Category Archives: Student Blogs

Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking & Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar

Although, Peter Elbow’s article was written in 1993, his opening statement about assessment driving and controlling teaching was not only honest, it rings true in today’s classrooms. In this article Elbow talks about “sorting” the different act of assessment. He begins his argument by reminding us all that he is by no means a professional in this field, but strongly feels that nonprofessionals such as himself should work and focus on sorting out assessments because the so call professionals “have not reached definitive conclusions about the problem of how to assess writing (or anything else, I'd say).” Elbow also reminded us that decisions about assessments are often made by people even less professional than we, namely legislators. Although, this was a very small part of his argument it was one that needed to be said because it gives a reason to why assessments need to be sort out. After reading this I found myself sharing similar views to Elbow. Maybe like him I am idealistic and want to also find fairness in judging other’s work, or maybe as an educator I too find my self frustrated and want to try to find constructive ways of assessing student’s paper because some of the current assessments that are in place are shamefully stupid, whichever the reason I did find myself agreeing with a lot of his ideas and also disagreeing with some as well. One of the arguments I agree with is the problem with ranking.  Elbow writes, “I see three distinct problems with ranking: it is inaccurate or unreliable; it gives no substantive feedback; and it is harmful to the atmosphere for teaching.” He further went on to add that “ranking or grading is woefully uncommunicative. Grades and holistic scores are nothing but points on a continuum from "yea" to "boo"-with no information or clues about the criteria behind these noises.” This statement is quite true because as an educator when you assess it needs to meet several criteria in order for it to be considered valid and one important criterion is feedback. What good is an assessment if the score is based on feelings rather than judgment that tries to discriminate strength and weakness? What good is an assessment if it can’t influence students to develop or even enhance their learning? So, in these regards I agree with Elbow, we should have less ranking and more evaluation.  An assessment should be able to provide more than just a numerical score. Elbow not only argues for evaluation but he provided the beneficial reasons.  He states, “Instead of using grades or holistic scores-single number verdicts that try to sum up complex performances along only one scale-we should give some kind of written or spoken evaluation that discriminates among criteria and dimensions of the writing. “Again, I agree with Elbow on evaluation 100 percent, however we must consider current realties and be a bit pragmatic in how we view and implement evaluation.  The reality is that teachers need to rank and level students. They need to distinguish the lows from the high and the passing from the failing not just for teaching purposes but for state, international, status, and funding purposes. So, Elbow’s suggestion of minimal holistic scoring where you give only 2 scores sounds more reasonable to me. Also, Elbow’s idea of “liking” seems like a radical idea, but again because of current realities and the way teachers are trained these progressive ideas seems far away for now. After reading this, I do have to say that Peter Elbow is bold in the fact that he entertains us with the idea of changing the way we view assessment (in his case writing assessment). Elbow made a powerful statement that has truth to it. He said, “we see around us a deep hunger to rank-to create pecking orders: to see who we can look down on and who we must look up to, or in the military metaphor, who we can kick and who we must salute.” Beautifully said!  There is this feeling in education, well I can’t speak for all, but this feeling in my educational community at least, that thorough evaluation is not real enough, and that a numerical score on a paper speaks more volume. Unfortunately, I wish that wasn’t the mindset, but in many instances it is, so that is why I applaud Elbow for his attempt in tackling ranking and offering alternatives and making them sound like they are things that can be done if we put forth a little effort.

The Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar was interesting. After reading the first few pages I was surprised to find out how many experimental research had been done on this topic alone. 75 years’ worth of research and still counting is a lot and for the issue of grammar learning to remain unresolved still today says a lot about the complexities of language and language acquisition. I couldn’t help but to be curious about how these studies were conducted because Patrick Hartwell did not really go into details about these experiments, however the questions that came to mind were: In these grammar experiments, did students have to memorize patterns, grammatical rules, or drills? How was conversational grammar used? I asked these questions because I don’t believe that grammar teaching and learning is effective if it’s taught explicitly. Conversational and pronunciation skills are also important to grammar learning and teaching.
 I though the author did a great job of covering all 5 grammars, however I believe grammar 1 and 2 are the ones that carry weight or real significance, all the others follow after. Hartwell defined grammar 1 as “the internalize system of rules that speakers share” In many ways I agree with this statement because as a second language teacher when teaching my students grammar I’m not really teaching them a new set of structure and rules, these students already come in with their own rules and teaching them is really about helping them discover how to fit those rules into the new language.  Overall this article proved that grammar and the application of grammar is not only intricate, but also divisive.

Final Project Ramblings…..

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about our final project.  Because of the way my mind works, I’ve found it difficult to think about what I’m interested in rather than thinking about potentially interesting final projects to collaborate on...but I have been trying to really think about what aspect of writing studies I would choose to focus on, if given the choice…...just as there are many reasons why I am in this grad program, there are, too, many areas I am interested in exploring….all of them, actually, which is confusing…I like the syllabus idea and some kind of co-written publication (a lot) then I started shifting my thinking to ask myself what goal do I have in mind for a final project.  This is def not your traditional class, but I would think the purpose of a final project would be to showcase our learning.  The sum of all we have learned through the course, sort of.  I feel like we are all doing that with our posts and discussions, and in some cases, we find out we’re not quite sure what we think about the ways in which writing should be taught---and that’s ok. However, being that we have been given the opportunity to go a little more non-traditional in our approach to this final project, I got to thinking that the goal should be to create something that results in more knowledge being gained (some sort of informal researchy-type thing,that could potentially add to the field of writing studies as a discipline)…...I’m not suggesting that we wouldn’t learn anything from some of the project ideas we’ve been throwing around, but I worry that our focus seems to be on producing something that can readily be used by others (teachers/students).  So, with that in mind, here are some more of my rambling thoughts about potential projects (sorry to add more to the mix guys)....

A book about writing from non-writers
I loved our discussions about how we learned to write.  I think it would be really interesting to create a book of collected statements from a diverse range of people about how they learned (or did not learn) to write….If each of us collected statements from 10 people, we’d have over 100 reflections on the topic.  I kinda think that would be something people would be interested in seeing.  I would like to hear what others have to say…..what would the findings show us?  Nothing?  or, would it confirm what we already suspect?  I also like adding the question from Debra’s lead last week as to what is the most important thing you’ve ever written… for thought…

A cartoon series
Going on a limb here, but the use of cartoons in our blog posts is very telling of the contradictions present in our chosen field of study.  Cartoons can be a serious business…..think of the impact political cartoons….I don’t know of any series that focuses on writing specifically.  I think we have the potential to be “the” cartoon go-to group for all things composition and rhetoric related.  Not really a “useful” final project, but definitely an interesting product that would be loaded with insights and controversy from the anyone an artist?

A collaborative narrative story/book?
Not sure how this would go, but we play “pass the paragraph” in school and each kid gets to literally pass his paper to the next person for 2 minutes and adds on to the get the idea.  What if we created characters and wrote each of us wrote chapters surrounding our chosen character, but they somehow all wove together like a soap opera.  I don’t know of any books that have different authors for each chapter...would that be distracting for the reader?  Could we have it make sense.  Kind of like a movie with multiple story lines (think Four Rooms)...maybe we could collaborate on the final chapter and have them come together…...there could be some theme or topic that we intentionally weave throughout...I’m not talking about a collection of short stories, but a true cohesive (sort of) novella (??).  Maybe for another class?  Dunno….just sounded fun and interesting.

Did we kill the handbook?
I also feel like we’ve moved away from the handbook, but I’m not sad.  I would, however, not be opposed to doing a tongue-in-cheek “What Not To Do When You Write” that would, actually, show readers why certain things should be avoided with examples that demonstrate the pitfalls of common mistakes.  

A Utopian Writing Course
Elbow’s section on evaluation-free writing zones really did inspire me.  When he said he was tempted to run an entire class that way, I kept wondering “why not?”  Do it!!  It sounded as though the students were immersed in writing and thriving!!!  What if we created a hypothetical writing course based on this idea.  

A New Kind of Writing Course
There are all kinds of writing classes one can take:  creative non-fiction, business writing, screenwriting, journalism, etc.  What if we created a writing course that had people creating a little of every kind of writing there possibly is…...ex: write a greeting card today, a news headline tomorrow, a product description for a catalog the next, a promotional pamphlet after that, a poem, a song, assembly instructions, an advertisement, a complaint letter, a tweet, you get the idea……..

After reading some posts this week, I noticed the interest in the pop-culture lessons/syllabus.  I think this is very feasible and interesting.  I suppose a freshman comp course would be appropriate, despite the varying grade levels some of us currently teach.  I can envision it broken into the main genres (for practical purposes) and each of us could do 1 or 2 lessons from each genre.  Then, the sky’s the limit!  Let’s do some radical lessons.  I’d take that class.

Our Final Project Together

As I have been reading and commenting on these articles, I have also been trying to get a handle on our project. I think I am very interested in the idea of using music or some type of pop culture to solidify a lesson and I think the anti-theory of teaching a process is very exciting. Unfortunately, the more ideas we come up with, the further away from a book about writing we grow, and I had been quite delighted at the prospect of that. Still, all these ideas sound wonderful so I am ready for whatever we all agree on, and cannot wait to get started, once we get it ironed out! Hopefully we can get a clearer idea of our design tomorrow night and begin moving forward together!

Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Writing by Peter Elbow and Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar by Patrick Hartwell

My first response to Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Writing” was a five star rating and the words Best Paper Yet next to its title! This piece was simple, direct and spoke to the reader about something that he--the author--finds troublesome. The humanity of this man shines through and speaks volumes as he discusses the unreliability of ranking or grading a student’s work—his disdain is well-grounded and supported by his findings and various teaching experiences. Elbow’s straightforward approach to this sensitive topic is refreshing as well as his definition of evaluation: “Evaluation means looking hard and thoughtfully at a piece of writing in order to make distinctions as to the quality of different features or dimensions.” (191). He believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that by ranking, those delightful distinctions, which make every piece of writing unique, become only a number, and one that might decide a student’s future. I was intrigued by his discussion of Evergreen State College where he taught for nine years in an environment free of ranking; the written evaluations fostered a successful teacher-student experience and was evidently a large influence on Elbow. The portfolio system he discusses sounds promising as does the grid but I felt his “added categories” evidence his generous nature as it allowed students a greater opportunity to excel and find greater confidence in their other skills. My favorite section was on “liking.” The idea of liking one’s own writing and being comfortable enough to say so is so basic and yet quite powerful. Once we take ownership it becomes our responsibility to improve on the initial work without losing that important idea our uncut version expresses. Every writing task should and usually does take on that identity, but some are always more critical than others. The desire to keep working on each piece one writes is a huge step towards writing maturity.About his interaction with students, Elbow emphasizes an obvious but extremely relevant point; if you begin to know and understand your students as people it becomes easier to “like” their writing. As parents we read our children’s work and positively influence their writing; in much the same way, Elbow recommends getting to know students through non-graded free writing and reciprocate through a letter to them, constructed on a more personal level. This sharing of self creates an atmosphere of openness and enables the students to feel confident in their self-expression while allowing the teacher the necessary insight as to why they write as they do. I really enjoyed the entire paper, particularly his astute ideas about taking that extra step with students in an effort to like their writing better and thus, make the teacher’s job less tedious.
Patrick Hartwell’s “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” clearly defines his opinion on what he stolidly believes--the idea of teaching “grammar” to aid a student’s ability to write well is both ridiculous and unnecessary. I agree to a point, that these types of classes do not belong in a university, however, students need to have been taught the basics well enough to be able to write effectively and get their point across clearly, concisely, and with the correct mechanics of punctuation, sentence structure, and so on. Because language is ever-changing, as illustrated by Hartwell’s expansion of grammar from three to five meanings, forcing students to always be up on these nuances seems counter-productive when they are trying to master the ability to write well and prove their thesis on any given point. An excellent proficiency in grammar, though helpful on other levels, unfortunately, cannot provide those skills. But, in grammar’s defense, a working knowledge of its specifics can make the writing experience much less threatening, and proofreading a far less tedious task. In truth, I enjoyed this essay and lean more towards Hartwell’s camp on the grammar topic, despite my naïve impression
 it should be ingrained by the time a student reaches the college level!

Tobey’s Writing Theory Thoughts 2015-10-11 18:21:00

Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement: Peter Elbow &     Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar: Patrick Hartwell

Peter Elbow really puts into perspective the harm that can be caused by over assessing and assigning grades. Teachers, students, and parents, have become very reliant on individual grades. In his piece, he addresses the distinct problems with ranking students and the harm it causes. The one issue that I relate to the most is number three, " Ranking leads to students to get so hung up on these oversimple quantitative verdicts that they care more about scores than about learning-more about the grade we put onto paper than about the comment we have written on it." It made me think about Nancy Sommers and our discussion from last week. So, we finally change our ways of commenting to make them stronger and meaningful, but the kids could care less because they just want to see the number and letter the paper received. Alas, we all know that grades are a part of our educational world. And, I would be a big liar if I said that I didn't want to know how I was doing based on grades. I get just as anxious when I turn in an assignment and know that I am being evaluated by my professors as my students are when they turn work into me. I am also pleased and feel good about myself if I receive a good grade. However, I think this is Elbow's point, the final product and letter grade that accompanies it, should not define how we feel about ourselves as learners.

He goes on to discuss using evaluation as a much more promising method to teach writers how to improve their work. He calls evaluation, "looking hard and thoughtfully at a piece of writing in order to make distinctions as to the quality of different features or dimensions." This allows a teacher to truly read a piece and give the kinds of feedback we discussed last week. It opens dialogue between the teacher and student, and provides an opportunity for the student writer to make changes he feels will truly strengthen his work. I definitely feel that Nancy Sommers would agree with Peter Elbow's method here. There feels like a marriage between their thinking. 

Elbow also goes on to state how he knows he can't have his way one hundred percent, and that there is a compromise to be made between ranking and evaluating. His use of portfolios, contract grading, a holistic grid, and student magazines give the students the ranking they want. In addition, he provides "evaluation free zones" where students participate in free writing and create non evaluative assignments, where his only comment is "thank you." I agree that students can grow through these non-evaluative activities. Free writing permits a writer freedom to experiment with choice, voice, and technique. Knowing that the piece doesn't have to be shared opens the writer up to taking risks. Daily practice is invaluable. 

Finally, Elbow addresses the importance of writers liking their work. I never really thought about this before, but makes such sense to me. "It's not improvement that leads to liking, but liking that leads to improvement." What a simplistic and genius statement. If a writer doesn't buy into their piece, doesn't care about it to start with, then why would they care to invest the time and energy working on it? Liking, doesn't mean that a piece is perfect and that it doesn't need to be rework and revised, it means that there is great potential and drive to do the reworking. It's important to teach our students this notion. 

Onto grammar! Hartwell certainly let's the grammarians have it. He starts off by basically stating that grammarians are never really satisfied with any research that is done because it doesn't fall in their favor. They seem to always find excuses as to why the studies can be picked apart. They even find excuses as to why their own research failed to fall on their side. It seems that grammarians and anti-grammarians simply don't trust each other. He goes onto state that this piece will put it all to rest because he is going to look at the grammar issues in a whole new light. He addresses four specific questions that hopes are answered and will lay any debate to rest.

I actually enjoyed his point of view. He makes a very strong case for why we should not teach formal, skills-centered grammar in isolation. By providing the five definitions of grammar and plucking apart each one, he must leave grammarians with their mouths agape. (As a side note, if  I was instructed to teach my class grammar as Kolln and Neuleib stressed, I would quit. I can't think of anything more dull, joyless, and tedious. )

The examples he provides are powerful and true. How many times do I hear teachers say, my kids can't name a preposition or a linking verb? However, the kid can create a correct sentence. I'm not saying that there are not students out there who have true deficiencies. Who are not constructing sentences and don't know how to punctuate and capitalize correctly. I know there are. They are in my classroom. What I do know, is that cramming a bunch of grammar rules down their throats is not going to fix the problem. These students who have writing deficiencies are also my students who are not at appropriate reading level. Hartwell makes that distinction in his text as well. there is a connection to writing and literacy. The problems low achieving students are experiencing, are far beyond not knowing the rules for commas. Besides, as he states, once students learn a set of rules there are thirty exceptions to those rules that mess things up!

Grammar instruction is important. It needs to be taught and is often overlooked. However, Kolln's and Neuleib's vision is not only out dated (this piece is written in 1985) and boring, but it is useless. 
We truly need some new and innovative ways to address the area of teaching grammar in a writing classroom.

Thoughts on the Shared Project

I really enjoyed hashing things out more last week. I think we are headed somewhere. As we were talking things through, my wheels started spinning, and I was able to think how I could contribute to any of the ideas we had listed. I really like the idea of creating a list of innovative lessons that any writing teacher can use. Incorporating things like an "anti" lesson, music, or pop culture is a great way to pull students in and keep their interest. I also like thinking of ways that we can create writing pieces that may not be traditional. Having a bank like this is something teachers would love to go to. I know I would. I think back, once again, to KUWP and how we were all inspired by each others lessons, and couldn't wait to try them in our own classrooms. Having resources from other educators is amazing. My concern is the age group, I don't want anyone to feel that they are creating lessons for a group they aren't interested in or to feel uncomfortable. Many lessons can be tweaked for different ages, so we can probably work out this issue.  


During his discussion of why ranking is bad, I got to thinking about how my former students’ writing was graded on the NJ Ask by “trained evaluators,” whose job it was to (basically) come up with the same score that any other NJ Ask certified scorer would give.  I was struck by the mention of a book by Barbara Hernstein Smith in which it was said she “argues that whenever we have widespread inter-reader reliability, we have reason to suspect that difference has been suppressed and homogeneity imposed-almost always at the expense of certain groups.” YIKES!!  Yes, grading writing is (unfortunately for students) a subjective practice.  You like chocolate, I like vanilla.  This part, I agreed with.  Which leads me to the topic of rubrics….

As I read the article, I kept waiting for Elbow to talk about rubrics. I was disappointed by how little attention was given to this facet of grading (ranking).  I mean, what are the teachers using to come up with their grade, if not a rubric?  This is the only mention of rubrics I could find in the entire article (and it was a parenthetical aside): “Holistic scoring sessions sometimes use rubrics that explain the criteria-though these are rarely passed along to students-and even in these situations, the rubrics fail to fit many papers.”  Really?   I find that hard to believe.  Every teacher I know uses rubrics to determine and convey a (writing) grade to their students.  I don’t think he gave rubrics the credit they deserve in terms of being a viable option for giving students quality feedback (but then again, maybe I’m biased).  

When bolstering his point about the uncommunicativeness of grades, he states that if they gave “good diagnostic feedback,” they would be a better tool--or something like that.  I happen to think my rubric is a pretty good diagnostic tool.  It’s very specific at 3 pages long.  Elbow says that grading “doesn’t give a fair or reliable measure of skills or knowledge.”  It doesn’t?  I think it’s pretty fair.  However, this is where it gets complicated.  Fair, in the sense that students know what is expected of them and how to achieve it (I cringed as I wrote that last part).  I get it, I get it. We don’t want students simply checking off tasks in the rubric boxes trying to achieve what the teacher wants-especially in writing.  Believe me, I get it!!!  I do not want that for my budding authors.  However, when you TEACH something, you are looking for proof of that skill/knowledge.  Now, in light of our recent discussions about how do we teach?, what do we teach?, can we even teach?, this gets complicated.  But, the bottom line is, if you are teaching a WRITING CLASS, you are assessing what you have taught them, no?  If not, are you just assessing how good of a writer they were before they walked in your class???  We need to be OK with telling students what’s good.  In fact, I always say this: They WANT to know what makes writing good.  If a highly-skilled writer happened to appear in your class, I would venture to say that the instructional practices and resulting product(s) from your instruction would not likely hinder his/her overall aptitude for writing in the future.  I would guess that the student would be able to apply the said skills quite readily and then be able to use or dispose of them at will in the future.  They might even learn a thing or two.  That’s the point, right?  However, those students lacking any innate ability to compose, I presume, would only benefit greatly from such described direct instruction.  Win-Win?  So, I conclude that grading (using a rubric) should be used on students. Not on authors, perhaps (although even editors work to make their writing better)?

Ranking is engrained in the fabric of our culture.  The article notes that psychologists associate the use of ranking with the “authoritarian personality.”  This idea can be seen throughout our society.  This got me to thinking about something that’s been talked about in the news lately.  The whole “Are we all “going soft?” debate…..every kid on the soccer team gets an award, etc.  My daughter has a wall full of “participation” medals for soccer because someone decided we shouldn’t give awards to only the best. (this may be another discussion altogether and one that is highly charged, I’m sure) Why shouldn’t the best story get an A?  What’s wrong with saying something is good.  It’s ok in math or science, but not in writing.  Even art and music students get graded.   I will admit that I like to get a grade.  I always have.  I feel ashamed to say so in light of this article, but I do.  And, I value the grade as a reflection of my learning.  I trust in the teachers.  I have always trusted my teachers as “the authorities.”  Have I done this to a fault?  Or, do we not do this enough today?

Elbow goes on to claim that the elimination of grading is likely to lead to an increased interest in genuine “learning” on the part of the student.  Hmmmm?  I like the optimistic view he holds of students, but I find the opposite likely to be true.  I’m going to sound like a huge slacker here, but when I was an undergrad, I studied abroad in London and was told I would only receive Pass/Fail grades on the courses I took while there.  I, unfortunately, did not work harder because I was interested in my learning.  I was 19!! (One was a screenwriting class that up until now I had nearly forgotten I had taken.)  I find it hard to believe I am the exception to the rule in this situation.  Do you really think high school and college students, particularly those who are not interesting in writing as a major, will work harder if they know it doesn’t affect their grade?  I realize this is a dismal portrait of students that I am painting, but I can’t help but think it to be true.  It’s a beautiful thing to think everyone would be taking classes just “to learn” if a degree wasn’t to be obtained.  I regret to say that many students are taking these classes simply because they are required and they want to get a good grade, or maybe even just get by, depending on the student.  

Ok, so around this point in the article, my whole thinking started to shift.  Up until now, I was feeling like rubrics are great.  But then, something made me want to throw my hands up and say “SCREW the rubric!”  I was thinking that maybe grading writing should be a more visceral reaction rather than calculated formula.  UGH!  I’m still a little confused…...Either way, I still like the idea of ranking. (sorry, Elbow)

I was also perplexed by the following from the article, “Face it: if our goal is to get students to exercise their own judgment, that means exercising an immature and undeveloped judgment and making choices that are obviously wrong to us” (197).  Maybe someone can explain it to me.  He was talking about allowing students to take risks and not over-evaluate them...I am wondering if he is implying that students do not have the capacity to have well-developed judgement, or that our choices will never match those of the students???

Elbow’s description of his evaluation-free zones sounded a lot like reflective writing. I loved, loved, loved this section and his passion for what he is doing in the classroom.  The fact that he would like to one day run an entire course this way had me jumping out of my seat.  I could totally see the value in that and think it would produce amazing results!  This is kind of the opposite of what I saying about using rubrics being cool and useful but,here, I honestly understood how effective the free-writing classroom could be. Very powerful.  In addition to the reflective journals I spoke about last week, I had each of my students set up a blog as a free-writing space to use during computer time and I was moved by some of the content.  They knew there was no risk-just a place to tell their classmates about them and I got to know a side of them I hadn’t seen before.

The section on liking was my favorite. I found all of it to be true.  I felt a little bad that Elbow had to qualify his use of the activities described out of an obvious awkward feeling of being judged by his peers. I was moved by his sentiments about liking both your students and their writing.  I am a forever optimist, deep down, and love all of my students and their wonderfully awful writing.  We use post-it notes to write positive comments on each others’ writing and the students display them with pride on their lockers.  There is nothing wrong with giving students a moral boost.  Again, this is a contradiction to my aforementioned thoughts on giving everyone a participation ribbon, but so be it.  I hold that the two views can coexist.  

Final quote:

“The way a writer learns to like their writing is by the grace is by having a reader or two who like it.”  

Is that not, too, true of learning to like ourselves?

I love grammar like I love cursive writing:  a little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of “what’s the use anymore?”  Partick Hartwell, like many others, believes we should eliminate grammar instruction.  In his article, “Grammar, Grammars, and The Teaching of Grammar”, he acknowledges there is much debate surrounding this topic.  I was surprised to learn that the article was written in 1985, when grammar was still very much a part of formal writing instruction. Hartwell works, at length, to define grammar and debunk the opposing theories/studies surrounding grammar instruction.   This was a tough article for me to get through, on a purely ease-of-reading level.  It may very well be that I was rather tired, at the time, but I struggled with navigating the text. I will spare myself (and my colleagues) a long-winded post about this article.


"Ranking, Evaluating, & Liking" by Elbow and "Grammar, Grammars, and Teaching Grammar" by Hartwell

     I'm sure most people involved in education have seen this cartoon by now. I view this as a fair representation of the standardized test; some students are better equipped to climb the tree (or pass the test). It was one of the first things to come to mind as I read "Ranking, Evaluating, & Liking" by Elbow. As long as the end result is all that matters, students who may have different abilities will suffer.

     Elbow's section entitled "The Benefits and Feasibility of Liking" hits on something I learned a couple of years ago- I can offer much better feedback (which will lead to improvements in the writing) if I embrace each writer for who he or she is. Expecting each student to write like Hemingway, or trying to steer him or her in that direction, is counter-intuitive to helping that student discover who he or she is as a writer.

     It has been so much easier to accept the abilities of each individual and encourage personal strengths. As Elbow says, "liking leads to improvements." As long as the students don't feel that their hard work is going to be trashed, their will continue to work and may work harder the next time. In districts such as mine, where the average writer is struggling, this can mean all the difference.

     In "Grammar, Grammars, and Teaching Grammar", Hartwell addresses whether or not teaching grammar has an impact on students. My experience has shown that very few students put the rules they learn about grammar in their arsenal when it assignment time comes. When it is taught at the high school level, students will memorize it long enough to take the assessment, then forget all about it.

     My most recent bit of evidence for this came just this past week. The week before was spent identifying pronouns and antecedents. I was amazed at how involved the students were with the topic, mainly because I assumed freshmen in high school would have this under their belts already. My classes worked really hard all week, encouraging one another to the point that the class averages on the practices and the eventual quiz were in the upper 80's. I thought to myself, "Good. They learned that skill." How naive I was. 

     This past Tuesday, not a week later, I revisited the concept and asked the students to identify the pronouns in some sentences. These very same students were identifying verbs, adjectives, and adverbs; anything but what they had just showed me they "learned". The point of this long, heart-breaking tale? The students can still write using pronouns effectively, they just can't label them as such. Teaching the students proper grammar will not have as much an impact as teaching them how to articulate a thought and develop an idea.

     As far as the final project goes, I am good with the ideas discussed in class so far. I'm really excited for possibly bringing in some form of pop culture to cement a concept. It's something I do for my students a lot. We'll have to see what kind of ideas germinated over the past week.

I didn't want Calvin to feel left out

More Thoughts on our Final Project, and a shout out to Melissa

In thinking further about our final project, I agree with Melissa's last post. She said she would like to create lesson plans or design a course. I agree. I'd prefer to make a compilation of lesson plans / best practices and tie them to theory. The final product of ideas #1, #2, and #3 are all very similar. If we each choose the way we want to present our lessons, anti, online, print, they could still all be part of the same compilation (because print will start as an electronic document anyway).

So let's talk about lessons/best practices, and why I want to take that route. I have successfully integrated 3 best practices that were shared in the classroom here at Kean since I started in the program in July. The first was Laura Lopez's 6-word memoir idea. I adapted her lesson for my first year writing course at NJIT in our personal narrative unit. The students loved it and learned about connotation, register, word choice, composing in digital format, and reflection. I used an adaptation of a lesson plan shared by Larissa Lee to introduce counter arguments in our unit on persuasive essays. They learned the concepts of support vs. counter arguments and how to predict, concede, and/or refute the opposition's point of view.

Now, shout out to Melissa Libbey, thank you! for sharing that lesson you participated in about understanding counter arguments. While you may have just mentioned it in passing, I listened closely, and used the same plan on Tuesday to drive home the concept of counter arguments with my freshmen before their persuasive essay due date next week. We had Team Snickers and Team Twix eating candy in two groups and making lists on the board. They gained a solid understanding of where counter arguments fit in the scheme of a persuasive essay, why they are rhetorically important, and how to phrase them effectively. And, they got to trash talk each other and eat candy bars. The activity was a much more effective learning tool than my previous classroom explanations were. Understanding was evident in their rough drafts following the team activity. Awesome!

Back to the final project. Idea #3 doesn't seem to be a combination of #1 and #2 to me. It seems to be an explanation of what each individual could do with #2:

  • Pick something to teach (from the list in idea #1), decide your pedagogy (anti or not, songs, pop culture), choose the presentation (print, electronic, interactive, etc.), develop an assignment, and explain the whole thing in terms of a theory you agree with.

My contribution to the group project, if it were idea #2 lesson plans / best practices compilation, could be fun grammar lessons, I know, it's an oxymoron,...with online components, songs, videos, and student activities. Or, I could explain and demonstrate college level eportfolios and how to use them in a class and for evaluation. For there to be learning in this project, we'd have to tie the lessons back to theory, which would be great. Then we'd have a basis for the pedagogy we choose. Also, we don't have to decide on a grade level. Writing is writing, and grammar is grammar. As Laura pointed out last class, the kid's learn the same thing year after year. Laura's 6th grade lesson was easily reworked for my college class. My college grammar could be tweaked for high school, etc.

If we went with idea #1 and went anti-theory with each genre, we would have to develop classroom lessons that might not be actually usable given time constaints, administrative rules, grading policy, etc. Fun, but, not sure where the useful learning comes in there, beyond understanding the theory. Also, some genres might lend themselves to anti-theory better than others, so it would be hard to constrain everyone to come up with an anti-theory. Still, I hope some of us would choose to take that route, it would be interesting.

I hope that helps move us towards a conclusion. Looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say!