Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Z is for Zigzag

It seems to me that taking a zigzag course is sometimes the most efficient way to teach. This may seem odd, at first, because we usually think of zigzagging as being similar to aimless wandering, but I’ve come to think of it in terms of a pattern or design. My favorite sport jacket has a herringbone pattern, a classically elegant design featuring orderly zigs and zags. There’s something beautiful about the angular ups-and-downs and backs-and-forths of the pattern, and I often find a similar beauty in the twists and turns of my English curriculum. One’s eye is caught by the crooked but very orderly configuration of a herringbone weave, and I’m hopeful that my students occasionally sit up and take notice of a similar texture in my classes. What’s interesting to me is that a zigzag course is not necessarily a purposeless one. Road builders in the mountains follow a zigzag course because it’s the easiest and safest way to get travelers to their destinations. Similarly, a path through a forest often crisscrosses and backtracks in order to find the most trouble-free route, and all sailors know the importance – nay, the necessity – of tacking (zigzagging) so as to take full advantage of the wind. I guess what all this amounts to is that there is often no straight line to our chosen objective, and this is certainly the case in English class. If my goal is to teach the students how to use a variety of sentence patterns, the best path may be a zigzag route through grammar rules, a short story or two, a few poems, and a scattering of writing exercises. Indeed, I may need to change directions suddenly and often, “tacking” to take advantage of students’ interests and moods. As long as I keep the ultimate target in view, a little zigzagging might not only be expedient but exciting. Who knows what my students and I might come upon as we knit together my herringbone curriculum.

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