Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Excluding Grammar

“...unless you also felt sure both that what you had to say would be listened to seriously and that you weren’t likely to commit any egregious nails-on-the-chalkboard kinds of mistakes (c’est je, that sort of thing) in trying to speak or write it.” Joseph Harris, "Error"
Picture from Creative Education
I recently read noted compositionist Joseph Harris's essay "Error" on the polarized nature of teaching grammar. In summarizing an example Mike Rose offers in his work Lives on the Boundary, Harris points out the precarious position that writing teachers find themselves in every day when facing a classroom of eager students: how do we grow our struggling writers by pointing out areas for improvement while also providing a safe writing space for them to make mistakes. Students come to us from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, but upon entering the writing classroom, there is a collective fear of the red pen that unites writing students. That marking of mistakes and grammatical errors that has publicly defined our profession. However, in quoting Mina Shanughnessy, Harris points to a need that we do need to provide space for beginning writers to make mistakes “because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes” (Johnson, Teaching Composition 419).

Photo from Toward A Simple Life blog
I agree with Harris’s position that the binaries of teaching grammatical correctness versus eschewing grammar in order to teach writers about idea construction limit the conversations about how both perspectives are much needed in our composition classrooms. I find that very few teachers would disagree with Harris. However, pedagogical beliefs and practice are two very different things. Whereas I wholeheartedly agree with his assertion that “To teach such a ‘communicative competence,’ teachers need to move beyond a fetishizing of correctness and instead focus on the more substantive, difficult, and rhetorical” (423), this is at odds many times with what happens in the high school writing classroom. Although I attended undergrad where Constance Weaver developed and taught (and still does) on the Whole Language approach and am thoroughly indoctrinated in the National Writing Project model of developing emerging writers (steeped in the expressionist and post-process approaches), I still have a grammar workbook that I have to go through with my 10th grade students. Their midterm and final exam contains questions that lack context about prepositional phrases, comma splices, and pronoun-antecedent disagreement. I am well aware that teaching grammar divorced of context, without a connection to the actual writing that students are engaged in, does not improve their understanding of “grammatical correctness.” Yet, because of its easily identifiable rules, grammar is easy to grade (yes, I am being a bit facetious here), much easier than whether or not a student has undermined the credibility of his writing. And so many elementary and secondary schools have adopted a model of writing instruction that spends more time focused on correctness than on how student writers “acquire a rhetorical ease and power, an ability to write persuasively as well as correctly” (428).

I find it interesting that the Common Core State Standards for teaching composition do not emphasize grammar heavily over the time they spend developing the standards for focus, organization, and style (yes, still very current-traditionalist in its focus). However, when I ask my students about where they need help in their writing at the beginning of each semester, an overwhelming number of them mention grammar. When we peer edit, most of my students want to focus on editing grammar and mechanics instead of revising content. Clearly school has taught them that writing well is about using correct grammar. But what is the alternative? How else can we teach early writers - first, second, third grade students - to spend more time supporting their ideas and developing their style, not dismiss grammar, but to be less focused on it to the exclusion of everything else?

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