Not desiring to be a member elitist group of English educators I have grown to affectionately refer to as, the Grammar Nazis, I was hesitant in selecting a professional development book about teaching grammar to help me with a subject that I struggled with, and will continue to struggle with for the rest of my life. I cringe at being that teacher that beats my students to a pulp with frequent common errors that many people, like myself, struggle with daily.
After reading the power packed initial sixty-two pages of the book where Anderson explains problems with many educational systems concerning grammar instruction, I was left with a sense of awe. Anderson argues, very effectively against the use of what he calls ‘Correct Alls,’ commonly known as packets, worksheets, and workbooks. Though I would argue that there is some valid gain to be made from the repetition of drill and practice, there is little evidence that supports memorization of rules are superior to practice and understanding on concept. Most students tend to make errors in exploration of the language through their own pseudo-concepts (budding theories) of how the language works.
We will save ourselves a lot of frustration if we shift our notion of punctuation and grammar to one of teaching principles instead of rules. Handbooks and English teachers often take a right-wrong stance. I’d rather my students take a thinking stance. Pseudo-concepts are stepping stones along the way to concept development (4).
In order for students to comprehend rules and guidelines they must be not be reprimanded for their lack of mastery in their development, rather the errors they make should be embraced and recognized in their efforts to grow as writers. The errors illuminate the thinking of the student point to areas where teachers need to support rather than penalize.
One way Anderson teaches grammar, that is too ‘simple’ to be less than a gold mine, is in the use of mentor text. His mentor text comes from a variety of short powerful writings. Some are poems, quotes from movies, and some mentor texts come directly from outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction. In short, he uses published writing to teach different language concepts.
I know, Duh… right? Well it is undoubtedly a no brainer, but somehow I never once learned grammar by comparing my sentences to a model sentence written by Stephen King, yet I have completed literally thousands of worksheets that supposedly thought me grammar. Too simple indeed. Anderson includes a section in each lesson throughout the book called behind the error that explains why writers make the type of error covered in the lesson.
If I could glue one idea from this book firmly upon the forehead of all of my students it would be found in the section ‘Starting an Editor’s Checklist.’ I mean this in all earnestness, many of my students would gain back years of grammatical knowledge prior to attending my classroom were they to cut and paste this section into their brains. I fully intend on starting one this week because of the repeated errors my students make: forgetting to capitalize, using the wrong homophone, misusing apostrophes, run on sentences. Since I cannot tattoo this simple checklist on each of my students I must make a constant visual reminder for them. Essentially, all the list is, is a reminder of common errors that they must be aware of and make an effort to avoid making themselves.
Again, simple right? However, my students (either through laziness, carelessness, or forgetfulness) make the same errors in simple punctuation and spelling that a year in Kindergarten taught them use correctly. No matter what I put on a rubric, state verbally in class or cover in a lesson they still make the same errors. I giant checklist seems the most logical next step. In fact, Anderson is adamant about the use of wall charts for students to refer to throughout the year to re-enforce and establish understanding and habit. Visual learning does account for the majority of learners after all. In fact, Anderson includes a visual activity for each lesson.
I will take several things with me away from the book Mechanically Inclined. First and foremost, no matter how much certain grammatical blunders may feel like the bane to my very existence, I must recognize that behind every error is a student that is trying to succeed. A student demonstrating the courage to face the plausible certainty that someone will tell them they are wrong. It is not as simple as that. Sure some kids are apathetic, but if they write, they are trying and we are the apathetic teacher if we do not help them.
Second, I learned a great deal of grammar myself. More than once while I was reading the several lesson plans included in this book, I paused saying, “light bulb!” much like Gru in my own mind. AAAWWUBBIS for example, is something new to me. Sure I am fairly familiar subordinating conjunctions, but I’ve never seen anyone make a mnemonic device to help students remember them before. I can see myself howling AAAWWUBBIS like a deranged Willy Wonka or an excited Chewbacca and waiting for my students to decide whether to push the button to call for the principal to collect the crazy teacher or to ask what the H E double hockey stick I was doing. Preferably after the later, I would explain what an AAAWWUBBIS was.
Third, there is not a single lesson that I don’t think would relate to my students needs, or help them on any level, to succeed.
I couldn’t have been more pleased with my selection of a grammar instruction book and look forward to sharing it with my peers and students.