Whom, RIP

Whom has died after a lingering illness, reports John Merrow.  “Whom, of Latin origin, leaves no immediate survivors. A sole sibling, Whomever, passed away many years earlier.”

Whom’s recent years were difficult, friends say. The final blow came when Twitter chose Who over Whom to fill the prestigious slot, “Who to Follow.”

Teach grammar through writing

The best way to teach grammar is to teach writing, argues Michelle Navarre Cleary in The Atlantic. Teaching the rules of grammar, parts of speech and diagramming sentences alienates students from elementary school through college, she writes.

For example, one well-regarded study followed three groups of students from 9th to 11th grade where one group had traditional rule-bound lessons, a second received an alternative approach to grammar instruction, and a third received no grammar lessons at all, just more literature and creative writing. The result: No significant differences among the three groups—except that both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.

Cleary taught writing for eight years at an urban community college where 80 percent of students tested into remedial writing classes. Grammar came first. Students could spend a year in developmental writing “before being asked to write more than a paragraph.” 

Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write. Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”

Colleges such as Arizona State and Community College of Baltimore are raising pass rates in freshman composition by having remedial students tackle writing college essays immediately, Cleary writes.

English teachers, does just-in-time grammar instruction work?

Robert Pondiscio isn’t impressed, pointing out that “kids haven’t diagrammed sentences since the Johnson Administration.” I diagrammed sentences in seventh grade! Which was . . . the Johnson administration.

Here are the opening sentence of classic novels diagrammed.

“Traditional grammar” is superficial, writes linguist Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. What works are “exercises in sentence construction” requiring “a much deeper and more interactive engagement with grammar and syntax.”

Students: ‘Us deserve respect’

At an F-rated New York City high school, failing students earn quick credits through online courses, the New York Post reported.

While it’s called “blended learning,” the credit-recovery “courses” don’t include interaction with a teacher. One teacher is assigned to 475 students trying to earn credits in a wide variety of subjects. Murry Bergtraum High for Business Careers specializes in overage or held-back students who lack credits.

After the Post story ran, students wrote to defend the program. Nearly all the letters were filled with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, reports the Post.  

A junior wrote: “What do you get of giving false accusations im one of the students that has blended learning I had a course of English and I passed and and it helped a lot you’re a reported your support to get truth information other than starting rumors?.?.?.”

Another wrote: “To deeply criticize a program that has helped many students especially seniors to graduate I should not see no complaints.”

One student said the online system beats the classroom because “you can digest in the information at your own paste.”

“Us as New York City Students deserve respect and encouragement,” one letter read. “We are the future of New York City and for some students, The future of the country.”

I doubt if that future will include business careers.

Proofreading prof charged with ‘microaggression’

Protesters claimed a “toxic” racial climate in UCLA’s graduate education school motivated their sit-in last week in the classroom of Professor Val Rust.

Call2Action protesters said Rust committed “microaggression” by correcting their grammar and spelling on their dissertation proposals, wrote the professor in a letter from China, where he’s traveling. He also said “Students of Color” were angry that he hadn’t stopped a student discussion.

. . . a white female student . . . wants to use Standpoint Theory [a method of analysis coined by feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith, based on the idea that all knowledge is subjective and based on one's position in society] in her dissertation, and the Student of Color told her she had no business claiming that she was a member of an oppressed group. She came back saying there are all kinds of oppression. I likely did not handle the situation well, because I chose not to stop the discussion between them, so it went on for quite a while, and the Students of Color apparently interpreted my silence to mean I wasn’t supporting them.”

Rust urged the department to organize a town hall meeting later in the month to begin a dialogue.

Protesters did complain about Rust’s corrections reports Inside Higher Ed.  In addition, Call2Action’s letter accused the professor and classmates of repeatedly questioning their “epistemological and methodological commitments.”

The statement accuses “the professor” (it does not identify Rust by name) of correcting “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies” and “repeatedly questioning the value of our work on social identity and the related dynamics of oppression, power and privilege.” The “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate,” it continues.

“Students consistently report hostile classroom environments in which the effects of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other forms of institutionalized oppression have manifested within the department and deride our intellectual capacity, methodological rigor, and ideological legitimacy,” charges Call2Action’s online petition.

“Many of us have been through the formal complaint system of leveraging charges … the letters are reviewed, and we receive responses saying (the) charges have no merit,” said Kenjus Watson, a graduate student researching black men and microaggressions in higher education. Some have questioned his research as “too subjective,” he said. (I’ll be microaggressive and point out that “leveraging” is the wrong word. He must mean “leveling.”)

Many current and former students defended Rust, saying he was singled out unfairly. The sit-in was a “mean-spirited circus that creates exactly the hostile and toxic environment” the demonstrators claim to be fighting against, wrote Stephanie Kim, a graduate student who works with Rust, in the Daily Bruin. “

As a woman of color, I am deeply saddened that my adviser and mentor for the last five years, Rust, was unjustly demonized as the symbol of white male oppression as a cheap way of arousing public support.

Call2Action is demanding more black and Latino professors, a streamlined complaint procedure, etc. But what they really want is an end to “questioning” of their ideas, research methods, values — and grammar. That would be a toxic victory.

Why pirates say arrrrrrrrrr . . . .

Kind of Sketchy on Grammar Pirate:
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Bloomberg: Learn to ‘speak grammar’

“Kids have to learn to speak grammar,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on his weekly radio show. “If you don’t speak good grammar – English with good grammar – you’re not gonna get the kind of jobs that you want,” said the mayor.

That’s usually true, but Bloomberg managed to become a billionaire without learning to speak grammatically.

Grammar is back

A growing number of teachers are “bringing grammar, the forgotten spinster of school subjects, back to the party,” writes Elise Hahl  in Education Next.

In an honors English class at Needham High in Massachusetts, students rip apart a verbose letter by a 15K race coordinators trying to explain why he misdirected racers and forgot to supply water at the finish line.

“‘In trying to formulate what to say in regards to yesterday’s events,’” Max quotes, “‘I realized that what I said over and over to the folks I helped get on returning shuttle buses was exactly what should be said to all.’”

. . . “He just throws in words!” Max says. He goes on to finish the opening paragraph.

“‘While it became repetitive, it was no less from the heart in any one time from the other:’”

“He ended with a colon,” says a boy who didn’t shave that morning.

. . . A stocky kid named David chimes in. “That’s not just bad grammar,” he says, indignant. “That’s, like, bad PR.”

His comment catches the attention of (teacher Andrea) Bassett, who is making rounds to each cluster of students. “David,” she says, “the life lesson here is that bad grammar is bad PR. You guys remember that.”

Needham High English teachers decided to coordinate grammar instruction so their students would no longer graduate “without knowing the parts of speech or parts of a sentence” or the need to capitalize “I.”

Brent Concilio, a young, Dartmouth-educated teacher, says the push to make classes “relevant” meant more time discussing students’ feelings about contemporary novels and less time for “the systematic teaching of grammar.”

Grammar was considered oppressive by some teachers, writes Hahl.

The Conference on College Composition and Communication in 1972 stated that students had a right “to their own patterns and varieties and language.” The resolution, which was adopted in 1974 by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), went so far as to say that correcting language was “immoral” because it was really an attempt by one social group to exert dominance over another.

With colleges complaining about students’ lack of writing skills, the SAT has added grammar questions, Hahl writes. Needham High parents want their kids to learn grammar, even if they didn’t learn much when they were in school. The school’s teachers believe students will benefit from learning how to communicate clearly in what’s considered the “correct” way.

Needham serves students from affluent, educated families. I wonder if grammar is back in schools with disadvantaged students, who have little hope of learning to write clearly unless they’re taught the fundamentals.

2nd graders correct NFL players’ tweets

Second graders at Elmwood Franklin School in Buffalo “applied their lessons in proper sentence structure, noun and verb usage, spelling, and punctuation to correct the tweets of professional football players, posting their corrections on the school’s Facebook page. The most common mistake was the incorrect spelling of “a lot.”

The students corrected a tweet by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who made headlines this week for an anti-gay remark, reports the Daily Caller.  Students fixed the spelling in “I pray to God I’m never dieing broke,” though they didn’t translate it to standard English: “I pray to God that I don’t die broke.”

Second Graders Correct Tweets From NFL Players And It's Magical

Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young also drew the students’ attention by tweeting: “It’s true I could be alot better, But wit the football.”

New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker erred in a “Merry Christmas” message by adding: “My God bless you all!”

All three players are college graduates, according to the Daily Caller.

Wanted: A geezer with grammar skills

If you’re 70 or older, lucid and literate, there’s an (unpaid) job for you in Portland editing the autobiographical stories of a 79-year-old “geezer.”  Why the age requirement?

. . . I advertised before, received 117 responses. . .and NONE were sufficiently conversant with the English language to achieve an acceptable level of editing. It appears that a preponderance of younger people have not been taught correct grammar and satisfactory writing skills.

In addition to “possessing intimate knowledge and understanding of correct composition, grammar and punctuation,” he’s looking for someone who will work for satisfaction rather than money.

Why should those young punks learn to punctuate if there’s no money in it?

The ad was highlighted by Jim Romenesko, who also spotted Chicago Craigslist ad seeking a ghostwriter:

I would like to write a book, but find myself without the time or expertise to write it.

Age isn’t mentioned. (Neither is pay.) The successful applicant “must possess various abilities, powerful writing skills, knack for putting ideas together, experiences and information into words and can write about any topic.”

How self-expression hurt my students

Liberating students to discover the power of their voice? Sharing personal narratives? Every child an “author” writing for an audience? “Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong,” writes Robert Pondiscio in The Atlantic.

As a fifth-grade teacher at a South Bronx school, “I used to damage children for a living with that idealism,” he writes.

P.S. 277 didn’t teach its low-income students to use correct grammar and sentence structure, or to correct their mistakes.  That sort of literacy instruction rediscovered by New Dorp High School in Peg Tyre’s The Writing Revolution, was considered stifling.

Every day, for two hours a day, I led my young students through Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. I was trained not to address my kids as “students” or “class” but as “authors” and “readers.” We gathered “seed ideas” in our Writer’s Notebooks. We crafted “small moment” stories, personal narratives, and memoirs. We peer edited. We “shared out.” Gathered with them on the rug, I explained to my 10-year-olds that “good writers find ideas from things that happened in their lives.” That stories have “big ideas.” That good writers “add detail,” “stretch their words,” and “spell the best they can.”

Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I “modeled” the habits of good readers and “coached” my students. What I called “teaching,” my staff developer from Teacher’s College dismissed as merely “giving directions.” My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors.

Reading and writing instruction had become a  Cargo Cult, Pondiscio writes. Go through the motions of being a writer to be a writer.

But good writers use their knowledge of the world, their big vocabularies and their command of language conventions to write vividly and persuasively, he points out.  Children growing up in language-rich families may pick up these things by osmosis; everyone else needs to be taught in school.

“When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship and grammar,” observes Lucy Calkins, probably the workshop model’s premier guru. She is almost certainly correct.

This leaves exactly two options: The first is to de-emphasize spelling and grammar. The other is to teach spelling and grammar. But at too many schools, it’s more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It’s more important to write a “personal response” to literature than engage with the content.

“The unlived life is not worth examining,” Pondiscio writes.  Furthermore, “teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining.”

Young people who’ve mastered grammar are more likely to become writers capable of self-expression, he argues.

Also: Great writing comes out of great ideas.