I’m departing a bit from our usual format today; I’ve been doing some ruminating that I’d like to get out here. Our regularly scheduled grammar-gripe will resume next week with a couple of suggestions from MagicalMysticalTeacher.
I attended the every-other-Tuesday faculty meeting at Local U. yesterday, and the topic of discussion was the role that grammar and structure instruction should play in college writing courses – more specifically, in OUR college writing courses.
It seems a pretty simple question, doesn’t it? I mean, there should be this kind of instruction in a writing class – one needs to have a command of the basic tools of a craft before one can be expected to use those tools to build something, right? Grammar and structure are the proverbial building blocks of a writing practice; without a command of these, one has no starting point from which to expand into expression. Form and function, and all that.
At the college level, however (at least, at THIS college), nuts-and-bolts, sentence-level instruction is eschewed in favor of the broader, content-driven instruction. The argument is that students will learn the sentence-level skills by being exposed to numerous and varied examples of excellent writing (and the analysis of such writing). Formal grammar instruction is reserved for specific courses within the department; the freshman level writing courses are intended to be places where the students read, think, and talk about examples of good writing, then go on to emulate those examples in their own writing.
That’s all well and good, except that I’m standing on both sides of the college lawn at the moment. I teach freshman writing – and I do it in the ways that the department deems appropriate – but I also teach writing at the high school level, and here’s where I’m finding myself in a bit of a stew.
My problem is that I don’t feel that I’m giving my high school students much instruction at all at the sentence level. While my freshmen and sophomores desperately need this kind of instruction, I have JUST gotten them to the point (well, most of them, anyway) where they’re willing to write for me in the first place. I don’t want to go killing what little momentum I have with these kids by going over dreaded “GRAMMAR RULES” with them, even though I know they need it.
I’m trying to be sneaky about it. I’ll point out a place in The Book Thief (the novel we’re reading as a class) where Zusak uses sentence fragments for effect. I point out to them that this structure:
Was not impressed.
isn’t proper sentence construction, but Zusak puts those words together in that way so that we read the ire in Sister Marie and the nervousness about that ire in the children in the classroom. “Uh-oh,” we’re meant to think, “here it comes.” It’s effective, it works, but these two “sentences” are not technically sentences at all. I’m trying to get my kids to understand that you need to KNOW the rules before you go BREAKING them.
I wonder, though, if I’m doing enough to teach them the rules. What I need to do is to figure out a way to get these lessons in there without their being heavy-handed, irrelevant, and boring. I’m not sure I’ve got my way around that yet, but I’m thinking about it. Any suggestions?