A few days later, though, the mood [in Ms. McNair-Lee's 8th grade English class] is more somber. In a lesson about figurative language, students are analyzing how authors compare nouns. They're mulling a quote from Lois Lowry's The Giver: [Reading Level: Grade 6] "It was as if a hatchet lay lodged in his leg, slicing through each nerve with a hot blade."First of all, hoo boy.
But they're tongue-tied when Ms. McNair-Lee asks if the quote compares two nouns. Finally, a boy from the front table, where Mikel sits quietly, ventures that it compares "hatchet" and "hot blade."
She takes them step by step through another quote, "The rain sounded like bullets." Does it use literal references? she asks. No, one student says, they're not actual bullets. Does it compare nouns? Yes. Does it use "like" or "as"? Yes. They're getting it. Could it be literal? No. Is this an example of a literary device? Yes, a half-dozen students say.
What kind of literary device is this? Ms. McNair-Lee presses. "Simile," says a small voice at the back of the room. The teacher remembers a question from the last interim assessment, asking students to identify the literary devices in the cited text passage. She anticipates something similar on the year-end test. "Simile," she says, smiling and nodding.
Moments later, a stumbling block: No one can identify the verb in a short sentence: "Life is a dream."
Ms. McNair-Lee resorts to a physical demonstration. She calls two students up front and has them stand on either side of her: the subject and the object. In the middle, she's the verb.
"The subject is the one doing the action," she reminds. "The verb is the action." Her frustration is tangible.
Into the Common Core: One Classroom's Journey by Catherine Gewertz | Education Week | Published Online: June 4, 2013
Whatever happened to "state of being"?
Or "subject complement"?
And forget linguistics-based grammar, which was developed in the 1950s, I think, and is a lot easier to understand than traditional grammar. For me, at least.
As far as I can tell, the action-versys0state of being explanation of verbs was always confusing to a lot of students, but it had to be better than "The verb is the action" alone. (Didn't it?)
What 'action' is the verb "is" "doing" in "Life is a dream"? (And yes, the words "It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is" are running through my mind at this moment, I admit!)
If you're an 8th grade ELA teacher teaching "close readings" and you don't know what a copula is, look out below.
Somebody better write some decent curriculum pronto. Most K-12 teachers have come out of the same public school system they are now supposed to improve via close readings of informational text. These teachers weren't taught grammar (nor was I); now they're supposed to teach students how to analyze an author's use of language---?
How is that going to happen?
I'll tell you how it happened for me, teaching at my college. After I was hired to teach freshman composition, I spent hours and hours (and hours) crash-coursing myself in grammar and linguistics, that's how. I'm still working on it. And I started with the advantage that I am a writer who has a Ph.D.; I've spent my entire adult life doing 'close readings' of the kind Common Core is talking about. Thirty-year old teachers teaching full days and raising families at night and on weekends aren't going to be able to do what I've been doing.
I was worried about Common Core giving students work that's way over their heads.
Now I'm worried about the teachers.
Whimbey on grammarA favorite passage of mine, from Arthur Whimbey's Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. I was thinking I'd posted it before, but haven't tracked it down.
When I was in the 9th grade at Brooklyn Technical High School, my English teacher stood at the board and said, ‘Your textbook defines a verb as a word that describes an action or state of being.’ On the board she wrote: A verb describes an action or state of being.
Next she wrote this sentence on the board:
Eating custard pie, Peter is a picture of happiness.
Then she called on me to identify the verb in the sentence.
It seemed clear to me that eating expresses an action, so I answered, ‘Eating.’
To my surprise the teacher said, ‘No, eating is not the verb.’
I protested, ‘But the book says a verb is an action word. Eating is an action.’
The teacher responded with what was to her an apparently clear explanation: ‘Yes, but eating is a participle, not the verb in this sentence.’
I had no idea what a participle was, but I began looking for another action word in the sentence—without success.
Sensing my frustration, the teacher offered a hint. ‘Remember that a verb can describe a state of being.’
State of being, I thought. What is a state of being?
Scanning the sentence to find a word expressing a state of being, I considered happiness. Happiness seemed to express a state of being. I figured that if I knew what a verb was, I would be in a state of happiness. Unsure but hopeful, I asked, “Is happiness the verb?”
‘No,’ came the judgment.
After another minute or so, the teacher answered her own question:
‘The verb in this sentence is is.’
But it didn’t matter. Grammar made no sense to me, and I dismissed it as something I would never understand.
Whimbey, Arthur and Linden, Myra J. Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. Chicago: BGF Performance Systems, LLC, 2001. Print. (4-5).