By Geraldine Woods
Making New Year’s resolutions has never made sense to me. Exhausted by holiday celebrations and dismayed by the prospect of slogging through a Northeastern winter, on January 1st I barely have enough energy to turn a calendar page. But that first day of summer! That’s when my mind churns with possibilities that morph into resolutions: This summer I’ll learn to quilt, take up tennis, reorganize my linen closet and . . . well, if activities were food, let’s just say I plan a banquet.
As summer unfolds, many of my resolutions unresolve. Yet year after year, there’s one resolution I invariably keep: to read outside my field. As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time from September through June rereading literature I’ve assigned to my class and exploring new (or new-to-me) novels and poetry. I revel in these activities; they’re the path that led me to my profession.
But in summer I want to open different doors. I want to learn about history, science, the arts—everything! So I visit the library, stagger home with as much as they’ll let me borrow, and settle in. Despite the fact that I’m officially and intentionally off duty, my inner English teacher never rests. Good writing always catches my eye. So as I read, I take note of effective sentences. In the autumn, I use some of them as the basis for reading and writing lessons.
Let me explain. I do teach full-length works, helping students analyze theme, characterization, writing technique, and the like. But sometimes I narrow the focus to a single sentence. It may be from something they’re already reading for class, in which case I place the sentence in the larger context. Or it may be a one-off, a sentence that illustrates a point I want to make. I find many potential candidates for this sort of lesson from my summer reading in other disciplines.
Here’s an example of a lesson based on a sentence from Elizabeth Kolbert’s article about climate change, “Greenland Is Melting”:
This is 400 million Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water, enough to fill a single pool the size of New York State to a depth of 23 feet.
The word this refers to the amount of water lost from Greenland’s ice sheet over the span of four years. I ask the class whether the impact of this information would have been the same if Kolbert had used a statistic instead of a comparison. They immediately see the effectiveness of relatable reference points, the Olympic pool and New York State. I follow up by asking students to create their own vivid comparisons. Sometimes they revise a sentence from their science textbooks, using Kolbert’s technique as a model.
My summer reading of history, too, offers material for English lessons. Consider this sentence from a speech that President George W. Bush gave shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001:
We’ve seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers—in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
This sentence is perfect for a lesson about parallelism, the English teacher’s term for symmetry in a sentence. I call students’ attention to the “ing” words: unfurling, lighting, giving, saying. Their similarity unites them, and at first glance all four actions appear to have equal significance. The last one, though, comes with a parallel set of qualifiers, an arrangement that gives the saying of prayers more weight. Further, the parallel list of languages emphasizes the unity of purpose in three major faiths. The students come to see how the author’s choices shape meaning.
Venturing outside the usual boundaries of “English” texts has one more important advantage. Traditionally, schools silo knowledge into rigid categories. In the real world, ideas are complex, constantly crossing borders between subjects. I like to think that seeing an English teacher explore a science text breaks down artificial divisions and reinforces the importance of reading and writing in every class.
This summer, like every summer, will see me nested in a pile of books, notebook ready and pen in hand. I may have a frown of concentration on my face, but inside I’ll be smiling. That’s what summer, and summer reading, does for me.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2016. “Greenland Is Melting.” The New Yorker, October 17, 2016.
Geraldine Woods has taught every level of English from fifth grade through adult writing classes. She is the author of 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way — now out in paperback! (W. W. Norton, 2020); Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers (W. W. Norton, 2021); and Independent Study that Works: Designing a Successful Program (W. W. Norton, 2022). She posts wry commentary on language on her blog, grammarianinthecity.com.