Last Tuesday, my district was fortunate enough to have grammar guru, Jeff Anderson, leading the 3-6 general education teachers and 7-12 English/Language Arts teachers in professional development. We teachers have been clamoring for this discussion for some time now. We know in our heart of hearts that standard worksheets of years ago is NOT right, but that integrating grammar into the curriculum to the point of its entire disappearance is not good either.
So, how did Jeff present the opportunity to learn grammar?
H suggested we should be models of correctness: show good examples (or mentor sentences as we called them in the workshop), model it, admit mistakes, and then allow or encourage the students to follow in the footsteps of that mentor and model.
There were many takeaways from Jeff’s presentation, but I implemented two the very next day–always the sign of a good presentation when one can do that (I’ve been able to do this before as well. See Room Re-Decorated).
- I showcased a very good sentence, a mentor, from Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” which reads, “In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” Then, I gave all of one minute for students to mention things they noticed. Just that question, nothing else. What do you notice in this sentence? Right away, I was getting it all: capital letter to start the sentence, commas to separate the adjectives, hyphens (initially called dashes by most students, but that’s easily corrected) to combine words, even that there were five adjectives in a thirteen-word sentence. That’s–well–a lot. Then the magic came in the second question. What do those noticings DO for the sentence? And, again, I got what I wanted: it adds detail, it clearly communicates the sentence, it tells us how we should read the sentence silently and out loud. But there was one unexpected comment from a student. He said, “Well, the adjectives actually give us back story.” In eleven years of teaching and many years of studying, I’ve never considered it that way. I always saw adjectives as just detail to a noun–you know, the rad flames on my beat-up car. So, in this sentence, I learned, from a student, that the adjectives show us the history of a woman who has worked hard. After that, I asked the students to watch me write a sentence using much of the same structure. Immediately after that, I asked the students to do the same. In no time, students were writing sentences in the vein of Alice Walker. Not bad.
- Then, the addition of Sentence of the Week in my classroom. Celebration of language is simple and important. (Besides, the sentence does not only have good structure; it is also timely in its topic.)
Toward the end of Jeff’s time with us teachers, he reminded us that, at the very least–the very minimum–nothing can be wrong about spending time with a good sentence. He suggested that we teachers just spent too much time looking at bad sentences.