Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

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Unclear Pronoun Reference

I spent today at Barnes and Noble grading student essays, and by far the most common usage issue I noticed was unclear pronoun reference. I plan to do a minilesson on unclear pronoun reference when I hand back the papers. If your students have the same issue, you might find this lesson helpful.

First, students tend to have trouble with indefinite pronouns. If they use “someone” or “everybody,” they will often replace these indefinite pronouns with “their” later in the sentence. For example, “Someone forgot their pencil.” In spoken usage, it sounds OK to us because we use “their” to replace antecedents with an unknown gender. The person who left his/her pencil might be male or female, so to avoid saying the incorrect gender, we often say the incorrect number. Unfortunately, English has no gender-neutral pronoun we can use in these situations. We should say “Someone forgot his or her pencil,” even though it sounds formal, clunky, and awkward. I always suggest to students that they figure out a way to make the antecedent plural. It might not work in my previous example, but “Everyone forgot his or her lunch today” could easily become “All of them forgot their lunch today.”

Another more common issue in my set of papers was the unclear use of “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” to refer to an antecedent in a previous clause or sentence. Here’s an example: “Today girls are using abortions as a form of contraception, and this has become a lot more common.” Does the word this refer to abortions, contraception, or the use of abortions as contraception? It’s unclear. This sentence could be revised” “Today girls are more commonly using abortions as a form of contraception.” Of course, that’s provided the writer meant the third possible meaning of this. I’m sure the sentence could be tweaked even more to be even better, but at least in the correction, no unclear pronoun reference clouds the reader’s understanding. I tell students to avoid using words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” alone instead of near a noun. “This problem” or “that character” are more specific that simply “this” or “that,” and I have found that students are often trying to use these words when unclear pronoun reference troubles arise. Students simply put the demonstrative pronouns too far away from the antecedents those words are replacing.

I can demonstrate correcting this usage problem using the example above in about five minutes, and it might help some of my students avoid unclear pronoun reference issues. Feel free to use and adapt this lesson as you see fit.

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Grammar Girl

Grammar GirlLast night I met up with Megan to see Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, at the Decatur Library in an event sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, there were no more books left, so I was unable to get a signed copy of her new book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.  The auditorium was packed, which prompted the question (several times) “Who knew grammar was so popular?”

If you are an English teacher and haven’t discovered Grammar Girl, you need to go check out her site and listen to some of her podcasts.  She responds to questions submitted by her listeners, and she discusses one grammatical issue per episode.  You can easily incorporate the podcast into your class — it’s usually only about five minutes long.  Fogarty announced that she will now be doing the podcast twice a week rather than once, so you can even make it a part of your class as an opening activity for two days a week.

One thing I thought was interesting was that during the Q&A, a language arts teacher started to ask a question, but someone behind her in the audience exclaimed when she made a grammatical error in her speech — using a reflexive pronoun in the subjective case.  She didn’t realize her error at first, and when she did, she was noticeably embarrassed and, I think, justifiably angry.  We all make grammatical errors when we speak.  If we had to stop and think as hard about correctness when we speak as much as we do when we write, we would never talk.  I think pointing out people’s grammar errors when they speak is just plain rude.  The woman didn’t ask her question, and there was this wave of discomfort that passed through the room.  That kind of thing is why people don’t like English teachers, for I can almost guarantee it was an English teacher who did it.  I am not saying we shouldn’t teach students to write using correct grammar, but if we make them feel scared to even open their mouths in our classrooms, how much are they going to learn from us?

Anyway, I really enjoyed Grammar Girl’s talk, but I really wish the Georgia Center for the Book had anticipated the crowd.  It really stank that they ran out of books.  For the curious — Megan let me thumb through her book, and it is basically transcripts of her podcasts.  By the way, I disagree with Grammar Girl regarding the possessive of a singular noun ending in s.  Grammar Girl likes the AP Style Guide’s recommendation that singular nouns ending s simply have an apostrophe: Kansas’ statute.  I don’t understand why the s changes the rule, and I agree with Strunk and White that it should be Kansas’s statute.  A fun activity for your students to explore regarding this issue can be found among my unit plans at the UbD Educators wiki: write a letter to Rep. Harrelson of Arkansas, who lobbied to have the official possessive of the state of Arkansas rendered Arkansas’s and tell him whether or not you think he was correct (giving him evidence based on consulting several grammar texts).

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A Sticky Problem: Teachers and Grammar

Laura Diamond at the AJC’s education blog Get Schooled discusses a sticky problem: teachers who use poor grammar in communication with parents.

Many of us admit we have poor grammar and horrible spelling skills. So why do so many of us get concerned when we see these same faults in teachers?

Can you respect a teacher with poor grammar? Do you worry he or she won’t be a good teacher?

OK, so I admit I make typos on occasion, and I’ve even done it on handouts or assignments.  If I catch them I correct them, but there have been times when I haven’t caught them because I didn’t proofread carefully.  However, when I send e-mails to parents, I always proofread carefully.  I am acutely aware that parents will have little faith in an English teacher who makes grammatical mistakes, and if my children had such a teacher, I would be concerned.  I suppose my answer to Laura Diamond’s question depends on how bad the mistakes are.  If I see an obvious typo in a teacher’s communication to me, I’m forgiving.  If I see embarrassing grammar mistakes that indicate the problem is not proofreading but knowledge of grammar, I do question whether or not the teacher can be effective.  Engaging students is great, but if you don’t have good communication skills, how much knowledge are you going to be able to impart?  Honestly, good communication skills apply to everyone, and all teachers ostensibly have college degrees; therefore, I don’t think it is expecting too much to insist that they be able to communicate using proper grammar.

Teachers are also our models.  When I was young, it never occurred to me that a teacher could be wrong about a fact.  If my teacher said it, I thought it must be so, and when I was presented for the first time with evidence to the contrary, I remember questioning the accuracy of that evidence!  I don’t think teachers need to be perfect, but they do need to be aware of how much stock students put into what they say and do, especially in elementary school.

Have you encountered this problem?  What’s your take?

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Week in Reflection, April 14-17

This time of year, I find that I’m not blogging as much as I would like because I’m so exhausted.  You know, people talk about what a perk it is for teachers to have breaks in the winter and spring and a longer one in the summer — usually people who don’t teach, by the way.  These breaks are absolutely necessary to rejuvenate.  I think teachers put a lot of themselves into their work.  Having to be “on” so much of the time wears me out, and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Every time I take any sort of Myers-Briggs test, I always come out INFP.  If you aren’t up on the parlance, that basically means I am introverted, and I find social situations tiring.  People suck the energy right out of me, and you can’t get more people-oriented than teaching.  This article in The Atlantic actually did a lot in terms of helping me understand why I’m so tired at the end of a school day, and as the end of the school year ends, it seems to get worse.  As a result  of this exhaustion, blogging is one of those things that tends to go by the wayside.

I read the blogs of other teachers and feel inspired by what they are doing — especially descriptions of lessons and ideas for teaching –and I want to contribute, too.  Maybe this week will afford me some time to do so, as I am (finally) on spring break!  Why so late?  Passover falls late this year in the Jewish calendar, and my school, as a Jewish school, follows the Jewish calendar.  Our break starts tomorrow.

Teaching the week before spring break is always difficult.  I came home today and took a nap. This week, my seniors finished reading A Streetcar Named Desire, and we began watching the excellent Elia Kazan production.  One forgets how attractive Marlon Brando was.  Every time I watch that movie, I am amazed all over again by his embodiment of the role of Stanley Kowalski.  One of my students pronounced the play her favorite piece of the year, and another quickly agreed.  I really enjoy teaching the play, too, if for no other reason than the opportunity to see the excellent movie again at the end.

My writing class was creating Power Point presentations.  I have seen a lot of death by Power Point lately, and we can’t very well blame the presenters if they are never effectively taught how to create a Power Point presentation that works.  A cursory glance at my students’ works in progress tells me that most of them understood not to cram too much information on a slide or use busy backgrounds, but I’m not sure all of them heard this message, and I am puzzled — I thought I really emphasized that part.

I have been teaching verbals, clauses, and misplaced modifiers.  I struggle with this part of our curriculum every year — not because I don’t understand it or because I don’t impart it with some success.  I struggle with its usefulness.  If a student is using gerunds correctly when he or she writes, is it imperative that they be able to label them as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, and objects of prepositions?  Yet, it is part of the curriculum, and therefore, part of my teaching.  I find it much more useful to spend time on the nuts and bolts of writing that students struggle with — commas, for instance.  I thought I created a fairly effective unit for teaching commas, but I find over the course of the year that students are still not consistently applying rules for using commas.  Marking comma errors hasn’t done much to help my students learn to use commas.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Week in Reflection: March 24-28, 2008

The end of this week leaves me feeling somewhat exhausted. I was rear-ended last weekend, and I have been dealing with the problems that entails — reporting the accident, waiting for the police report so I can file a claim with the other guy’s insurance, getting an estimate for damage (nearly $1300), and worrying about the fact that no one knows I’m signaling with my left turn signal, thereby making changing lanes and turning left more awkward and stressful.

My tenth grade students handed in the final draft of their research papers. I know it felt strange to be handing that assignment in after working on it for so long. I can tell that my students learned a great deal from the process.

My freshman are learning all about phrases and working on The Catcher in the Rye. I am not 100% satisfied with how phrases are going because my students come from such disparate backgrounds, depending upon the teachers they have had before. Students who ordinarily catch on quickly and do well on other aspects of my class are feeling awkward about their knowledge and understanding through no fault of their own. I agreed to meet them for some review at lunch some day next week, so I hope that will help.

My seniors are engaged in an assignment I called “Flat World Willy.” After reading Death of a Salesman, students looked at the play’s continuing relevance to our own society through an examination of outsourcing and globalization. They read an excerpt from The World is Flat (the chapter entitled “The Untouchables”), viewed Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod’s “Did You Know?” (which they really enjoyed), viewed part of an episode of The Simpsons called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore” (which examines outsourcing in a humorous way), and viewed a Discovery Times special “The Other Side of Outsourcing” (Thomas Friedman). They are creating handbooks for either high school graduates or college graduates that will help the grads navigate the job pool in the age of globalization and outsourcing, ensuring that a) the grads will always have a job, and b) the grads won’t end up like Willy Loman. I think they are having fun with it, and what I have seen so far of their planning looks really good.

I’m so tired. Lots of stuff going on right now, and it’s sapping my energy. This is the time of year when it’s easy for teachers to get burned out. The first rule is to take care of yourself. You can’t be an effective teacher if you don’t.

Update, 3:41 P.M.: I keep forgetting to mention my 9th graders’ Romeo and Juliet diaries have been appearing bit by bit at the Room 303 Blog. It helps to scroll down because the entries are posted chronologically.

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A Usage PSA

OK, I can’t hold it in anymore.  The time has come for a public service announcement regarding some alarming usage problems I see in the blogosphere.

The past tense of the verb lead is led, not lead.

I know why you’re confused.  The past tense of read is read, so it is natural to assume that the word lead, which looks so much like read, must work the same way.

Here’s a handy guide:

If I lead, will you follow?

I led the team to victory.

Lead, pronounced like led, refers only to the heavy metal, making the name for the band Led Zeppelin an interesting pun, I suppose.  For example: That idea will go over like a lead balloon.

That is all, but I reserve the right to interrupt this blog for future PSA’s should they be necessary.

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