can’t diagram longer sentences, then how can we ask kids to write longer sentences?  You see how insidious grammar instruction can be in stunting the growth of writers and their sentences.

My writers won’t start off writing English like Nabokov, of course, even though he had the disadvantage of being ESL, unlike most of my kids.  But my writers need to learn strategies for consistently writing great sentences modeled after great sentences they find in great books they like.  They’ll also need, in lieu of grammatical terms, a small lexicon of syntactical terms that will help them easily discuss strategies and to see them as such.

Although my students will later learn specific sentence strategies as juniors and seniors, I’d like to give them a foundation for effective sentence writing in ninth grade.  I haven’t found any material on the ninth grade level yet that does this.  I’m taking a DVD course this summer from The Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences,” though, that is helping me with the theory. The course’s professor, Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa, isn’t teaching teachers – he’s teaching writers – but his approach is giving me lots of ideas on how to get students to write longer sentences by using free modifiers with repetition and rhythm along with what Landon calls downshifting and backtracking.  I hope my writers’ shorter sentences will improve also as my writers mix them with improved longer sentences.

My students can learn the fancy names for the sentence types in upper grades.  My goals are more limited: I want my writers to write more consistently like the authors they admire and, through doing so, to see themselves as writers at the sentence level.  (“Like” is the operative word: there are ways I write like my favorite novelist, Dostoyevsky, even though I’d never compare my writing to his, if you understand me.)

Landon builds his ideas about sentence writing on the teaching of rhetoric instead of grammar. The course guidebook’s extensive bibliography indicates that a lot of people have written about the sentence from a rhetorical standpoint, but I don’t think much of it has made it to the high school classroom yet.  And the writers he lists propose different strategies and different terminology for writing great sentences, but the writers have reached nothing like consensus about either the strategy or the terminology.

One promising book in the bibliography is Martha K. Kollin’s Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects.  Perhaps her book would have helped me more this past year since it demonstrates, as its readers suggest on its Amazon home page, how to use grammatical terms and concepts to teach rhetoric.  I certainly don’t think one can divorce grammar and rhetoric in teaching rhetorical syntax, and I’m open to relating the two disciplines so long as the drawbacks of traditional grammar instruction, which I’ve touched on above, can be avoided.  The cheapest used copy of this book is currently around thirty dollars shipped; I’ll buy the book when I can afford it.

The lack of uniformity in the area of rhetorical syntax (syntactical rhetoric?) is all right.  I’ll come up with my own strategy and terminology from the best of what I read and see other teachers teach, and then I’ll revamp it over the ensuing years.  And, at least this year, I’ll combine writing and grammar instruction to this extent: I’ll first teach my students how to run the plumbing, if you will, and then I’ll teach them how to inspect it.  The plumbing inspectors won’t be running the pipe, but they won’t be cutting through drywall to get to it, either.


Where kings are born

Language should not be taught as an absolute, a matter of clear right and wrong.  The history of language is the history of change; the rules evolve.

— Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision, 3rd Edition

Why does grammar feel like a moral issue?  I never got in much trouble as a kid except when I used the wrong pronoun case, confused a verb’s simple past with its past participle, or got sloppy with subject-verb agreement.  My parents would interrupt my narratives and ask me to repeat my sentence correctly.  It felt like I had done something wrong.

It got worse when I made a grammatical mistake while at home from college.  My father would conclude his correction with, “And an English major!”  (They still correct my mistakes, though I now encourage it.  My father, predictably, now concludes with, “An English teacher!”)

Dave at Via Negativa sent me a link today to a short New York Times online symposium in honor of The Elements of Style’s fiftieth anniversary.  The writers were generally pretty tough on old Strunk and his frequently undue certitude about grammatical and stylistic matters.  A part of me enjoyed it: besides my parents, no one is more responsible for my own case of grammar guilt than Professor Strunk.

At some point in my twenties, I rebelled against my fundamentalist grammatical upbringing and found myself in the camp of the moral relativists, such as Merriam-Webster’s editorial staff.  Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives the historical basis for most of the grammatical and usage rules I learned in grade school.  I laughed out loud as rules such as “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” and “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” turned out to be accidents of history or – worse (well, better, from my point of view) – frauds perpetrated by publishers anxious to sell grammar hornbooks to nineteenth century American schools.

Still, the moral component persists in me.  I guess it’s my hard-wired Calvinist-Strunkist upbringing.  I still like to read a sourpuss like William Zinsser (On Writing Well, itself recently released in a thirtieth anniversary edition) just in case I’ve really backslidden.  After reading that Times symposium this evening, I reread Strunk and White for the first time in five years.  I’m happy to report that, unlike the last time I read the little book, I’ll have very little to unburden myself of in confession tomorrow.

Perusing the current edition of The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing recently, I came across a digest of Dennis Baron’s Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language.  The digest suggests that the moral undertone to my grammar instruction was the result of a failed effort by early American patriots to differentiate American English from British English:

Although no uniform “Federal grammar” emerged, the link between correct grammar and patriotism led to the association of correctness with good morals in general, and hence with social prestige.  The link between grammar and morality also fostered intense anxiety about correctness that continues to this day.

Baron also blames American grammar textbooks, which took matters into their own hands when no federal standard emerged in the early nineteenth century.  (We Americans do grammar like we do religion: no central authority, just lots of voices with varying levels of credibility and numbers of adherents at every street corner.)

In Crafting Authentic Voice, Tom Romano digests another fascinating book I’ve never read.  Winston Weathers demonstrates in An Alternate Style: Options in Composition how American and English canonical writers have broken to great effect many of the grammatical rules I teach.  Here’s how Romano uses Weathers’s material in his college freshman comp class:

I formally introduce students to ways in which they can break the rules in style.  They read two chapters I’ve written about what Weathers has called Grammar B, the alternative to Grammar A, which is the standard, traditional, conservative form of written English . . . . I demonstrate how professional writers and past students have effectively used sentence fragments, lists, double voice, labyrinthine sentences, and orthographic variation (respelling of words).  These unconventional language moves leave the norm of Grammar A.  They break the rules.  It isn’t anything students haven’t seen before.

Romano says his students are ready for it.  Here’s one of my favorite comments from one of his former students, Nathan Stevens:

Well, I don’t write to specifically break the rules, but being able to break the rules is that little something extra that keeps me going.  It makes it fun and exciting.  It makes it original.  Sure, all writing is original, but breaking the rules inside of already original writing is where kings are born.

One might argue theologically that morality – and, indeed, all of the spiritual disciplines – exist in part as schoolmasters (to borrow St. Paul’s expression concerning the law’s relationship to us) to prepare us for our real callings – what the Bible refers to as kings and priests before God (Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9, and Revelation 1:6, 5:10, and 20:6), among other things.  But is the church on your street corner ready to risk the possible moral relativism the King of Kings may be inadvertently unleashing in such passages?  Not likely.

It’s not likely that most schools will be teaching Grammar B anytime soon, either.  Meantime, like E.B. White before me, I’ll acknowledge the schoolmasters who, for better or worse, taught me grammatical rules as if they had come down on stone from Mount Sinai.  I use grammar better than most of my contemporaries – a skill I value in part for the crown it may bring me one day – and I credit the likes of William Strunk for that.