Form, function, relationships, relative order, location
2 Apr 2017

These are the elements that are most important in teaching writing as they address the logic that underlies structure, the basic building blocks of form. Playing with symbols is an effective means to parsing. Parsing and the terminology that accompanies it have value only as a means to an end. Our use of symbols is predicated on conceptual, abstract thinking. The terminology allows for efficient, effective discussion: the use of terms also allows the teacher to check for understanding (as does the correct positioning of the symbols). The symbols illustrate paradigm: they allow learners to see an idea; they give learners a means to recognize archetypal patterns. ‘I’m Chinese; I don’t know anything. Don’t make any assumptions about what I know or don’t know. Start at the beginning.’ That kind of statement informs our approach.

We are doing foundation work, taking discrete blocks and building various models, starting with the simplest parts (subject and predicate) and moving progressively through main, independent clauses (“elephants”) and dependent, subordinate phrases and clauses (“riders”) to ever more sophisticated constructions. We work from the inside, out and from the outside, in; that is, writing from the symbolic models and building symbolic models from the writing.

I often prompt their writing in various sentence structures by giving them an opening word or words: e.g., Singing (could be a gerund phrase as subject or an introductory participle phrase); That she (the beginning of a noun clause as subject); She that (a subject followed by an essential adjective clause); To learn (infinitive as an introductory adverb phrase, or, infinitive phrase as subject); Because (introductory adverb clause); By participating (preposition followed by a gerund as introductory adverb phrase); The plan to (subject followed by essential infinitive phrase as adjective); Excited by (introductory participle phrase); Arms flailing (absolute phrase); Emily, a student (subject followed by non-essential appositive phrase).

Everything is integrated. So, for example, if I give learners prompts (like the ones above), they compose their own sentences. Those sentences then become the basis for the model building with the symbols. One kid reads his or her sentence; another kid replicates it on the table, using the symbols. Yet another kid is asked whether he or she agrees with the replication. After the model is built, I ask a variety of questions about parts of speech, parts of the sentence, relationships, order, the function of commas, variations, etc. If I work it the other way, I may cast sentences up on the screen, asking students to replicate them by building models on the table. Again, once the symbolic model has been constructed, I ask a host of questions as above.

Thus, the concrete symbols clinch what is abstract: what is visual and kinesthetic is predicated on concepts. The method is engaging and experiential and turns learning into a game!


Dr. Jeffrey Fast

Dr. Jeffrey Fast has been a teacher and administrator in America’s leading independent schools for almost 40 years. After graduating from Oberlin College, he served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines teaching English at both secondary and collegiate levels. He received his MA in English Literature fromYork University in Toronto, then moved on to receive his PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, England. Upon his return to America, he took on both teaching and administrative positions at The Webb Schools in California, serving for 15 years as English department head, Dean of Students, Director of Curriculum, and Director of the Summer Studies Program. He also taught English to Japanese students at The Toin Gakuen School outside Yokohama in one of his sabbaticals. After Webb, Dr. Fast moved to Boston, and took on teaching and administrative positions at Belmont Hill School, serving as English department head, Director of Curriculum, and Form Head for the past 22 years. He currently teaches sections of 9th grade English, as well as several advanced English electives — Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Southern Tradition, Search For Faith, Literature of Social Reflection.

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