kitchen table math, the sequel: Skunk at the party

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Skunk at the party

From Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers By Brock Haussamen with Amy Benjamin, Martha Kolln, Rebecca S. Wheeler, and members of NCTE's Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar:
A Broken Subject

At the start of this new millennium, throughout much of the K-12 English curriculum, grammar is a broken subject. If you find yourself just not knowing what to do about grammar-how to teach it, how to apply it, how to learn what you yourself were never taught-you are not alone. Grammar is often ignored, broken off altogether from the teaching of literature, rhetoric, drama, composition, and creative writing. Grammar is the skunk at the garden party of the language arts. Perhaps you've set aside time for labeling parts of speech, correcting errors, and modeling effective use of punctuation, but you may feel unmoored: you wonder whether the grammar you learned in school (what little there may have been) is sufficient or if the methods you learned by are up-to-date. And you certainly wouldn't be alone if you were embarrassed to reveal to your colleagues all that you don't know about grammar. Grammar feels like a frowning pedant reproaching you for not knowing enough about subject-verb agreement, for blithely ending sentences with prepositions, for splitting infinitives without even understanding what that means, for promiscuous use of commas and flagrant case violations. And, even if you speak and write with a confident tongue and well-schooled hand, you may tremble at the thought of trying to get your students to write complete sentences.
This is a remarkable passage.

It takes as a given the fact that English teachers know nothing about grammar. Worse, not only do English teachers know nothing about grammar consciously, they (apparently) know little about grammar unconsciously (procedurally), either. Their own writing is distinguished by "promiscuous" use of commas and "flagrant" case violations.

Why are these people paid to teach writing?
You are not alone. The obstacles to revitalizing the teaching of grammar are several. One is that our profession has lost sight of the connection between studying grammar and learning to read and write. As Robert J. Connors recounted in "The Erasure of the Sentence," our interest in analyzing sentences has faded since the 1970s. Today it is the process of writing, along with originality, authenticity, and personal writing, that we value. The change has left sentence-level work--even such proven approaches as sentence combining-in shadow. We're not comfortable encouraging students to be original and authentic one minute and then assigning them exercises in sentence structure the next. Many English departments, and highly respected English teachers, argue forcefully that sentence-level work is mechanical, behavioristic, antihumanistic, and, most scorn-worthy of all, boring.
I'm sorry.

An English teacher who has no interest in analyzing sentences is not an English teacher.

Writers write sentences. That's what writing is: it's writers writing sentences. The raw material of writing is the sentence, and a sentence is an essay in miniature.

The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.
John Stuart Mill (1773-1836)

The essential structure of the ordinary [English] a noble thing.
Winston Churchill

1 comment:

Redkudu said...

English teachers are not valued for their technical expertise because such expertise is no longer a focus.

English teachers are hired based on their "love of literature" and how they may help students make "meaningful connections" between literature and their own lives.

In my case, we're talking about trying to convince a community of rural teenagers, farmers and hunters and commuters, that they are anything like people such as Elie Weisel, Guy Montag, Antigone, and the rest.

The comparisons are superficial at best, when we probably should be talking about how very different these people's lives are, whether or not we could make the same choices, can we foresee a time when we might be presented with such choices?

I'm telling you this from the trenches of a 1-to-1 school (laptops for everyone!) where my evaluation as a teacher is based on any and all technology I use - a neighbor teacher has received high marks in her evaluations for having students write a personal poem based on a template, then creating an iMovie using the Ken Burns effect. This has been going on for 3 weeks.

Meanwhile, in 4 days I asked my students to write me a casual letter (rather than a stiff essay) in which they discussed their reactions to Lord of the Flies after discussing the biblical and Greek allusions in the book, as well as symbolism.

I have this in front of me right now:

Dear Ms. Redkudu,

I had no idea how this novel would make me think so deeply about stories I already knew.

Dear Ms. Redkudu,

If I had picked up this book to read on my own, I wouldn't. But I was compelled because you kept telling me there was a deeper meaning. You didn't tell me how dark that deeper meaning would be.


Even as I write this letter to you, my thoughts are still processing what human conflict has been about from the start: power.

But I get no points for this because I didn't have them make it into an iMovie, an Animoto, a Prezi, or anything animated and visual.

My students, and I, are failures at this because they wrote fantastic prose with a heartfelt message on a Word document. I'm not evaluated by my students' words, I'm evaluated by what's on the screen when my evaluator walks into the room.

Paper and pen writing is not integrating technology into the lesson. Which, apparently, is more important than what was said in words.

We don't need grammar. There is no need for beautifully structured words. Even in English class students are expected to express themselves visually - and you don't need grammar for 12 slides and the Ken Burns effect. That's poetry - taken the broken words of a broken sentence and setting them to music.

That's integrating technology, and it's good for them and it's good for us all.