Saturday, May 11, 2013

Grammar Matters and Other Weekend Ramblings

Not much irks me more than bad grammar, especially when I feel it pouring from my own lips too fast for my tongue to corral back into my mouth. There is a definite trend in our country to completely ignore all conventions of grammar and manners (but that's another subject for another day). I see bad grammar on billboards, hear it on television from actors on tv shows to news anchors. Writers are responsible for tv and movie scripts, so wouldn't it seem that they would want to convey a sense of intelligence to the actors who bring their words to life? I read a lot of kids'/teens' books to help me with my own writing. I'm surprised at the grammar mistakes, not in conversation pieces, but in the prose sections of some of these books. Where was the editor?

I've always noted that just because one is a teacher, even a Language Arts teacher, it doesn't follow that one's grammar or spelling is good. This is unfortunate, since we teachers are seen as a child's introduction into the finer points of the English language in the US. I'm one of the oldest teachers in the middle school where I teach and have observed a disregard to staying with any teaching methods seen as "old school." Grammar is something that is usually left on the back burner, so to speak, except for brief spurts of lessons maybe a few times a year. The grammar books, and I admit they're dull just to plow through on their own, are the least used of all books in the language arts classrooms, not even suggested for students to use as reference.

The classic short stories or novels are seldom taught as well. Students now have more trouble relating to the characters in these stories than we did decades ago. I understand that students today have much shorter attention spans and ability to focus on harder material. The loss is theirs and their teachers, I believe. They not only miss some fantastic writing, but the structure, spelling and grammar of these stories were usually perfect. I constantly tell parents of my exceptional students that they will learn more spelling and vocabulary if they read more. Students are missing many opportunities to learn by seeing how the English language is supposed to be. I'd love to see a lesson where Little Women and The Hunger Games were taught. Think of the compare/contrast activities the students could do using the characters of Jo and Katniss, not to mention evaluating two societies undergoing political conflicts, one based on reality, the other completely fantasy.

What I love most about our language is its complexity. Ours is not a stagnant language; we're constantly incorporating new words from other languages into our own. At the same time, as writers, we need to become as familiar with our own language and its nuances and labyrinths that open us to new ideas. Instead of throwing out stories because they're "dated," we could celebrate an opportunity to glimpse into the past and make the history books more personalized. I love it when the social studies teachers use novels along with their texts to help their students feel empathy for the era they're studying. Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper is used each year in our eighth grade classes. The students LOVE this book and hang onto each word being read.

Our sixth graders read a story this year from their literature book by Jack London, The King of Mazy May: The Story of the Klondike. For students who have grown up with computers and cell phones, it was a challenge to understand a teenager who had one pair of moccasins and who worked with his father securing their meals and protecting their home from claim jumpers. The language, however, was easy enough for them to read and understand while including new vocabulary, such as "yawing" or "gee." London uses dialog such as "Faith, it's an ilegant chanst to be getting' a run fer yer money!", while using excellent narrative writing as contrast. Again, pairing this story with one more current about a similar child struggling with daily life, such as Langston Hughes' Thank You, Ma'am, would add more relevance to both stories for the students.

Two classics that were taught for years in our eighth grade were Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I really think these books were too difficult, not due to language, but because of the eighth grade students' inability to comprehend the sarcasm with which Twain wrote so well. These are beautifully written books with humor and language only Twain could write, but also extremely uncomfortable when Twain exposed characters, warts and all, for the cruelty and hypocrisy that only humanity can show. These are best left for older students or adults whose understanding has developed past the concrete thinking stages. Still for language and powerful imagery, Twain's writing is as good as it gets. He also knew how to contrast bad grammar as dialog from certain characters while maintaining perfect grammar in the narrative parts.

Side Note: This article will be adjusted during the next few days. I've asked my Goalies Critique Group to comment and leave notes for a critique. I have adjusted some parts from this morning. One excellent suggestion was to suggest two grammar books, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, and also Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Both are written in a humorous, witty fashion and have remained as go-to books for grammar and writing.Thanks, Karen!

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