Someone asked me the other day how it feels to now be a published author. My first thought is, it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished a life-long goal.
I feel like I finally accomplished the life-long dream of handing elementary English teachers, home-school mothers and young students a tool to teach and achieve clearer thinking, speaking and writing skills to, and at, a much younger age. As well, if there is any way I can help this world move closer to kindness and farther away from hatefulness, I will. By publishing this little fable, I feel now I can affect far more than the 4,000 or so young people I taught in my career. Even then, while in high school, we English teachers didn’t have the time to develop many of our students into accomplished speakers and writers well enough to enter a freshman class in college. In fact, colleges blamed the public schools for neglecting to prepare students, to the extent they had to open remedial classes to do the job. We didn’t take kindly to that, but, though the curriculum was the same within the State’s grade levels, they sometimes didn’t get taught equally from school to school, teacher to teacher, elementary level to middle school level, or middle school level to high school level. It shouldn’t have been that way, but was, sometimes, just because you are dealing with people, and people can be political. The TAAS State test was supposed to be our means of accountability, but it never asked the question that would have satisfied those colleges, future employers, and personal relationships, for that matter: what will make people think, speak and write clearly, precisely and concisely?
While teaching in Alvin, as well as while working on my Masters, the school and college sent me to a number of workshops and conferences that helped me hone my language skills for teaching. I sponsored UIL Ready Writing, for one, judged UIL Decathlon events, presided over the Bay Area Chapter of the Teachers of English, and even helped train teachers to prepare students for State composition tests. All of this experience kept telling me the same thing: to communicate clearly you need to get rid of unnecessary words in your sentences (become concise) and simply put that one nugget of your idea on paper. Then, you should look for the verb that would advance your idea best, so it says exactly (precisely) what you are trying to say. As a result, you are using a minimal amount of words, and they are all effective. For example: instead of saying: in BeakSpeak, Walt liked to break dance because he liked to show off to all the pullets who usually weren’t impressed by his arrogance, try this instead: BeakSpeak’s Walt tried to impress the pullets by break dancing, which didn’t work. The word impress is the central verb. Arrogance is implied by it, so that word would not be needed. All the other words in the sentence are either unnecessary or redundant. This basically covers cluttered speaking and writing, but it doesn’t consider voice: active and passive. Most good writers tell you both voices are important, but, unfortunately most students think and speak in passive voice, and, therefore, write in it as well. Passive voice involves the be verb, which carries no energy. Using passive voice traps a perfectly good action verb by making it a noun, called a nominalization. When you do that, you put the object of your sentence before the subject in your sentence. This, of course, is where I ran in to a ton of problems. Loads of freshmen, sophomores, and seniors came to me not knowing a subject from a verb from an object of a sentence. So, how far do I back them up to teach what they’ve missed all those years? I didn’t go far; I just changed the language.
We all come hard-wired to think of what it is we want first (object) , then we think about how we can get what we want after that, which, especially for students, entails who can give it to u (subject). It isn’t that simple, of course, that’s just how our brain works. We have to train our brans to think differently. For instance, when teaching Beowulf, I would have essays written with clauses, both dependent and independent, such as, “When the introduction is made of the monster, Grendel, (by the scribe)* on page. . . . “ It’s pretty clear the action is rendered inactive in the nominalization, introduction. The clause doesn’t even have another verb to confuse you. It should, therefore read, “When the scribe introduces the monster, Grendel, on page.. . .” The clause becomes much less convoluted because the meaning flows in the proper order: doer first (subject), what is being done next (verb), what is done or done to last (object). This moves a clause from a passive voice to an active one, making the meaning of the thought understood faster. Students need to practice this kind of transformation constantly to get it. It’s a complex concept, but with practice can become a simple, daily exercise young people welcome as a challenge and even master well before their sophomore years. Think of the games you can build around it. It does help that students learn their parts of speech first, though. It would have helped my students move this lesson along exponentially. Still, I contend, without all this technical jargon to scare students away, books like my little BeakSpeak can teach the same skills just as successfully, if not more so. The younger they are, the easier and quicker students learn. Don’t sell them short. This book is my legacy to you and my nod to all the students who both blessed my life and hated breaking nominalizations.
*In passive voice the true subject of the clause is bound up as the object of the preposition by.
You can buy Peggy’s new book BeakSpeak, A Fable & Language Workbook on Amazon, or everywhere books are sold online.