Into the Wild
As our family drove south from Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm of the Gulf of Alaska, we took in the view: dark blue waters, sands shaped by the tide, jagged snow-capped mountains—and more bald eagles than I had ever seen. Somehow, despite my copious amounts of research on regional activities, accommodations, and transportation, I had missed the fact that there are more bald eagles in Alaska than anywhere else in the United States. I watched with heightened curiosity as the majestic birds swooped across the waterway and landed on the wet sand below. The sight of bald eagles in the wild struck me as profound despite their familiarity. I had seen them a few times in captivity, on rare occasion in the sky, and in numerous representations of American iconography. Why, then, the wonder?
When I arrived in Alaska, my understanding of the bald eagle had been shaped by limited experience. I knew general information about the species based on an anonymous, average bird. Though I had seen a few captive specimens in my lifetime, I most often encountered the bald eagle in works of art and architecture. This quintessential eagle usually presented itself in a stylized, flat image devoid of any variations in color or size—almost always accompanied by the American flag or arrows and an olive branch. I knew something about bald eagles, but a glance at the great bird conjured up more associations with American history, art, and culture than an animal species.
Encountering the bald eagle on the shores and in the forests of Alaska has forever altered my perception of it. By observing this creature in its natural environment, I noticed the slight differences between each bird—shape, size, even color—and the way each eagle interacted with others of its kind. I saw bald eagles in the context of their own environment, housed in huge nests atop towering spruce and cottonwood. I watched them from our boat on the Kasilof River as they eyed their food source. I noticed how they scattered along the shoreline, interspersed among other native birds. When we left Alaska after a week among its wilds, I took a different impression of the bald eagle with me. I had seen the creature in context.
Sentences in Isolation
As a writing instructor, I desire for my students to understand the importance of context. Syntax doesn’t exist in a vacuum; words connect to form sentences which create paragraphs which form essays or chapters or books. Just as encountering a bald eagle in the wild offers a fuller understanding of the animal and its natural environment, studying sentences in context offers the writer a broadened perspective on the task of writing.
Sometimes a sentence must be examined in captivity. In my teaching, I often isolate individual sentences in order to highlight sentence structure, awkward phrases, verb choice, or voice. Careful analysis of each sentence leaves students with better building materials for creating effective paragraphs. However, writing instruction must not end with grammar and syntax. Good writing moves beyond these essentials, exhibiting organization, connectedness, cohesion, and flow. In order to grasp these “elements of style”, students need to encounter quality sentences in their natural habitat.
Writing in the Wild
A student who demonstrates grammar proficiency may still be a weak writer. Such students have learned general information about sentence structure similar to my textbook understanding of the bald eagle before my visit to Alaska. They are indeed ahead of those who know little about the way parts of speech interact, but they must persist further still in the path towards writing proficiency. Literary samples with effective sentences woven into well-written paragraphs present students with an opportunity to see the sentence in its natural environment. When a sentence is released into the wilds of human creativity, it gains new life; It showcases its size or power, connects to its neighbors, and lends its own particular beat to the rhythm of the text. Encountering this phenomenon in great literature enables writers to develop a sense for the nuances of composition—the effect of an “M” dash instead of a comma, how a variety of sentence structures affects flow, using verbs to power a sentence, or the staccato effect of alliteration. Immersing students in the lush environment of rich writing gives them experience to draw from when it’s their turn with the pen.
Teaching in Captivity
While the world is my classroom, and great literature is at my fingertips, I still teach courses hemmed in by particular objectives, assignments, and materials. Grammar and syntax concepts are scattered across my course calendar like birds on the seashore. Many of my students still need rudimentary grammar instruction, and I must provide that in order for them to achieve writing proficiency. However, I am convinced that regular walks into the wilds of good literature may be the practice that catapults my students from novice to expert.
When my students return this fall, I will move through my syllabus once again, covering the grammar components necessary for successful writing. I will still isolate individual sentences for instruction and analysis, and I will ask my students to do the same. However, as my students’ guide, I will make walking into the wilds of good writing a priority, offering plentiful, varied samples and pointing out well-crafted sentences in their native home. As we range the world of wordsmiths together, I hope my students find a fuller understanding of good writing that prepares them for the adventure of composition.