Tag Archives: teaching writing

‘Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex’: Stephen King’s Advice

In a recent interview at The Atlantic, author Stephen King shares some more advice on writing beyond what he wrote in “On Writing.”

To the question, “You write, ‘One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.’ If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?” King answered:

When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

King on teaching writing:

I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

King on letting students pick their own books to read vs. steering them to the challenging texts:

You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teachingMoby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.


‘Most flowers die fast or get passed gas’: Exquisite Corpse poems (1 of 3)

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New Exquisite Corpse poems from this semester’s creative writing class, second hour. Minor changes (punctuation, appropriate word endings) were made to improve readability. I love how poems created somewhat randomly, unintentionally, end up being so wonderfully surprising.

He shaves your grandma’s legs when cash rules everything.

Love is a many-splendored thing that scares us so.

I’m giving up, up, and away.

Stop signs are pointless because there are many dogs.

Bed time is my favorite color.

Underwear is like outerwear, except for the exceptionalism of the word.

Donkeys are dumb animals on the edge of moonbeams and rainbows having to see the light at the end.

I did not want to drink, or not, to my house and kids I destroyed.

I need you to find true love, which is beautifully hot in Acapulco with coconut.

Winter is the season that rhymes with a bat.

I want a drink of me and the time.

And the award goes to go home sad.

The alligator chewed the gum loudly. The trumpet played quietly.

I ate is the past tense purpose of writing.

Good fortune is bad luck in the bowl of being the best person.

Death-defying stunts are two words that cannot express hatred.

The future will never change.

Big people eat a lot of the tip of my nose.

To the supermarket for 20 years to life.

True friends don’t really exist, like in Jurassic Park with dinosaurs running around.

Mate like two moths under the sea where [you’d] better run or else nothing matters the most.

Twelfth Street is the place where the people stay with me ‘til we are like you.

See the big trees die in the clear blue skies and cold lemonade.

The tree was at the park to hold my love.

You gave up instantly the coffee began spilling.

Red violets are blue; I’ve been drinking watermelon juice.

Time goes by very much in the style that only I have.

Your personality intrigues me to rescue her majesty and marry her hair.

Most flowers die fast or get passed gas.

Orange squares taste exactly enough.

Milk does a body; good God, we need ketchup.

Goldfish are very funny looking through Alice’s looking glass.

The ocean sand in your toes feels like gorillas on water.

Mind-numbing gets done at the people.

The cutest little girl in the middle of the ocean where the water looks like an ugly monkey.

Once upon a time flies when you’re having a kitten.

Why did she do whatever you want to do with my favorite food?

Last night I experimented with all the power in a meadow for unicorns.

“This isn’t fun anymore” reminds me of Macklemore.

“Very odd” is what people call me later.

Selfish people always live longer than an elephant’s trunk that has baby chickens.

Night owl was an owl that I wanted to eat.

Me? I’m the best I ever had.

Man, I feel like a person with a pair of socks.

Any dish makes me feel greatness.

A wild animal had been really confused lately.

Like playing a musical chicken that sings girly stuff, yo’ daddy likes when pony tails aren’t.

Clean is better than nothing.

I’m excited about girls who stink like you.

‘So easy it is actually hard’: A student compliments my creative writing class

I gave my creative writing students (high school seniors) a “Kreativity Kwizz” a few days ago, and one of the students gave an answer that I read as one of the best compliments I could get on this class:

“I know that this class is by far the most unique, weirdest class I have ever taken, and that it is so easy it is actually hard.”

This statement shows me that my student really gets, really understands, that being creative doesn’t require doing the things that people typically think of as hard work: solving lots of math problems or memorizing facts for a test (although I do ask students to memorize a few poems). Learning creative practices requires different thinking, or even no-thinking, which are themselves  challenging. I also just love the way this student worded this idea, showing her own creativity!

‘Punk rock is not my dear Aunt Frank’: More Exquisite Corpse Poems (2nd of 2)

For introductory explanation, see previous post.

Her origami smells like your love of dogs.

Fast running is not very reliable.

Now is the time for score, and seven years until my cat dies.

Money is my favorite thing, with some stuff, and then the cops came home like I never say you can’t.

A healthy unicorn ate my baby girl that no one notices.

Old ladies love old men.

Love is admiring something’s beauty, and the beast is Miley Cyrus, cried the young son.

Who will watch your mind? I have no mind.

The man-eating bunny is just a rabbit.

Time is always poorly wasted.

Easy does it, but hurry up now, you child of mine. You are my sunshine babe.

My shiny bicycle, wobbly and shaking — it’s hard to define this section.

Youthful old people still die.

Yum is what candy tastes like, heaven with sin.

Amazing things always happen never.

The one who has the pirate once said, “this is so long, bro.”

“Me scurvy is acting up” is the way where the wild things dance like nobody is watching you pee while eating away at my insides.

Distorted TV pictures make me or a tiger wild and dangerous.

Breathing like I’ve been running makes me very unhappy.

My domain name is nothing but letters.

The everlasting time traveler gets lost at Petro.

I don’t care to explain yourself.

Sometimes the dog can whistle your problems to someone.

Monkeys fling poo towards me because I want yogurt.

“Off with his head and toes” are in LeBron James’ poetry.

Music is the worst thing that I like most of the time here and now.

“Bro” is the name he lives in.

Here lies the body. Of course I like salmon.

A sweetie told my mother to say “that is good riddance; I hate going to the air balloon.”

Overrated is rated too overly.

An overly ambitious cab driver has smells that are lightly crisp, and remind me of Kit-Kats.

Hate is not nice love.

Big tigers are very big; Europe is not so.

Cows never loved you.

Punk rock is not my dear Aunt Frank.

Turtle beats the hare every time I see you are my nemesis now.

Kittens will kill you hard enough to scratch glass.

As it always seems, you’ve broken the black cat of me.

One flower is all left turn on Second Street lights dangerously placed.

Was the chicken really worth anything anymore? And that I need to know about the chupacabra in the bathtub, yo. How are you, man?

You punched my big nose is what I smell.

Two dolphins walked into bars and held on tight.

Another plane of existence is futile, ye wench.

You are beautiful, no matter of fact.

Will you sign your name and find yourself there?

Word is a stupid word.

Dinosaurs blame the government, twisting words and alibis.

Words are sometimes very weird-beard on your face.

“Rawr” is what a lion is the phrase for.

Mandatory that you have fun time to sleep in a pool of vomited words like sour and sweet mixed together.

Number the amount of children [who] are becoming new elders.

The grand piano sounds heavenly in silence with really big bells.

The gingerbread man I’m behind now: Thanks for not being there.

Elsewhere must be near.

The kindergarteners are not the best of all I get me out of hell.

Hell has cookies, apparently, so has come the lion.

Upset emotions were lacking with her old blue shoes that I want a dog in.

The Jonas Brothers’ rock is the best music, is my life-blood, is a gross sacrifice to my grandpa’s parrot.

Murder is a serious crime like stealing someone’s lipstick.

What are you really saying that he doesn’t want to know many more?

More than words can describe this thingy-thing-thing, what is this thing that is a noun, for they can always degrade.

Fire burns things I love is a beautiful thing.

“Bing bong” went the door and indulged our interests in having many things like syrup.

I think of songs [that] make me sad about that one day in this room there, blue-azul-rojo like no other ocean [that] has all sorts of the beautiful autumn day.

Songs that are very good habits die hard.

I feel the same as the carrot that is quite ridiculous, sir.

A treacherous life in water comes from my mouth.

Mouth to mouth makes life a beautiful thing.

Body [is] just cyberwire essence of the mind’s thoughts I’m having. Right now is the time for the love of God who never was there.

Sometimes life sucks as much of your knowledge lies!

I dislike the fact that unicorns are scarier than goblins.

I hope you find yourself a new beginning-end-middle era that begins too soon.

Too soon I will be free puppies on my street next to Wal-Mart.

Always will my hair be as big as you plus me equals love.

Last chance to waltz alive on the inside like potato chips and bologna.

Leg hair flowing like goddess divine is a key to success in Halloween costumes.

This morning arrived late today.

The squid thoughts: squishy movement, tanky, tall, buff, skinny, short, but tall enough to look at her sadly.

Tiger Woods’ prose is a true novelty I can’t read.

The wind is messy little kids that ruin the moment by saying things like “ooow weee” all the way home.

Home is where I live like you are never ever deal[ing] in absolutes.

Math is not my strong-suit of my body armor.

Amazing grace, how sweet the trees are saying stuff and things to do what you want whenever.

Click here to see a longer listing.

Link: Perrin on robo-grading

My colleague Dave Perrin has written eloquently in this English Journal article about some of the issues we writing teachers have about “robo-grading,” where computers grade student writing. I particularly like:

When facts, logic, and truth become dispensable in the assessment of writing, then writing instruction, ostensibly, will become focused solely on the mechanics of writing. So much for the short-lived return to critical thinking that the Common Core State Standards initiative promises to bring back to the English curriculum. Although the e-Rater and its brethren may not be interested in the truth, the truth is that writing teachers always have been.


“good” writing is always subjective. English
teachers are notorious for their pet peeves and personal opinions of what is “good.” Over time, astute student writers will collect these hallmarks of good writing from various teachers, stack them against one another and their own, reject some and embrace others, and eventually develop their own style and criteria for good writing. The adoption of such a narrowly defined concept of writing in which, for instance, each sentence in a student essay must be at least 15 words long or contain a conjunctive adverb, threatens this process.


The proponents of robo-grading laud it precisely because it provides some sort of objective quantification of writing, but writing teachers
know that a certain degree of subjectivity is inescapable, and indeed even essential to the assessment of writing, as the self cannot be removed from the act of reading (or grading) any more than it can be removed from the act of writing. Students must be taught to read and write in a world where facts matter, where logic is challenged, and where the “truth” is often not only subjective but also subject to nearly inscrutable nuances.

Links: Grammar, science: 20 Feb. 2013

1. A post at Smithsonian called “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries” is from a couple years ago but still seems valid. In light of some of my experiences with feeling my creativity is not an intentional and/or consciously controlled, I enjoyed reading how much else that we do is also at least influenced by other non-rational, sub-/unconscious things:

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event.

2. A post illustrating the wrongness of some grammar proscriptions, that infinitives can be split, that it’s not such a crime to end a sentence with a preposition, and that it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “and”). I spend a good portion of many of my teaching days instructing high school sophomores is the basics: not confusing their, there, and they’re; finding subjects and verbs so as to avoid writing sentence fragments; and how to use semicolons between independent clauses (and series that contain sub-series, like this sentence).

A bright student asked me today why we study grammar, and I said, basically, that correct grammar is the way that smart people talk to each other and that if one wants to sound smart, one has to learn to use correct grammar (in at least those situations where one wants to sound smart). In retrospect, I should have said “educated people” instead of “smart people,” since of course there are many smart people who do not have formal education, but otherwise I’d stand by my explanation. My student seemed to enjoy what I said — perhaps it sounds cynical, but I can’t honestly come up with a better justification. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage” (a version of which is here), says

“the real truth, of course, is that SWE [Standard Written English] is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment, and that it is an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity” (page 107 of the paperback of Wallace’s book “Consider the Lobster”). Wallace also says, “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE” (pg. 109).

Wanting my students to have the ability to code-switch to SWE, I hope to teach them the standards, however arbitrary, of standard English. I do not want to argue that students don’t need to be taught these standards — although I suspect that some of my students pick up these standards unintentionally by immersion in language-rich households and/or by the self-directed decoding-processing of great quantities of texts (that is, reading for pleasure).

What often troubles me about teaching grammar in a writing class is that it seems altogether separate from teaching the writing — as if I were teaching fluid dynamics physics to beginning swimmers: it’s something to think about, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal. Writing, like most skills, improves through practice and repetition more than it does by theoretical analysis. The biggest thing I had to let go of as a creative writer was letting go of theories about how my stories should be, and just write.

As a teacher, I’m not sure how to really incorporate the students’ theoretical-grammar knowledge into their actual writing practice. I don’t know where the words I write come from, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten writing done by thinking, “First, I’ll put a noun — no, wait, an adjective, and then a noun, then a verb — maybe an adverb sprinkled in somewhere?” Along these lines, I was in a meeting today where a special education teacher asked my opinion about whether a student was using too few or too many adjectives. I didn’t know how to answer that.

Writing is holistic, and in my case, my writing has gotten better over years and years of doing it, very little of which involved abstractly theorizing. Using language is an immediate experience, not far removed from other “automatic” brain activities as recognizing faces, perhaps. I love about teaching writing that it is holistic, that I’m asking students to create works, rather than just asking students to return some facts or solve some problems, as other disciplines do. But maybe the best any writing teacher can do is provide students formulas and techniques until students can create their own habits, process, mental models, etc.

Poems: Noses smell like other noses (Exquisite Corpse, 2 of 2)

Here are some more lines I took from the Exquisite Corpse poems we, my students and I, made this semester. Minor changes (punctuation, appropriate word endings) were made to improve readability. I know this is a long list, but there were many creations that amused me. I love how poems created somewhat randomly, unintentionally, end up being so wonderfully surprising.

Noses smell like other noses.

Observation: Simple bliss in yogurt is good when frozen yogurt is the best time in Creston ever.

Upon lobsters, I demolished buildings because their water is not tasteful, bland.

Pedestrians are worth ten people in the room for all of us. We don’t speak Klingon.

During the old times of people being themselves, people are liars, liar liar pants on the bottom shelf.

I don’t have a lurking motion towards home.

The quick brown fox jumps into the kitchen sandwich.

In this classroom, rows are blindingly straight, like my peace pipe

Please send that message to me, myself, and I, or be forgotten like the Pythagorean theorem of a dead dog.

Stupid is what stupid was.

Everyone thought they were driving in the car that we all hate.

Heads will roll, for this life is not ordinary folks eating brownies.

Yesterday was today in future tenses.

I will be known to whoever should hold this hammer.

His head is full of stuffed crayfish, red with anger.

Ugly horse can become beautiful barbecue.

Evilness makes me puke where no one stands.

Hippopotamus is a small animal that punches puppies willingly, as a doctor should, dancing under the rain.

Earth can be hardened by not showing off the bees that filled the air when I was a boy.

At Mississippi is a wood chuck who could chuck a peck of peppers skipping through the grass.

This person is one but what is two?

Pink bird, flower, orange you glad I didn’t know her well?

Loving people dearly endure the teasing of antelopes.

Obesity is a big problem like a cat that has to have fingers on its hands.

Puke smells bad and is green; everything green is good.

I’m used to being sly foxes who don’t deserve fish that are very colorful.

You have a huge shoe size, which varies depending on the same level as a level-nine sorcerer making coffee for grandma, and I cried until I couldn’t even think about it.

Cheerios are as tasty as a pear tree in a large cup of the birch tree skies colored blue.

Everyone is real talk, big ears, flying in the blue sky.

Magenta and the young rapper Pink Tree have red bears that are often red sky in the morning.

The 5 of us as humans rule life.

Green leaves in the trees surround me like A, B, C, one, two, three.

It’s impossible to resist the smell of the interesting problems with a genius outside town.

Slowly he saw everything, its big ears flapping on the ground.

Today I ate my own stop sign, drop and roll.

“Up” is a movie about a really slow caboose.

Daylight brings out the bright and shiny new day, when everyone was going to sleep on a sloth.

Go off a cliff and into a sea of cows’ milk and cookies, which are really good to fly away like mosquitoes.

Poems: Power corrupts and absolute Power Rangers are very cool (Exquisite Corpses, 1 of 2))

Here are some lines I took from the Exquisite Corpse poems we, my students and I, made this semester. Minor changes (punctuation, appropriate word endings) were made to improve readability. I know this is a long list, but there were many creations that amused me. I love how poems created somewhat randomly, unintentionally, end up being so wonderfully surprising.

Power corrupts and absolute Power Rangers are very cool.

Rain, rain go away, come to the octagon today and get clobbered, bro.

We have to write me a love poem and get arrested at K-Mart.

Fear is sneaky, lurking around folks who are weird things happening on Thursday.

Ouch, say the little boy and girl kissing Romantic poems.

Become one with silence, like a wet sponge was wet from water.

A black hole in one is hard to punch in the face.

In my shoes, I have nothing more to say.

At home, I can be yourself, no matter what.

You dream like an ice cream cone for my grandma because they are actually aliens we’re living in.

We died peacefully in their sleep.

Skinny things blind me sometimes because I am graciously throwing a brick at Barbie.

Who can tell me how the fish jumped over the hill and under the influence of love?

Kindness is an awesome quality furniture and many antiques like grandpa! Oh, snap of tea that moves like Jagger on the floor shook like a cat is on me.

America is the place where the flowers are smashed.

Men were looking at her body, which is not a zebra.

Big ears help you hear the bear play trombone, and the orchestra exploded.

You can be whatever you can’t know.

You should go canoeing like a one-armed bandit who snatches the pigs dance near the starlight.

Hell is very hot like my twin sister who has eleven toes painted pink and green.

I am ready for sleep so deeply that you— yes, you; no, you— have no exciting features.

The best man fell down the street on the spiraling seas of mystery like a missing sofa.

Poor people like me get rich or die trying to sleep.

Weaponized baloney smells like ten men in a sandbox.

Yes, said the woman: are not men and women making up the yellow brick roads everywhere today?

We can’t all have a giraffe fighting penguins.

Shirtless, the penguins swam swiftly.

Dominate the pomegranate distribution trade.

Come fly with magic birds eat birds because cannibalism.

Cool beans, said someone who is not you.

The girls head south, bear left, and a monkey leapt out about on the streets.

Death is not the end of my little finger.

Poems: Exquisite Corpse method

In my high school creative writing class, we write poems in the exquisite corpse fashion, this way:

In class: Each student gets a piece of ruled paper and a piece of scratch paper (for covering up the writing on the ruled sheet).  On the ruled sheet, they write some random 4-word phrase, putting the 4th word on the following line, as such:

all the best


And then they cover up the first line, revealing only “luck,” as they pass the sheets to the person next to them (while students are in a circle).  The next student sees ONLY the last word – in this example,  “luck” — and adds to it:



and then covers up everything on the sheet except the word on the new line, “WHO,” and so on, around the room, for about 20 minutes.  At the end, students remove the cover sheet and read the entire thing like a continuous poem, or maybe they just pull out some unique lines.   It can lead to some interesting lines of potential poems.

We then use these Exquisite Corpse sheets to write additional poems: 

Poems #1 & #2: Take words and phrases from your Exquisite Corpse sheet and combine these into a poem freewrite. Minimum 25 words.  Do this twice.

Poem #3: Write down the words from a column of words on that sheet.  Write 20 words as a poem.

Poem #4: Take the words from #3 and replace each word with a word that sounds like it.  Write as a poem.

In this post, there are some samples taken from Exquisite Corpse poems created in my classes this semester.

Link: Teaching writing

A couple months ago, The Atlantic magazine had this article about a school that used subjunctive clauses to Fix Education. I read this when it was published but wasn’t sure then what I thought about it. I’m still not saying it’s wrong, but I did enjoy the analysis of that article and its contents that I read this morning in comments by someone named “quixotrist” in a blog post at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’m copying the comments below (partly as a future reference to myself):

Oh, please, make it stop.  The pain is too much, and it has gone on too long.  Please, let it stop.

Because I respect Geoffrey Pullum, I clicked onto the Peg Tyre article from the Atlantic that Lucy Ferris had commented on. I said at the time  that I expected it [the Atlantic article] to be ignorant piffle — which of course is not a nice thing to say.  Still, in response to Ferriss’s response, I wrote a quick and dirty history of where we (the profession) ought to be by now.   Clearly we aren’t there.

In the Tyre piece, I came across the name of Arthur Applebee, whose history of the profession had just come out when I entered the PhD program in English education in the early 1970s.   Assuming he’s the same Applebee cited by Tyre, I can’t believe he would be taken in by this so-called “writing revolution.”  I do, however, believe this pull out quote comes from the same guy:

“Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

I remember him as describing the history of composition up to that point [when I started my PhD program] as an endless series of panaceas, all of which were, of course, inadequate.  Using grammar to teach writing, I learned from Applebee, was the single most researched topic in English education.  And the results always came up negative: no effect or, in that it took time away from other activities, actually a negative effect.

At that time we were on the cusp of a thing called “the revival of rhetoric.”  Composition was going to become professionalized.  Up until that point, I had sort of planned on becoming a linguist, but I abandoned my program at Chicago and followed my husband to Tallahassee with our first-grader twin sons.  I saw the switch as second best, of course, but we (the profession) were going to do something worthwhile, something that needed doing.

Someone in the comments here today mentioned John Mellon.  He did the first study on sentence combining.   His conclusion was that previous studies of the effect of grammar instruction on written composition had been nil because IT WAS THE WRONG GRAMMAR.  Starting with the new transformational grammar, that’s what made the difference, he thought.  And he got some very promising results.

Frank O’Hare came along next, saying basically, “I don’t think so.  It’s not the improved description of grammar; it’s the sentence combining practice itself.” That’s why O’Hare’s work carried “without formal grammar instruction” in its title.

Anyone who thinks learning the parts of speech is going to improve composition instruction ………. well, let’s just say you’re unlikely to be able to prove that hypothesis.

This whole paragraph from the Tyre article is astonishing:
>They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, >>
What on god’sgreenearth does that mean?  My guess is they’re deconstructing  into simple sentences something they’ve read.  The examples given of student sentences clearly are taken from a secondary source.  The students are probably being taught passive plagiarism along the way … another topic for another time.

Let me continue: > and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones … .>>  Okay.  They’re reinventing sentence combining.  Too bad they’re not learning about fair paraphrasing at the same time.

To continue: > They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin.>>  It would be just snippy of me to talk about that too much.  Things we used to call “clauses” had verbs in them; other NPs we called “phrases,” but I’m old.  Let it be.  But, still, it would be hard work to begin a sentence with an appositive since by definition they’re  likely to follow the noun.

Continuing:>Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, …>>  Why later?  Since fragments are usually stranded pieces of mishandled sentence complexity, why not teach that fact along with the structures they derive from?  Like: “Alice, the girl with a white rabbit.”  Not a likely fragment, but a result of starting a sentence “with” an appositive.  Here is a more likely fragment: “Alice, who followed the white  rabbit down a hole.”  When they’re learning to write relative clauses, that’s the time to SEE the pattern of the sentence.  Where is Alice’s verb?  This is an extremely likely fragment: “When Alice followed the rabbit down the hole.”  In other words, the structures you use to EXPAND your simple independent clauses are the very pieces of a sentence that are most likely to get stranded as fragments.

Penultimately: > how to pull the main idea from a paragraph,>> Now, about those sentences the students were producing by using connectors (coordinate and subordinate conjunctions)?  Here’s where those “ideas” are coming from.  (Students always ask, “How many words do you have to change before it isn’t plagiarism?”  The correct answer: “All of them.”)

And finally: >and how to form a main idea on their own.>>>  And what, pray tell, does that mean?

If a child reads about Alexander the Great, what do you expect them to write?  How about this: “Alexander the Great sat down halfway to China and wept that there were no more worlds to conquer.”  Good sentence?  Yeah.  Ursula Le Guin wrote it.  The essay it’s embedded within is a work of genius.

I’m a firm believer in teaching students to write from patterns.  My own dissertation was a survey of theories of rhetoric with heuristic bases.  Heuristics are problem solving strategies:  Patterns. The one everybody knows comes from journalism: who, what, when, where, why, how.

My benighted colleagues were just aghast at the soul stultifying consequences of teaching patterns of arrangement.  Patterns of invention got smuggled into comp instruction at the turn of the 20th century as patterns of arrangement: describe a process; classification; comparison/contrast; definition ….  They became rigidified, of course, but they did less harm than expecting a student who has read a couple of pages about Alexander the Great to come up with a whole paragraph that wasn’t just a parroting of what had been read.  Give them an atlas and ask them to write about his journey.  Then you’ll get something more original.

EXAMPLE of structure-based heuristic:
The five-paragraph theme has been much abused and lamented.  I’ve heard professors of English (yes, more than one) say that there is no five-paragraph theme in the real world.  If I have a chance, I take them through the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography:

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: a longing for love, a search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.  These passions, like a great wind …………..”  If you’ve never read it, google it before you say a word back at me.  It’s truly beautiful.

EXAMPLE of content-based heuristic:
“Although” clauses actually make great essay openers in the context of opinion pieces.  Before you give us your opinion, tell us what is RIGHT about the opposite side of the argument.  Although I strongly favor teaching beginning writers to use heuristics and to improve their sentence complexity skills through doing sentence combining, I would have to argue strongly against teaching grammatical terminology in order to improve writing skills.

It’s painful to think there are English teachers out there who STILL think children don’t know how to write about subjects that they are just learning about for the first time because they’re just stupid.  Children learn what they are taught.

I quit.

Oh, wait.  I already did that.

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The thesis is that the Dorp “experiment” is only the latest instantiation of the single most researched question in the history of English education.  In a carefully designed study, you would likely find as much correlation between the height of children and their exposure to instruction in formal grammar.  The most linguistically sophisticated writers on this page can’t even agree on a label for “subordinating conjunctions.”  Any improvement seen in the kids’ ability to pass the essay exam can be explained by a shift in the environment for instruction: from the expressed assumption that the low performers were just stupid to active engagement by the instructors in what the kids were learning in subject matter “across the curriculum,” as they say.

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–an example of “anti-writing,” writing reduced to a few simple rules of grammar and structure, but in which the writer is not engaged, or discovering anything, from the book, Plato, Derrida, and Writing, by Jasper Neel.


X is one of the most important problems in today’s modern society.  There are three main reasons why X should be stopped.  This essay will explain those reasons.

First, a lot of people X because it is the popular thing to do.  They do not realize how harmful it can be in their later lives.  All young people should realize that the best thing to is have fun later when it will last.  Doing the popular thing now because it is fun is a big mistake, because this sort of fun doesn’t last.

Second, a lot of people don’t realize that taking the easy way now is a bad idea.  The way to have a bright future that will last is to work hard now and wait until later to X.  For example, Horatio Alger did not X a lot when he was young.  Instead, he worked hard for a bright future, and he ended up with a wonderful family, a good job, a lot of money, and a beautiful home.

Third, the Bible says young people should not X.  The Bible has been around a lot longer than those who X.  If young people would be patient like Job and if they work hard like he did, they will end up with children and all the good things life has to offer.

In conclusion, I feel that people should not X.  We should elect leaders and hire teachers who do not X.  Because X is popular, and the easy way, and against the Bible, you can see X should be stopped.

Prologue to Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography

What I Have Lived For

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart.  Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western

Philosophy and was the co-author of Principia Mathematica.

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In reading over my first long post on this page, I feared that I would be dichotomized into an anti-grammarian.  I’m not at all.  I taught grammar for teachers for going on thirty years.  What I’m agin’ is teaching grammatical terminology and calling it composition instruction.  I’m agin’ expecting some automatic ameliorative effect on developing ideas for composition from teaching/learning grammar.  What I’m agin’ is teachers reciting rules from Strunk and White as up-to-date pronouncements about the language.

I’m not sure what you mean by students “understanding clauses”; if they can manipulate them, that’s good enough for me.When NCTE was founded right after the turn of the century, Gertrude Buck was given the job you describe for yourself.  She made a good enough effort given the state of the profession at the time, with as little effect as you are likely to have with your KISS solution.

You’ve established your authority to speak.  The writers for LinguaFranca and most of the commenters believe they have authority — most as teachers with degrees from accredited universities.  The trouble is all that conflicting authority comes down to little more than a rhetoric of display.

I’d be more open to persuasion if you would explain to me how underlining subjects and verbs leads to straightening out the confusion between contractions/possessive pronouns. (I wrote a piece called “The Organic Approach to the Apostrophe: An Unwarranted Consensus” in _Composition Studies_ 25.1, Spring 1997.)

I’m suspicious about how “identifying clauses in their own sentences” leads to deploying semicolons, colons, and dashes.  Does “identifying clauses” also help with the seventeen rules for the use of the comma?

If you are advocating teaching grammar as a means of learning about the language, I’m with you.  If you are advocating something more, do please clarify.

P.S. Anyone is certainly entitled to question the veracity and the accuracy of my representation of the research. To aid in clarification, I recommend:

Teresa Enos, _Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition_ (Routledge 2010).
….. Reading through her discussion, I remain confident that I have not misrepresented the research. She does a nice job of summarizing the bits I have mentioned, starting on p 293 with the first monograph here that I had NOT mentioned:

Bateman and Zidonis, _The Effect of a Study of Transformational Grammar on the Writing of 9th and 10th Graders_ (NCTE 1966).

John Mellon, _Transformational Sentence Combining_ (NCTE 1969).

Frank O’Hare, _Sentence Combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar Instruction_ (NCTE 1973).

Another book I referenced without citation was the following:

Arthur N. Applebee, _Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History_ (NCTE 1974).