Writing Is Thinking Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One serves as a guidebook for sentence writing as well as a model of analytical thinking for sentence reading. Full of appreciation for the English language and the craft of master authors who employ its nuances effectively, this short volume presents examples, analysis, and instruction in sentence writing using mentor sentences collected from English writers in the past half-millennium, including George Eliot, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell.

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Fish begins with the thesis that emerging writers who are learn the craft of sentence creation should begin with syntactic forms without regard to content, similar to the way that beginning pianists practice scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises. For the beginning sentence craftsperson, content can be a distraction; students first need to understand the tools of the trade.

Fish goes on to describe the three types of sentences, provide models from regarded writers, and give step by step instructions on how to write them. The two more formal structures are the subordinating sentence, which lends itself to ranking, ordering, and sequencing, and the additive sentence, which gives an impression of flow and flexibility. A third category is the less-formal, satiric sentence, which writers employ as a means of slyly critiquing individuals, groups, and social structures.

I really enjoyed the exercises suggested by Fish, and I found myself in a moment of flow and creative space as I worked within Fish’s expert guidelines to develop my sentence craft. The photo below shows my work with following Fish’s directives based on a model sentence by Ford Madox Ford to craft a non-contextualized sentence in the additive style, which resulted in the following sentence:

The bright dresses, patterned with tropical flowers, flowing and gliding from place to place on the parquet tiles, the conversation from each table vibrant and lithe, the children watching from the courtyard windows angling to hear the voices of their mothers, so ordinating in the daytime, punctuating the night with words, not about their children, but about their other non-mothering lives.

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In later chapters, Fish gives examples and analysis of effective first and last sentences, such as the succinct yet haunting ending of Orwell’s 1984: He loved Big Brother. He concludes by offering a simple equation that argues for the value of crafting sentences as a means to support reading comprehension and a love of language:

sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation

As I worked through this book, with my pen and notebook close at hand, I felt a sense of tremendous exploratory and creative freedom to write with content pushed aside. I felt like a true and authentic writer, allowed to polish my technique and encouraged by a masterful and analytical reader. This book would be a wonderful choice to explore during teacher professional development as it models how teachers, as readers and writers, must be able to talk about language with their students – with careful attention to its craft and structure, with passion and exuberance, with a wide knowledge of writers and writing.

As a middle school writing teacher, I can envision the writing classroom as a type of makerspace for sentence construction. Empowered with the tools of and process for sentence construction, the students become crafters of language. Having experienced deep analysis and discussion of effective sentences, middle schoolers will have the capacity and space to invent their own syntactic constructions.

Sentences are an essential link between vocabulary and discourse in reading and writing, and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One amplifies the importance of understanding sentence craft and structure in order to fully understand the aesthetics and craft of the English language.

Harper Collins Web Sampler: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Teaching: The Greatest Profession

Editor’s Note: A Literacy Design Collaborative Lead & Learn Fellow, Christina Kostaras teaches middle school English Language Learners how to communicate and problem solve like mathematicians and scientists. She works at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Last week at the SREB Conference in Atlanta, Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) Lead & Learn Fellows Lisa Hollenbach (@lisa_hollenbach)  & Sheila Banks (@ehretbanks) hooked me into their break-out session when they did a quick Google News search of the word “Teacher” and a whole slew of negative images and headlines appeared on the screen.

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My entire body ached as I read them. I questioned, How did we get to this point? In lieu of placing blame, Lisa and Sheila provided us with an antidote to combat the media contagion affecting teachers: use tools such as blogs and social media to start controlling the conversation.

I began thinking about another communication medium we should begin to control: in-person conversations.

The conversation described below happened to take place on an airplane, but it could have happened any place that lends itself to small talk with strangers – a friend’s party or at the park with my niece and nephew.

Gentleman on airplane: (smiling and engaged) “Wow – you’re a teacher! I don’t know how you folks do it…. So, what do you teach?”

Me: (somewhat unsure of my response) “Well, I teach Math & Science but I teach it to students who are English Language Learners who have recently arrived in the last year or two, so really I teach them how to read and write in English while at the same time making sure they can solve complex math and science problems.  Oh yeah and also some of my students have learning disabilities so I have to make sure all of the reading, writing, math, and science is accessible to them so they can learn, too!

Gentleman on airplane: (with a look of sheer bewilderment on his face)  Wow! Yeah, like I said, I don’t know how you folks do it – thank goodness for the summer though, right!? I’d kill for 8 weeks off!

Me: (slightly perturbed from hearing the summer comment yet again, but smiling) Yeah, summer is nice.

After sharing that I’m a teacher, the following question from my conversation partner is generally: “So, what do you teach?”

This is the point in the conversation at which I can start professing our greatness. I’ve found that when non-teachers ask,  “What do you teach?”, they are usually anticipating a quick, one or two-word answer. They are quite unprepared for my 30-second-word-vomit-schpiel of me trying desperately to explain my position, officially  “Bilingual ESL Math & Science Teacher”.

The conversation about my work usually ends there. And what I’m realizing now is this conversation is all wrong as in the past, I’ve made no profession of greatness.  From now on, I plan to use these conversations with friends-of-friends and strangers to talk about how awesome my work is.

It all starts with our answer to the question, “So, what do you teach?” The answer to this question cannot be simplified by one word. One word cannot express the demand that all teachers must be reading & writing teachers within their content area. It also cannot be verbal finger-painting of the exact picture that already exists in the media: overwhelmed teachers complaining about all the work they are charged with doing.

So as I sit here and think about how I should respond, I think about my intended audience, word choice, and modality. I know that in order to be prepared for these conversations, I must first write it down. Think it out. I realize the response should be a perfect blend of all the writing styles the Common Core standards ask of our children: narrative mixed with expository and a dash of persuasion may be just the recipe for a new-and-improved conversation.

Here is a script I created to guide me through future conversations with non-teachers:

Woman at friend’s wedding:  Wow! You’re a teacher, that’s great. My mom was a teacher, so I know what hard work it is. So, what do you teach?

Me: I teach middle-school aged immigrants how to effectively communicate as mathematicians and scientists, both orally and in writing. I also teach them how to inquire and think critically about the world around them and their role as individuals in it.

Woman at friend’s wedding: So interesting! Hmm, I’ve never really heard anyone put it like that. Oh boy, middle school, that’s rough – but it’s so nice that you get all that vacation, especially summer!

Me:  Yeah! Summers are great because I get to spend them taking courses, researching, and collaborating with my colleagues so that we can elevate our work as teachers. We really take this time to make sure that we are prepared to have the best courses. We also take time to reflect on our behavior management systems and how we can improve and be the best versions of ourselves when we are in front of children. We do this because they deserve absolute greatness. Always.

Woman at friend’s wedding: That’s so nice to hear.  I hope all teachers feel the same way you do!

Me: Trust me, they do!

It’s easy to answer the question about what you teach with one word and brush off comments about what we do with our time outside of school rather than educate others on the work of teachers.  But know that when we do this, we do our profession a disservice.  We must be more articulate about how truly incredible our work is. We must craft our responses to these questions. We must write them down in order to be prepared to respond in a thoughtful yet understandable manner. And the next time you are asked the question about what you teach, take it as an opportunity to profess your greatness.

I Teach

Why Writing Is Thinking Works for Teachers and Students

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.19.23 PMI am an English/language arts teacher. A teacher of writing. But no teacher taught me how to write. My dad did. When I was little, he would sit at the computer, and I would sit next to him. I would read what I had written by hand, and he would type it into the computer. And we would go over it together and make it better.

When I got older, I would do the typing, but he still edited every paper I wrote in high school, most of the papers I wrote in college, and each of the blog posts I’ve posted to WritingIsThinking.org. And that’s not embarrassing for me because I know that great writers have editors and thought partners and people who believe in the power of their ideas.

In my classroom this year, I have a student named SJ. If you spoke with him for two minutes, you would know he loves basketball and his baby sisters. That he wants to play in the NBA. That he lives in Mattapan. What you wouldn’t learn about him is that he speaks five languages. That he has only been tardy one time this year. And that he’s an A/B student. That he pokes his head into my room every morning just to make sure I know he has arrived.

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You also wouldn’t know that SJ has a learning disability that affects his communication in all of the languages he speaks. At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t for the life of me get him into the task of independent reading.

On a particularly rough day, I asked him to stay after school, and I called him out. I said to him “SJ, your behavior makes me think this work is too hard for you.” And he said to me “Miss, I can’t really read. My seventh grade teacher had me read articles online because I don’t read books.”

Although I had suspected that reading was difficult for SJ, in the first week and a half of school I hadn’t yet discovered quite how hard a task it was. In that moment, I said to him, “If you work hard, you will not fail this class. If you work hard, I will work hard to teach you how to read.”

So we started to work. Hard.

Throughout the year, SJ’s reading and writing have developed. He uses sentence stems and CLOZE paragraphs and graphic organizers. He records himself and takes notes on his own thinking. Then he organizes it and writes his essays. But I’m afraid that what happened at the beginning of the year in my classroom will happen every year for SJ. That he will always be dependent on a good relationship with his teachers in order to eventually own his writing. That he will float through school with an ELD level and a Special Education code, never challenged as much as he could be, and as much as he deserves to be. That he will graduate from BPS a good person, but not a good writer.

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Now I know that not all my students have computers at home, or parents who are available to sit next to them and work on school work for hours. I know that, even though I want to with all my heart, I cannot be that person for each of my 94 students. So we as teachers have to teach writing smarter. We have to work together as teams of teachers to give our students that support and empower them as writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and academics in every classroom. We have to do that work for SJ and for the hundreds of other students like him.