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Abraham Lincoln – President, Rail-Splitter, and Grammar Teacher March 13, 2012

Filed under: Abraham Lincoln,Education,reading,teaching writing,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 7:52 pm

I needed to teach a grammar lesson with two instructional constraints. Students needed a refresher in using commas in order to write thesis statements for a research paper, but the lesson also had to be contextualized in the Civil War content that they had been researching for several weeks. We began by discussing the functions of commas when speaking and writing. Students immediately noted a difference in the functions that commas serve in writing and spoken word. They emphasized that when reading a comma aloud, one should “pause” and “take a breath.” The noted that this gives the listener (as opposed to reader) time to process information and an indication of what information the speaker finds important. They were less sure about when a writer should use a comma, but agreed that it is an indicator to the reader of pauses.  I then introduced to them the idea of using commas to create a list in writing; using commas to separate individual items on the list.

To test our idea of reading commas, I gave every student a copy of “The Gettysburg Address” with all the commas removed. I then proceeded to read the speech to them without using any of the comma punctuation. This was actually extremely difficult to do, as punctuated pauses come naturally to us after so many years of exposure to speech patterns. When I asked students what they thought about my speech they told me I “did it wrong” because it sounded “weird” and “rushed.” After some discussion we were able to come to the conclusion that there were no commas in the speech and that they were the cause of the rushed feeling of the speech. I then told students that I was would read them a copy of the speech in which there were commas, and their task was to follow along on their copy, inserting commas where they heard them. I tried not to exaggerate the pauses, and I think that on the most part, I was successful. Most students were able to get most or all of the commas that were on the original copy.

What was interesting, however, is that many students added more commas than I had written on my paper. When we talked about the discrepancies, they argued that I had paused or taken a breath in certain places, and that the commas “counted.” To expand on this idea of ‘correct’ vs. ‘incorrect’ pauses, I told the students that the copy of the speech I had was not the “real” speech Lincoln gave, as there is not “real” speech. Being one of hundreds of Presidential speeches he gave, Lincoln had no idea that this particular address would become so famous. It was less than three minutes, and he wasn’t even the keynote speaker at the memorial dedication at Gettysburg. He wrote the Gettysburg Address on a scrap of paper, which he threw away after reading. The “real” copy of the speech we recognize today was recorded by journalists present at the dedication who heard the speech and reproduced it for the newspapers. There are several competing versions of the speech recorded that day with slightly differing punctuation.  The one I gave students is the most commonly reproduced because it was later signed by Lincoln as a souvenir for a friend (known as the “Bliss Copy”). Students were fascinated by the idea that although the words were Lincoln’s, the punctuation was added by the journalists listening to his pauses and breaths. They enjoyed comparing their listening experience to that of the journalists at Gettysburg.

We talked about which lines had increased emphasis when the commas were inserted. One of the most important and obvious is the final line of the speech, in which Lincoln notes that, although the cost of the War had been great, it was essential “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Not only is this the most powerful line in the speech and the commas provide great emphasis to his words, they also denote a list of qualities that describe the government he argues is worth fighting to protect. This transitioned into talking about the ways in which a thesis statement is a list. Either a list of things the paper will address, or a list of qualities or examples that prove or describe a point. I projected some sample thesis statements for students to look at. They then pulled out their outline graphic organizers that we had been working on in order to identify they major ideas that should be listed in the thesis.

Students really enjoyed working with a primary document that related to the independent researching they had been doing in class. Not only exposure to the speech bring the content alive for them a little more, it was a new way of thinking about punctuation for many of them. Not only did it help them form thesis statements, but it inspired them toward more powerful voices in their own writing they were working on for their research topics. It was an inspiring lesson for me to teach because even though I taught it three times in one day, the conversations about the grammar in a two minute speech still varied in each class. It was nice to teach a grammar lesson that had a conversational element to it.

If you’re curious, below here you will find a copy of the Gettysburg Address with no commas, followed by the Bliss Copy. Read it aloud and see if you can guess where the punctuation goes.

 

 

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


President Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 1863

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One Response to “Abraham Lincoln – President, Rail-Splitter, and Grammar Teacher”

  1. Teaching grammar within the context of what you’re learning in class? Dean would be so proud. I love this lesson idea. I always hated how I had some teachers that prescribed to the “When in doubt, leave it out” rule while other teachers would say to put a comma wherever there was a natural pause.


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