Friday, January 9, 2015

Circling the Verb, Underlining the Preposition, and Beating the Dead Horse: Moving Beyond Archaic Grammar Instruction

Tradition for Tradition's Sake

      If you teach middle school English, I'd be willing to bet on the fact that you've probably taught Shirley Jackson's famous story "The Lottery" at least a time or two.  You know the one I'm talking about:  small farm town is so absurdly tied to traditions of the past that it literally holds a lottery each year to determine which citizen should be sacrificed, thus ensuring a plentiful fall harvest:  "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon" (Jackson, 1948).  In my school, we use this story in conjunction with unit centering on The Giver and other dystopian selections.  We read "The Lottery" to engage students in discourse about the the painful effects that superstitious thinking can cause when we blindly follow traditions without pausing to reflect on their meaning and purpose.
The Lottery Straight A Productions

     If we all can agree, then, that tradition for tradition's sake can lead to devastating outcomes, why is it that we educators--who embrace fully the concept of life-long learning-- would prefer to die at the stake in support of certain traditional classroom practices rather than admit that some of the activities we have been devoting energy to instructionally won't ever produce the results we want to see in our students. Similar to the townspeople in "The Lottery, " we continue to do what was always done due to some deep-seeded loyalty to tradition.  And the worst part about it is that when we consciously make the choice to jam the square peg into the round hole for yet another calendar year, we are sacrificing the abilities of the children who rely on us to help them reach their fullest potentials.  

A Dirty Little Phrase

        I'm warning you now that I am about to utter a phrase that has almost become dirty in the educational arena as of late:  grammar and mechanics.  Grammar and mechanics instruction is not inherently evil.  On the contrary, I don't know anyone who would refute the idea that students must know how to compose well-constructed sentences in order to communicate their ideas effectively to others.  In fact, the English and Language Arts section of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have developed an entire strand of Language standards and it is expect that all students  "Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking."   In fact, students as early as second grade, according to the CCSS, have twenty standards that they are expected to master by the end of their grade.  Included in the second grade standards is the ability to use collective nouns, use reflexive pronouns, and use both adjectives and adverbs appropriately depending on what is being described.  All are important skills if we want our students to write well. 
       It is clear, when browsing the CCSS, that grammar instruction is expected to be alive and well inside English classrooms. What stands out most to me, though, when I browse through the list of standards that students must master, is that all of the skills are expected to be utilized within the context of writing or speaking.  Thus, I am convinced that all targeted skills can be successfully mastered in all grade levels without students ever even having to be in the same room with a grammar worksheet, workbook, or an online preposition tutorial.   

Unwavering Evidence

         The research on what works in the area grammar and mechanics instruction is clear and not new by any means.  I have more than just a couple grey hairs at this point in my life and can remember almost twenty years ago reading in college as an undergraduate the works of Constance Weaver, Tom Romano, and Nancy Atwell who all laid it on the line clearly and articulately:  grammar worksheets do not improve student writing.  Fast forward to last month when I attended a Laura Robb conference where she relayed this identical message with conviction:  Throw out those grammar worksheets!  Do not ever ask students to complete an inauthentic task that you wouldn't do yourself when producing a piece of writing. Trust me when I tell you that I have never once considered circling the verbs and underlining the compound subjects as a way to begin the creative process. And I bet if you were to poll a group of New York Times contributing writers and Prinz Award winning authors, many would be unable to pick out the subjunctive verb inside this very paragraph;  however, they probably can and have used the subjunctive mood successfully in their own writing without ever being able to identify it by name.
         So, if the research has been consistent on the topic of grammar for decades, why do we, as educators, continue to inundate our students with virtually useless grammar worksheets and drill exercises that have no hope of improving a students' writing ability?  Obviously, we have heard several times that these strategies don't work.  I can recall more than one occasion when I've spoken with distraught educators who felt they simply had to start the year off with noun and verb worksheets once again.  "I just don't understand why students don't get this by middle school,"  they will say.  "We've been teaching nouns and verbs this way since first grade.  It's as if they come to us with no knowledge of these things whatsoever."    Again, I am reminded of "The Lottery,"  where the townsfolk are clinging anxiously onto the superstitious belief that if they don't sacrifice a citizen, they will no longer produce enough food to subsist.  Sounds crazy, right?  But if we continue to waste precious instructional time requiring students to identify gerunds and put commas around appositives in isolated worksheet settings, despite the fact that we've been asking kids do this for years unsuccessfully, we must on some subconscious level possess the superstitious belief that doing so will magically create future Austens and Jameses.  A belief that remains unsupported by solid research data and even our own anecdotal qualitative observations that repeatedly prove us wrong.

       I've Thrown Out My Worksheets...Now What?  

          Perhaps you are one of those teachers has already thrown out your grammar workbooks years ago.  You have given up on superstitious beliefs and let go of an old tradition that you knew deep down was not best practice.   A liberating feeling, really.  But, my question to you is this:  with what did you replace those workbooks?   Anything?  My fear is that many of the classrooms across our nation that are not currently boring students with useless workbooks have abandoned grammar instruction altogether, creating another problem.  Remember that we are still responsible for the Language standards of the CCSS, even if we know that workbooks are not the pathway to success.  We want our students to leave school ready to communicate their thoughts with others without grammatical and mechanical errors interfering with message meaning.  We want them to feel confident in their abilities to write and speak eloquently.   So, the question becomes:  if worksheets don't work, what does?
          The answer to this question is really the same answer to all questions regarding educational best practices:  you need to meet your students where they are.   But for starters, you can never go wrong with the following:

 Use Student Writing  

      Some of the best writing lessons I have seen teacher do involved a teacher simply placing a piece of student work up under a doc camera and dissecting it with her class.  While looking at a descriptive piece, for example, the teacher might ask students to locate the sprinkling of adjectives the student author has used to make the piece come to life.  
Why were these adjectives effective?  What if the author had included more of them?  Would that be better?  Why not?   How do these adjectives help you to better visualize the setting of the story?  

A follow-up lesson might ask students to look at the development of the setting in their own stories and add in a sprinkling (but not overkill!) of adjectives on their own.

Analyze Published Mentor Texts

The concept of reading like a writer never fails to deliver.  Every piece that you read and discuss with students offers ample authentic opportunities to discuss author's craft and ultimately teach writing (including grammar).  When students start to read like a writer and write like a reader, they begin to recognize that authors make conscientious decisions about the words they select and the sentences they craft. Best selling author Stephen King reveals in his memoir On Writing that "good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else" (175).   Students benefit from learning that even for published writers these well-chosen details are often scrutinized, polished and revised multiple times before they become final-draft worthy.  And once the manuscript has been revised, it is time to revisit the writing with an editor's eye.  Examining the verbs an author finally decides to use in a piece could be a way, for example, to tackle the concepts of verb tense:

Now, I notice the author chose to write this paragraph as if the events were happening yesterday.  What are some of the verbs that help give the feeling that this event happened in the past?  Why do you think the author chose to use past tense verbs like these when earlier, the story was happening in present tense?  Is this a flashback?  How do you know?  Why do you think the author included it?  

A follow-up lesson could ask students who are still struggling with verb tense to find their own verbs and make sure they are consistently using one tense while other students, who have already mastered the art of consistent verb tense, could be pushed to extend a flashback into their own stories.

Model, Model, Model

Modeling may be the most overused buzz word in education.  If you are a good teacher, you model everything from acceptable social behavior to think-alouds during reading.  If you have a mediocre lesson plan, throw the word model in there a couple times, and presto!  You now have something magical!   But joking aside, modeling is a fabulous opportunity for students to learn a typically silent process - like thinking-- from you.  Why not add grammar instruction to your list of modeling repertoire?  Since the CCSS expects students to master solid English grammar and usage skills in both speaking and writing, modeling this part of the writing process is key.  As a literacy coach, I am thrilled to see many teachers now modeling for their students the planning and drafting process with their students.  How often, though, do you put a completed piece of work up in front of the doc camera that is ready for some revision and editing?  Regardless of your stance on peer editing, students first need to see the expert, the teacher, show them what revision really looks like.  It is more than making sure periods and capital letters exist.  But if we don't show students how we rearrange sentences inside a paragraph, fix that misplaced modifier, or revise to be more succinct, many of our students will not even know that these possibilities exist.  Mile-long checklists of "look fors" handed to students without explicit instruction and a narrowed focus are pretty much guaranteed to fail.  Modeling is key.

Remember that Content Always Trumps Form:  Setting Small Goals

At the conference I eluded to earlier, Laura Robb said something that really struck a chord with me:  a fabulous novel will never be turned down by a publisher because it has a spelling error or two.  We need to remember that content is what is most important.  I only say this because I think that many teachers with good intentions will sit down to conference with a struggling writer.  Ten minutes later the writer is heading back to his seat with a paper full of comments to fix.  This writer is discouraged, overwhelmed, and is not much closer to mastering a single Language target because he has received a broad overview of all of them.  None will stick for very long, and he will like writing a little less.  

The bulk of our writing instruction should remain about the content: the message that we send and how we choose to send it.  While grammar and mechanics are important, they should never be where students spend the majority of their time.  For those students who really struggle with the written expression, we need to set small goals with them.  We can't fix everything in a conference.  If we do, we will end up with one fabulous teacher-edited paper and a student who is no closer to independently mastering any learning target.  It will be difficult, but we should work with the student to choose one skill at a time upon which to focus our energies.  If we hit subject verb agreement hard and a student shows practice, maybe next time we can move on to verb tense.  We often choose to become English teachers because we have a knack for reading and writing, these skills came easily to us.  This isn't true for every student in your classroom.  We have to find a way to slowly incorporate grammar and mechanics lessons with our struggling students without squelching their motivation to try again.

Final Thoughts

        Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" ends with the stoning of yet another citizen.  As readers, we never find out if the townspeople eventually learn their lesson and give up the archaic practices of the past.  As teachers, though, our story is still unfolding.  It isn't too late for us. 


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