Editor’s Note: This month we’re featuring previews of sessions from California State University’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference. Author and teacher Martin Brandt is presenting June 27 in Northern California.
By Martin Brandt
I wasted many a Saturday or Sunday morning of my youth watching football before I learned that coaches actually have names for the “gaps” in the line of scrimmage–that is, those spaces between the linemen which can be expanded for either blockers or ball-carriers to run through.
On either side of the center (that’s the guy who hikes the ball, for you non-football fans out there) are the “A” gaps. Beyond those gaps are the guards, whose outside flanks are designated “B” gaps; on the other side of the B gaps are the tackles, who (if there’s a tight end lined up next to them) create a “C” gap.
Why do they name the gaps? Because coaches design offensive plays to create holes in those gaps for players to run through. In other words, the gaps create space for the creative act of offensive football.
I guess I started thinking about this because I wanted to find a way to reach the athletes in my classroom, to help them see that what I am asking them to do at the sentence level–to make use of phrase additions–is analogous to what they already do on the field, court, or diamond–indeed, that it’s something they already understand: they have to find the spaces in order to create.
In baseball and softball, you hit the ball where the other guys ain’t; in basketball and soccer, you create open spaces to make shots possible. And to return to football (but away from the offensive line), receivers must “get open”, either by juking their defender one-on-one, or by finding the “soft spot” or seam in the defensive zone.
In writing, these “soft spots in the zone” present themselves in every sentence we compose. And if our students learn where to look for them, how to find them, and how to make use of them, they can begin to experience writing not as another odious chore inflicted by their sadistic teacher, but instead as the joyful act of creation that it is–as something like scoring on the field.
These spaces have names, too. In the sentence, they are the Left Branch–introductory phrasing which precedes the subject-verb core, situating the reader to the action of the sentence; the Parenthetical, which splits the subject-verb core to comment on the subject; and the Right Branch, which extends from the subject-verb core and comments in some way on the action of the sentence.
Students who can learn to see and make use of these creative spaces can experience exciting and significant growth in the course of a school year, improving both their confidence and their syntactic maturity. And finding ways to help my students understand this has become the driving creative problem of my career. For if we understand the humble sentence better, we create the possibility for authentic growth, both for the student and the teacher.
Martin Brandt teaches English at San Jose’s Independence High School, a large urban school with a diverse student population. He is a teacher consultant with the San Jose Area Writing Project and former winner of the California Teachers of English Award for Classroom Excellence. Martin is the author of Between the Commas: Sentence Instruction That Builds Confident Writers (and Writing Teachers).