For the first time in a long time, I am scheduled to teach ENG 105, Grammar: Structure and Strategy. In the past, I have taught it successfully as a class in parsing sentences, a skill that I first learned in third grade and then again, though in an entirely different form, when I was studying transformational grammar in graduate school. When I say I taught the course successfully, I mean that I was able to see concrete evidence that my students, most of them at least, had actually learned something. One woman, for example, told me how she was able to use sentence parsing to save her boss from sending out a letter that had some truly embarrassing grammatical errors in it; another, a seventh grade English teacher, was elated that she now had a vocabulary for teaching her own students about why certain kinds of sentences had to be the way they were. Granted these two women were particularly motivated, but I saw signs of real learning in other students as well, in every semester that I taught the class, even some of those who were the most skeptical and apathetic at the beginning.
Despite this success, if I had to identify one way in which I think my teaching of this course could be better, I’d have to say it would be in making an explicit and constructive connection between the course content and my students’ practice as writers. I have come to this position only gradually, since my original thinking about the teaching of grammar, especially as sentence parsing, pretty much ruled out that kind of connection. For me, ENG 105 was more about showing students a way to think about language, not a way to use it. In part, this bias comes from the training in linguistics I received when I got my degree in TESOL, but the bias also came from my own English education, most of which took place in the era when educators decided that the way to teach writing was to have students write and write and write (and read and read and read), the idea being that good, strong input would eventually result in good, strong output, and that worrying about the rules of grammar would interfere with that process.
For me, obviously, that approach worked, in part, no doubt, because it was continuous with the attitudes towards reading and writing that permeated my home. For all too many of the students who sit in my classes, however, no approach seems to have worked. In saying that, I am not complaining about how poorly they write, though many of them write astonishingly poorly; and I cannot help but wonder how they managed to graduate from high school. Rather, I am talking about the almost fatalistic sense of helplessness they seem to have in the face of the language they use to communicate every day (and I should add that, for the purposes of this post, I am thinking specifically about native speakers of English). Or perhaps helplessness is the wrong word. What I am talking about is the resistance so many of my students have to seeing language as something they can manipulate, something they are (or can, or should want to be) competent enough to use precisely. As, in other words, a tool of expression, rather than merely the artifact of having expressed oneself.
This resistance expresses itself in any number of ways, though I encounter it most commonly in students’ unwillingness to engage the process of revision in anything more than a superficial way. In part, of course, this unwillingness is very much about their being students and wanting to get by doing as little work as possible; but I believe there is more to it than that. In my writing classes–whether its freshman composition, technical writing, creative writing, or some other class–I make sure to spend some time every couple of weeks putting anonymous student sentences on the board so that we can revise them as a class. My students are always hesitant at first, but not only because they are uncomfortable critiquing a classmate’s writing, even anonymously, while that person is in the room; they are hesitant because they don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to look at the language of a sentence and figure out how to make sure the interior mechanisms of form and content (grammar, in other words) are working properly. They can, generally speaking–they are native speakers, after all–point out what is not working properly, but they have no real sense of how to put the gears back in smooth working order.
It is true that teaching students grammar is not a guaranteed way of giving them that sense, but I am struck every time I do that exercise by the dawning sense of wonder in at least some of the pairs of eyes watching me as I stand at the blackboard recording the class’ attempts at revision. A sentence, they are beginning to realize–and I see evidence of this realization in at least some of their subsequent work–is not a fact of nature, but a thing they can learn to use, and that is where the teaching of grammar, at least potentially, comes in. I have discovered a book called The Well-Crafted Sentence (A Writer’s Guide to Style), by Nora Bacon, that I am very intrigued to try out. (I also want to say that I am pleased by the cost; the net price to students is $28, far more reasonable than most other college textbooks I know of.) It is the first writing textbook that I have seen which asks students to read as writers, not as critics, by which I mean that it asks students to attend at the level of the sentence, at the level of grammatical constructs, to the details of how published writers assemble their prose, not simply to whether or not those writers have said well what they wanted to say.
Bacon has no illusions, and neither do I, that students will come away from her text saying, for example, “‘In this piece, I’m going to use at least five verbal phrases.’” (Nor, frankly, would I want them to.) Rather, as Bacon points out, “Most of the time, as we write, our attention is fixed on what we want to say. We think about the meaning that we’re pushing into existence, and the words arrange themselves accordingly. But then we pause to look back…and that’s when we see that no, it’s not quite right…. At those points in the writing process, it is useful to be able to draw upon a rich store of linguistic resources,” an understanding of how grammatical structures work being among them. This is something I always tell my students–though usually without a specific reference to grammar–and I am intrigued by the possibility that this book will help me teach that way of thinking more thoroughly and systematically. I have just started prepping the course, and I plan to blog about my progress as I work my way through the text.
Cross-posted on my blog.
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