Mr. Morton is the subject …

The Tale of Mr. Morton from Schoolhouse Rock.

The lost art of diagramming sentences

The design firm Pop Chart Lab has taken the first lines of famous novels and diagrammed those sentences. This one shows the opening of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Pop Chart Lab has diagrammed the first lines of famous novels, such as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Diagramming sentences is a lost art, reports NPR.

It’s a “picture of language,” says Kitty Burns Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.

The first sentence she recalls diagramming is: “The dog barked.”

“By drawing a line and writing ‘dog’ on the left side of the line and ‘barked’ on the right side of the line and separating them with a little vertical line, we could see that ‘dog’ was the subject of the sentence and ‘barked’ was the predicate or the verb,” she explains. “When you diagram a sentence, those things are always in that relation to each other. It always makes the same kind of picture. And supposedly, it makes it easier for kids who are learning to write, learning to use correct English

In a 1877  book, Higher Lessons in English, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg argued that students would learn how to structure sentences by drawing them as graphic structures. Diagramming became popular — till the 1960s. (I learned in seventh grade in 1964-5.)

 “Diagramming sentences … teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram,” declared the 1960 Encyclopedia of Educational Research.

In 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English declared that “repetitive grammar drills and exercises” — like diagramming sentences — are “a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.”

Diagramming isn’t mentioned in the Common Core standards, so it’s probably doomed.

Robo-writing tutors

Robo-readers are better than humans at helping students improve their writing, argues Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report. “The computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human,” she writes.

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which has used E-Rater since 2009, students are far more willing to revise their essays if they get feedback from a computer rather than a human teacher.  They write more and improve more.

Rewriting seems like a game, a way to get a higher score, said Andrew Klobucar, a humanities professor.

Instructors’ criticism is seen by students as “corrective, even punitive,”  he said. When E-Rater suggests a rewrite, students don’t take it personally.

In a study at Alexandria University, students learning to teach English as a foreign language received feedback on two essay drafts from a robo-reader program called Criterion.

As in New Jersey, students liked the immediate response, saw writing a new draft as a game and preferred non-human feedback.

Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent.

. . . the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. . . . Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Robo-graders are a bad idea, concludes Paul. But robo-writing coaches may be a very good idea.

When critics like Les Perelman of MIT claim that robo-graders can’t be as good as human graders, it’s because robo-graders lack human insight, human nuance, human judgment. But it’s the very non-humanness of a computer that may encourage students to experiment, to explore, to share a messy rough draft without self-consciousness or embarrassment.

Automated software would let teachers assign more writing without creating an impossible burden for themselves.

The only way to learn to write is to write and rewrite.

Teaching grade 12½

The first year of college has become grade 12½, writes a community college writing instructor. Actually, it’s more like grade 7 1/2: He’s teaching punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and spelling.

Word crimes

Weird Al Yankovic has released Word Crimes. (It’s a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which I know only because I looked it up.)

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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