Have teachers made grammar instruction disappear?

by Mr. Sheehy

I sat down with a colleague this week to discuss the reality of teaching grammar in our classrooms. Could we do it? If we could do it, how would we do it? We know students will essentially need remediation. Is the remediation so much that our efforts won’t be worthwhile? Would there be a way to do it without killing ourselves?

One thing we are determined not to do is insist upon the unabridged and specialized vocabulary of grammar. There is no way I am going to ask students to know what a nominative adjective is or to call a “helping verb” an auxiliary verb. That would hang us all, every mother’s son. Yet my colleague and I don’t have the desire to write a book on this stuff, and we honestly would not be interested in writing a book on it even if we had enough ideas and time to create one. What we want is a good book on grammar that we can use as a guide, that we can pair up with some decent educational methods to repair our students’ understanding of English grammar.

I thought a place to start might be the library, so I halfway emptied the shelf on grammar. Nine books are stacked up beside me, most of them targeting adults who are sad that their grammar is terrible and are needing help to make it better. Thus a few books are organized around fixing the most common grammatical mistakes in our language. The concept sounds good, but every time I look in one of these books, there is more base-level grammar to each explanation than a person likely is ready to handle, at least a person who is making all those mistakes. The best one I’ve seen so far–and I emphasize I haven’t reached the bottom of the pile–is Better Grammar in 30 Minutes a Day. It starts simple and emphasizes use rather than grammatical conversation, which is what I’d like to do.

This grammar thing has me thinking, however, about how we got into this mess. Last night I saw Race to Nowhere at the invitation of friends. I think they thought it was Waiting for Superman (at least, I did, until today when I looked up a couple reviews and got the titles straight), but it was slightly interesting. I won’t review it here for lack of time and interest, but it did remind me again of the abilities of different media to convey particular messages (and reminded me of Edward Tufte’s work). A documentary is good at opening a conversation, maybe at raising questions, but as far as I have seen answers to big questions are better conveyed in longer form with more nuance–like through a book, study, or lecture series.

I bring it up because one teacher in the film spoke emotionally about her experience in a school in East Oakland. She went into teaching with the idea that she could change students’ lives and grew frustrated when the district told her what she had to teach. She said that it was far less important for those kids to know when to put in a semicolon than it was for them to think critically and work in groups.

This passionate woman in East Oakland wants the best for her students, and I am assuming that her comment about semicolons was not really about semicolons. It was about dry black and white content like grammar that she had decided was irrelevant for her students. Also in the film she spoke about her dislike of tests that were culturally biased against her students (a potentially legitimate complaint if narrowed to precisely which parts are biased) and her desire to measure students through something more encompassing, like portfolios. I wonder about portfolios, as my own small examination of them has found them to be disappointingly underwhelming in effect.

This one teacher’s unfiltered, honest, and good-willed opinions helped clarify a question that has been building in the back of my mind as I have considered grammar. The question is simple, but loaded:  Have we stopped teaching grammar intensively because teachers do not want to teach it?

I don’t know how it is in other places, but in my experience, curriculum standards are built by teachers. Administrators can bring a certain emphasis to schools, but the thing I have seen more frequently is teachers and teacher-led committees pushing district initiatives for particular approaches. I have also seen peer pressure for particular methodology and see that if one teacher does something and gets noticed for it, then another teacher is more likely to adopt that thing, whatever it is.

Perhaps that method the teacher adopts gets so much attention she goes to a conference to share it. The woman in the film reminded me of a pair of women who led a session at a technology conference I attended a couple years ago. They were sharing about an English/art class they had created for seniors, where students were engaging in discussion in class and creating movies. The teachers had gained extra time for students to work on these projects by combining the art and English classes, and they were obviously pleased with the resulting products.

At the time I protested vehemently (intenernally only, of course) that if one were to take your obligated curriculum and reading selections and throw them out, then of course you can do these amazing projects. And while these projects are great, are they really always contributing to the development of critical thinking like we hope they are? I have had students do some amazing multimedia projects–they were amazing not because of me, but because they were amazing kids–but when I stepped out of the glamor and glitter of their media, I realized that the thinking that went into the project was far less diligent and admirable than the thinking that went into a simple and unique two page essay I assigned after reading a set of short stories.

Teaching grammar has no glamor and no glitz. It’s dirty and you deal with complaints all the time. But if you were to teach grammar “in context” and instead teach a writing workshop and let students write piles of poetry and stories that come from their hearts and try to help them edit and correct their grammar mistakes in those works . . . well, that has more glamor and reward. A teacher is going to want to do that.

My colleague and I could take a week and build a grammar curriculum guide and create a session telling teachers how to teach grammar. But when teachers discovered that it involved the dirty work of grammar instruction and that it wasn’t a wonderful elixir that made all the grammar mistakes go away without the difficult work of instruction, I think the most likely reaction would be dismissal. We’d be ignored. Whatever we say about NCLB dictating all our curriculum, I’m not sure I agree. From my seat it looks like teachers have a great deal of say about what happens in the classroom, and at times I wonder if this is not exactly why grammar is not taught so much anymore.

I may be completely wrong, and I will openly admit it if or when it turns out to be the case, but it seems to me that when I read narratives of the grammar shift that say explicit grammar teaching faded with the whole language movement, I suspect there is more to the story. I suspect that one reason the whole language movement was so powerful and popular was because it was easier and more fun, especially for teachers.

Just a thought and a question.

Thanks for reading.