It was once my privilege – and challenge – to take over teaching mid-year in a 7th/8th grade grammar class at a very small public school. This school was the classic one-room schoolhouse, located in a remote, road-less area in the North Cascades of Washington state. The children there had grown up navigating the trails of the high country, floating the rivers, jumping in the glacial-fed lake, and tearing up and down the dirt roads on their bicycles. It was a land of no cell phones, video games, and Facebook – a place of isolated enchantment that could not and would not be fully appreciated until these students grew older, moved away, and worked in cities that involved the many technological trappings now associated with modern living.
You can well imagine that the students did not feel a passion for this grammar class – my predecessor having resorted to dry lectures and long homework assignments, and it was my job to take over and to inspire some interest for the subject. Being a grammar nerd myself, I wasn’t prepared for the level of apathy that the students expressed. I remember telling the students on the first day of class that I loved the subject of grammar so much, I took grammar workbooks with me on vacation so I could relax and just enjoy the fun of language. They thought I was weird, maybe a little insane . . . but that was all good because I was committed to understanding why they weren’t more interested in the foundational components of their native language. After all, this is grammar that we are talking about?!
We started the class by getting to know each other a little better. Every Monday, we would each recount stories from the weekend while I grabbed key words from their telling and then write these words into the eight parts of speech grid that I had graphed out on the board. Then we would play The Synonym Game and erase the word on the board with a different word that might convey the story’s meaning a little more vividly. They began to see how word choice mattered – how you could use the adjective great and maybe use the word fabulous or resplendent instead. It was a small step but it made sense to take what they knew – their experiences – and translate them into a Grammar Stew on the board that they shared. I knew that we were growing stalwart grammar-ites when one student used the adjective ebullient in his re-telling of how happy he was that his grandma had come to visit. It made me feel positively ebullient!
For homework, each student was to bring one question each day to stump me – Miz Grammar. I wanted to demonstrate how remarkable grammar actually is . . . that no one has all of the answers – not even Miz Grammar! I wanted them to see how language is an evolving work in progress. Just ask the Apostrophe Protection Society! We can’t stop language! The biggest advantage in Stumping Miz Grammar was that this was a rural school and there was zero access to Google or the Internet. This meant that the students had to use their textbooks to find the questions and answers to stump me.
I don’t know how I managed to stay ahead of the students, but it quickly became apparent that it was going to be tricky to stay ahead of their questions. The students would see me at the post office on mail day and ask, “Miz Grammar, what is a gerund?” “What is a dangling preposition?” “What is an antecedent?” They were becoming a team of grammar experts without the students even knowing it. And how could they know if I knew the answer if they hadn’t done the proper research and found the correct answer themselves?
I kept all of their questions and, at the end of the school year, the students compiled the questions into categories and organized a community-wide, grammar-themed game show. Parents were the contestants and prizes were donated. In an effort to alleviate grammar anxiety – which was prevalent, I might add, what with their children being grammar experts by this time – the parents wore costumes and adopted various personalities as game show contestants. It was a bonding experience for the community, and it was a source of great fun and pride for the students as they led the community down the road of grammar enlightenment.
It is funny how one little crazy idea can grow into something larger than imagined possible. One of the students went on to become a published poet. Another student majored in journalism and was the acting editor of a Chicago university’s newspaper during his tenure as a student. Another student went on to become a freelance writer. The pleasure that these students took in dissecting language into its most primitive parts gave me great joy as a teacher and as a grammar lover!
Learning objectives are important. They are the brass ring on the carousel, the t-shirt at the end of the marathon, the cake from the cake walk. But what I had intuited as necessary at the beginning of this grammar journey proved to be true: you have to build a learning community before learning can happen. These amazing students created a Culture of Grammar. They built a team first and then, without even realizing it in the process, mastered the actual objectives of the course . . . and had fun while doing so.
Am I proud of these students? Yes! It is our goal as educators to infuse a love of learning while learning. Like metacognition, or meta-anything for that matter, it’s all about being within the moment while being in the moment. These students taught me far more about life than I ever taught them about grammar. They taught me about community and to trust myself when in the midst of a challenging and seemingly dismal situation.
It’s good to know that we don’t know everything. We are refreshed and invigorated when we enter the unknown territories in which we find ourselves and embrace the evolution of learning and growing. Just ask Miz Grammar! She knows!
13 Steps to take when you don’t know something that you’re expected to know:
- Just say it. Admit that you don’t know.
- Research. Find your answer.
- Look for new sources and ask experts.
- Lean on your community. Like a 3-legged stool, every “leg” in the community is essential.
- Learn more than you started out wanting to know.
- Share your knowledge.
- Share your passion for knowledge.
- Offer your knowledge and experience to someone else.
- Be a mentor.
- Laugh a lot. Laughter doeth good like a medicine — especially when you are feeling stressed about a deadline or an expectation.
- Don’t give up. There is likely an answer available.
- If you can’t find the answer, create one based on all of the above.
- Become The Expert!