I am a father, husband, and English teacher at a public magnet school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am also the author of a book for new teachers called Finding Success the First Year: A Survivor's Guide for New Teachers and regularly publish about writing instruction in my blog at https://matthewmjohnson.com/blog/.
My last post was about how if we want grammar to stick, we need to do two things:
Teach it in the context of student writing
Approach it as a study of opportunities that enhance our writing, not errors we need to avoid
When it comes to doing this, I have found no tool more useful than the sentence. While on the surface the definition of a sentence is rather dull…
…in practice, sentences can be gorgeous laboratories of nearly infinite variety. They can be extended, cut down, puffed-up, moved around, mixed-and-matched, and generally treated like Playdough. And in the process one can teach nearly any grammatical rule and tool imaginable. Here are the top three ways that I use the humble sentence to help my students learn and learn to love grammar:
At the same time, teaching it in the context of student writing is tricky because students tend to have wildly different understanding of grammar. In any given class, I will inevitably have some students who will use a term like subordinate conjunction without hesitation sitting right next to others don’t use periods or capitalization regularly.
And, just to make it even trickier, the stakes concerning grammar also tend to be really high. While much of writing is so subjective that it is difficult to assess on standardized tests, basic grammar is quite concrete, meaning that it is often disproportionately represented on the exams that our students (and often us) are often disproportionately judged by.
Teachers tend to be both helpers and problem solvers. In fact, if a random group of teachers were polled, my guess is that those might be the two most common traits found, as to be called to the classroom generally means you like to both help others and tackle major problems.
And being helpful and a problem-solver are generally positive traits for educators to have, but there is one moment where these mostly positive traits can become liabilities: when we sit down with students to give them feedback, either in person or on the page.
As I’ve discussed before, I’ve observed that when teachers give students feedback, they almost instantly enter let’s-fix-it! mode. Considering the sheer number of students we often have, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, but as Daniel Coyle shares in his book The Culture Code, there is a simple experiment out of the Harvard Business School that shows that maybe there is a slightly better mode to enter first, if only for four or five seconds, before entering fix-it mode. Here is how he introduces it:
“Before I know what to teach, I need to know whom I teach.” -Cornelius Minor
Last week I finished We Got This., Cornelius Minor’s relentlessly positive and ridiculously quotable book (which is a highly recommended read), and while it has me thinking about a lot of things, what I keep coming back to is the line above. Minor has a number of eloquent and flashy lines, but it’s this simple line–which acts as a thesis statement of sorts for the book–that has sat with me, as I feel that it hits upon something important and rare.
Blogger George Evans recently wrote a blog post called “In Defense of Slow” where he states that “many things in education are simply too fast…in this rush to cover content, to get through standards…we lose the heart and soul of what we should be there for.”
It is worth remembering though that the same is true in our own education as well. For most summers of my teaching life, I tried to blast through twenty, thirty, or forty books in a vain effort to chop my always massive to-read list down to a more manageable size, but at the end of each summer this left me feeling less recharged and a bit fuzzier on the details of many of the books than I’d like.
So last summer I decided to focus on reading six books and read them well and deep. The result was a far more enjoyable and fulfilling experience, so I am going to do the same thing again this summer. People seemed to really enjoy the list last year (I mean who doesn’t love book lists? They are among my favorite things in this world), so I wanted to share my summer 2019 list. Here it goes:
I wanted to end my posts concerning the essay with what has been maybe the biggest shift in my classroom this year: the more human responses I now give to essays.
Until very recently, my response to essays tended to focus on the main elements that go into making an essay–the thesis, topic sentences, evidence, analysis, and introductions/conclusions, with a few occasional discussions of mechanics or word choice. But this year I got to wondering if all or even most of our attention should go to towards those things. Here’s why…