Grammar is like the prim and proper grandfather of the language family. He wears a fancy sweater vest, which is made entirely of wool from sheep only found in Ireland, underneath his brown plaid blazer. He has a copious vocabulary of large words, but doesn’t flaunt them often. He’s quiet, but speaks when necessary. The other members of the family are scared to ask speak with him as they are worried about the difficult questions he may pose. What’s the difference between affect and effect? Should you use lie or lay in the sentence? He sits in the back of the room, usually in the middle of the couch. Despite his quiet demeanor, he is the glue that holds the family together. When trouble strikes, Grampa Grammar is there to save the day. He adds conjunctions to run-on sentences to prevent them from running amok. He throws periods and commas into oceans of text, saving many lives from drowning in chaos and confusion. He is the quiet leader of the language family, despite his need for specificity and accuracy.
Grammar has always struck me as that grandfather-like figure who corrects you when you mistakenly use myself or them in speaking with him. While no one really likes Grampa Grammar, we need him to know how to properly speak and write in any language. In high school, I used to despise grammar lessons, as they felt so forced and difficult. Why do I really need to underline every adjective clause in the 20 sentences on this worksheet? Is this knowledge every really going to save my life or come in handy in the future? Pssst, I hate to be that guy, but I’ve never needed to know grammar specifics since graduating from college. If I’m ever curious about word usage or parts of speech, I look them up online or in the grammar guide I used in college. Now, just because I don’t find myself needing to identify what type of preposition is in this sentence, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and good to learn all about grammar and what makes language tick. Grammar can be very fun and interesting. Diagramming sentences can be a really great way to spend a Saturday night with some friends. If you incorrectly identify the part of speech of any word, you must drink an entire can of Mt. Dew soda while reciting the alphabet backwards. What could possibly be more fun than that? In all seriousness though, grammar should be an essential part of every Humanities or language class; however, how it is taught makes the difference between allowing students to see grammar as the stuffy grampa in the back of the room or the cool uncle that lets you drive his new Camaro.
Over the years, how I have taught grammar in my Humanities class has evolved. I used to teach it in a way that made my students dislike it as much as I did. Then, after doing research on grammar instruction over the years, I’ve come to realize that in order for students to really appreciate and see the joy and importance in grammar, I need to teach the topic in a relevant and engaging manner. Worksheets make grammar seem uncool. So, I’ve moved towards mini-lessons and novelty instruction. I’ve tried to find new and intriguing ways to help my students understand why our language works the way in which it does.
Yesterday, I helped my students understand the evils of run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing. I began the mini-lesson with a quick discussion on run-on sentences. I asked the students to define the term. I explained to the students that run-on sentences are like wild animals running loose in the classroom. If we’re not careful, they will take over the world. We need to keep them contained and leashed at all times. The boys found this image quite humorous, which allowed it to better stick in their minds for future reference. I’m sure that very few of my students will forget run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing any time soon. I then had the boys, independently, correct two run-on sentences on paper so that they had a chance to individually demonstrate their ability and prior knowledge on the topic. This short activity then led into a whole class discussion on run-on sentences and how to fix them. I explained the different types of run-on sentences that they will often see in their writing or the writing of their peers. I had volunteers correct the sentences they had practiced repairing on their own. This then brought up many different points including conjunctions, commas, semicolons, and periods. We laughed and had fun discussing grammar. The boys seemed thoroughly engaged the entire time. In about 15 minutes, I helped my students understand how to properly write grammatically correct sentences. Awesome sauce!
Yesterday’s lesson helped me see the power of novelty and engagement. I need to find creative and inventive ways to teach my students all about grammar. Simply providing my students with information on the parts of speech will not help them genuinely learn and remember grammar and how to create grammatically correct sentences. I need to make grammar sticky for them, mentally speaking, so that they will be able to remember and effectively recall this information at a later date and time. Today during class, when we were discussing trivia questions and how noone in the class answered a question correctly, one of the students said, “It’s like the run-on sentences taking over the classroom. Craziness and chaos ensue.” Yes, I thought to myself. They get it and remembered it. Mission, accomplished.
As I reflected on what this student said to me, it made me realize that I need to make all of my grammar lessons memorable, just like that one. So, my brain began percolating, and ideas started flowing like chocolate from a fountain…
I would start introducing grammar at the beginning of the year by having students interact and play with magnetic poetry words. I’d have them create super long and interesting phrases and lines of words. I would then provide them all with a plastic knife that would represent a scalpel and train them to be language doctors. I wouldn’t even use the word grammar. I would simply talk about the need for knowing how to fix their own writing and the writing of their classmates. I would then build on these language doctor lessons throughout the first term using grammar concepts without ever uttering the often evil word “grammar.”
I love it. My idea is based on how some teachers at a school with struggling math students created a new course for them that wasn’t called a math class and the word math was never mentioned until the very end of the academic year. The students solved problems and learned complex math concepts without even realizing that they were learning math. My approach to grammar instruction would do the same thing. I can’t wait to try it next year. In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to make grammar fun and exciting for my students this year. I might even pilot some of my language doctor ideas later in the year to see how they work out. When grammar becomes boring like the old grampa in the room, students become disengaged. As grammar is the glue that holds language together, we need to help our students see grammar concepts as vital and important. We need to empower our students to become language fixers instead of language disaster makers.