Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Importance of Purpose

What is the practical, everyday use of learning things like the past and present English subjunctive? This is the question Midori, a Japanese university student, asks in Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood. Since she’s never gotten an answer that satisfied her, she’s ignored abstract knowledge--like chemical symbols, differential calculus, and the subjunctive case--as being totally useless. Finally she gets an answer that makes sense to her from the novel’s protagonist, another university student, and she’s convinced her entire life might have turned out differently if she had just gotten that answer sooner. The answer? “It may not serve any concrete purpose, but it does give you some kind of training to help you grasp things in general more systematically.”

We all work more effectively when we feel there is a purpose to what we are doing--and that includes students learning. (Not to mention me teaching!)

I try to make sure my students understand the importance of what we are studying--content or skill. They probably need to hear more than one reason, more than one time, with opportunity to make the connection for themselves.

First, I have to make sure I’m convinced of several reasons why the current study is important--not just that I love it. Then I have to be able to articulate those reasons. One way I’m doing that this year is by posting a unit summary on the class Moodle. 

“Weightlifting with Language” is the title of our recently completed 10th grade grammar unit because, like weightlifting, grammar is something a very few people do for the joy of the thing itself, and a lot of people do because it helps them do something else better. The unit summary appears below:

How does knowing grammar help me serve God and others by...
  1. Talking about what makes good writing?
  2. Learning other languages
  3. Appreciating the order and diversity of creation?
This unit will have been successful if as you learn about parts of speech, parts of a sentence, phrases, and clauses, you also come to understand some things about the following:
  1. Knowing grammar helps me improve my own and others' writing because it gives me the vocabulary to identify characteristics of good writing and patterns of appropriate conventions.
  2. Knowing grammar helps us learn other languages, giving me opportunities to restore shalom by increasing understanding of, collaboration with, and responsibility for the neighbors I am to love, regarding both salvation and justice.
  3. God created humans with the ability to develop and learn languages--all of which can be described by grammar, both in the ways languages are similar and in the ways they are different.

I started class with mini-lessons addressing one of the 3 unit questions. For question #1, the vocabulary of grammar is like the vocabulary of basketball that enables a coach, in a 60-second timeout, to tell her team how to break the full-court. Similarly, it’s much easier for us to talk about active voice verbs, pronoun-antecedent agreement, or grammatical parallelism in a series of phrases if we share that language. Question #2 is relevant being at an international school in Japan, many of my students are bi- and trilingual, all but those who’ve grown up ambilingual have struggled with a new language, and when I ask how many expect to learn at least one more language in their lives, over half raise their hands. Question #3 is an extra--they don’t have to find it fascinating, but I’m sure going to try to hook them. 

Students ended each class period writing a reflection on 4 questions, including “What is an answer to one of the 3 unit questions you thought about today?” 

At the end of the unit they wrote a reflection on the following prompt: What did you learn about grammar? What did you learn about helping yourself and/or others learn? Which of the 3 unit questions did you find most interesting and why?

I believe in my reasons for teaching a dedicated grammar unit even though the practice has fallen out of favor these days. I do want to learn more about the research--maybe this summer. But reading over my students’ reflections, I think most of them believe my reasons, too. 

Now to keep that belief from withering. The trick is to keep following up on the learning and connections that have happened. As part of our introduction to poetry this week, we read an interview with American poet Donald Hall. He specifically references grammar as he revises: “I work on a variety of sentence structures, using all types. Probably I prefer the compound sentence, but I want to mix it up with the the complex and the simple. With compound sentences, often I begin with the dependent clause, in order to end with the force of a verb. But you don’t want to do it twice in a row. Or anything twice in a row.”

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