Thursday, July 01, 2004

The "grammar girl" weighs in...

Warning: Monster Post Ahead (I got a bit carried away).

Mike made this comment on an intriguing blog I stumbled on today (and wondered why I'd never visited it before):

"I feel completely free to modify English grammar as I see fit."

It hit home with me, because lately, I've been reading about almost nothing BUT grammar, and this mirrors much of what I've been learning of the English language. Let me explain.

I imagine (and correct me if I'm wrong) that Mike was saying this tongue-in-cheek, since he teaches Classical languages and probably has a much better understanding of grammar than I ever will; therefore, he has the right to do whatever he wants.

That being said, the conclusions I've drawn lately about grammar usage are not far off from that quote. Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely not an "anything goes" type of person, nor do I plan on being that type of teacher. The question, as our professor Dr. Fox has been emphasising, is not IF we will teach grammar, but HOW.

The idea that grammar is constantly changing, that language is fluid, is obvious. I have yet to take "History of the English Language," but I imagine I will not learn that our Mother tongue is static. We don't speak King James English, thankfully. Therefore, the rules are constantly being revised to reflect modern usages.

In our "Teaching Writing" course, we've been reading a main text, Teaching Grammar in Context by Connie Weaver, as well as a supplemental professional book from a list of choices the professor provided. I chose Image Grammar by Harry Noden, and was pleased to discover the author makes a connection between that mysterious concept of "good writing" and art.

Basically, instead of teaching only wrote memorization of grammar rules and out-of-context grammar exercises to high schoolers, we should teach grammar through writing. The premise of Image Grammar is that all good writers learn by imitation, by reading what he calls "the Masters." He likens some fundamental grammar concepts to "brush strokes" that he believes all students need to learn before they can master the art of writing. Like painters who line the halls of the Louvre attempting to imitate the frenzied strokes of a Monet or capture the detail found in Mona Lisa's smile, student writers should be studying and analyzing professional writings to discover "how they do it." He, like Connie Weaver, insists that the way students become good writers is first and foremost by reading, and reading constantly. In that way, students absorb many concepts unconsciously.

Weaver noted that her son used absolutes in his writing, but he had never been taught the concept in school and couldn't name it. He had just absorbed it through his reading and consequently they appeared in his writing. I was the same way. Somehow, I had managed to avoid learning what an absolute was until two weeks ago, and then I realized I had been using absolutes in my writing all along without even realizing it. Her point being, students don't always need to know the terms before they learn to use them. Point well taken.

Image Grammar also advocates that students should be taught the conventions of grammar in order to break them. And they should be able to break them effectively. For example, professional writers uses fragments and comma splices judiciously, but we have always been told to avoid them. One list of authors who do this included Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and E.M. Forster. In my creative writing classes in college, most of those types of rules went out the window. We paid attention to pause and cadence and rhythm, and ignored some of those "fundamentals" that plagued us in high school. However, we first read examples of genre and many samples of published writing before actually sitting down to the task of writing any type of poem or short story of our own.

Yesterday, one group presented Breaking the Rules, a book that advocates the same idea found in Weaver and Noden's text. The authors made the fascinating point that the people who write the grammar handbooks don't even follow their own rules in their other published writings! (And they had plenty of examples.) If the experts don't use it, why do we? I think it would be beneficial to teach our students this concept in high school before they get stuck in writing ruts. (Additionally, I believe after you teach students the 5 paragraph essay, it should be banished. Once they learn it, abandon it! It's too constricting. AP and Honors students don't have to use it, why should everyone else?) The authors make the great point that this method encourages creativity in writing, rather than using the punitive red pen "it's my way or the highway" approach all the time. Admittedly, there are times when breaking the rules is more appropriate than others, but that is why we, as teachers, should discuss these things with our students and show them plenty of examples of how to do it right.

Of course, we still have to teach the basics of grammar. There are punctuation rules to follow, and concentions that are standard. Some things don't change. If I wrote a sentence and ended it with a comma, like this, That would just be wrong. As a future teacher, though, what I've drawn from these readings is that I need to encourage student writing and actually have them WRITE in class in order to practice grammar concepts they learn, instead of sidling off "grammar lessons" to merely copying exercises from a three-hundred page handbook that I have probably never entirely read myself.

I'll spare you, gentle reader, from suffering through any more of my education dronings today. I'm still figuring all this out myself and have yet to come to firm convictions on some kind of happy medium between the behavioral model of teaching and a constructivist model, which is what Weaver advocates. Our professors are only too happy to oblige. They realize we are all going to have our own methods of teaching this stuff.

Of course, I'm curious to read more about the concept of Classical education that is buzzing about everywhere these days. Perhaps one day I will get to read Nancy Wilson's Our Mother Tongue. I've been looking forward to it for a while, but I have yet to order it and know I won't have time to even glance at it anyway, at least not for the next three weeks...and possibly the next year. Oh, the joy of returning to school! Sleep deprivation and cognitive overload, hoorah!

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