Photo of Orion by Frank Cone on Pexels.com

I can’t think of a question that I disliked more as a new teacher than “How are we going to use this in the real world?” I got this question plenty in my early years, and it always felt so dismissive of the work we were doing, and, even though I didn’t yet understand why, I knew that if too many students asked that question too many times, it could seriously erode the work of the class.

In those days, when a student asked that question, I can recall usually responding in a curt and quick manner–my irritation thinly veiled, if veiled at all. These days though, I have come to realize that if ever there was a question that I need to respond to with great thought, it is this one. This is because a student who asks How are we going to use this in the real world? is really saying Why should I value this?, and that is a reasonable question for one to ask. In fact, it is likely the same question we ask before every staff meeting and professional development we attend, and we know how different our approaches to these meetings and trainings can be depending on our answer.

Now before moving on, it’s worth noting that focusing too much on a topic’s usefulness or utility can be a problem too, as Dave Stuart Jr. discusses in a recent video. Only teaching what is instantly recognizable as useful in the real world limits our curriculum and can backfire because what we view as useful and what a student views as useful might be quite different. In those cases, if our only major argument for engagement is usefulness, students now have a strong reason to disengage.

Still, value and utility do matter a great deal, as is evident by the prevalence of the How are we going to use this? question in our schools (and maybe also in our PD). This question also speaks to something important and related, which is that as educators, our knowledge of and love for our subjects illuminates so many things, but it can also blind us to other things. For example, it is generally so clear to us how the skills and content we teach connect to each other and will help students that we often forget that our students might not see these things as clearly as we do.

One of my books of the summer, Learning That Transfers, captures the genesis of this problem well when it says:

“Novices often place their attention on the superficial features of a new situation, not on the deeper, underlying structures. Beginners, therefore, tend to see bits of information as separate, unconnected facts, while experts see new, fact-rich situations as part of a larger system of ideas that exists in their minds…As teachers, we often assume that our students…see how each element of our curriculum relates to the others. We assume that as they learn they develop frameworks of knowledge in their minds. This often occurs because a teacher’s expertise in any given subject area creates blind spots, meaning they see the content so clearly and understand it so deeply that they forget how that content might appear to their students (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). They gaze into the night sky and immediately see constellations that give shape and meaning to each star—they see Ursa Major and Orion’s belt—whereas their students gaze upon the same stars as random points of light.”

Learning That Transfers, pg. 9

I know I have likely fallen into this type of assumption more times than I can count. I have talked about tone one day and finding the right quotes the next day and assumed students saw the connection–that both skills play a role in establishing credibility–and how learning these things would help them in their lives. Yet I’m fairly sure in hindsight that in the many of these moments, some of my students were likely sitting there thinking Why does this matter? I won’t be pulling quotes from books or writing essays with appropriate tone when I become an architect or electrician.

My last post discussed how one of the ways that I tried to help my students through the 20/21 school year was by reorganizing my writing curriculum from one focused on genre to one focused on the tools that writers have. My goal in doing this was simple: I wanted to help students to better see how the content connected to their lives in and out of school to encourage them to keep going during an unprecedentedly disconnected time.

And this approach was successful nearly everywhere I deployed it, but there was one area where this approach undoubtedly yielded the most positive and even more surprising results: My grammar instruction.*

What made the popularity of grammar lessons surprising was that in most ways my approach was similar to what I’ve done before. It was done largely in the context of student writing, contextualized with a robust discussion of linguistics (for ways to do this I really suggest reading Other People’s English), and assessed mainly through targeted responses to targeted writing pieces. The only difference was how I organized it, with my instruction divided into three categories:

  1. How grammar impacts the rhythm, tone, and feel of our writing.
  2. How grammar can help us to add emphasis to (or deemphasize) parts of our writing.
  3. How grammar can help to bring out our voice.

This shift in organization (from my previous organization, which was more of a loose collection of craft moves and grammatical concepts) felt like a minor change, and yet I’ve never experienced engagement or interest in grammar that came even close to what I got last year. On every single check-in with students during the entire year, grammar was the #1 answer to what students wanted more of–with more students often asking for it than all other topics combined!

At first the popularity of these grammar/rhetoric lessons over Zoom perplexed me greatly. How can one little change take two things (grammar and Zoom) that are generally disliked by students and turn them into some of the most popular lessons I’ve ever taught?

It took me until this summer to fully grasp it, but I eventually realized that what students don’t like about grammar is that it is often one of the most disconnected and out-of-context things we do in school. So often we learn about colons or appositives because, well, you should know about colons and appositives. And while as humans we are naturally curious about nearly everything, there are limits, and appositives and colons might cross that line for many.

In previous years, while I argued for more teaching of grammar in the context of student writing (as opposed to on worksheets, which has been long established as minimally or not effective because students struggle to transfer those skills to their own writing), I simultaneously did little to nothing to contextualize the value of grammar. I assumed it spoke for itself. Or in other words I assumed that the students saw Orion, but many likely only saw random points of light flashing in the sky. 

Last year though, by leading with what grammar could do for us, suddenly my grammar was truly in-context for the first time. Students saw more clearly how it applied to their writing and also how it applied to them as people. This little shift helped grammar go from something that many likely viewed as disconnected from their lives to an oasis of connectedness during a year where such connectedness was in short supply, which in turn led to the increased engagement. Further, by categorizing grammar by its uses, the way to apply it was suddenly clear for many, and this led to an exponential increase in the number of students using the concepts organically in their own writing long after the lessons on them ended.


This post could easily be viewed as an argument for making sure the value of everything we do is clear to students, and that is something that is worth thinking about. But more than that it is an argument to make sure that the organization of our classroom–how the topics connect to each other, our lives, and the broader world–is clear to all those in the class. Learning That Transfers explains that having a clear understanding of the larger organizational structures that skills and knowledge fit into is a prerequisite for understanding how to transfer them other tasks because our brains are a series of connections, and anything disconnected from the larger mass of connections will likely have little use (7).

In hindsight, even though my students learned grammar in the context of their own writing in previous years, this is probably why many struggled to connect the concepts to their writing more generally. But once the organization was clear, those who looked up at the sky and saw random points of light suddenly saw constellations, planets, long-deceased stars, and distant galaxies. And once you see that, the sky will never be random lights again!

*A quick note: When I talk about grammar, I am using the Latin root notion that it is the study of “the art of letters.” I find that by expanding the definition to all structures and tools that impact our use of language makes it easier to engage in the approach I discuss above. This means the study of grammar in my class includes everything from punctuation to parallel structure to alliteration.

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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2 thoughts on “How Grammar Became My Students’ Favorite Subject Last Year

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