Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

Image via Wikipedia

I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.