Friday, June 3, 2011

"How to Forge a Jane Austen Manuscript": Teaching Students Austen's Style w/ a Quill and Paper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teacher at a professional development workshop must be in search of lesson plans!

The Early College Program PD I attended today at Idaho State University offered many fantastic lesson ideas. Among my favorites is Professor Roger Schmidt's presentation on teaching students to understand Jane Austen's style, particularly irony, by having them learn to write with a Quill just as Austen did.


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  • Sentences from select Austen works. I used Austen's famous line from Pride and Prejudice in my opening. It has been parodied numerous times. A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy at the Morgan Library offers a fine collection of Austen resources.
  • Examples of English Roundhand, the penmanship style in which Austen wrote. Many Google images exist and Dover books offers The Universal Penman as a resource 
  • Ink
  • 100% rag paper
  • Feathers for making quills. Although teachers can purchase both feathers and quills, Professor Schmidt prefers collecting them from "road kill" and hunters. He shared some amusing stories of traveling around collecting feathers in Southeast Idaho and the Washington coast, as well as the gift of a couple of unplucked wings from a student!
The Lesson:
  • First practice writing (copying) some of Austen's sentences on lined paper to get a feel for the slant and size of her lines. Use a dip pen for this first exercise. 
  • Have students study Austen's penmanship. Several resources are available online. The Lady Susan facsimile is available in the Morgan exhibit, as well as a close examination of English roundhand. 
  • Dr. Schmidt advises having students rewrite a short letter from one of Austen's works, such as Captain Wentworth's letter in Persuasion. Students can embody Captain Winthrop's character and write a new version of the letter, perhaps one in which Winthrop says he has waited for Anne long enough, suggests Dr. Schmidt. A second option is to have students imitate Austen's style, utilizing her sentences as models for their own ideas. 
"I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W. I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never."
  • With enough practice, students will begin producing elegant books in Austen's style.
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Booklets created by Dr. Schmidt's students in Jane Austen's style.

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Students who practice writing in Austen's style, copying her sentences, and rewriting her letters gain a greater appreciation of the novel as a new literary form, acquire an appreciation of elegant penmanship and the artistry of Austen, comprehend Austen's use of irony and complicated sentence structure. 

For high school students, making quill pens, dipping them in ink, and making booklets from rag paper is good literary fun! It's a kinesthetic activity that will appeal to right-brain as well as left-brain students. 

Making Quills:
  • Collect feathers
  • Strip the bottom feathers so that they don't impede one's grip. This is called fletching. 
  • Cut the quill. This site offers nice illustrations. 
  • Cure the quill in dry sand at 350 degrees. 
2011-06-03 11.55.26.jpgIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a high school English teacher at the end of the school year looks forward to the upcoming year and the new lessons she will teach to next year's students. 

Thanks to Dr. Schmidt's excellent session and Barbara Bishop's superb coordination of the ECP workshop, my students and I will have many new learning adventures next year.

Update: 4 June 2011

Jenna Gardner shared the video below w/ me via The English Companion Ning. Thanks, Jenna. This is a fantastic resource that gives yet another dimension to Dr. Schmidt's writing project. 

The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum on Vimeo.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Write Sentences?: "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One" Part 3


This is the third part in a three part series on the book.
 Part 1, Part 2

Throughout How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish consistently emphasizes modeling as the most important tool for writers wanting to learn more about composition at the sentence level.

Although Fish spends consideralble white space describing three styles of senences--subordinating, additive, and satiric--his thoughts about first and last sentences will appeal both to writers and teachers.

When I teach students how to begin an essay or a speech, I emphasize the importance of the hook (attention-getting device). I use a fishing metaphor, obviously not original, since I teach in a nature-lover's paradise.

I offer students a menu of choices for first sentences: an anecdote, a quotation, a statistic, a joke, etc. Again, there's nothing new with these offerings.

Fish, in contrast, describes first sentences as having an "angle of lean" in that a first sentence points at the essay's subject; it anticipates the essence of an essay (99):

"Even the simplest first sentence is on its toes, beckoning us to the next sentence and the next and the next, promising us insights, complications, crises, and, sometimes, resolutions" (100).

Some first sentences point toward the future, some harken back to the past, and others challenge expectations. Still others create stasis, or offer meditative thoughts, or construct a narrative (plot), or require deliberation from the reader. Others construct arguments or describe characters.

Fish offers examples from both classical and contemporary first sentences to illustrate these ideas.

This shift to what first sentences do from different types of first sentences may offer teachers a way to engage students in stylistic considerations.
  • What do I want to say in my essay?
  • What must my first sentence say to lean toward my content?
These questions suggest an approach to teaching students how to begin an essay that I haven't considered often.

Conversely, last sentences also do more than sum up thoghts in an essay. Teachers often describe final sentences as clinchers. I usually suggest that students answer the question "So wht?" in their conclusions. They often struggle with this idea.

Fish proposes that last sentences "can refuse to sum up" (119). They can also "explode perspectives" (119).
Since last sentences don't have to get things going but are responsible for winding things down, Fish argues that they don't have as many responsibilities as first sentences.

To wit, he indicts some famous last sentences as not very good apart from their context:

It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

Fish critiques the former as too readily imitatied and the latter as too banal, apart from their famous contexts.

The best last sentences, argues Fish, stand alone as impressive on their own. Some, like the last sentnce in The Great Gatsby, are eligaic:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Admittedly, this is one of my favorite sentences in all of literature. Fish deconstructs the alliterative style of the sentnce as well as the nostalgic longing for a receding past, a promised land we can't reach:

This last sentnce mimes the treadmill we are on, mocking our efforts at acceleration with a series of b's--"beat," "boats," "borne," "back"--that keeps bringing us to the same place. We try to get ahead, but the current, both of life and the sentence, flows ceaselessly backward, carrying us again and again into the past, which is of course the sentence's last word. It says, here we are again (124).

Fitzgerald's last sentences resonates because of the irony of growing older and of witnessing change, change that often creates discomfort.

I find myself thinking about this longing for the past increasingly often, especially this past week as I witness the devastation in Joplin, Missouri via conversations with family, on television, and through social networking. We hear the longing, the being borne back into the past in the committment to rebuild what once was Joplin.

Other last sentences create dissolusion or peace; again Fish offers examples and analysis.

Toward the end of his little tome, Fish challenges readers to consider the many vantages from which we can view the best sentences and to

refuse the confines of the medium and deploy it as a springboard to truths it cannot express; use mortal language while bending, stretching, and even breaking it at the same time" (143).

Why write sentences? Why focus on the various forms for writing sentences? Because in a very real sense, the sentence sets the writer free; the sentence is the ultimate embodiment of truth.