June 17, 2008

Can we get back to teaching grammar yet?

Just a day or two after Learners Inherit and I went separately off on the shoddy English tolerated by the DoE and its testing partner McGraw-Hill, NY Times Editorial Observer Lawrence Downes wrote of a similar kind of despair.

In an essay yesterday subtitled "An Elegy for Copy Editors", he reminded us exactly what these very important writers do, and how skilled they have to be to go about doing it.
Copy editors handle the final transition to an ink-on-paper object. On the news-factory floor, they do the refining and packaging. They trim words, fix grammar, punctuation and style, write headlines and captions . . . [they] are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat.
The way I look at it, when they do their job well, you can read the text without stumbling. When they do it superbly, you feel like you’re on a hovercraft, buoyed up and being moved along all at the same time.

Downes rues the demise of a profession:
As newspapers lose money and readers, they have been shedding great swaths of expensive expertise. . . Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced.
Style and consistency may have meant a lot in a print environment, but as newspapers compete in a new web world, it is “speed, agility and creativity” that get the job done.

I was working in District 2 when English teachers were running around the halls screaming, “They’re not letting us teach grammar!” That was because Lucy Calkins had come on the scene and sold an entire borough or two on writing workshops.
At the heart of her philosophy is the notion that children ought to be given a “voice,” encouraged to discover and refine their own personal writing style, as they compose “stories that matter.” . . . Her approach to literacy reviles “direct teaching,” where the teacher stands in front of the room and lectures, preferring instead that children work in small groups and consult each other as much as possible. . . . She writes of the “art” involved in teaching and conferring, and thereby suggests that while aspects of literacy can be taught, there also exists a degree of creative intuition in the process, on the part of both the child and the teacher.
Only a few years later, it was the foreign language teachers who were running around screaming. “How can we teach kids to conjugate verbs in Spanish and French when they don’t even know the parts of speech in English!” Some took their jobs really seriously and were telling everyone who'd listen that they were now having to teach grammar in not one language, but two: the foreign one and English as well.

The DoE has told us in so many ways that literacy is what they’re after. They’ve cut arts and sports curricula to make more room for it, they’ve insisted that kids keep writers’ notebooks à la Calkins whether teachers wanted to use this method or not, and they’ve replaced classic works of literature in school libraries with brightly packaged easy-reads on alluring subjects. They've tested endlessly, hoping that this ritualistic act of measurement might, if they could tweak it just right, produce some kind of magical picture of how literate our kids really are.

This is the tradition that has been established for a generation of schoolkids in New York City. But, it has failed the majority of them. They can’t write.

As one distressed teacher wrote a few years ago:
As everyone knows, NYC teachers are being forced to use [the Calkins workshop] model but it is not that effective for the middle, not to mention the struggling learners. Don't tell the mayor and Lucy but most of the students fall into these categories! Also, it is hard to run around correcting all the personal feelings that the kids are encouraged to write. What tops it off is the kids hate it. What happened to directly teaching skills? It is not happening in all the unrelated "mini" lessons. One of the students asked me, "Why don't you teach us how to write like you teach us the other subjects?" He was right! Teach, model and practice . . . HELP!!!

Help is at hand.

For the intellectually challenged at Tweed and McGraw-Hill, there’s an excellent paper that came out of the 2002 conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. It’s been endorsed by the Linguistic Society of America, another scholarly group that, unlike the faux-educators who issue directives to the city’s classroom teachers, cares deeply about language.

It has a very simple title: Why is grammar important?, and one would think that the essence of their argument is something the DoE would have subscribed to a long time ago. Here are some key paragraphs:
Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children — we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences — that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity.

People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories. And knowing about grammar means finding out that all languages and all dialects follow grammatical patterns.

. . . Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English.

You don’t have to convince me.

The proofreaders responsible for the text excerpted by Learners Inherit would have done well to rely on the rules of grammar to get their meaning across. In example 1, for instance, it is entirely unclear whether it is the dual identity of Pluto or the planet itself that has been enshrouded in controversy, and I doubt very much that the ices mentioned in example 4 can on Pluto or anywhere else “rise,” as the passage says. May I add how depressing it is to see the words Sun and Earth capitalized, as if this were some kind of medieval tract giving supernatural powers to those celestial bodies.

The beauty, subtleties and greatness of the English language cannot be pulled out of the minds of children who do not hear much of these qualities in their daily lives. We do them no great favor when we pay more attention to “self-expression” than to the rules and structures that make the communication of their ideas possible.

Amy Benjamin reminds us that the ancient Greeks included grammar as one of the seven liberal arts. These, she says, have been considered the “handmaidens of thought.”

We should never tolerate the dissolution of our precious language traditions as the result of decisions made in corporate boardrooms or by advisors who are completely out of touch with what inner-city schoolchildren need to know to become successful communicators.

New post: I had some further things to say on this subject here.


  1. If you want students to learn, you must know how students think. See the new book on amazon.com: "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

  2. When I was a fledgling teacher, there was absolutely no grammar taught on the high school level. Not wanting to make waves as a nontenured teacher, I complied. Once I felt more secure, I started giving the students what they needed. I began to teach the skills that they were lacking.
    This is one of the many problems that I have with programs that require teachers to only teach for two years. As a newbie, you're often too frightened to go against policy-as harmful as it may be to children.

  3. Wonderful post! Those of us who lament the loss of grammar (in the media, schools, and elsewhere) should take action. For instance, we could hold a grammar rally. Would you be up for some authentic, collaborative, hands-on activity on behalf of the appositive? If so, let's talk!

    As for the workshop model, I don't think it benefits even high achievers. To write well, one needs quiet. Where group talk dominates, the ideas get flattened, and the least common denominator prevails. At least that has been my experience. I have no truck with group "brainstorming." It storms the brain in the wrong way.

    Certain curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Sequence, emphasize grammar as well as excellent literature. There is hope in the world.

  4. Thank you, anon., for the book you mention. I will check it out at the library, but I've noticed that you've been plugging it around many of the bogs in much the same way, and that's really not the best way to make friends, you know.

    AVoice: I am much older than you and remember precious little about high school days by this time. But, I do remember the grammar analyses we had to do for homework, and I remember writing some on the board, and where I sat in the room, and how the desks were arranged. Odd, that. I found it really satisfying to figure out the grammatical map of a very complicated sentence.

    Diana: I've been pursuing quiet thought moments in classrooms for two decades. Everyone should experience many moments of this in their school years to explore the less accessible spaces of their minds. Society's values have shifted too much, and there's so little comprehension these days of the benefits of what we used to call "library silence."

  5. I know that in a local very successful middle school, English teachers are being told to give their anthologies back and next year the kids will "read independently"; the English teachers who have been teaching LITERATURE for years now are asking the Teachers' College people and the principal at that school, "Where's the curriculum?"

  6. Here's a better kicker- English teacher-no text books, no copy paper. Shall we write the great works of literature on our hands?