Saturday, January 26, 2013

Learning from Grammar

What can students learn in a grammar unit? Here’s what some of my 10th graders wrote:
  • I can learn more through teaching others.
  • I thought trying without fearing failure is important.
  • As I learn more about the structure of sentences, I see so much order and rules, but yet great literature is never boring and redundant.
  • I had those moments that I realize that I was using wrong grammar until now.
  • As I was studying grammar, I was trying to translate the sentences into Korean, and I realized they are related in several ways. Parts of speech is used in other languages too. Like Korean and Japanese I use. If I learn grammar, it will help me with other languages.

Posing questions for students that frame the unit and drive inquiry I learned from Understanding by Design two years ago. Requiring students to reflect on what they’ve learned I got from Productive Group Work and formative assessment last year. This year I made the time for me to reflect on their answers.

The format for student reflection was a beginning and ending reflection (what do you know about grammar before and after the unit), and daily answers to the following questions:
  • What was the most interesting thing you learned today?
  • How did you lend a hand to someone else today?
  • What still seems confusing? What will you do next to clear up your confusion?
  • What is an answer to one of the 3 unit questions you thought about today? (How does knowing grammar help me...[1] talk about what makes good writing, [2] learn other languages, and [3] appreciate the order and diversity of creation?)

I learned that this is an important thing to do, and that I can do it even better. I got a lot of good, specific feedback, and I got some vague, incomplete feedback. Could I improve learning by teaching students how to give good feedback? A little more structured time, more monitoring, some models? 

It’s worth a try. Particularly noticeable were answers to “What still seems confusing?” that just said, “everything,” and proposed no plan at all for clearing up the confusion. It’s no surprise that those students were the ones that did poorly in the unit. Identifying what one doesn’t know is the first step in learning, and knowing how to go about getting help is the second.

What if every student could articulate something like this every day:
  • “The difference between some pronouns that may be used as an adjective (particularly this). I would answer more of the sample questions.”
  • “At first the difference between objective complements and predicate nouns and adjectives was confusing, but I cleared up my confusion with Mrs. Essenburg.”
  • “What the difference between compound and compound-complex is. Ask a friend who’s passed sentences already.”

Then maybe they could all end the unit with reflections like this:

“Through this whole unit, I learned more about the structure of grammar and not just how to name parts of speech. I learned that if I am able to explain a concept to my groupmates, then I know I have learned it. The 1st unit question was what I found most interesting because even the textbook and Mrs. Essenburg had said that good grammar is not necessarily good writing because grammar is not the way to write, rather a description of how people write.”

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Wholeness of Education

Why do intelligent 10th graders who have been taking math for the last 11 years, who know that they need an 85% to pass a particular series of tests, show their English teacher a paper marked
  • 19/20 and ask, “Did I pass?”
  • 15/20 and declare, “I passed!”

I heard both these sentences on Thursday. I hear many similar ones every year during this particular unit. 

What have we educators done to persuade children that it is the done thing to access only certain skills, facts, vocabulary, and ways of thinking in certain classes? To teach them that education is not all connected--a way of life?

I don’t know....But Monday’s mini-lesson in THIS world literature class will not be on misplaced modifiers as planned; it will be on percentages, proportions, estimation, and why that matters in English.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Grammar Is Great

I have a guilty secret: I enjoy teaching grammar. In my10th grade English class, the first 2 weeks back to school after Christmas break (that weird little interlude after exams and before the end of the semester) are always a grammar unit. And it’s always a great little change of pace. 

Grammar gets a bad rap these days in English education circles. The only time you are ever supposed to teach it is in context when a student’s writing could be improved by a particular bit of knowledge. That’s good, and no wonder Americans are the great monolingual nation. 

Most of my students at an international school for missionary kids in Tokyo, Japan, are already at least bilingual. When I ask how many of them think that they will learn at least one additional language in their lives, over 50% raise their hands. They won’t do that without knowing grammar. 

And there’s more. When else would we get to play with Tom Swifties (did my heart good to overhear one 15-year-old boy working to explain to 3 other boys what was funny about “‘He’s dead,’ said Tom gravely”), point out that prepositions in Japanese should really be called “post-positions” since they always come after the noun instead of before, or speculate on the connection between language and culture. 

Here’s one of those speculations: Is Japanese culture more patient and regulated than American because the verb comes at the end of the sentence, or is it the other way around? That thought struck me when I wanted to clear the center of a middle school classroom for an activity and ended up with chaos. I said, “Take your desks and chairs...” and at that point so many 7th graders started running around with their desks and chairs that nothing else I said could be heard. I stood there thinking, “If I’d said that in Japanese, I’d have said, ‘Desks and chairs,’ and they’d have known the direct object that was going to receive the action of whatever verb was coming, ‘to the side of the room,’ and they’d have known the direction the action was going, and finally: ‘take!’” And only then could they begin to move. 

So our essential questions for the unit are as follows: How does knowing grammar help me serve God and others by...
  • Talking about what makes good writing? 
  • Learning other languages? 
  • Appreciating the order and diversity of creation?
The immediate benefit of grammar, of course, is in that first point. Knowing grammar helps us improve our own and others’ writing because it gives us the vocabulary to identify characteristics of good writing and patterns of appropriate conventions. 

Imagine the opposing basketball team suddenly throws on a full court press and scores 3 quick baskets. Your coach calls a time out, but he doesn’t have the vocabulary point guard, post, block, key, lane, elbow, cut, pick, or roll. And he only has 60 seconds to explain to your team what to do. “Now I want the tall person who usually plays under the basket to line up on that little boxy-looking thing that’s close to the basket at the bottom of the rectangle that’s right in front of the basket, the one where the freethrow line makes the side opposite the end line...” EEERRRRR! Buzzer. Timeout over. 

Grammar is just the vocabulary so I can call a quick timeout in your writing and tell you what to adjust to do better. “Pronoun-antecedent problem here.” “Misplaced modifier here.” 

At the same time as we are studying grammar, we’re also revising and editing a paper. And students never simply hand in a paper without doing some reflecting. This year when they handed in their revised draft for editing, I told them to do 3 things to the front page before handing it in:
  1. Highlight all verb phrases
    1. For passive verbs, consider changing to active.
    2. For verb phrases where the main verb is a form of be, consider a stronger verb.
  2. Circle all adverbs
    1. For adjective- or adverb-modifying adverbs like really, very, and extremely, consider dropping the first adverb and choosing a stronger adjective or adverb (very poor to impoverished).
    2. For verb-modifying adverbs, consider dropping the adverb and choosing a stronger verb (walk slowly to trudge, shuffle, wander, or meander).
  3. Underline the first word of each sentence
    1. Consider changing the structure when 2 sentences within 1 paragraph start with the same word.
    2. Beware of too many sentences on a page starting with the same word. 
With this time for focused reflection, students realize themselves what I could have pointed out and they’d have forgotten. One boy realized that he’d started 3 sentences on the front page with “Now.” He also reflected when he turned in his final draft, “I didn’t realize how much passive voice I used.” When I edited the paper of another, he had already marked out the weak “be” verb in “...which is a violation of Jesus’ commandment...” and changed it to “...which violates Jesus commandment....”

If I’d marked those editing changes, the students would have corrected them, and then reverted to the same patterns again the next time.

Three lessons:  
  • Most students will engage with just about anything that you give them a really good reason to. 
  • A little extra time spent on helping students uncover meaning is much more efficient in the long run.
  • Grammar is great.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Blogging about Blogging

2012--the year my younger daughter (in her sophomore year of an English education major) began questioning my teaching practices, the year my older daughter graduated from college and got engaged, and the year I began blogging. In the long run, it’s probably one of the family events that will be most significant, but in my daily teaching life, I’m sure the prize goes to blogging.  

I started blogging as a way of killing two birds with one stone: keeping myself accountable to reflect regularly on my professional reading and practice while gaining experience in the technology to which many of my students are native. There was also the pleasant side effect of being able to easily share a thought once captured, emailing a link to a friend or colleague, though I shrank from the thought of any larger audience.

Still, the idea of having some limited possible audience has renewed my empathy with my students: the nervous butterflies of unveiling one’s writing to the eyes of strangers, as well as the discipline of just getting something down even when the inspiration doesn’t flow and of doing a little more revising and editing than with a private journal.

Being a practicing writer as I teach writing has been fascinating. It has sharpened my awareness of what is important to do and how I do it--from ways of crafting a hook and conclusion, to when and why I use (or don’t use) a thesis and preview of points, to what makes a good transition, to balancing specific support and general observations, to keeping my voice personal yet not too informal. This gives me not only empathy for students, but also ideas and examples to share with students--from my own writing and from other writing--because the more conscious I become of my own craft of writing, the more I identify others’ craft as I read. 

But probably the biggest surprise of all has been the emergence from the shadowy background of those previously fuzzy concepts of audience and purpose. No wonder I couldn’t teach them to my students--I didn’t really grasp them myself! I wrote unit guides and assessment prompts for my students because it was my job, and they wrote essays, stories, and poems for me because it was their job, but neither of us had a real clear idea of who we were writing for or why--our audiences were captive. I’m still not sure who I’m writing for or why in my blog--but I’m having a running internal conversation about it every time I think about what I’m going to write. 

Here are some of the voices in the discussion:
  • If I’m writing for other teachers, I need to have an intriguing, transferable idea up front with a lot of specific student examples. (At least, that’s what I like to read from other teachers.) 
  • I shouldn’t write too long. 
  • But I want to write that long! It’s what I have to say. 
  • Okay, Kim, down, girl--you can write long--you’re not trying to attract a big audience. Your first audience is yourself--getting your ideas down; your second audience is friends and colleagues who are interested, and they’ll bear with you; your far distant third audience is anyone else who happens across it. 
  • But I want people to read and like me! I don’t want them to think I’m long-winded and dull.
  • Maybe I should post on Facebook--I’d get more readers!
  • But there are much better teachers out there--why do I have anything to say? I don’t want to be presumptuous.

The internal discussion goes on.

What I know is, by thinking about my audience and purpose, I’ve become more aware of my craft of writing and a better writing teacher.

By working to give students real audiences and real purposes for their writing, I can become even better.