How do you feel about grammar? For many of us, it was a frustrating exercise that kept writing inaccessible.
In Between the Commas: Sentence Instruction That Builds Confident Writers (and Writing Teachers), author Martin Brandt moves the idea of grammar away from the traditional heavy terminology, and helps us better understand the key moves for writing instruction.
We started off our conversation on where Marty found himself in 1997 that changed his teaching practice...
Below is a full transcript of this episode!
Marty: Well, as I put it at the end of that section, is that it's really the beginning of a new part of my career. It was the beginning of the rest of my career. I was teaching this class called Language Arts Three, and it was a very, very challenging class full of students who were indifferent to hostile. So it was a struggle of a class, and I was just barely keeping my head above water. One day I decided just out of the blue to try sentence modeling. I didn't know that there was any kind of curriculum around this, but it was just a desperate shot in the dark.
And so I put together sentences from a story by Jon Krakauer, the magazine story of Into Thin Air, that would become the book Into Thin Air. I remember reading those sentences just being knocked out by them, and it was just such an easy read. So I began to ask myself, well, why don't my students write sentences like that? That became something of an obsession for me, really just the main professional problem of my career. How can I get my students to understand what are possibilities of the sentence, as opposed to all of the limitations and prohibitions that we English teachers usually attach to it?
Brett: You open the book asking yourself three questions, and the third really kind of jumped out to me. You say that that was the most gutsy question.
Marty: The question was, well, why can't you teach them to write like that?
Marty: You know. The first one was, let's see, what's happening in those sentences? And then the second was, why don't my students write like that? And then finally it was, well, why can't you teach them to write like that?
Brett: What was it about that question that was so gutsy, and what path did that set you on?
Marty: Well, it was an admission that I was far short of where I needed to be as a teacher. I mean it was, why can't you teach them? There's a premise there that I hadn't done it yet, and that if I wanted to do it I'd have to start working at it and find ways that would work. And it's not easy to do things like this, because a lot of people seem to understand, and this was true of myself when I first started teaching, that it's simply ... here is how to do a verbal phrase, here is how you write an absolute phrase. [inaudible 00:02:48] sort of this assumption that if you've taught them or told them something, then that constitutes teaching and learning, but no real teaching takes place until the students have actually learned something. So yeah, just by asking myself that question it was just an admission that I wasn't there yet, and that if I wanted to get there I'd have to start working at it.
Brett: And you really did. You then took a lot of time to sort of unpack a lot of what you call, the busy work of grammar, that wasn't quite as necessary for instruction. How did that journey lead you to what you call the three pillars of sentence instruction?
Marty: Well, I guess there was certainly a lot of trial and error, but once I found something that worked, that seemed to work in the class, I would just continue to make use of it. So I discovered, for example, that scaffolding sentences a certain way, breaking them up into grammatical chunks, for example ... that was an early discovery ... that if I broke sentences up into grammatical chunks with actual ... you don't see this in the book so much, but actual lines crisscrossing and dividing the different portions of a sentence, and then having the students write their own version underneath that. But it wasn't coherent. It wasn't part of any coherent pedagogy. It was instead just something that I did every once in awhile to teach them sort of one-off lessons on this kind of structure, or one-off lessons on that. And it didn't actually cohere into anything really clear until I got to San Francisco State, where I began to study the grammar and rhetoric of the sentence.
And it was through those classes that I really began to make connections between on one hand what I was trying to do, and on the other hand, how it fit into some kind of coherent whole for my students. And so eventually it began ... some things just became clear to me, things like ... well, what's the ... The first pillar of course is sentence focus. And so a lot of the things that I had been trying to do when I wrote exasperated little comments in the margins of my student's paper, turned out to be a direct result of problematic sentence focus.
A lot of what we do in teaching writing, when we teach essay writing in particular, is really aimed at either stimulating or preventing problems in coherence. But the problem is that too many of these methods are so prescriptive that they really kind of kill whatever real thinking is going into the work. And so it was really just a few years ago that I thought that these three things could make the whole foundation for a writing ... I wouldn't want to call it a program, but for an approach to teaching writing.
Brett: You had a quote in the third chapter that really jumped out at me, that “sentences must work together to create meaning.” It just seems like such an obvious thought but yet it seems to be lost in a lot of writing that is happening today. How is that getting lost?
Marty: Well, I'm not sure how it's getting lost. Yeah, that's kind of a dangerous thing to write, because I thought a lot of people would hear that and say that I was a master of the obvious, teller of tails twice told. But I think that, like I said, a lot of the instruction that we give, the prescriptive instruction, having sentences outlined ... or excuse me, having your essays outlined, or sort of preplanned ... I mean, of course everybody does some pre-planning when they're writing. You have either an idea in your head, or you jot down a few notes, but that doesn't mean that you have to plan out your paragraphs point, by point, by point, which is what an awful lot of us do. I wanted to make it clear that these things that I criticize are things that I've done myself, and eventually found lacking for one reason or another.
And so when I got to that issue about coherence and about sentences working together, I thought to myself, well, really there's a bunch of questions that I've written over and over and over in the margins of students' writing, and maybe it's a question of helping the students to internalize some of these questions. Really, when it comes right down to it, all three of these pillars are all directly related to the needs of the reader. So when our students write they don't really have any reader in mind. Most of them simply are writing to finish the assignment and relieve themselves of the anxiety that they are experiencing, the writing process.
What I want to do is remind them as much as possible about their own linguistic prowess, that they have the ability to extend their ideas as they do in conversation all the time, and to do so quite coherently without the help of any kind of outline model, or scaffolding, or anything like that. And as I think I did say in the book, that we don't need to know what we're going to say in order to write ... I mean we don't even do that when we speak. We speak, and it comes out. It's part of the magic of human language. What we need to do, instead of knowing what we speak, is know that we can proceed with confidence, that we can find out what we have to say, in the process of writing.
Brett: And you're very honest in your whole approach to how you take this to your students, where you get them to sort of come onboard with you in one instance, and then in the next instance you might lose them all over again. You have these key phrases throughout the whole book that sort of make some of the grammar rules a lot more accessible, and you help us understand them a lot more. I just want to go over a couple of my favorite ones and have you just sort of explain, in sort of a high level view, of what a couple of these are. So tell me about the day you dropped a dime?
Marty: Well, I just broke up a fight at lunch. High school is so boring that the students were irate with me for having broken up a fight. Finally, something to pierce the boredom, the tedium of it all. And so they said, Oh yo, Mr. Grant, why you drop a dime for man? And I thought, drop a dime, man, where'd they pick that one up? Because they're in this post pay phone era. So I thought, dropping a dime, to narc on somebody, to add unsolicited information. You know, who asked you? Who asked you to say that? Well, I decided that it was kind of significant. So I thought that that would be a nice way to sort of describe what is known in grammarian circles as adjective clause, which makes use of terms like who, whose, and whom, where and when, which, or that. So what I say to my students is that you can drop a dime on any noun.
I gave the card to my dad. He enjoys a good bargain. Well, if we transformed that into a single sentence, which is the kind of confidence we want to start building in them, to be able to extend their sentences further, you'd say, well, I gave the car to my dad who loves a good bargain. And so it's just things like that. Now what I find myself saying to my students all the time is ... I'll read something they write and I'll see a couple of things. One is sort of the unexplored potential for this. So I'll highlight a single noun, and I'll say, why don't you drop a dime on that noun and see what happens, and so they know what that means. The other instance where I use it is when they write a run on, or a comma splice, and I'll say, hey look, that's almost a dime dropper. If you change that he to a who you just executed a very sophisticated move.
Brett: Another one that I really like a lot is the smack talker. You say that the smack talker can draw out unique writing voices. How does the smack talker do that?
Marty: Well, it's one of those things where we often say to our students things like, why don't you add more detail. And if grammatically they're too uncertain about a way to do that, then the expression, or the requirement or the request to add more detail, might just be confusing to them. I think the way I put it in the book is, you might as well be asking a four year old to do a quadratic equation. And by saying that I'm not trying to compare them to four year olds or to minimize their intellect. Actually, their intellect is vastly underrated I think. But if you can say for something like ... I passed the ball to Draymond. He is the best player on the court. Instead of he is, which is the shorter sentence following it, you could say, I passed the ball to Draymond, the best player on the court.
And so that's your smack talker. The actual grammatical term for that is a noun phrase appositive, and once again, that's the kind of thing that means nothing to most people. But if I tell my students, talk a little smack on this noun here, then they understand that to mean either ... I mean it doesn't have to be smack talk. I mean obviously the example that I just had was not smack talk. I was calling somebody the best at something. But if you really wanted to go down that road ... Did I have any good examples in their that ... I'm trying to think of one.
Brett: I know there's ... You do have quite a few actually. I don't have it open to that page but-
Marty: You could say something like, a person as corrupt as he is incompetent. You add that to the name, and you'd get yourself a really nice smack talker phrase. That's a literal smack talker but of course it can be neutral too. He enjoys the work of William Shakespeare, the great English playwright, or, the famous English playwright. But if you wanted to really talk smack, you know, the overrated English playwright. If you wanted to make the praise a little bit more explicit then you add, the greatest writer in the history of English.
But really the potential for sentence expansion happens when the students can add a dime dropper to the smack talker. So that's what I call the smack talker, dime dropper combo. And t's capable of leveraging enormous amounts of leverage ... excuse me, amounts of information into a sentence without running it on, without taking it past its breaking point. The example that I give in the book is that obituary writers do it all the time. They cram an entire lifetime of achievements in between the subject and the verb, the subject being the person's name and the verb being, died. In between so-and-so died you've got all of their human achievements on earth.
Brett: You also take on ... I was excited to read this part about passive voice and active voice, because I feel like a lot of people default to the passive voice when writing. So what is your take on the passive voice versus the active voice?
Marty: The passive voice is not as bad as we've been led to believe. The truth is that with our students they go into the passive not to obfuscate or evade anything. They are often simply trying to sound academic, and so you end up with these very strange constructions sometimes. Here's an example from a really strong student. “In H.G. Bissinger, his book, Friday Night Lights, a story not of a high school football team's trials and tribulations is told, but rather a gritty telling of what really goes on in a small town.” So that sentence is a bit of a mess because he chose the passive, but the passive really directly related to the issue of sentence focus, which is the object of the first chapter. And so if a student chooses a particular subject, oftentimes there's no way to avoid the passive, because you can't necessarily make that subject act in a way that's going to make sense with the idea, semantically, that you're trying to communicate.
However, there are times when the passive is perfectly acceptable, and we use the passive all the time. So I wanted to make a defense of that. This comes directly from the San Francisco State professor William Robinson, who died a few years ago. I never got a chance to meet him, but the first class that I took at San Francisco State was a direct result of his work. And he argues that there are three times when the passive is perfectly acceptable, so I share some of those ... or share those three things in the book, simple instances where we use passive constructions. Like if you say, it's supposed to rain, that's a passive construction because you're not saying who is doing the supposing, but nobody on earth expects you to tell you that. And if you said, the weatherman supposes it will rain, your friends would kick your ass and you would deserve it.
Brett: Well, this has been great talking to you Marty. There's so much good stuff in this book. How in our own writing can we develop these skills more naturally, so we can kind of become more of a part of the process and not necessarily revision as we go? Or is it always sort of an element of going back and constantly sort of learning these things through revision? How do we get this to be more natural for most of us?
Marty: Yeah, I think it is in revision for most of us. You generally don't write using smack talkers. We write in sentences and then we can adjust afterwards. So a lot of these things don't come naturally to us in speech. In writing ... If we were to use these in speech a lot of them would sound like affectations, but it's part of what is expected in making writing interesting and enjoyable. So if you go back to that Jon Krakauer example, if you were talking to him in a cafe he would never say it that way. He would never ... Hey, so how was Mount Everest Jon? Oh, straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet, one ... It's like listening to Jay Peterman's character on Seinfeld. So we generally don't talk like that, with a few exceptions probably, so it is in a way literally a writerly move. It's almost an affectation, and the students are suspicious of it because it seems dishonest to them. It's not what they would say. It's not the way they would say it.
The real problem with most student writing is it doesn't reflect very well what interesting, and exciting, and thoughtful, and complex people that they actually are. So you could argue that, well, how are you going to get that through any kind of school essay anyway? And I think there is a place for that argument, but my job is to help them write school essays, and try to make them more interesting and enjoyable, and more reflective of the complex individuals that they are. That's just what I'm doing. So what I want to do is encourage them to take on these things that they wouldn't ordinarily even notice in their own writing, as any kind of possible way or path to proceed on.
Like if I see one smack talker or one -ing bomb in an essay where there wouldn't have been one before that constitutes growth. And it's incremental. It's not going to be some kind of explosion of words, like when they were two or three years old, and they moved from babbling to actual human speech, but it is growth. Teaching writing for growth, as opposed to simply finishing the year at the same general place where you started ... which is kind of where I spent a lot of my career myself, finishing the same place where I was when I started. And also, for the students, just not having grown at all as a writer in the course of the year, I just can't take that idea. I can't live with it in my conscience anymore. So I'm just trying to find ways to help them grow bit by bit.
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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.