Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Grammar and Writing

Another one from the files:

Michael Degen -- Handouts page

I found this page of handouts back when I was scouring the web for information on "teaching grammar in the context of writing." If you go down to the General Handouts section, there is an article on Philosophy of Grammar (doc) which is the one I've had around the house for years. This teacher at the Jesuit Preparatory School has written two books, which aren't available in my library:

The handout is about teaching style by means of teaching syntax. It helps provide the link between "analysis" in reading and "synthesis" in writing. The Jesuit style of teaching composition was to move from one to the other of these processes... to learn by studying what made a sentence work (in vernacular and in Latin and Greek) and then to consciously apply that to one's own writing. The stylistic devices he focuses on in the paper are:

  1. Present participial phrases
  2. • Compound and compound-complex sentences, their independent clauses joined
  3. • either by correctly punctuated conjunctive adverbs or simply by semicolons
  4. Past participial phrases
  5. • Adjective subordinate clauses
  6. Appositive phrases
  7. • Analysis & repeat-word modifiers
  8. Absolute phrases
  9. Noun subordinate clauses
  10. • Gerund phrases
  11. • Adverb, adjective, and noun infinitive phrases

Later on I found Ed Vavra's pages on grammar as a liberating art, and particularly this online book. I wish I could explain how much this is my ideal of teaching writing and grammar, even though I don't particularly do it this way. I usually unschool writing, and lots of reading and discussion provides the analytical/synthetic framework which in time leads to good writing.

But consider this:

I have heard this ever since I can remember, and ever since I have taught: the teacher must teach the pupil to think. I saw a teacher once going around in a great school and snapping pupils’ heads with thumb and finger and saying, "Think." That was when thinking was becoming the fashion. The fashion hasn’t yet quite gone out.

We still ask boys in college to think, as in the nineties, but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky. Robert Frost, quoted in ch11 Syntax, Thinking and Logic

Thought is in many ways a matter of syntax. This is why, according to Dr Vavra, too much work out of textbooks actually dulls thinking, whereas reading aloud to a child from literary books will expand not just his vocabulary but his ideas and the syntactical framework into which he puts them. He says that many educationalists now have realized the importance of reading and writing in thinking but haven't always adequately realized the importance of content and syntax -- the structure of sentences -- in this thinking process. Charlotte Mason realized this over a century ago (though she would be vehemently opposed to reading great literature simply to improve one's thinking processes, I think. Motive matters, as well).
A couple of other links I found when I was looking for more on this subject.

Also, here are a couple of posts from Schola et Studium on how we are doing grammar.

Also, Lene Mahler Jaqua and Carolyn Vance of Classical Writing have started a blog. Lene's article in the Class Ed Newsletter started me off on my love for the progymnasmata. The article has a nice scope and sequence for teaching early levels of the progym.

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