Michael Clay Thompson: On Language, Grammar, Poetry, and Teaching


“Language is the core of all content.”


“In my books I build in thinking taxonomies and whole brain approaches, and I try to communicate an enthusiasm about learning that makes overexcitability seem normal and right, which it is.”


“Our language is a vast collection of echoes, and we are reviving and continuing the sounds of ancient voices with each sentence.”


On his language arts curriculum: “What I have tried to do is to create a language ecosystem, where all the texts confirm and involve the others, where every book is, in addition to propelling its own content forward, an environment of examples of the other books as well. I think this is essential; what we have done is to fragment the language arts, teaching vocabulary as though grammar did not exist, teaching grammar as though vocabulary was not relevant, teaching writing as though grammar was beside the point. Real language is interconnected and simultaneous, so the books need to be that way too. It is not a case of ‘We already did that’; it is a case of ‘Now we can see why the other study was so important.’ All of it applies to all of it.”


On pop culture and the classics: “I’ve always had the feeling that the heroic glories of great academics are buried in our culture, buried under blizzards of anti-intellectual pop-culture norms, mores, attitudes, and products, so I’ve tried to use my books to dig out dazzling academics and put them on display in a way that the kids can see them.”


On poetry: “Poetry is the victim of false stereotypes and misunderstandings about what it really is. We tend to relegate poetry to the sidelines, doing a few poems in class if we get time, and even then just reading them from a so-called interpretive point of view, ignoring all the technical wizardry that really makes them poems.”


“If students don’t learn about poetic techniques, they will be unable to appreciate great prose because the great prose writers all wrote poetry too and used those devices in their novels, plays, and essays.”


On the design of his books on poetics: “I wanted to find ways to make poetics visible to kids.”


On Plato and teaching the gifted: “Plato’s dialogues about Socrates have been my primary intellectual influence—that to acknowledge what you do not know is the crucial test of intellectual authenticity. Socratic teaching is a sine qua non for gifted pedagogy.”


On tests: “Tests have an inherently low ceiling, and basic tests are the ones that dominate. There is a danger in a ‘test culture’ of reducing education to a focus on small knowledge.”


On teaching grammar: “The whole country has spent twenty years taking grammar out of the system. Now we are in a state of panic because all the grammar teachers have retired!”


“It is easy to forget, when looking at a ponderous grammar textbook, what a little topic grammar is. There are only eight parts of speech, about five parts of the sentence, several kinds of phrases, and a few clauses. If you compact these four little levels of grammar into the first weeks of class, you can usefully apply the grammar to all of the other language experiences during the year.”


On teaching vocabulary: “Learning the 100 most common Latin and Greek stems in the English language gives you access to at least 5,000 words. This is the fast-track, the power-path, to a strong vocabulary—infinitely more powerful than learning one word at a time.”


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