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.