The Nitty Gritty of Grammar

grammar t-shirtMy eighth grade students took an English quiz on Friday. This came after a solid week of “reviewing” the basic rules of punctuation and capitalization: the comma, the period, the colon, the semicolon, the exclamation point, the question mark, the dash and the hyphen, and when to use quotation marks and italics. All of these rules are condensed into a very simple chapter of our English textbook entitled, “Section 10: Punctuation and Capitalization”. The chapter is divided into four sub-sections, and we spent a class period on each one. We read aloud the rules and examples and discussed each thoroughly. As homework, the students completed all of the accompanying pages in the grammar workbook, practicing the application of the rules discussed in class that day. Each day we started class by checking homework and reviewing the rules again. Not a minute of the 40-minute English period was wasted Monday through Thursday. So, after all of that, I am very sad to report that the grades on this quiz are abysmal. I’ve only graded half of them so far, but I had to stop after that half to take a break. It was just too painful to continue.

grammar teacherWhy is this? This is a good school, with students coming from well-educated parents. The vast majority of my students are being raised in homes where English is the mother tongue. Our eighth graders go on to attend some of the finest high schools in the nation, whether they be Catholic, public, or private. Why is the study of grammar and punctuation so challenging? Why do teachers have to teach and reteach the same basic rules each and every year?

Just after Thanksgiving of this year, these same eighth graders will be taking a national standardized test, the High School Placement Test. This test is important to them, because the score of the HSPT is one of the seven or eight factors used by the area Catholic high schools to make decisions about admissions and scholarship offerings. The test is divided into five sections: verbal skills, quantitative skills, reading comprehension, mathematics, and language skills. Yes, that’s right. The test is 3/5 language arts and 2/5 math.

We all have our weaknesses and our strengths. Words have always been my strength, whether written or spoken. Likewise, one of my weaknesses has always been math, algebra in particular. I struggled with it all through school, and was dismayed to find out that even as an English major, I still needed two semesters of math to graduate. But, my theory is that we don’t use algebra every day in every subject. We do, however, use the English language and its conventions every day and in every subject.

past simpleAll of the foreign language teachers I have known and worked with all say that their students, whatever the foreign language they are taking, do not know their English grammar well enough to learn a foreign language. How do you learn to conjugate verbs in Spanish if you can’t find the verb in an English sentence? How do you know which tense to use in French if you don’t know the difference between past, present, or future tenses in English? Yet, we teach and reteach parts of speech each year.

sad commaRecently I spent a day of professional development in a room of fellow middle school English teachers. We all unanimously decried this phenomenon. One teacher, someone I know to be an excellent teacher, told me that at the beginning of the year she gives her each of her eighth graders a strip of paper with commas stretched across it—commas, nothing else. She then explains to them that she knows the comma is rare and difficult to find, so she is giving them each a free supply of them to use in their essays for her all year. This is true. Let’s face it, commas are important. Commas and other punctuation marks help the reader interpret the sentence correctly. For example, consider this simple sentence: Let’s eat Grandma! Is this a horrifying statement from a family of cannibals preparing for Thanksgiving? No, it is simply a missing comma that causes us to shriek at the sight of that sentence. The addition of a simple comma makes all the difference: Let’s eat, Grandma!

However, it appears to be feast or famine when it comes to the comma. I explained to my teacher friend that at my school, we have a comma epidemic. Consider this response on a question from Friday’s quiz where the students were asked to insert commas where needed: “Lighthouses, can range in height from 193 feet, to only 14 feet,” the keeper explained. trouble with tribbles gifWhen I am grading a stack of eighth grade essays, I feel like Captain Kirk in the famous episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”. Not even the CDC and a lifelong supply of red pens could control this.

Of course, this epidemic is not restricted to the confines of the middle school English classroom. Proofreading and editing is on the decline across the board. Are our standards of proper grammar dropping due to the internet, the popularity of blogs, self-publishing, and the like? Where have all the proofreaders and copy editors gone? Is the “do it yourself” spirit of America the cause? Is “teaching to the test” the problem? Can we blame it on the Common Core? Or, is it what my eighth graders believe, “We won’t need this after the test.”

There’s a comedic side to all of this. Jay Leno used to have a segment where he periodically displayed advertisements and billboards with humorous typos and grammar errors. Two guys, Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, made a big splash in the media world with their endeavor, The Great Typo Hunt, which was later turned into a book, one that is hopefully written with perfect grammar and error-free. Each year in my back-to-school night presentation for my eighth grade parents, stop-clubbing-580x417I interrupt my normal power point presentation explaining my syllabus with a slide meant to both garner a laugh and make a point. They all laugh, but it’s not going to be funny when they see the grades on Friday’s quiz.

Of course, with the holidays right around the corner, I must steel myself for the complete and abject failure of the Christmas-card sending population to correctly identify themselves:

Merry Christmas from the Johnson’s

Why an apostrophe? The apostrophe is used to denote possession or to create a contraction. (For the record, it’s Johnsons, no apostrophe!) And, what about those poor families whose last names end with an “s”:

Merry Christmas from the Jones’s

or, is it

Merry Christmas from the Jones’

Here we add insult to injury. (For the record, it’s Joneses, no apostrophe at all!) One of my students admitted that her mother has changed the way she words her Christmas greeting because their last name ends in an “s” and even when she did it correctly, her friends tried to correct her. She now writes “Merry Christmas from the ____________ family”, avoiding the plural and possessive problem altogether.

What’s the average well-educated but grammar-anxious person to do? There are many reliable sources for help, and none involve an intervention or regular attendance at AA meetings. smart owlOne of my favorite resources is the Purdue University OWL (online writing lab). Finding the answer to your grammar question, from easy things like basic comma or apostrophe usage to more complicated things like the MLA rules for citing sources, is just a click away. Another good source is the award-winning website Grammar Girl.

So, how is your grammar and punctuation? Want to test it? Here’s a sampling of the exact questions from my eighth graders’ quiz on Friday. Give it a go. Proofread carefully. red pensWhen you’re finished, check your work. Let’s see if you are ready for my red pen!

Directions: Correct the following sentences by adding or correcting punctuation or capitalization as needed.

  1. Kim what did Dad mean when he said You can’t judge a book by its cover? asked Sue
  2. The ring was turned into the office however the owner was never found
  3. Max give your sister the keys so she can take them immediately to Mrs Lee
  4. We have been to these locations Augusta Maine Boise Idaho and Frankfort Kentucky
  5. Other activities the train ride the bumper cars and the petting zoo are still open
  6. I attend school in the east ski in the west vacation in the north and live in the south
  7. We couldnt understand how Dads wallet and the twins backpack had been misplaced
  8. Rileys first time on a merry go round was when he was 15 months old
  9. My spanish teacher lived in mexico she was born in a US territory
  10. This is the last straw senator Johnson said i am not voting for this amendment

To check your work, click here!Answer Key

If you didn’t do as well as you expected, don’t dismay. With a little practice, you too can send out your Christmas cards without fear. Visit a local bookstore or log on to Amazon.com and purchase a grammar guide; there are many choices and price points. Can’t commit to a 300-page tome? grammar bookCheck out the illustrated version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and Bonnie Timmons. Or, spend a few minutes each day on Purdue’s Owl or Grammar Girl.

If you scored 100%, be kind to your friends and family members when correcting their grammar and punctuation. no more violenceThe red pen is a tool of instruction, not a weapon of mass destruction. Yes, it is important to help and educate your loved ones, but remember, violence is never the answer.

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Read ‘Em or Weep: A Cautionary Tale

summer readingAll over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language.  After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
procrastinateWhen these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? aristotleThis famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.

At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. alarm clockIt is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.

During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, 800px-Terrazzo-normalterrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.

Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. sportsSports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.

But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.

summer readingA quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:

  • Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
  • Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
  • Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.

weepingSo, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.

When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. shakespeareThat should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.

A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. medieval era pyramidBecause we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.

My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.

Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. perfumeIf only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.

Source:

Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.