As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.
I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. I hope that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.
Suzette was enrolled in a basic English class, and for her first assignment had written a personality profile of a classmate. Her teacher had placed brackets around two sentence fragments—one of the big offenses in remedial English—noted some other problems, and recommended that she come to the Tutorial Center. I began by asking to see the worrisome section of the personality profile:
“Okay,” I said, “let’s talk about fragments. Once your teacher put brackets around these two sentences, could you see that something was wrong?” “I see that something’s wrong now,” said Suzette, tapping her pencil against the table, “but I didn’t see anything wrong when I was writing them.”
“That’s alright,” I continued, “tell me more about what you see when the brackets make you focus on those two sentences.”
“Well, see this sentence here?” (She pointed to “She was the leader who organized…,” the sentence that comes before the two fragments.) “I didn’t want to start talking about the same thing in another sentence…putting…you know, keep repeating myself.”
“Repeating yourself? That’s interesting. Say some more. Tell me more about that.”
“What, this?” she said, pointing back to that first sentence. “I didn’t want to keep putting ‘She was, she was, she was.’”
“You were trying to avoid that kind of repetition?”
“Why? How did it sound to you?”
“Well, it’s just not the way people write essays in college. You just don’t like to see your paper with ‘She…she…she…’ You know, ‘I…I…I…’ It doesn’t sound very intelligent.”
“That makes sense.”
I started talking to Suzette about some syntactic maneuvers that would enable her to avoid repetition. Going back over rules about sentences needing subjects and verbs would probably not do much good, for my questions revealed that Suzette’s fragments were rooted in other causes. She didn’t want to keep repeating the subject she. We worked together for about fifteen minutes, with me suggesting some general patterns and Suzette trying them out. And these were the sentences she produced:
Ronnie, having skills of organizing, brought her class together as one. She organized the class meetings, and planned the class graduation and the class events.
She brought the class together with her great organizing skills and leadership, for she prepared the class meetings and planned the class graduation program and the class events.
What was interesting about Suzette’s fragments was that they originated from a desire to reach beyond what she considered simple, beyond the high school way. She had an idea about how college writing should sound, and she was trying to approximate her assumptions. Mina Shaughnessy, an inspired teacher, used to point out that we won’t understand the logic of error unless we understand the institutional expectations that students face and the way they interpret and internalize them.
Many people respond to sentence fragments of the kind Suzette was making as though the writer had some little hole in that part of her brain where sentences are generated. They repeat a rule: “A sentence has to have a subject and a verb and express a complete thought.” But Suzette didn’t have a damaged sentence generator. What Suzette didn’t have was command of some of the stylistic maneuvers that would enable her to produce the sophisticated sentences she was reaching for. The more skilled we tutors got at listening and waiting, the better we got at catching the clue that would reveal what Shaughnessy was fond of calling the intelligence of the student’s mistake.