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FEATURED ESSAY

A Good Sentence

By LIZ BERTSCH

educationLiz Bertsch is a founding faculty member of Hayground School on eastern Long Island. For the passed twenty years, Liz has taught children from three to thirteen years old and is currently teaching a multi-age classroom of kids from five to eleven years old. She holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stony Brook University and a graduate degree from Bank Street College of Education in New York City. She lives in Riverhead, New York with her daughter and husband.

What makes a good sentence a good sentence? From Pynchon’s, “A screaming comes across the sky,” to Michael Jackson’s declaration in Thriller, “You start to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it,” my students who range in age from six to eleven years old have spent weeks discussing and analyzing sentences, that for a variety of reasons, are considered to be good. After a minute or two of thoughtful consideration, an eight year old, wearing a bright red hat, leans in back in his chair, pokes his finger in the air and says, “Well, I think this – a good sentence is one you have great feelings about.”

I didn’t like school as a child. Not only did I feel profoundly alone, I didn’t understand why we read what we read, studied what we studied, and why I knew that boys played football in the fall, baseball in spring, and why I knew nothing about the athletic calendar of girls. The only school project of significance to me was when my seventh grade science teacher demanded that we maintain a journal to explore our personal ideas about what we pursued in science that year. I remember nothing of the details of what I wrote about, but I remember writing often and engaging with my ideas on the page. This is my only recollection of having the opportunity to think creatively and without restriction. As a child, I learned everything of consequence not in a classroom but in my home where conversation reigned supreme, and where intellectual debate with my five siblings, was ruthless and satisfying.

All of the kids turn their heads towards their classmate, and they are smiling and shaking their heads in agreement. An eleven year old says, “Definitely, great feelings – yes, and why the great feelings?” The eight year old says, “I’m not sure – that’s just what I think.” I move in and say, “I believe there are many reasons for having great feelings about a good sentence, and in order to get at that idea, why don’t we all write a sentence that we believe our readers can have great feelings about.” The kids agree to this assignment and to return on Monday with their sentences.

In spite of my negative feelings about school, I made my way to college and became a philosophy major. I discovered the ideas of Jacque Derrida, which provided me with a framework to understand so many facets of a society that confounded me. His ideas about deconstruction helped me make sense of much of social world. The pursuit of philosophical inquiry engendered in me a sense of connection to thinkers who have important thoughts, and it was by way of this connection that I developed a deep and abiding love of education. I was no longer alone, confused and bored in the classroom: I was part of an intellectual community of those who valued the having of ideas as well as the ability to celebrate those of others.

The kids arrived on Monday with their sentences written on large pieces of white paper. Before our conversation, the kids go over their penciled words with colorful markers and create illustrations to accompany their writing. We’re going to glue them onto a mural because sentences that make people feel great things ought to be displayed. When it’s time to share, an eleven-year old leans back in her chair says, “My newfound independence tasted like a lollipop and felt like a rollercoaster.” There are lots of smiles, and head shaking as well as compliments on her illustrations. We talk about how marvelous it is to provide the reader with a lollipop to underscore the sweetness of independence, as well as a rollercoaster to shine light on the fear and thrill of moving away from the adults in your life. We discuss that power of imagery and that one really great sentence can convey an important idea like that of how independence feels to a child who is growing up.

The spring before my graduation from college I watched a program on public television about a college that developed a curriculum to teach philosophy to children. I saw school-aged children grapple with the Cartesian question of how we know that we exist. The children were guided through an inquiry to reach a similar pronouncement as Descartes’, “I think therefore I am,” which was impressive but I wondered, why the kids weren’t encouraged to come up with a completely different answer, one of their own making, perhaps an even better one. When the show was over, I decided to become a teacher because the intellectual community of children that was captured on film was something I wanted to become part of.

One of the youngest children in the class raises her hand and proudly reads, “I look out my window and see the shadows of flowers.” She is holding up her penciled drawing and says, “See, there are the shadows.” Hands go up and as she calls on the kids. Many offer compliments on her shadowed renderings of flowers. One child tells her, “You know – you really have to think about that sentence, because the flowers are there but only because of their shadows.” We agree that it is a sentence that requires thought, and we discuss why a writer might want to use explore the beauty of something by way of its shadow. “It is the shadows of things that the reader must come to trust,” I say and while attempting to refine my thought a bit, a couple of kids say, “Oh, yeah, yeah – I get it.”

After completing my undergraduate studies, I spent the year waitressing and researching graduate schools of education. I chose one that developed out of a children’s school that was founded by a woman. As a student of education, I learned a great deal about what a child-centered classroom looks like as well as the central role that child-development ought to have in the education of children. I also learned that there are many approaches to creating interesting and productive classrooms for kids and that a lively classroom, one where students are learning and invested in their learning, is one in which their ideas and those of others, not only matter but have consequences beyond the walls of a classroom.

A shy nine-year old rises from her seat, displays her sentence, and quietly reads, “A collage of beauty, mess, and understanding is how she described a story.” The older kids in the room are smiling. I raise my hand to speak. “Did you all understand what she meant by collage? The kids are shaking their heads. “ A sentence about the meaning of a story is an ambitious one - wouldn’t you say? I have great feelings about this sentence. “That’s not a sentence you read quickly,” one of the younger kids says. The eight year old with the red hat says, “Oh – that’s true. I think a good sentence is life-like.”

After graduate school I became part of the founding faculty of an emerging school whose design was informed and guided by a developmental psychologist as well as individuals from different walks of life, all committed to creating a private school with a public mission. Founded to serve diverse families, the school’s enlightened model of a sliding scale tuition made it possible to form an educational community reflective of the real world. Every classroom was thought of as a one-room schoolhouse, and my colleagues and I were given free reign to take our passions and interests and turn them into curriculum.

We heard from students whose sentences described personal experiences such as, “I love when I step back and see my finished creations,” as well as nods to nature using beautiful words such as, “The sun illuminated the sky.” The students continue sharing sentences and some of us notice that the eight year old in the red hat is wearing a look of distress on his face. We ask him what’s wrong. He says, “There is another part to my sentence but I didn’t write it.” “Alright – tell us,” we say. He rises from his chair, holding his sentence built of out of bright multi-colored bubble letters and says, “I’ll read what I wrote first and then tell you the rest.”

It is my great privilege to share a classroom with thinkers whose ideas influence us all, in an atmosphere where play and thinking are naturally connected, and often times joyful. Sure, we learn how to read, and spend time on the more mundane aspects of learning, but we also take the time to consider a good sentence by an eight year old with a red hat who stands in front of us and declares, “I’ll want to know my memories better and how I felt about them.” The classroom is quiet while we ponder his desire for a future in which he remembers his passed from the point of view of his most intimate self – the self that feels. I break the silence and ask the kids if they have the same desire, and the room comes alive and shakes with our resounding, “Yes!”


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