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On the Necessity for Subversion

Posted: 2004-12-02

Note: This essay was published in English Journal, November 2004, Vol 94, No 2
National Council of Teachers of English.

The author makes a good case for not succumbing to the tyranny of the topic sentence and other Mythrules of writing propagated by Standardistos.

Let's make Ed's final thought our rallying cry:
What is a teacher to do? Subversion or victimhood.

The Division Chief was explaining how newly adopted Pennsylvania state standards would affect our state writing test. Rather than school scores, he said, we would have to have individual student scores; rather than a two-day test, we would shift to a one-day, sixty-minute test. And students would no longer be able to use dictionaries. Now, the phrase "division chief" has always rung of the gestapo in my mind, but as I listened to this man, I felt surer and surer that he was no nazi. On the contrary, he was a victim.

He was a victim of statistical, fiscal, and above all, political forces. And he was asking us to become victims, too. Let me elaborate.

As noted, dictionaries were being swept off students' desks, back to the shelves, to be used under no circumstances. Why? Because one of the new state standards specified that "students spell all words correctly." How can we tell whether they can do that if we permit them to use dictionaries? Of course, the real question is how this standard was adopted in the first place---in spite of its crowning absurdity. If the reason is not political, I do not know what politics is. Imagine: a test of writing deprives student writers of a tool that all real-world writer use as routinely as they use a pen or word processor---so that it can be used as a test of spelling!

We on the writing committee felt so strongly about this that thirty-four of us---virtually every member present---signed a petition to restore the dictionaries. It was sent to all five of the top directors of the State Department of Education, including the then secretary of education, Eugene W. Hickok, currently deputy secretary of education for the United States. All of them ignored our petition. Where politics is involved, politicians will be political. Speaking of politics, Mr. Hickok was recently able to drop "acting" from his title, when he was given a recess appointment by President Bush. That is the type of appointment that allows the nominee to evade Senate confirmation.

Statistical, fiscal, political forces. It is naive to pretend these aren't important. But consider what is missing from this short list of priorities: the welfare of our students, the integrity of our discipline. What about our integrity as professional educators? If "standards" and "accountability" force us to ignore our professional standards, teaching must become a subversive activity.

Subversive Teaching: Writing

When I reflect on my development as a writer and when I have asked others about their development, I find that challenging assignments are critical to growth. Such assignments need not be lengthy and they definitely do not have to be conventional research papers (only one of my most memorable writing assignments was), but they do need to be assignments that make students think.

Consider, in contrast, the present climate, one in which teachers are driven to help students perform on state "writing" tests. Most of these tests involve a single sitting of an hour or less. There is no time to think. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, these are not writing tests in the first place, but drafting tests. The difference is critical.

It is hard to blame teachers for teaching to such tests, and I do not want to argue that these tests are entirely evil, but if preparing students for them becomes the whole writing curriculum, we must resist it, we must become subversive.

We also have to resist teaching composition mythrules, even if state standards call for them. California standards, for example, require that students be taught to avoid the passive, but no good writer does that. Even authors like George Orwell, E. B. White, and Stephen King, who contend that the passive should be avoided, use it frequently in their essays. And the mythrule that one should not start sentences with and, but, and the other coordinating conjunctions is even more frequently broken by professionals. In a recent study of st American Essays 2003, I found at least one instance of a sentence beginning with and or but on every page of a dozen randomly chosen pages. The superlative nonfiction writer Simon Winchester starts about seventeen percent of his paragraphs with one of these conjunctions in his recent bestseller, Krakatoa.

I will not discuss how often Winchester or the best essayists employ topic sentences, but before we succumb to the tyranny of the topic sentence, we need to look for them in the work of professional writers---where they are hard to find. If writers actually used topic sentences in every paragraph, no one would read them. As for five-paragraph themes, I have been looking for one in published materials ever since I began teaching in 1958, and I am still looking.

Subversive Teaching: the Parts of Speech

Where the influence of politics on English teaching is concerned, "grammar" occupies command central. And within that broad category, nothing is so universally required by state standards as the ability to identify the parts of speech. (Identification of the parts of speech has been a central item in traditional school grammars since 1586, the date of publication of the first English grammar for schools.) But it is easy to demonstrate that this is a sheerly political goal.

o Kids already know the parts of speech of the words in their vocabulary. That sixteen-year-old kid from the south Bronx (referred to in Kozol's Savage Inequalities), who was worried to death because he had to take a test on the parts of speech and did not know what a noun was, proves every time he opens his mouth that he does know what a noun is. Is run a noun? Sure, it is in the sentence, "Our team needs a run in the ninth inning."

o The parts-of-speech definitions of traditional school grammar do not work. A verb, for example, is defined as a "word that expresses action." But does needs in the example I just gave express action? Nouns supposedly "name persons, places, or things." Is a run a thing? And speaking of thing, that word is clearly the quintessential pronoun in the language. Just think of how many nouns thing can "take the place" of. But it is a noun according to the dictionary.

o The traditional study of the parts of speech kills rather than stimulates interest in language. As Shelly Whitfield, a Texas English teacher, observed in this very column (March, 2004), the study of English in England can be fascinating, even at the high-school level, and even in an inner-city school. But it is rarely fascinating in the inner city schools of our country, and historically speaking, it rarely ever has been. Twenty years ago, when I asked a group of inner-city eleventh graders for their impressions of the study of English through the years, one boy wrote, "There isn't enough variety for how there is to learn it. We wind up doing the same thing too much." Want to bet that "the same thing" involved memorizing definitions and underlining parts of speech?

In a four-year long study of students' ability to learn the parts of speech, I found that their knowledge increased at the rate of just 4 % a year between sixth and tenth grade (from 52% to 68%), despite the fact that parts of speech definitions were retaught every year and the test was at third grade level and dealt only with identification of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Yes, the students were "low-track" kids, but I submit that even when students do better, they do so not because of but in spite of their traditional teachers and textbooks.

If you feel you must teach parts of speech, at least follow the suggestion of Constance Weaver and draw ?upon insights from structural, transformational, and functional linguistics" (146; italics in original). A good beginning would be to read "An Overview of Linguistic Grammar" in Brock Haussamen et al.'s Grammar Alive! The Assembly for Teaching English Grammar also offers brief institutes for teachers every July during their annual convention. You can get more information at their Web site, http://www.ateg.org .

Truth to tell, the whole traditional school grammar (TSG) enterprise is a house of cards, which is one of the main reasons that thoughtful English educators have advocated "teaching against the text," or have written anti-TSG texts (Discovering Your Language by Postman, Morine, and Morine among them). Apart from the hickory stick, TSG's main methodology---Definition, Example, And Drill (DEAD)---has never really worked because none of the definitions are pedagogically useful except in a highly controlled textbook environment. Real sentences by real writers, professional or student, even simple ones, are often not readily analyzable. (What is the verb in "They had a fight"? Did you arrive at your conclusion by using or ignoring the traditional definitions?) In addition, TSG has left us in a terminological verbal quagmire. In the straightforward sentence, "The candidate who is running for president is seeking our vote," is the embedded clause a) adjectival, b) relative, c) dependent, d) subordinate, e) all of the above. The answer, of course, is "e." But a seventh grade teacher might call it a relative, an eighth grade teacher adjectival, a ninth, any one of the four.

David Tyack and Larry Cuban have noted (in Tinkering Toward Utopia) that lasting curriculum reform in this country has been extremely difficult to achieve, thanks in large measure to "the persistence of the grammar of schooling." This means that schools that do not feel like schools---that is, lack bells, attendance forms, letter grades, classrooms---have a difficult time winning public acceptance. There is no more eloquent testimony to the persistence of the grammar of schooling than the persistence of traditional school grammar, which has changed very little since 1762, the original publication date of Robert Lowth's A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Lowth, the grandfather of traditional school grammar, attended a secondary school whose motto was "Learn, Leave, or Be Beaten."

Subversive Teaching: Punctuation

It is so easy in state standards---and so politically popular---to list punctuation marks and say that teachers will teach them, and students will master them, by specific grade levels. There is typically a sequence, from easy-to-master marks (periods and other end marks, apostrophes, commas?) to hard-to-master (colons, semicolons?), but most states have all students knowing everything about punctuation before they are out of ninth grade.

Try reading high school "exit" examinations, to see how fully this goal is realized. You will find that what students learned is to avoid nearly all marks---especially colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, and apostrophes---except commas and periods. Last year, for example, I read my state's eleventh grade essays for two solid days and finally found a correctly used semicolon on the last paper of the final afternoon---one. The semicolon is supposed to be taught in my state beginning in grade 8. In many states, it is listed even earlier.

Let's get real about teaching punctuation Here are a few subversive suggestions:

o Do not teach the semicolon. It is a very difficult mark to learn, and after it is "taught," students are much more likely to misuse it than to use it correctly. Moreover, students do not need the mark. In the two sample student research papers published in the Harbrace Handbook (1998 edition; Hodges et al.), there are no semicolons. Indeed, professional writers rarely need semicolons, and a great many do not use them. In his thoughtful review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Edmund Morris defends a broad use of punctuation marks, including the semicolon, but he himself uses no semicolons, while employing eight sets of parentheses, four sets of dash pairs, and four colons. The notion that semicolons help kids avoid comma splices was disputed decades ago by Mina Shaughnessy (23), and she was talking about college-age students. I would teach semicolons only to those students who wanted to learn how to use the mark.

o Encourage use of the dash pair. Fear of the dash dates at least as far back as the original editions of Hodges and Warriner, in the 1940s. But professional writers use dashes considerably more frequently than any other mark of internal punctuation except the comma. It is a far more useful mark than the semicolon, or even the colon, and easier to teach. And it might be more useful as an antidote to comma splices than the semicolon is.

o Get real about the possessive apostrophe. Your state standards undoubtedly call for students to learn to use the apostrophe to indicate "possession" or "ownership" at a very early age. But as Charles Carpenter Fries demonstrated over sixty years ago, the possessive apostrophe indicates ownership only about 40 percent of the time, and even that figure requires that we define "ownership" quite broadly (75). (In the phrase, "the boy's sister," does the boy own his sister?) The rest of the time, it signals a wide---and fascinating---range of meanings, which are distinctly not possessive. Here are just a few examples:

  • for heaven's sake

  • a stone's throw

  • my doctor's advice

  • the children's kidnapper

  • a good night's sleep

  • today's society

    o Have faith that---as a recent English Journal contributor put it---"Basic syntactic punctuation is learned over time, often with little explicit instruction" (Paraskevas 42).


    In my many years in public education, it seems we have always been going back to basics. In the mid-seventies, we underwent the "Back to Basics" movement. Then, in 1983, we were told that our nation was "at risk," and we went back all over again---less than a decade later! Today, here we are again. Frankly, I cannot recall a time when we did not have standards, even state tests, but I do not think previous standards were as ?shamful? as they are today. In some states, such as my own, they are so vague and minimal as to be virtually meaningless. In others, like California, they run so far in the other direction that rigorous is given a whole new meaning---asinine. Here are some examples of standards to be mastered by California students at the end of given grade levels:

    Recognize and use complete, coherent sentences when writing and speaking. (Grade 1)

    Distinguish between complete and incomplete sentences. (Grade 2)

    Identify and use subjects and verbs correctly in speaking and writing simple sentences. (Grade 3)

    Use apostrophes in the possessive case of nouns. (Grade 4)

    Identify and correctly use prepositional phrases, appositives, and independent and dependent clauses. (Grade 5)

    Use semicolons to connect independent clauses. (Grade 6)

    Identify and use parallelism in all written discourse to present items in a series and items juxtaposed for emphasis. (Grade 8)

    Identify and correctly use gerund, infinitive, and participial phrases. (Grades 9/10)

    What is a teacher to do? I believe one's choice is even more apparent than it was in Postman's and Weingartner's prime: subversion or victimhood.

    Works Cited

    Fadiman, Anne, and Robert Atwan, eds. The Best American Essays 2003.Boston: Houghton, 2003.

    Fries, Charles Carpenter. American English Grammar. New York: Appleton-Century, 1940.

    Haussamen, Brock, et al. Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers. Urbana: NCTE,2003

    Hodges, John C. Harbrace Handbook of English. New York: Harcourt, 1941.

    Hodges, John C., Winifred Bryan Horner, Suzanne Strobeck Webb, and Robert Keith Miller. Harbrace College Handbook. Rev. 13th ed. Fort Worth:

    Harcourt, 1998.

    Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. New York: Crown, 1991.

    Lowth, Robert. A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes. London. Hughs, 1762. (1957. Menston, Eng.: Scholar, 1967.

    Morris, Edmund. ?Punctuation and It's Discontents.? Rev. of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. By Lynne Truss. New York Times 25 Apr. 2004, late ed.: sec. 7, pg. 7.

    Paraskevas, Cornelia. "The Craft of Writing: Breaking Conventions."

    English Journal 93.4 (2004): 41-46.

    Postman, Neil, Harold Morine, and Greta Morine. Discovering Your Language. New York: Holt, 1963.

    Schuster, Edgar H. Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers through Innovative Grammar Instruction. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003.

    Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

    Tyack, David, and Larry Cuban. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

    Warriner, John E. Warriner's Handbook of English. Book One. New York: Harcourt, 1948.

    Weaver, Constance. Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1996.

    Whitfield, Shelly M. ?A Texas Yank in King Arthur's Classroom.? English Journal 93.4 (2004): 85-88.

    Winchester, Simon. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. New York: Harper, 2003.

    Edgar Schuster is the author of >i>Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction

    You can read a sample chapter at


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