Thinking about the simple things

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

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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.

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Learning The Craft of Writing

In my earlier posts on What is Writing, I suggested that we have to attend to two elements of writing to become something like a great writer. Let me qualify that statement. Even if you want to be a good writer, it will happen to the extent that you attend to these two elements. They are drawn from a definition I proposed for writing that goes like this:

Writing is the overflow of the soul into a pattern of words encoded in visual symbols (letters or hierogliphs) for the purpose of communication

I argued that the first half of this definition is just as crucial as the second half, but that a writing program really can’t deal with the first half. Writing programs teach the craft of writing, not the personal qualities or experiences that make someone a great writer. Picture Hemingway writing without his experiences. It wouldn’t have been him. He wouldn’t have been Hemingway. He might have written what he wrote well, though I question even that, but what he wrote wouldn’t have mattered.

It isn’t enough to learn the craft of writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t enough to have experience either. Plenty of big game hunters have mumbled through sentences around the campfire failing utterly to capture the drama of the charging elephant with its ivories flashing, feet stomp-trampling the brush, mammal-sweat-and-leather scent flooding the hunters flared nostrils, the click of the trigger and the flash in the pan deciding who is god and who mortal because they didn’t know where to put a comma.

The craft of writing teaches the writer how to match the form with the content; “to suit the matter to the word, the word to the matter,” to adapt my master.

You cannot escape the need for practice. I know personally because while  I was a fairly talented writer growing up, I didn’t practice the craft as I should have, thinking it was a matter of inspiration, not practice.  If I did want to practice, I only knew how based on what my teachers had taught me or what I experienced of story and reading.

Happily I was brought up in a very verbal environment. My brothers and I yelled at each other all the time. My parents read to us a lot. It is to this reading by my parents that I believe I owe 90% of all my love of learning.

Both of my parents loved stories, as do all unmalformed humans. But you can see that this means that they filled up my soul. There’s plenty there to overflow. Lots of Narnia, mythology, Perelandra, folk tales, Proverbs and proverbs, Shakespeare, Dumas, etc. etc. This was a gift, one of the best they gave me.

And all of that made writing easier for me because it gave me a taste for good writing and an impatience for boring, unimaginative, badly formed, mechanical writing. It all made me a little afraid to try writing stories on my own. I’ve always loved imaginative writing, but until recently I’ve been intimidated by it.

Recently I’ve discovered the craft of writing through classical rhetoric. I can’t begin to describe what it meant to me to read Aristotle’s rhetoric as an adult. I know that isn’t about telling stories, though he includes a bit about the “statement of facts.” But he did identify the thought process a rhetorician (speaker or writer) always has to go through to write or speak. Identifying this process makes it possible to consciously and deliberately imitate it. Nobody had done that in writing before Aristotle!

Having his handbook is a help, but it isn’t enough. A writer also needs a coach. I am still an undisciplined writer. I know that. I pay close attention to everything I read about writing, but I will probably never overcome some of the bad habits I’ve developed as a writer. But I’m beginning to surround myself with coaches, especially in the apprenticeship.

I’ve also begun to dream about joining a writer’s workshop, like the one in Iowa. My path is strewn with obstacles and a few pits, but someday I’d love to get that high level of coaching for fiction writing.

Let me return, however, to my point, hopefully illustrated by the foregoing. Writing, the craft, requires coached practice. Students need to learn the tools of the craft (grammar, punctuation, schemes, tropes, etc.). They need to practice using them and to have their exercises assessed. They need to be corrected and instructed by masters.

Then, when they have souls filled with matter, they’ll know how to suit the word to the matter.

Teaching the Transcendent

If you go to the comments from my post What is Writing you’ll see a reply from Chris in which she asks:

“Can we teach the transcendent part, the soul part, or only model it.”

Chris, I think you know you were throwing sardines to a seal, don’t you? This is like when you are teaching a class and one of the student’s raises her hand and says, “Teacher, would you please teach me how to be a perfect student?”

Writing, I suggested, is the overflow of the soul into a verbal pattern encoded in visual sybols. Chris is asking about the first part.

And what she’s asking about is the very essence of teaching. Can you cause a soul to overflow? Can you fill it?

The answer, I would argue, is “Yes, you have to, but no, you can’t.”

“So what are we to do with that?” you want to know. First, demand the explanation that I owe you. Second, read on while I try to get myself out of this fix.

I believe that you can and must “teach the trascendent part.” However, you can’t do it the same way you teach the technical side and you can’t do anything to guarantee either that you will succeed or that the effects of it will be what you intended.

Your goal is to fill their soul to overflowing. If they don’t accept what you are pouring in, they can never overflow. However, God designed the human spirit to be receptive to beautiful and good and true things. It’s just that things become complicated when our appetites confuse us.

That’s why I mentioned the great and good books as preparation for writing. Those do “teach” the “transcendent” part. We can’t measure the fruit, but the only way you can fill a soul is by pouring things into it.

When you are teaching the technical side of any art, you coach. But when you are teaching the transcendent side, you simply plant and water.

Needless to say, the transcendent side is immeasurable and is therefore neglected by conventional education. That’s why even what they can measure constantly deteriorates. They cut out the roots to measure the leaves.

Measure the lesser things, and things measurable are lesser than things infinite, and you will neglect the greater things. The measurables depend on the immeasurables, so when you neglect the immeasurable, the measurable declines. But those who don’t believe in immeasurable things will never correctly diagnose the problem.

So you can teach the transcendent, you can fill the souls with truth, goodness, and beauty. But the world around won’t understand or approve of what you are doing and they’ll pressure you to pull up the roots. If you aren’t firm in your faith and your knowledge of what is right, you’ll give in. You’ll become yet another Darwinian Christian, adapting to the environment rather than transcending it.

What is Writing

I love literature and history and ideas and letters and even blogs. I love the flow of information and narrative and personality that writing enables. Plus, I teach and practice writing.

Consequently, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes for good writing, and that leads me, in turn, to wonder about just what writing is. What is its nature?

How, after all, can I asses a student’s writing if I dont’ know what it is? How can I strive to perfect my own writing if I don’t understand what writing is?

I suppose there is a practical element that can be accomplished perfectly fine without knowing the nature of writing. For example, if I learn grammar I’ll be able to write better.

However, if I don’t have a higher reason for learning grammar than that it usually helps, then grammar itself loses its place. In time, it degenerates into a question of usage and loses its soul.

And that, in turn, undercuts the writing of the generation that doesn’t learn grammar after its own nature.

So I want to know, not only how to deal with immediate practical problems as they arise, not only techniques of writing. I want to know its nature. That way I’ll be able to sniff out techniques myself.

Even more, I’ll be less likely to miss crucial skills or elements related to writing. Maybe what follows will sufficiently illustrate this point.

This is true of any art or skill. If I get into its soul and essence, I get it. I know what needs to be done almost intuitively. But if I am governed by techniques and can’t see their relation to the nature of the art, I’ll always be bound to the techniques, unable to discern the propriety and fittingness of their use.

So let me propose a definition for writing, awkward sounding at first, but an attempt to be both precise and exhaustive:

Writing is the overflow of the soul into a pattern of words encoded in visual symbols (letters or hierogliphs) for the purpose of communication.

If you consider this definition closely, you’ll discover three general elements, each of which must be attended to for a writer to achieve true excellence.

First, the writer needs a soul that is overflowing. Second, he needs to be able to use words well to contain that overflow of the soul. Third, he needs to use those words to communicate with others.

Most writing programs, maybe all of them, necessarily focus on the second, technical, side of writing. They assume the prerequisites of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, as well they ought. They add to these necessary foundations the structure of an essay, a novel, a story, etc. and provide advice on how to fill out the parts of the text.

Then they teach style, usually providing somewhat random tips that the writer or even most writers find helpful when looking for the apt expression.

You can usually find communication, the third element, included under the technical, when a program teaches the writer to attend to his audience. For that reason, I simplify by combining the second and third elements into one, which I call the craft of writing.

However, if I believe a person can learn to write merely by focusing on the technical craft of writing, I am mistaken. And I’m probably mistaken because I was so focused on the practical side of teaching or learning writing that I didn’t attend to the nature of writing itself.

I failed to recognize that writing is the “overlow of the soul.”

And that means the soul needs to be filled to overflowing. Perhaps it seems ironic, but this part of teaching writing really isn’t very difficult. It’s time-consuming, but it’s not what I would call difficult.

The root of great writing, it seems to me, is the same as the root of the sciences and every other art. How to name it?

Wonder, perhaps? Reverence? Awe? Respect?

In any case, I refer to the quality of soul that underlies attentive perception, the sine qua non of all human excellence.

So how do we fill the soul to overflowing? By establishing and building on this wonder, reverence, awe, and respect that is woven into human nature.

First, through experience. People need to breathe the air, watch the sun go down, watch the stars move, hear the horse whinny, stare at the cow’s eyes, fall in love, laugh at bad jokes, feel embarrassment over their family (parents and children!), step on a worm, flip over their bicycle handlebars when they’re hot-dogging it, worry about losing someone or something they love, feel grass and sand and the tar that melts on the road on a hot summer day while they run to the swimming hole, work endless hours at tedious unrewarding labor, get mugged on the El Train in Chicago, grieve over lost loves, and all the other things that make up the wonder of life.

But we all have experience. The writer needs to be trained to pay attention to it.

He also needs to see what others have said about it and how they’ve said it, especially those who are particularly perceptive. Here we encounter the need for reading, but not just any reading.

As a rule, writer’s need to avoid jejune, puerile, pedantic, or incompetent writing. They need to read good and great literature, which is literature that expresses a great idea well, a skill that arises from close attention to experience and to the technical skills of writing.

Children who will grow up to right need their souls filled with fairy tales and fables, folk tales and legends, myths and stories, so that their imaginations are filled and refined and overflowing with stories that become part of their mental furniture, objects of comparison, the blood that flows through their soul’s arteries. Above all they need Bible stories.

They also need to worship God and revere his creation. They need to learn to love form through dance, gymnastics, music, and all the other arts that so vividly and undeniably rely on their forms.

And they need to translate, for translation merges the technical and the – what did we call this other side? It’s certainly not the theoretical. Theory/practice is not a sufficient binary to grasph this. Something tanscends both, something transformative and formative, something the theory can’t grasp and enables the practice, something essential.

Perhaps that first word is our clue. Perhaps it’s the transcendent and the practical that we need to attend to.

I however, cannot transcend the clock, so I must stop. I hope to write more on the technical side and on translation. Over time, I hope to develop this whole entry.

Let me add one more word. Andrew Pudewa provoked this entry. We met about two weeks ago to plan a writing workshop, and the discussion led to reflections on all these matters. The outcome of that discussion was an event.

On July 22, Andrew Pudewa and I are co-presenting a writing workshop in Concord, NC. If you are attending the CiRCE conference, you can come a day early to participate. If not, you are more than welcome to the writing workshop itself!

For details, please request a flyer at naubitz at circeinstitute.org (removed @ for security reasons) visit our web site (www.circeinstitute.org), which will post information shortly, call us at 704 786-9684, or visit the web site for the Institute for Excellence in Writing.

This is a new development, so you might want to wait a few days (say, until June 8) before you become impatient with our web sites!

Assessment and Feedback for a Written Composition

The Teacher’s guide for level II of The Lost Tools of Writing has been demanding an inordinate amount of my time these past few weeks so it’s been difficult to enter any sort of a lengthy post in here (to the relief of many of you, I’m sure). In particular, I’ve been writing about assessment this week – inventing, ordering, reordering, drafting, reordering again, redrafting, inventing some more.

It’s such a huge issue, assessment is. To begin with, assessment is not the same thing as grading. In the guide for level II you’ll see a distinction between evaluating, correcting, and grading. Evaluating is on-going and done by multiple people: the writer himself, his peers, perhaps parents and others, and the teacher. Evaluation is far, far more important than grading. So is correcting.

One rather common practice that jumped out at me is the way teachers often wait until after the students have received their grades to have them do corrections. To me, that is unkind at best and seems to involve a loss of clarity on the teacher’s role.

Writing is a skill. The teacher, therefore, is a coach. As coach, the teacher looks good when his “athlete” performs well. The downside of this formula is that some teachers get mad at students for not doing well and use the grade to punish the students.

The upside is that the teacher who realizes her role as coach will coach and not manipulate or engage in other arbitrary, tyrannical behavior.

So rather than wait until the time arrives to grade students papers to tell the poor kids what they did wrong, the coach/teacher is instructing them every step of the way. It doesn’t take very long. Glance at their invention materials while they are working on them. 20 seconds would be more than enough to determine the quality of most inventions. 1 or 2 would assess the quantity just fine (depending on the quality of your glasses).

Students should receive ongoing feedback throughout the writing process. In my opinion, virtually every essay or narrative that students hand in should have been reviewed and challenged and corrected enough times that they will all score in the 90’s on the grading rubric.

So in level II we go into quite a bit of detail about how to go about assessing students work. Keep it objective. Assess virtues, not gifts (though you should certainly acknowledge the latter). Make sure your students understand your feedback, whether it be evaluation, correcting, or grading. Make sure the grade is no surprise. Make sure you don’t grade anything for which you haven’t prepared your students. Make sure both you and your students know what you are looking for when you assess.

All of these will prevent you from being that foolish coach who waited until his team lost the game before he told them how to play.