The Dreaded G Word … Grammar

Though the word “grammar” conjures images of kids gripping #2 pencils as they diagram sentences in sullen and silent classrooms, I actually like thinking about grammar in terms of my own writing. I enjoy deciding between a semicolon or an em-dash; I like reading things out loud to see if I’ve used too many commas (which I almost always have). This, though, is about my own writing and not about teaching.

Teaching grammar is another animal, and one that I don’t like. When I first began teaching at City Tech in 2015, comp classes had an additional 45-minute lab each week and somehow I had the impression that that’s when we were supposed to teach grammar … I can’t remember if the English Department Chair at that time told me that, or if I just guessed. I’d already been teaching creative writing for a decade at that point, but hadn’t taught first year writing, and had never taught grammar. Occasionally I’d come across run-on sentences in the short stories my students turned in, and sometimes I’d point them out, but that was as far as I’d gone grammar-wise.

What I tried to do in the lab portion of the comp classes at City Tech – and I’m so glad those lab portions are gone – was use examples from either student texts or things I found online to gently point out problems and have the students work together to fix them. For example, one exercise I did was project (onto a screen at the front of the class) a paragraph where I’d taken out all the punctuation. Then the students would work in groups of four (my in-person students LOVED doing group work, so I tried to incorporate them into classwork as often as possible) to revise the paragraph with punctuation included; they were also free to change word order or revise the sentences completely if they wished. Then one person from each group would go up to the board and write one of their sentences and the class would discuss the choices they’d made and why.

Honestly, the students seemed to enjoy this. There was usually a bit of good-spirited laughter. It was a team effort, and no one was ever singled out. I didn’t hand out worksheets or define grammatical terms, but rather had them practice them. I made a point to tell them that they know more about grammar than they think they do, simply by reading.

So when I read about the term COIK in Muriel Harris’ piece, I felt a bit relieved. Perhaps I haven’t been as terrible to my students with regard to grammar as I’ve feared these last few weeks. (Also, I love the example of defining physics that Harris uses.)

I think the Dunn article relates a lot to what we’ve been talking about in terms of genre, and I like the point Dunn makes when she says “Every writing project is constrained by previous iterations of that type of writing.” This reminds me of another exercise I’d have students do in-person: Have them write a text to a friend asking what they’re doing that weekend, an email to me asking for an extension for a paper, and a cover letter for a job. Then I’d have them share them with the class – it was just a way to illustrate the different ways we use language in different situations.

All of this is making me think about how much I miss in-person classes! Looking forward to seeing you all later today.






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