Friday, August 10, 2012

'Nuff Read: How to Write A Sentence...

This fall I will begin teaching my third year of Advanced Placement Language and Composition for eleventh graders at my public school of employ. Given the sometimes dry nature of the composition's particulars and, by extension, grammar, I am always on the lookout for books that are accessible to curious high schoolers with an interest in the topics of writing and grammar.

I picked up this slight tome (only 162 pages) while at The Coop in Harvard Square, subconsciously probably so I would feel smart. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish (ISBN-13: 9780061840548, HarperCollins Publishers) is the quintessential "smart person's book." This may be why, despite being an adequate teacher of English, the detail and grammar-ese became a little confusing for this knucklehead, especially the further along I waded into it.

Despite that, there is much useful insight into the process of teaching grammar, though the sharing of this information to younger readers/writers would likely require a more adapt teacher to even further distill the concepts down. Fish's approach to teaching the art of sentences is to use those sentences that can be seen to have either artistic or structural merit as a basis for a series of activities that facilitate the reader's development of their own sentences that mirror the exceptional qualities.  The basis for this seemingly abstract approach, is Fish's assertion that, "The sentence form is King." Fish's underlying premise is that once we grasp what the different forms are, how they work and what they do–then the rest (“the rest” being the ideas we wish to communicate) falls into place. 

Makes sense, right? In fact, as I read I could not help but to consider how this approach is similar to that which coaches at all levels of competition use in training student-athletes. Through the use of models to break up apart exemplary performance into its smaller components (for example, a well run race is the product of many variables including arm carriage, leg drive, torso position, etceteras) for instructional purposes. I like to think of this as the "Miyagi-san (Pat Morita's character in the original Karate Kid films) approach", and along the same lines the deeper into Fish's book one gets the more like a foreign language (such as Miyagi's Japaneses) the diction becomes.

To this end, throughout How to Write a Sentence..., Fish guides the reader though a series of meta-writing activities intended to illustrate the processes he is suggesting. The basis for these exercise are sentence models drawn from numerous recognizable authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and Joseph Conrad. Fish relies on these types models and exercises to reveal for the reader the beauty and complexity of sentences and to invite the reader put into practice what he preaches.

The majority of the brief exercises could be easily adaptable for use in a classroom, though a less sophisticated student might find them frustrating, especially if what has been taught previously runs counter to what Fish suggests is the best way to teach. In addition to suggesting an alternative to existing grammar teaching strategies, How to Write... offer philosophical basis for a new approach to teaching writing beginning with its smallest structural building block.

While I do recommend reading (and utilizing) How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish, the purchase of the book is likely unnecessary, especially given its wide availability in local public libraries, including my local own Monroe Public Library branches. Of course, if you are a "local yokel", drop me a line and you're welcome to borrow my copy.

Other Summer Reading Books:
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition by H.P. Lovecraft
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kankwamba

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