Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
The Problem with Punctuation
I've been back in school now since Aug. 8, classes filled with 27-30 junior-level English III kids all ready to tackle the world. It doesn't quite feel like we should be in school; after all, the heat wave of 95+ degree days began in mid-August and continues as I write this in mid-September, a day after mid-quarter progress reports. But here we are, weeks away from finishing the first quarter, and already the pressure is on. My school is fretting over a .1 drop in ACT scores (although those scores still remain above state and national averages). I'm already fretting over the very first ACT test that all junior-level students will take in the spring.
I have to admit that two of the biggest areas in which I struggle as a teacher are instructing grammar and punctuation. Long ago, I didn't seem so frustrated, but like cursive handwriting, grammar and punctuation have become lost in the shuffle. In a modern world of 140 character Twitter speech and acronym shorthand, proper English usage seems to have flown out the window. Kids feel that they can break the rules of writing, even when their doing so means that their writing — quite frankly — sucks. Worse, they feel they don't even need to learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. , except for when suddenly they realize that the ACT English test matters, as it's one-fourth of their total score. Yet by then, bad habits are hard to break. By then, trying to get the rules ingrained into student brains becomes a lot like pulling teeth for the non-dentist. Doable, but it's going to be painful.
I attended a grammar workshop last year, taught by Jeff Anderson, M. Ed. , a.k.a. the Write Guy. My district brought him in to speak with all middle and high school English teachers, and we crowded into the Board of Education meeting room and came away inspired and a little shaken. Jeff told us to throw out the "kill and drill" of Daily Oral Language and to reduce or do away with the focusing on what is wrong and how to correct it. Instead he urged us to focus instead on teaching students the rules by showing them great writing examples and by having them make sentences based on those models. He urged that we bring observation and discussion back to the grammar/punctuation lessons. He showed us great writing (from actual literature) and had us discuss it. The teachers had a great time — and I went five for five when he questioned what was right and wrong. Clearly, I was a guru.
So I tried in summer school — and failed. I figured my class of thirteen students would make a good guinea pig, and despite having to spend an entire six hours a day with me for two weeks to make up an English III credit, they were really enthusiastic about trying. I got pieces from Jeff's blog. The trouble was, though, great writers break the rules. These kids didn't even know the rules. It was like that time back in 1987 when my cooperating teacher told me after a lesson (of which my first graders paid such rapt attention) "They didn't have a clue what you said because you used too big of words." I'd gone right over my students' heads. They were with me, but clueless. They tried to model sentences. They tried to write. Together, we both missed finding the key to success.
As I am always the variable in the classroom — the one who can change, the one who can shape the instruction — I knew this wasn't going to work. While Jeff's approach is fantastic, I learned that for me, I can't use just this approach and this alone. There has to be some kill and drill. Some discussion as to why something is wrong. Some discussion as to why things are right. My instruction needed to be more than just one strategy.
Thus, my goal is to figure out how to create a multi-pronged approach to teaching grammar. Currently, I'm working on flipping the classroom — meaning that my students will learn the rules on their own time, by viewing the videos and PowerPoints at home and by bringing in the completed, assigned exercises. I'll then be working on taking that instruction further and having them actually using what they've learned and applying it in their writing. I will be able to integrate Jeff's approach as my students will have prior knowledge, even if that knowledge isn't necessarily completely understood. Basically, we will have some common ground, and the rules introduced in fun, personal and interactive ways.
Will I succeed? I don't know. My students know the ACT is important, and they do have buy in. If they do well on the ACT the school administers in the spring, that ACT can count as one they can send to colleges — and the test will have been free. Free is always good. I'll keep you posted in a future column as how it all goes.