Revisiting The Power of Grammar

Three articles came my way the other week that reminded me of The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, the book I co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project several years ago. All three pieces were published by the New York Times, and all three had to do with sentences: “My Life’s Sentences” by the marvelous writer Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative” by Constance Hale, and finally “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines”  by Shannon Doyle and Holly Epstein Ojalvo.

Each piece puts the humble sentence in the spotlight to explore not only its grammatical parts but its power to move and delight us, to quicken or quiet our heartbeats and pulse through its rhythm, its arrangement, its use of words and choice of punctuation. Each also encourages us to become more aware of the sentence—or as Constance Hale puts it, to become “sentence connoisseurs”—which Doyle and Ojalvo suggest we can do by inviting students to collect and look at sentences alongside us.

Interestingly enough, collecting sentences was exactly how Mary and I began the work that ultimately led to The Power of Grammar. We gathered sentences that had stayed in our minds, like this one from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, which does, indeed, contain a whole narrative between the first word and the period:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three.

And we revisited favorite children’s books to cull wonderful sentences from authors like William Steig, Roald Dahl and Sandra Cisneros.

In terms of study, we didn’t focus on nomenclature or academic vocabulary—that is, we didn’t teach the difference between phrases or clauses or ask students to identify simple versus compound sentences. Instead we asked students to use great sentences as mentor texts, apprenticing themselves to master sentence craftsmen. And what happened when they did that seemed like magic.

In a fourth grade room, for instance, we brought in these two sentence from Leo Lionni‘s picture book Swimmy:

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again. He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly . . . a lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine . . .  strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread . . . a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks . . . an eel whose tail was too far away to remember . . . and sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.

We studied these sentences closely, just as we’d study craft moves like leads, to see what the writer was up to, using the language the students came up with. The first sentence, the class decided, gave us a sense of where the character was, what he was doing and how he felt. The second sentence was like a list that described what the character was seeing, with the ellipses suggesting that he was moving through both time and place.

We then asked students to look through their writer’s notebooks to see if they had any lists or journeys they might revise using Lionni’s sentence as a mentor, and a student named Mariah found this, which she had written in response to a prompt:

Things I saw on the way to school:

my mom’s face – 2 times

my room

the number 6 train

the gates of the school

my teacher

Apprenticing herself to Lionni’s sentence, Mariah began revising in a way that ultimately allowed her to craft these two sentences, which she later turned into a poem:

The trip to school was full of things to look at, and as I looked from one thing to another I became full of sad-loneliness. I saw my mommy’s face with a sort of funny smile when I woke . . . my room, full of all the things I wasn’t allowed to take with me . . . the train, rushing everyone away from their homes and the people who knew them and loved them inside and out . . . the gates of the school that locked my mommy out . . . my mommy’s face turning away from me and leaving me . . . and the arms of my teacher in a green sweater, who wrapped around me like a living tree.

The shift from her initial notebook entry to her final revision seems breathtaking. She moved from being a recorder of information to a writer who’s using grammatical structures, language and punctuation to fully render an experience in a way that moves and engages her readers. And as readers of The Power of Grammar can see, she was far from the only one.

Unfortunately, though, with genre studies ruling writing workshop these days and the Common Core Standards taking root, it’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to do this kind of work. But on the heels of these recent articles, I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there’s an opportunity here to engage in sentence apprenticeship again.

Those of us who’ve been looking at text complexity, for instance, know that one factor that makes a text complex is sentence structure, with texts on the high end of the complexity band increasingly employing sentences with more subordinate phrases and clauses, more intricate details and imagery, along with subtle shifts in reasoning, mood and tone, and sometimes parenthetical asides. Inviting students to apprentice themselves to such sentences and emulate them with their own material can help them better navigate complex sentences as they move into more complex texts. For as Anne Lamott says to aspiring writers in her inspirational handbook Bird by Bird, “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader and that is the real payoff.”

Working with sentences this way also opens the door to students falling in love with language (without which literacy risks remaining merely functional). It also helps students feel the enchantment Jhumpa Lahiri describes when she writes: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time . . . To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

So perhaps it’s time to start collecting sentences again and inviting our students to do the same, not to identify things like appositives or gerunds, but to attend to their power and beauty and think about how they affect us. I’m attaching a few I’ve found recently that in different ways all stood out for me. Please feel free to share them and to share as well any wonderful sentences you or your students discover.