Writing Ideas – Sentence Hamburgers

With Christmas on the way – according to the advertising industry and Otter Nurseries – here’s a game for all the family to play as well as with students in that last week of teaching before the break when you are no longer allowed to show films to entertain.

Name your price, donate to charity and download today!

Once I have negotiated with China Cameron Ltd to produce the tins out of cheap foreign steel, I will be promoting the super-duper improved fridge magnet version [with special offers on cheap fridge imports].

See previous posting for the intellectual context!

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Sentence Hamburgers Completed

Grid of First Sentence Hamburger

Grid of Second Sentence Hamburger

Hamburger Sentence

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I’ve come across an example recently of an idea for helping students to write long sentences – and I don’t like it. I’ve written a sonnet about this idea to satirise it, the urge to do so a reflection of my dislike for the idea and approach, and will post it at the end of this introduction. I trust the ‘methodology’ of using a poem to dismantle the errant idea will be obvious.

I think the idea and approach is well-intentioned, provides a structure that involves group work and is physically active [sequencing ‘cells’ of parts of the model sentence] and I have some reservation – though not a huge amount – in therefore having a go at another professional’s presentation.

However, what inescapably underpins my distaste for this approach to teaching Writing is how it is still steeped in the Literacy Strategy, a methodology that had a pervasive and detrimental impact on English teaching for many dreadful years.

More widely, and as a context for my particular focus here, there are also currently grammar-based approaches to the teaching of Writing out there and I know about the integrity of the significant research and evidence of success-criteria having been attained in this process. But I am still uncomfortable with it.

I’m sure I am ‘old-fashioned’ in this respect. I increasingly want to rely on the teaching of Writing through the exemplification of good writing – largely literary – but never exclusively so because good writing is much broader than this, obviously.

Now that last sentence is a longish sentence. It isn’t about hamburgers. How would we teach students to write a sentence like that? And when I first wrote it, I used commas either side of largely literature, but when I reread I decided to replace these with dashes. Is there a grammatical reason for this? No. I did so because I ‘listened’ to the sentence and realised there needed to be a longer pause either side of those two words, which were not, by the way, intentionally alliterative.

If there had been a finite number of dashes and commas in a set of cells set up as an activity for constructing that one long sentence, this might have provided a clue for those dashes. If the word hamburger had been supplied in one of those cells, it would have made the sentence in some way about hamburgers.

I think we teach students how to write long sentences by sharing examples with them, getting students to talk about how they work, and to focus on understanding this by reading aloud and hearing the movements and pauses and other ‘sounds’ in the sentences. Or better still, you go here to see one idea – just the one – on how to do this.

The sentences we want students to write should be interesting. They should be engaging and perhaps playful. There are plenty of times when the writing of long sentences will be of the discursive variety and these will not be as entertaining as the ones I would generally want to use as models, but they would be explored in meaningful contexts, probably discursive, like debating how we teach students to write long sentences.

The activity I have satirised in the poem I am just about to present contained a deconstructed long sentence about hamburgers. I think the theme/content of ‘hamburgers’ could have been more entertaining and playful and therefore engaging as a learning tool, but as I have said, I do not think it is a disastrous model and approach, yet I personally still dislike it and am probably worried about it not on its own but more so if it is seen as an exemplar for how we teach students to write long sentences.

And by the way, I make brilliant hamburgers.

Not Quite There

It clearly cannot be a haiku and is unlikely to make it all the way
to a completed sonnet where this will be heading in its empathetic
plodding way. Mentions of McDonalds and Wimpy – this latter
revealing more of the writer than a notion of writing as a link to
a less bugerlicious past – will not motivate without the cheese and pickle
topping: but I have already used two of the four dashes, not yet any of the
three commas, taken the one full stop and thus destroyed the exercise with
early relish [these brackets mine to claim herein the independent punning],
and two of the twelve separate single words or words in phrases
not counting grammatical connectives, but picking up a comma just now –

that have all been placed in cut-up cells as strips of dialectal inspiration
to make a long sentence on the subject of hamburgers, though I feel my
own complex linguistic unit celebrates a meatier imagination.

And this the vegetarian line excluded by the recipe regulation.

Howlers

This posting isn’t based on any intensive research and analysis, but is based on real experience and genuine quotations to illustrate. I mention because I am not attempting to construct some detailed, informed overview on time and context, though the observations I will make on the time and context in which the evidence appeared does have relevance and thus deserves an element of explanation. The point is I am sharing for the overall humour of the contents rather than an overly serious extrapolation from them.

[You could go to the quotes now if you just want a smile and not a mini-lecture]

What follows are quotes which are student ‘howlers’ written in GCSE English Literature poetry examinations from some years ago – there isn’t anything here that is recent. I mention this first aspect of their timing because over the last 5 years and perhaps even 10, students have become increasingly well prepared for their examination responses. As a consequence of effective teaching, this is demonstrably a positive development. Teachers have become much more aware of Assessment Objectives linked to a GCSE subject and syllabus and teach carefully to this. Years of teaching a particular text also builds up a professional expertise that gets passed on to students, both in terms of knowledge about a particular text and the methods by which a student conveys that understanding to secure maximum marks in the exam context/situation. And this means students tend to write cogently!

Again with the caveat that this isn’t a comprehensive account to address a hypothesis, there are negative aspects to this move towards such meticulous preparation. At one end of the spectrum, the prevalence of teaching PEE [or similar acronyms] leads many students to an over-reliance on a formulaic response to exam questions, not least writing personal reminders to ‘PEE’ all over their papers; and at the other, teaching students to analyse literary texts with complex linguistic approaches and attendant vocabulary leads to restrictive and unfeeling responses, full of a terminology that often spirals into meaninglessness. And there isn’t anything remotely amusing about this kind of turgid, if earnest, writing.

One other general point before you read some of these ‘howlers’ [if you haven’t already]: the fact that they existed in apparent abundance in the past compared with their relative lack today does not mean teaching at the time of their origins was bad or wrong or ineffective compared with the ‘training’ I have characterised existing more recently. It was different. I do think – as a sweeping observation – there was more independence of thinking encouraged in students, and thus aspects of interpretation, coupled with [as you will see] misspellings, misunderstandings, and quite probably occasional mischievousness, could become rather outrageous! Or just funny. The testing culture of more than the last decade has, no doubt, had an impact on teachers and students having to be increasingly mindful of the ‘conventions’ that secure statistically expected grades.

I think also that the content for study has by and large changed and perhaps the potential for ‘howlers’ to proliferate has therefore been reduced. If exam boards no longer offer Grace Nichols’ wonderful poem Even Tho with the sexually suggestive lines You be banana/I be avocado this limits the obvious possibilities; a more recent prose context question on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men contained the reference to Curley’s wife’s sausage curls and that year we had quite a few tangents about the meat industry…..but, strangely, they weren’t that funny.

There is obviously so much in the paragraphs above that is contentious and deserves research and analysis, but it isn’t getting it here, now.

The last context to mention is that these ‘howlers’ would be collected by examiners in any one year and shared at Review meetings when we would get together for standardising and review marking. This sharing was never patronising or ridiculing: there was always a fond and caring respect for the missteps taken [never regarded as mistakes], and, as you will see, whilst many can be naive or puerile because of the thematic nature of the poems being studied about adult relationships, there are also elements of profundity in the seemingly throwaway lines. The collection here is one I collated to use with PGCE students when for a few years I would give a one-off talk on examining, and this was my ‘light’ opener. They are as far as I know all genuine, rather than constructed by any examiner. There are one or two that could reasonably test the readers’ credulity about my reassurance on this, but I think you can spot the generally obvious and wonderful accidents of expression and meaning in these:

Sexual Politics

The prince resorts to the ultimate excuse for treating her badly – he tells her that he loves her

In these poems the women always come on top. HEY HEY HEY

The man is weak because he is desperate to give in to his sexual urges when he should be holding on to them.

When it comes to passion or love or lust, men go all weak at the knees

The relationship is sex based with a dominant male and a Cunning female which outwits the male who wasn’t thinking with his brain he was thinking with his tools

She won’t have sex with the man unless he has the child for two years, to give her a break

He is saying when you are dead you are unable to have sex

His love of vegetables is exaggerated

All the poems show the weaknesses of men. In ‘The Beggar Woman’ the weakness of the man is due to the fact he is, well, horny.

All three poems The Beggar Woman, Our Love Now, and I Wanna Be Yours show similar signs of men somehow kissing the women’s bottoms

…so she deceived him into believing that she was a sophisticated, upper class and Conservative prostitute

I suppose one weakness in the poem does point to the woman, as she wants to find a perfect man – I don’t believe that a perfect man exists

We don’t have maidens any more, just a few virgins

It has just been discovered that women do have their own minds and can make their own decisions

All the things men come up with such as ‘You are beautiful’ are only for effect, not because they actually mean it. They only want two things when they say things like that and they are sex for domestic uses e.g. sewing

In their day, sex wasn’t as interesting as it is now

Marvell is trying to prove that not everyone gets what they want, and if they did love you, then you’re stuffed

In Rapunzeltskin the man is emasculated in the way he talks very cheesy

In Rapunzeltskin he doesn’t wisker her off

Writers’ Techniques

I like to read poems with words I don’t understand as they stand out more

It uses arcic words and inpentic diameter

The poem has a very complicated sin tax. There must have been plenty of sins to tax in those days

The woman manipulates the man’s metaphors but they backfire

The beggar woman uses old English and rhyming cutlets to emphasise that the horses are trotting

Enjambment is also used to create speed in the poem. It is used while the woman and gentleman are having sex, and represents the speed at which they are doing it as the poem becomes quicker

Moles, from Nearing the Border

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This is my one and only poetry collection from 1998 – and this isn’t a sales pitch: far too late for that!* – and one of the poems in it is titled Moles. In a previous posting I mentioned that writing poetry is like writing a diary, and this poem proves that for me, recounting as it does my then obsession with the moles destroying my garden and the impact this had on my attitude to killing animals, and the imaginative extrapolation of that to all killing. That wasn’t an original extrapolation by far, and as I re-read today, I am not sure how apt the metaphor for this is, but I am not about to fully second-guess the integrity of that, even if was naive. I also wouldn’t do so because the poem in my immediate previous posting Moles Again is a personal reference to this first one [and there is an ‘interim’ poem about moles that I can’t locate at the moment…**] and I find/found myself making that metaphoric link again, genuinely if still naively. And this observation is precisely why I am posting the original Moles poem here:

Moles

In the seventies I’d cohabit with spiders and flies
and chastise anyone who’d try to kill
my fellow creatures.
My home was theirs:
the garden, woods, farmers’ fields
and micro-cities temporarily exposed
by a large turned stone were untouchable lairs.

This wasn’t a belief
and they were not of God’s making,
but they breathed my air
to love, die and survive like the rest of us
in a natural cycle.

Now in my forties things change:
house and garden become belongings
and keeping a tidy lawn is like
adopting religion.
But I retain my sense of goodwill,
and having a family puts me
at the centre of the circuit.

Then the moles come.
Their blind devotion to making homes
drives me to stalk them on tip-toe
considering how to kill:
standing absolutely still,
I’ll shovel one out whole (if lucky),
otherwise, just stab with knife and fork,
whatever is to hand.

At school my students read Lord of the Flies
and I teach Golding’s warning of man’s inhumanity
to man, how for Hitler the Jews were just a nuisance,
an irritation, something putting a blot on the
aesthetic landscape of his wild imagination.

They say we are not an island
and how could anyone consider
such deadly discrimination?
I am in turn warned by their innocence –
until the moles re-enter my head.

I know they are digging inside
everyone and everyone’s land;
I know they show how easy it is
to descend to that desire that all
of the unwanted should be dead.

[*] In searching online for a copy of the cover of Nearing the Border to post with this – honestly, no other reason, though I decided to take a photograph anyway – it was interesting to see where the book can still be purchased: on Amazon UK Marketplace there is a used copy on offer from a chancer charlatan in New York for £80, and I can’t imagine anyone falls for the lure of this ludicrous inflation; a couple of copies are available in Australia, and there is a copy on ebay for around £4 that is advertised on its Italian site, though sourced from the UK. Just found that fascinating. Popular authors must have books out there in a genuinely global proliferation.

[**] Found,

No More Moles

The moles are gone
but underground are
shafts of darkness
awaiting their return.

Am I being cynical?
The surface is still
irregular and scarred
as if landmines were

recently placed there:
I have to walk carefully
in my own back yard.
Now I am waiting,

refusing to be complacent.
I see the mounds
in other lawns and fields
refusing to get the joke.

My students, now
reading Beckett’s Godot,
think I am the one
who is joking when I say

‘We are waiting for the moles’,
but I am older and know
how history has a way of
returning to its secrets.

This is a completist’s posting. This poem will have been written at least seven years ago, but I think it is a little older. It has been a very long battle.

Moles Again

The moles and I have reached an agreement over the many years
and I’ve probably killed only one or two in a decade, though not
for want of trying: I have lost many skills. There is one molehill
near the front of the bigger shed, but it is close enough to a wild part
of the garden so I have left it there – not even levelled – being
content for it to live anywhere near. The other is just into and on the
front lawn, the two perpendicular silvery arms of the set trap not yet
splayed and letting me know that mole is dead, though the irony is it
will be the one seemingly saved in this singular expansive domain.
A while back I’d called in an expert, my stalking days no longer the
success of the past, but he’d little luck too and I found the same snare
online he used at a fraction of his cost. How so much has changed
though not the other cruelties and deeper darknesses and outbreaks
of human misery; the bigger decisions to make in being humane.

Getting into a novel: ‘Americana’ by Don Delillo

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This is simply going to be a brief observation on that first reading of a new book and story, though in this case I mean new to me, obviously, Americana being Don Delillo’s first novel published in 1971.

Clearly the consequence of good writing, I love that phenomena of accepting immediately the world which is being presented and then moving in and around it, led by the storytelling. I think I am quite a self-conscious reader: I do continuously regard the qualities of the writing itself, thinking how memorable a line/section is and too often wishing I could write like that, this latter reflection probably the motivator for the first. I do also often stop to consider if it could be exemplar to use with students, exemplifying effective writing. It takes me a long time to finish a novel.

But with a good book, and opening, I am still within the story and seeing with its eyes and hearing its voice.

With Americana, it is also interesting that I am engaged by the portrayal of David Bell, through his sarcastic if superior in tone first person narrative, but I don’t particularly like him already and that has made me pause because the book I have just finished, Willy Vlautin’s The Free, presented characters for whom I cared deeply. And it was the same with the book before that, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the fundamental focus is to care about the father and son in such an appalling context. I am guessing, however, that my dislike for Bell will be transferred to the context in the novel that makes him what he is. We shall see.

That’s it really in terms of expressing initial feelings I had when reading this morning, but now to two quotes that I instantly liked. The first is from the second page of the opening chapter when David is at a party with his party-partner and describing its guests and how he observes them:

We waited for someone to approach us and start a conversation. It was a party and we didn’t want to talk to each other. The whole point was to separate for the evening and find exciting people to talk to and then at the very end to meet again and tell each other how terrible it had been and how glad we were to be together again. This is the essence of Western civilization.

That makes you think: is it Delillo being comically ironic, or Bell, if he is capable?

The other is descriptive, and I can tell already there will be much like this and of this evocative quality. I am already thinking [narrowly!] of how un-American the prose style is, not the compound sentences of Steinbeck and Chandler and Carver, but the more elegant and complex fluency of English writing, though its detail places it clearly in New York:

We would go to a small French restaurant way over on the West Side, on the rim of no man’s land, where the wind blows cold off the river and the low bleak tenements breathe decay; and where, at this time of the year, there is a sense of total emptiness, of a place that has been abandoned before the boots of war. No one could live there but torn cats and children with transparent bellies, and those distant lights, crackling over Times Square, belong to another city in another age.

The Free – Willy Vlautin, book review

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I have this morning finished reading Willy Vlautin’s latest and fourth novel The Free, and it has been as wonderfully rewarding an experience as it always is: in the simple yet potent quality of the writing, and in the recounting of ordinary people’s compelling humanity.

Having read this immediately after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the chasm in that competing evocation of who we are is quite a stark paradoxical reality to absorb. There is no comparison that makes any sense in drawing further – I mention simply to illustrate the poles of a reading experience that impacts long after that reading.

The Free is ostensibly the story of soldier Leroy Kervan on his return home, injured, from the war in Iraq. I had wondered how Vlautin would deal with such a precise focus and context compared with his preceding three books – this fourth seeming to include a ‘world’ event so much broader than his previous Northwest American milieu peopled with lives wracked by everyday ills rather than war-scarred situations and events.

Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read, I should have guessed Vlautin would still tell Leroy’s story through more ordinary means – in the main – and in this case it is through the focus on the everyday yet oppressed lives of Freddie and Pauline, respectively Leroy’s care-home worker and nurse. There are other attendant characters who flesh out both their suffering but also the actions of human care and kindness they consistently display. All are weary and worn from a world that should make life so much better for everyone, but doesn’t. In many cases every reader can and will identify with some aspect of these familiar people and their lives: I was engaged and in one particular scene deeply affected by the portrayal of the demanding relationship between Pauline and her father.

The other means by which Leroy’s story is told is through the ruse of an intercalary dream sequence in which he and girlfriend Jeanette are pursued by a sinister death-squad the Free – and Vlautin has used such a ruse before, though a far less brutal one, where Paul Newman appears within the narrative thrust of his novel Northline. Whilst this dreamworld is full of action and an insidious futuristic theme, it was always the day-to-day experiences of Freddie and Pauline I wanted to hear about.

In one further tenuous link with The Road I will comment on the notion of there being a theme of redemption in both books. I don’t believe this exists in either. I comment because I recently had a discussion with a friend about this notion when applied to The Road, and we both agreed that it was fanciful and counter to the book’s dominant dark narrative as well as overwhelming bleak tone. Whilst I do believe Vlautin has rightly explored the redemptive impact of human kindness in his work, I think in The Free there is too much that doesn’t get resolved to look for unrealistic prevalent hope in the goodness that does occur – and I say ‘occur’ because I cannot say ‘prevails’. And that for me is its totally believable reality, making the occasional glimpses of whatever hope one thinks is there all the more potent.

[I make no apology for posting again my photo of me with Will Vlautin after he agreed to an interview about his book Lean on Pete, an extract from this and writing idea included in my book Writing Workshops. I only wish I could post his interview in which he was so generous with his time and illuminating in his comments: it requires a site license to access as part of the Cambridge Elevate complete resource package]

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