Do you ever hit road blocks when you’re teaching writing?
Today on the podcast we’re happy to welcome authors Martin Brandt and Tom Newkirk. Marty is most recently the author of Between the Commas: Sentence Instruction that Builds Confident Writers (and Writing Teachers). In addition to authoring numerous Heinemann titles himself, Tom is also the editor of Between the Commas.
In this special interview, Marty and Tom talk about some of the common problems writing teachers find themselves up against, and creative solutions to move past them.
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Tom: Marty, it's great to have a chance to talk with you about your new book, Between the Commas.
Marty: Thank you.
Tom: I just want to say that as your editor, I did very little work. It was a really smooth and easy job from my standpoint.
Marty: It was a lot of fun to write.
Tom: So I thought we'd start by maybe asking you what problem with your students' writing did you see in your classrooms that caused you to say, I needed to do something and then that led to the book?
Marty: Well, basically I was overwhelmed. Mostly their writing was just terrible, especially if I was asking them to write about anything that had to do with English content or subject matter. So if I said to them, write a character analysis on a character in The Great Gatsby for example, I would just get gobbledygook work that I didn't know where to begin trying to repair. And like so many other teachers before me, I said, well, it must be grammar. And that was precisely the wrong thing to do.
So the process took a long time. It took many years of trying to figure out what I was seeing in their writing. And it wasn't until I began a master's program at San Francisco State University that I began to learn about some of the issues that were affecting their writing. And it was a really wonderful experience because I found myself in classes, not just taking notes, but also adding little notes to myself. Like, Oh my God, that's what my students are doing there.
So when we talk about something like sentence focus or sentence predication and things like that, I would... That issue of sentence focus was like scales falling from my eyes and it allowed me to understand things in a different way. And the beauty of it was it wasn't in a way that put them in any kind of deficiency. It was instead a way that gave me hope for them and hope for myself.
Tom: Yeah. I mean you went to sentence focus, like how many times do you get a student start a sentence, like one of the things which I, and then they're in this tangle. They're kind of falling into the bog and they can't get out, right?
Marty: Right. Yeah.
Tom: And how often they're in that situation.
Marty: And so much of that can be traced to them trying very hard to do what we ask them to do. We asked them to put some portion of the question or the prompt in their answer or we asked them to make sure that they write it in a complete sentence that has that. And so they do that, but they do it in a way that makes them kind of writing turns to sentence into sort of an uphill climb for them. And generally, what happens when things get difficult is they disengage and they just think, okay, this is getting too hard for me. I'll just write some crap that finishes the sentence, finishes the essay and I'm done with the anxiety that this whole assignment has produced for me.
When we ask our students to write essays, it's an astonishing amount of optimism that we bring to it. Even though after years and years, you should probably be prepared against it because I think this is going to be the stack of essays that it's going to move me and that the students do is that they're thinking from a completely different perspective. They're thinking, what can I do to get done with this assignment? And between these two perspectives, there's this huge gulf. I think it was a William James? Must have been William James.
Tom: It got to be William James.
Marty: Yeah. That the greatest gulf in nature is that between two different consciousness. And you could see that at work with something simple as a writing assignment. Here I'm thinking of these wonderful essays and these ideas that are going to come out to me on the paper and the students are thinking, God, what can I do to be finished with this?
Tom: So, Marty, I'd like to get your reaction to this possible sense of what we do in school. It seems to me that sometimes we assume students can do things just by asking them to do it. We ask them to write the essay and we assume that they have the moves to do that. That's kind of where we get trapped sometimes. I'm wondering if that's your sense of the situation we put students in.
Marty: Yeah, I think that's certainly the case. I came to my education from a very different background from my students, many of whom are second language learners, third or fourth languages even. And for me, writing an essay in school was always a delight. I always felt like it's about time somebody asked me what I thought of something and I'd be scribbling away. My students didn't have necessarily the same access that I had to say is something as easy as simple as say music review on Rolling Stone magazine, which gave me a sense of what, for example, some kind of critical writing was.
And so my students come to it and they don't know where to begin. They instead they go through sort of an agonizing process of sort of false starts, one after the other and hope that it ends up looking like an essay. And so a big part of our job is not simply assigning work, but actually showing the students ways to get that work done in a way that makes sense to a reader.
Tom: And it seems like one of the ways you do that in the book is to show how, I forget your exact language, how one sentence contains the seed or the prompt for the next sentence. Could you say something about that?
Marty: Well that's in the section on sentence coherence and it's the idea that sentences have to work together to create meaning. And that if you say something like it was something that she had wanted for a long time, that's a perfectly grammatical sentence. But it doesn't mean anything if we don't know what that it was. And so if you say instead something like her parents gave her a watch for her birthday, it was something that she had wanted for a very long time. Now we've achieved coherence. So if sentences have to rely on one another for meaning, then this shows us that within each sentence there should be something, some germ or seed which should blossom or grow in the sentence after that. And that when we do that, when we get that sense of one sentence's relation to another, we achieve something like coherence.
Tom: I already heard a concept we call listening to the text. And it seemed to be that's kind of if you listen to that sentence, there is a suggestion of the next sentence in that sentence. Is it something like that?
Marty: Right. Have you ever had the situation where you're about to turn a page and you'd like to predict what the word is on the other side?
Tom: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Marty: That's kind of listening to the text also. You're reading along and maybe the sentence ends and a new sentence is going to begin and you kind of predict what's going to happen. And I was always kind of happy when I get it right. And if you're really listening to the text, you're probably going to get it right most of the time.
Tom: And in that chapter on coherence, you explicitly suggest what some of those prompts are and the fact that some students may not be aware that this is how they can connect sentence to sentence with fluency.
Marty: I wasted, I wouldn't call it wasted, but I spent many years trying to encourage my students to write coherently. And part of the problem is addressing the issue of what do I say? And then the other problem is how do I sort of keep on track? While the sentence coherence model that I created for the book is something that takes care of both of those problems, what to say and where to go next. That basically if you want to keep writing coherently, your audience is probably going to have a fairly narrow range of possible responses to any given sentence.
And those questions might be things like, well explain what you mean? Can you give me an example? You don't mean this, do you? Are you saying this? Can you define your terms? Can you show me where in the text that you're talking about, that you've got this particular idea and could you tell me what you have to say about that? So if we can get the students to start integrating these questions into their own writer's consciousness as opposed to simply having me write them in angry inflamed red ink in the margin-
Tom: Which is so effective.
Marty: ... Right. Exactly. I wasted many a gallon of red ink on that, but if instead we can get them to sort of anticipate their reader's needs and their reader's expectations, then we can create real independence and confidence in them as writers.
Tom: And fluency.
Tom: It seems to me that once you internalize those questions, you become a fluent writer. And as I was saying, actually today, it seems like you create this motion machine because you can keep asking this questions again and again and again, right?
Marty: Yeah. And then the problem doesn't become a question of, Oh my God, what do I say next? It becomes the good problem.
Tom: I have too much to say.
Marty: Yes. Where are we going to, how am I going to end this thing? Right.
Tom: So in the wire, would you say that's a good problem?
Marty: In the wire, that's what they say. That's one of them good problems.
Tom: That's one of them good problems. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Now, one of the things that, I don't know if you felt like this was a risk that you took, but it seems to me it is a risk that you're taking because just to say we're focusing on this sentence calls to mind all these demons that we have in our head about grammar and all these bad experiences and the sentence diagram. I mean, there's a whole history of painful instruction that comes with the term sentence. I'm just wondering if that was in your mind and how you felt you're going to surmount that issue.
Marty: I would tell people, I'm writing a book about the sentence and I would say, yeah, it's very boring. Just as a way to keep light about it.
Tom: But it's not, I mean, just for the record it's not.
Marty: It's not boring. I had terrible problems with the grammatical instruction myself and grammatical instruction so often does is it just makes everybody feel that they're bad at something. It makes the teachers feel they're bad at teaching because the students don't succeed. It makes the students feel that they're bad at grammar because they don't succeed. And so everybody walks out of the whole experience unsatisfied. And it's wrong because human beings have a natural tendency for grammar. And as I was saying earlier, we all learn an entire system of grammar by the time we're four years old, without the help of a single worksheet. No diagrams, no instructors, we pick it up. It's what we do as human beings.
My nieces and nephew have two systems of grammar, English and Spanish. I'm intensely envious of them because of it. It's what we're really, really good at. And so I think any grammatical instruction that you're going to attempt needs to begin with the fact that you are a natural user and manipulator in a good sense. That you are a very powerful user of language and that we need to get you back in touch with that very important and powerful fact.
Tom: And you know, one of the things in terms of the sentence that getting the subject and the verb right is such an important thing, going back to the notion of focus and how that's the natural way our mind works. Somebody's doing something to something or the subject-verb-object and getting that in the right order. And how many times when you untangle a sentence, that's what you're trying to do.
Marty: Right. Sentences in the end are pretty basic things. And what happens with longer sentences is that they've simply had things added to them, in the same way that long words are the product of lots of different prefixes and suffixes. And so you end up with something like antidisestablishmentarianism.
Tom: It's the longest word.
Marty: Yeah. So also, in sentences or do we end up long sentences are the product of phrases and clauses added to something very, very simple. A subject enacting a verb, but all that other stuff that made Faulkner such a challenge to read in college or something like that, all that other stuff is just additions. And if we can remind our students what these additions are and how they can find ways to incorporate them into their own writing. And they're often already there, just sort of lurking sometimes even in their errors so that we can say to them, "Oh, you're really close to something great here." And so instead of it being run on sentence, fragment, instead we say to them, "Oh man, you almost got the Smack-Talker down perfectly there. All you need is the tail of a comma and that bad boy is going to serve you well."
Tom: That's Smack-Talker, you create your own lexicon for these terms.
Marty: Yeah. I just started doing it out of the just, I suppose it was whimsy at first. And my students of course are a different generation and they're all into hip hop and street lingo of various, I mean, I'd suppose everybody or every generation has its slang. And so I started coming up with these terms like the Smack-Talker instead of the noun phrase are positive, the ing-Bomb instead of the verbal phrase, and you drop an ing-Bomb on that sentence, let's see what happens.
Or even better, the kid will have two sentences in a row with the same subject and it say a different verb in the second one. That's the ideal position or the ideal situation to change that second sentence into an ing-Bomb so you end up with one long flowing sentence instead of two shorter ones. So I'll say to them, "Oh yeah, there is your ing-Bomb right there. Get rid of that second subject, change that and you'll get it." And so they can start to see it in their own writing. Because too often what we do is we say to our students things like, now reread your paper and look for any errors. Well, if they could find the errors they wouldn't have committed them in the first place. That's just an example of the kind of thing we started with, instructing or telling students things.
It's just not the same as teaching them. So now of course I could say to them, "Oh yeah, that's a nice Smack-Talker you got there. Did you notice that?" "No, I didn't notice that." "Well that's what you want to start doing." Part of the problem with grammatical terms, a point that I make in the book is that grammatical terms are sort of meaningless to most people. If you say adjective clause, the effect of filter goes up. Nobody wants to know what that is and-
Tom: It calls to mind all kinds of horrors, right?
Marty: ... Right. Exactly. And it's when most people stop listening to you. And part of the problem with that is that it doesn't mean anything and it doesn't address the function of it very well. Unless you're a grammarian and in you know what a clause is and you know what an adjective is. But if you say drop a dime on that now the student knows, ah, I'm going to snitch on that noun a little bit. I'm going to-
Tom: ... Say something about him.
Marty: ... Yeah, I'm going to say something about him. It might be unsolicited. So that's pretty much what I do is that these terms are our standards for the actual grammatical terms because, and here's a really important thing that gets lost in what commonly called traditional grammatical instruction, they make the mistake of thinking that learning the grammar is as important as learning to write. The truth is that the kids already write with these forms, perhaps sporadically. You can go your whole life without knowing what an adjective clause is and be an excellent writer. So it's more important to know how to write well than it is to be able to circle the adjective clause in the test. So there's that too.
Tom: And it seems to me that if the focus is on error, you see I think grammar is so connected to error in people's minds. And that if your purpose is to avoid error, the way to do that is to really over-simplify your sentences. I taught in an inner city school and the kids wrote really simple sentences. They have a lot more to say than that and I think they just sort of avoiding mistakes or being penalized for mistakes.
Marty: I've had students report back to me that they were told they have to have so many sentences in a paragraph. Your paragraph needs to be at least seven sentences for it to be a paragraph. Also, what's a kid going to do?
Tom: Short sentences.
Marty: They're going to write seven short sentences. So these are things that we think we're doing them a favor for because they'll end up with a more well-developed paragraph. But what they're really going to end up doing is squelching their own voice.
Tom: Could you say something about how these exercises would play out in a writing class? I suppose they'd be like short exercises before class. Would they be like exercises or student maybe picking a sentence from his own writing? Could you just say how these kind of play out in a writing course?
Marty: Well, there's a number of ways that I go about it. One way might be, for example, to... In the book I share a couple of quotation patterns that I have because my students had great difficulty for a long time executing quotations in any way that made sense and work coherently with the sentences around it. And so I encourage them to use these quotation patterns as say the starting point of say a journal entry. And so it begins already sounding kind of authoritative. An example might be, what's that Nietzsche quote that we talked about today? In large states, public education is usually mediocre for the same reason that in large kitchen cooking is usually bad. Says, you know...
And so you could have the quote like that and then you add a Smack-Talker to it. A statement that reflects my own experience in school. Well, the beauty of that is that that statement, that Smack-Talker that we added to the sentence becomes generative. Now your reader wants to know, how does that mirror your experience in school? And so it takes care of that problem of what to say next. You begin to explain yourself and then at a certain point you're going to have to ask yourself, well maybe I need an example of it. I remember I had this teacher in seventh grade that made me memorize an alphabetical list of prepositions as if that was going to help me. There's an example. That's a pretty good story. So that's one way of going about it, is simply to say use it at the beginning. Use something like that at the beginning.
Another way to go about it is mostly you need to let them write very freely. But I'll put up the coherence model when they work. They've got it pasted into their composition books. But when we're writing an essay in class, I'll have that thing up there and I'll be circulating around and students will ask me, they'll get stuck here and there and they'll say, "What do you think I should do next?" And I'll take a look and I'll say, "Oh man, I think you're ready for an example. Time to get out of the theoretical and into the concrete here. Tell me a story. And if you have a good enough example that you can actually narrate, that'll get you to the bottom of the page just like that." So that's another way of going about it. As far as the exercises are concerned, I just sort of treat those separately. So I really fond of these sentence manipulation parts that I create.
Tom: Which a number of them are in the book.
Marty: And so you basically you divide up a sentence into grammatical chunks and print them out on a card and then you mix them up and you tell the students, okay, well see if you can put it back into order. And this again is going back to their understanding of how grammar works. They're actually very good at grammar and they don't get the original sentence exactly, they often get something that's still perfectly grammatical. It's just in a different order. And so that's a way for me to make the point to them that where this particular thing that we might be talking about today is concerned, you already know how to use it. You already know where it goes in the sentence. We don't have to diagram it. We don't have to have you do a worksheet where you circle the noun phrase are positives. You already know the function of this. You understand what it's doing.
And so I've kind of treat that as a sort of a separate exercise. Then when it comes time to do the actual writing, we've got this language in common and I can say to them, Oh, I love that Smack-Talker right there. That's good stuff.
Tom: I want to ask you a question about your own writing, your first book. And I remember it's always that moment we say, yeah, I think you can write a book, when an editor kind of approaches an author. What was it like to write it?
Marty: Well, it was, I don't know if I should say this because it might come off as a vainglorious, but it was wonderful. It was a delight to write this book. It was a little bit like when I was in school and they told me to write an essay and my attitude was about time somebody asked me to write this essay, about time somebody asked me what I thought. And so writing this book was really kind of similar to that. I loved every minute of it. Even when I wrote myself into a problem, I was pretty relaxed about it. I would say, okay, well you're going to have to think about this for a few days.
And sometimes the problems were content-based, like do I want to write about this thing? Sometimes they were rhetorical problems, like what do you think the audience expects from me next? But even when it was difficult, it was enjoyable. And I remember when you emailed me and asked me if I wanted to become a Heinemann author, my wife was out about in town and I called her and I said, "Tom Newkirk wants me to write a book." And she says, "Well, of course he wants you to write a book."
Tom: It's about time.
Marty: Today is our wedding anniversary, 27 years so that would show you why.
Tom: That's good though. One of the thing that struck me in reading the manuscript was your story that came through because I think somebody who maybe haven't heard this conversation might not get the full sense that this is partly your story as a writing teacher, developing and changing, which I found very moving to read-
Tom: ... very touching. I don't know what my question is, but maybe it's in terms of did you know that that was going to be the thread that's going to hold this book together and make it more than just a technique book?
Marty: I didn't know that it was going to turn out this way. There are things that now when I look back and I see things that I didn't consciously do that I did and that might be one of them. I mean, one of the great things about teaching is that it presents so many opportunities for you to engage in your own imagination, to address problems using whatever it is that's floating around in that head of yours. You know? And when I look back on those early days and how difficult they were, it amazes me how much I have been able to grow. And I'm very, very grateful to my students for that. And so we talk an awful lot about student growth in education.
And I think a very neglected aspect of this profession is the growth of teachers. And when I think about how I viewed my students early on in my career, I get to the point where like if I see any of my students from early on in my career around town, the first thing I want to do is apologize to them. I was so bad, I was so wrong. I did you guys wrong. And some of them will say, "No, no, you were great." No, no, no, no. The struggle of teaching is a very valuable thing actually, because I think it'll lead to growth. It'll either lead to growth or it'll leave the profession.
Tom: Or it seems to me you can plateau. And I think there's a danger of getting to be pretty good at what you do and then not getting any better. This made you a better teacher, to not settle at that mid-career point. It seems to me that's part of the story.
Marty: I don't think that I really made that explicitly, that point explicitly. But I guess it does come out that way because at the point where I began the book, I had already been teaching for six or seven years and I think those were six or seven pretty lousy years. But things did get better after that. And you're right, I could have just stayed at a particular point. But what happened was I joined the Writing Project and through the Writing Project, suddenly it just sort of ignited this fascination with the professional problem of teaching writing. And once I embraced it as the great problem of my career... You know mountain climbers speak of routes as problems. They don't get upset about it like, Oh, dammit, why can't we climb El Capitan up The Nose route? No, that's the problem of The Nose. How are we going to get to the top by way of that route.
And I started thinking of teaching and teaching writing in particular in the same way. That this is a great problem. And so often what we do with this problem in teaching is we end up feeling inadequate about it. We ended up feeling that our students are inadequate and we end up feeling like we are lousy teachers. And the truth is that they're one, great users of language as I've said, and that if we address it simply as a problem, we give ourselves permission to make mistakes, to get false starts, to go places that are promising but don't quite work out. And we give ourselves the latitude to say, okay, that didn't work. Let's try it another way. And then we can even do this right in front of our students when something isn't working. They're very, very forgiving. A lot more forgiving than we often give them credit for.
Tom: And I think always the question, am I assuming that they know how to something that I need to break down and teach?
Tom: All of my mistakes, which are many are usually because they assume I'd explain something or something was clear. Or I'd use a term like critique or discuss in small groups, and I hadn't been specific about what that was about. And I think there's a specificity in this book. I think people may intuitively think they know what they need, but you lay it out for them.
Marty: Well, thank you.
Tom: It was great pleasure to talk with you again and a great pleasure to work with you in this book. And actually, I hope that this isn't the last.
Marty: So do I. It's been wonderful.
Tom: Thank you.
Marty: Thanks a lot, Tom.
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Martin Brandt teaches English at San Jose’s Independence High School, a large urban school with a diverse student population. He is a teacher consultant with the San Jose Area Writing Project and former winner of the California Teachers of English Award for Classroom Excellence.
Thomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Embarrassment, Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE's David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.