Nonconformity, Haiku, and the Thoughtful Art of Teaching Grammar as Craft

I can still hear my college literature professor reading this to our class:

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,

We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,

To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica

Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,

         And to-day we have naming of parts.

This verse is begins “The Naming of Parts” from Henry Reed’s collection, The Lessons of War. The poem captures an army drill instructor’s rote dissection of an M-1 rifle, and the distracted, lyrical thoughts of a young recruit, daydream, mind elsewhere.

To me the poem, mirrors the traditional approach to teaching grammar and the effect on students.. Let’s see if I can imitate Reed:

To-day we name the  parts of speech. Yesterday,

We had capital letters. And to-morrow morning,

We shall have how to punctuate the end of a sentence.

But to-day, we name the parts of speech. The short stop

gobbles up the ball, pivots, and underhands it the second basement,

And to-day we have the naming of parts of speech.

Reading aloud to the class, my professor, an Air Force veteran, did a remarkably authentic job capturing the monotonous tone of a military DI who had delivered the same monolog countless times to a room full of mind-dead pawns. I am not sure how Dr. Terry Donahue would feel about the approach to grammar instruction I advocate. He was a fierce taskmaster himself when it came to writing instruction.  Much like a dedicated drill instruction who truly cares about training men to return home and whole from war, not just to go fight one, Dr. Donahue did an admirable job preparing my class of freshman for college-level writing demands.

The naming of parts, Reed and Donahue would agree, has very little to do with thinking. It’s about complying and conforming, without much thought. Naming the parts of speech, capitalizing letters, punctuating the end of sentences, all of that is about compliance, too. It’s all about conforming to a sets of restrictions and definitions. That is a commonly held view of what grammar is: the restrictions placed on how to form a sentence.

From among all the great writers you have ever read or studied, how many of them would fall into the category of conformists? How many felt they had to blindly comply to any set of boundaries placed on them by agents and publishers? I think we would agree conformity and compliance are rarely qualities we find among great writers.

Oh, there are exceptions. As a freelance journalist, I comply and conform to the demands of my clients because, honestly, I like to get paid. The magazines and news websites I work  for often have set formats for articles. They have their own an established voice and style. I have done web-based work for the New York Times Co.,  and I freely admit I don’t have the journalistic chops to argue style with anyone at that company.

Conforming to a certain style isn’t intrinsically bad. For the writer, it allows emphasis to fall on content, structure and organization…all essential elements to good writing. That kind of conforming doesn’t shut off my thinking as a writer. It focuses it.

In every great writer, however, there is some element of rebellion. I’ve been an editor, and I have had to squash it a few times. Ironic, I know.

e.e. cummings often chose not capitalize his initials, as if he had the right to break the rules whenever he wanted. I chuckle every time I hear a teacher talk about how important it is for students to know and use 100 synonyms for “said” when Ernest Hemingway rarely saw the need to use any other word. Then, there’s James Joyce, who we know once wrote: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Whatever the Hell any of that means.

Every writer, to some degree, is Bartleby, the Scrivener.

Writing is about using grammar as tool for shaping something meaningful and colorful, even three-or four- dimensional, out of a one-dimensional sheet of blank, white paper.

Grammar has to be taught, and taught well, not as a form of conformity but as a way to engage thinking.

We need to show our students how to think like writers. As I draft this blog, I not only think about what I want to say, but how I want to say it. I’m making choices to quote poems and novels. I have sipped in literary illusions. I imitated a poem, all as means to reach this point. Go back and check and you will see compound sentences joined by comma splices and lists without a junction before the last item. First, second and third person. Deliberate fragments. I meander in and out of formal and informal style.

The thoughtful choice of how to arrange words. That is what grammar is. Or, grammar is that. Grammar, that it is. (To employ  grammar, you must experiment.)

I once had an 8th grade class of competently bland writers. Someone must have taught them that every sentence had eight words and started with a capital T in The and ended with a period. Five sentence paragraphs. Five paragraph essays.

Their literary analysis essays on Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” droned on as dispassionately Reed’s drill instructor. To fix this I tried to show them adverb clauses, participle phrases, gerunds, and the like.  We drilled sentence combining like it would save them when the bomb went off.

The class did great with all the grammar book exercises.

Improve the actual writing? Not so much.

One day, in utter frustration a thought pops into my head. I have no idea where it comes from. That’s how inspiration works, I guess.

I’m reading some dreadfully dreadful essays aloud — trying to intimidate good writing out of kids, because that’s a strategy —  I stop, drop the papers on my desk, and I say, “You know what. Let’s write some haiku.”

Haiku is a poetic form with it’s own set rules. We keep the idea of three lines and the five-seven-five syllable pattern. I am not  so concerned about the subject matter.

We write haiku where the topic is the first word, where the topic is the last word, where it is implied, but not stated. We write haiku in the fewest number of words possible — three — and the greatest number of words — seventeen.

In a class period or two, these extremely unimaginative writers become problem solvers, manipulating words like puzzle pieces.  Creating…

…poetry.

I wish I had a few samples, but they disappeared in a move from one classroom to the next. I remember one was about the golden ratio of all things. Talk about an odd topic for a poem. Odd topics = real thinking.

The haiku exercise is a game changer. Suddenly, my students no longer think like compliant 8th graders. They  think like writers.

Then, before they begin their next essay assignment, I simply say, “Write every sentence like you are writing haiku.”

Talk about a lightbulb over the head moment. (Notice how I play with verb tense in the last few paragraphs. I take a little risk to see what I can do, play with how how the writing sounds. I revise it a few times. Playing. Thinking. Experimenting. You, the teacher, need to do this in front of your students. You don’t have to do it well, you just have to show them how you try to make it better.)

In terms of grammar, what did the students do differently? They manipulated sentence structure and played with word choice. In the process, they established entirely new writing voices for themselves.

Haiku  is a tremendous vehicle for teaching craft.

When you teach grammar, teach it in the context of “This is how writer’s think as they write.” Avoid words like always and never. Instead, encourage students to think, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” and “How will this sound to the reader?”

Show them a passage from a mentor text with lots of compound and complex sentences (or whatever is you think they need to work with). Ask your students to speculate on why the writer chose to use them. Then, get your students to try them out. They will be thinking like writers, maybe for the first time ever.

Encourage them to imitate mentors, but never get locked into one way of thinking or doing. Never allow your writers to ask you, “Can I do this?” That puts the thinking on the teachers side of the net. When students say, “Can I write it like this?” always respond with, “Try it and find out. We can always refine it later.”

And remember these words — slightly adapted– from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whomsoever would be a writer must be a nonconformist.”

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4 Comments

  1. Haiku… gotta try it tomorrow! I have been struggling with getting them to play with sentences lately – they resist. I tell them to try the dash, my favorite punctuation mark. We try some together. They resist. I think this may be the key. Thank you!

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