Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I teach English and I write professionally, but I don’t remember how I learned grammar.  I’ve always been a reader, and my father is an excellent editor who helped me with many high school and college papers.  But as far as former classroom instruction goes, I have zero recollection of effective teachers and teaching methods relating to grammar.  I’m probably not alone with this sentiment. 

Several times a year, our department bemoans the state of student grammar, but we have a hard time coming to consensus about how to teach it.  How often?  What methods, texts, or strategies should we use?  Is it possible to become grammatically proficient without having a strong foundation in reading?  Are high school students who don’t, or haven’t, widely read traditional texts–beyond Tweets and Facebook feeds–relegated to a post-secondary and professional life rife with common grammar mistakes in their memos, e-mails and reports?


Over the course of my almost nine years in the classroom, the strongest student writers in my classes have always been voracious readers.  Their parents didn’t drill them with subject-verb agreement worksheets as soon as they could talk, nor did they receive extra tutoring in complex sentence construction after completing preschool finger painting bonanzas.  They read as youngsters, and continue to read.  I’ve never met a student who has a strong writing voice, shows command of the language in various ways, and aces grammar quizzes while shunning reading for pleasure.

While these observations, and my subsequent efforts to teach non-readers grammar have been frustrating, I’m not about to jettison grammar instruction from my lesson plans–I’m still testing out various methods and resources.

Walt Gardner’s recent piece in Education Week rekindled the ongoing grammar debate, as Gardner reflects on a pedagogical shift in the 1970’s, when English teachers were influenced to deemphasize grammar:

English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student’s essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I’m not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I’m talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

This pedagogical shift is still relevant today; I just finished grading some student essays about women serving combat roles, and the required scoring rubric first places emphasis on audience and purpose, idea development, organization, and finally grammar and mechanics.  Gardner’s correct–I simply don’t come across any student writing that is able to effectively develop a thesis, back up claims with evidence, and display sound organization without command of basic and more advanced grammar rules.  Understanding grammar enables us to be creative writers and thinkers, leading to more effective communication.

Gardner’s text inspired plenty of reaction–here are some highlights from the comments section that address the following issues:

How does grammar instruction reinforce power structures?  Is grammar instruction be a friend or foe of creative expression and thinking?

We de-emphasize the importance of the grammar mistakes that the culture of power tend to make but emphasize the mistakes that are the most common in low-income, low-status cultures…But we need to be careful not to do what we did in the past, which is put all of the privileged students with educated parents into one group (called “the smart kids”) and teach them the rules for a language in which they are already very fluent, and put all of the other kids in English classes where they are taught the abstract rules of a language that nobody they know speaks and then “corrected” every time they speak in the version of English that is spoken in their community.

–One of the obstacles is that some minority students don’t hear standard English at home or in their neighborhood. As a result, their ears become accustomed to grammar that is different from what is taught in school.

–I’ve examined the research on this issue. Conclusion: FORM in writing comes largely from reading (consciously learned rules can help you a little bit in the editing stage of the composing process). Writing itself can help you solve problems and make you smarter.

–We learned that there are certain indispensable rules. I never regarded them as obstacles to creativity. On the contrary, I viewed them as allies.

–It’s interesting that learning grammar is disparaged by the same constructivists who favor critical thinking skills over content. Grammar is nothing but critical thinking — you learn what the parts of speech are, you test various ways of putting them together that are in alignment with overall principles, you aim to help the students develop the ability to communicate as powerfully as possible.


Lastly, it seems as if many students don’t understand the need to know grammar beyond those who care to earn a higher grade on an academic task.  After all, the texts they create and consume–mostly digital–aren’t necessarily adhering to traditional language guidelines.  Students need to be shown various models of professional and workplace writing that still demand good grammar, and they need to explore–or be shown–the consequences of poorly written inquiries, resumes, e-mails, and grant requests, among other real world forms.

Do you remember how you learned grammar?  Should schools emphasize grammar, or do our new forms of communication diminish the need to be proficient?  For teachers out there, what do you do to teach grammar–do you have any tips?  Do you have any examples to disprove my claim that you can write well without being a reader?


Slowing the Twitter Information Torrent


I just finished paring down my number of Twitter follows from 55 to 25.

Compared to other bloggers who write about technology and culture, I realize it’s a miniscule number.  But as of this writing, I find it burdensome to attempt to keep up to speed with Twitter.  Like blogger Cheri Lucas Rowlands, whose Writing Through the Fog is one of my must-reads,  I’ve felt that attempting to keep pace with a sizable Twitter feed seems like trying to be keep a giant sponge saturated, with no time to wring it out:

Sometimes I envision my Twitter feed as rushing water: my presence is a dam, and each tweet is debris making its way downstream. It’s now a challenge to let information simply flow—to let tweets swim by without me seeing or interacting with them. But because of this constant, obsessive reading and absorbing of everything on the Internet, I cannot write.

I also want to write more.  I want to strike a better balance consuming and creating media.  I want to cast a line and snag a Tweet now and then, but not feel the need to spread a net across the torrent.  

Like many of you out there, I find self-directed learning and engagement in the digital age exhilarating, enlightening, confounding, time-consuming, and tricky to navigate.  I could spent all day, everyday, reading interesting essays, interpreting infographics, and watching YouTube videos laid out in front of me on my Twitter feed.   

If we can be possessed by the things we own, we can also be possessed by the information we attempt to consume.  The more online accounts we create, the more follows we amass on Twitter, the greater the burden.  And it is a burden, especially when your job doesn’t pay you to curate information.  I teach, and I desire to stay abreast of new developments and demonstrations of effective teaching and learning.  But with the demands of lesson planning, grading papers, creating sub plans, calling parents, and maintaining a non-digital life, I don’t want to drown myself in information.

How do you curate information on the internet?  Are you a Twitter user?  What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses as a tool?  Besides Twitter, what have you found to be useful websites or tools to manage information flow?

The Challenge of Blog Promotion


Have you ever finished writing a blog post, then anticipated a deluge of page hits and comments?  After all, you’ve just finished writing what you believe is a truly insightful post, a fresh take on a common theme or daily occurence, so obviously people out in the blogosphere will stop by.   I sure have.  I remember eagerly penning this post about the role of personal expression in writing instruction for struggling students.  So far, it has only generated one response.


While I don’t work tirelessly to increase readership of the ‘Stew, one of the many reasons I enjoy blogging is creating dialogue.  It’s simply more enjoyable to put ideas and musings out there, exchanging questions and comments with readers, rather than the blog simply be a refined diary of sorts.  I also consider digitally interacting with you “strangers” out there more satisfying than posting to facebook walls of long-ago neighborhood friends.

But I am coming to understand that promoting a blog and gaining a consistent readership and dialogue is no simple task.  It’s like a part time job.  Simply producing great content won’t produce readership; it takes active marketing.

Have you considered the complex, multifaceted ways bloggers attempt to promote their posts and drive page views?  This enlightening infographic from provides a road map for those of us who are at least somewhat interested in understanding the multitude of strategies bloggers and other web writers employ to create traffic.  The graphic made me pause, challenging me to run down the list of what I do–and don’t do–to promote this blog according to five categories:  Social Media, Bookmarking Sites, Personal Contacts, Other Blogs, and Syndication.

Social Media–I link my posts to Facebook and Twitter, but I do not use Pinterest, Linkedin, or Google+.

Bookmarking Sites–I don’t currently utilize sites like Reddit, Digg, or Delicious.

Personal Contacts–I do share blog posts with professional groups and message boards, but I do not add a link on e-mail signatures or send out links in mass e-mails.

Other Blogs–This is the category in which I interact the most–I do try to carve out time to comment on other blogs, submit as a guest blogger, and respond to the vast majority of comments left at the ‘Stew.

Syndication–Apparently, you can submit your blog to a number of sites, including DemandStudios, to help spread your content to larger, more established news sites like USA Today and Salon.

What are my takeaway?  As much as enjoy writing and blogging, I have no desire to elevate the hobby to a part-time job–it takes too much effort to fully engage in all of the above promotion categories.  And I do not envy those who attempt to make a living out of online writing and blogging.  There’s so much great content out there, so many distractions, and so much time needed to drive readers to a given site.  I’m curious to know about your approach to blogging and promotion:

What do you do to promote your blog?  Do you care about increasing your readership?  What other tips or insights do you have to offer about promoting your blog, or blogging in general?

Dusting Off Some Early Musings

No Stone Unturned

Welcome new readers!

One of my favorite aspects of blogging is generating thoughtful discussion, and I earnestly attempt to respond to most comments.  Thanks to my recent post being Freshly Pressed, I haven’t been able to respond to the flood of comments about exploring busyness.  Ironic, no?:)  I’ll start chipping away soon.  


Now that the ‘Stew readership has increased, I’m hoping to revive some posts from months ago.  Please comment and share! 

1.  In this post about digital communication, I wonder about teenagers’ interpersonal skill, gadgets, and whether or not what it means to be human–within the realm of communication–is changing for better or worse.  

2.  Our relationships with pets and other animals, coupled with increased meat consumption, is problematic.  Since I published this post, I’ve had to kill one of my hens due to an infection.  It wasn’t enjoyable, but it had to be done.

3.  Mindful technology use is a big theme on the Stew’, and this post encapsulates some of the challenges we face in the digital age:  5 Tips for Mindful Technology Use.

4.  What is meaningful work?  Is there value in working with our hands?  What is the problem with so much of our lives being filled by passive consumption?

5.  There are many overlooked places between the East and West Coasts of the United States.   Do you live in a “flyover state?”  Would you?  Why or why not?  For many well-educated Americans, places like Kentucky are more foreign than China.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all you bloggers!

Thoughts On Writing Well

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

“All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.  It may be a problem of where to obtain facts or how to organize the material.  It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style.  Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved.  Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution–or any solution.”

On Writing Well, p. 49

It should be pointed out that I’m sitting comfortably, reclining in a cushioned chair, thoughtfully ruminating on what it means to write rather well and, on the whole, I’m somewhat convinced that this outstanding blog post will pretty much be an undeniable success in exerting massive, world-shattering influence on the blogging world, but I’m really not sure about that.

The previous sentence is purposefully convoluted.  I wrote it because I care about writing, I teach writing, and I need to step back and remind myself about what good writers do.  How they solve the problems and challenges inherent in certain writing forms and styles.  How certain sentences are crafted.  How, according to some writers, adverbs and adjectives often muddle sentences:

I’m still sitting in a cushioned armchair, considering what it means to write well.  I have no pretense that this post will be particularly influential.

That’s better.  But I’m still thinking about the above quote, and how its ideas play out every time I write a blog post.  Should I link to other sources?  Should I shift my tone?  Should I choose a different quote as an epigraph?  Framing writing as problem solving is something I’m going to emphasize with my students in room 137.  

I will tell my students that that is OK to start a sentence with but.  After all, who really believes that however or yet are more effective word choices if you want to make a clear, precise contradictory statement?   I will show them this post, and tell them just how many hundreds of little decisions I’ve made in writing this entry.  I will encourage them to read and imitate writers they admire.

I’ll tell them that since I care about writing, I’ve decided to reread books on writing.  Thanks to Annie Murphy Paul’s praise of William Zinsser’s classic nonfiction writing guide On Writing Well, I’ve begun to reread the book.  I’m playing with the ideas as I continue to sit in the armchair, reminding myself that writing one blog post a week may make me feel like I’m honing my skills, but that clockwork does little to keep me more aware of how I’m writing and blogging. 

I know I’ve got a lot to learn when it comes to the written word, and many bloggers aren’t as concerned as I am with the craft–that’s fine by me.   But isn’t blogging a wonderful way to deliberately write, gather feedback, and share ideas with others interested in Writing Well?

What are some of your favorite texts on writing?  What do you think are the best lessons to teach young writers about blogging and writing? What’s your writing process for your blog posts?   

Struggling Writers: Is Personal Expression the Answer?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

Glancing around the room, fiddling with his smart phone, and tapping his pencil, Michael will do anything but write.  He’ll scribble a few sentences on the paper, and the chicken scratch handwriting belies his age–he’s a high school sophomore.  He can’t tell you what a compound sentence is or how to use serial commas, but he can provide a look of disgust every time you pass out a grammar worksheet or explain why writing is important.

Should we emphasize personal narratives and expression over other types of writing in schools?

But then you ask Michael to write about a time when he was ignored or neglected.  He knows about this.  This won’t be tough for me to write, he thinks, remembering the time his mother forgot his birthday, instead opting to spend the night at the local bar with a new boyfriend.  There is suddenly a rhythm to his pencil on the college-ruled paper.  Two pages get filled up like a tall glass underneath a flowing faucet.  He needs a bigger cup.

Most teachers would celebrate this breakthrough with Michael, realizing that if he’s allowed to write about his experience and feelings, he’ll actually put pencil to paper. 

Count me as a teacher who would celebrate Michael’s effort, attempting to use it as a catalyst to greater writing proficiency. 

Could it be somewhat true that, according to Common Core Standards architect David Coleman, as you grow up, people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think? 

Should we only be mildly excited that Michael actually wrote?  After all, the punctuation was still a mess.  He failed to use specific details or imagery to help his story come alive.

Blogger and Writer Annie Murphy Paul alerted me to an essay in The Atlantic titled “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.”  Former 5th grade teacher Robert Pondiscio reflects on his time in the classroom, coming to the conclusion that he didn’t do enough teaching of writing fundamentals to his needy students, spending most of his time modeling the behaviors and dispositions of authors and readers.   According to Pondiscio, he fell into a trap:

…at too many schools, it’s more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It’s more important to write a “personal response” to literature than engage with the content.

This article has made me pause.  Pondiscio is correct in stating that high-needs students are not empowered by simply writing about their feelings.  To be a competent, functional adult writer, one needs to be able to analyze, critique, and write logical arguments.

Annie Murphy Paul also agrees with Pondiscio’s assessment, writing, “Robert is right—creativity springs from a mastery of the fundamentals, and we cheat students when we don’t teach them the fundamentals in a rigorous way.”

I’m scheduled to teach Creative Writing during our winter trimester, and I know I’ll have a handful of students who like to write but lack command of the written word.  A few Michaels will likely sit in room 137, ready to spill personal narratives onto the page.  If I were only teaching self-healing and writing therapy, that’d be great.

Pondiscio acknowledges that it’s not an either/or proposition–we don’t have to skill and drill students to death without allowing for personal expression.  I agree once again.  I know I’ll have to find a healthy balance between teaching writing fundamentals and allowing the students to just write what’s on their minds.  I believe in the power of storytelling, in addition to the crucial role it plays in society, so I look forward to teaching the course for the first time.

Today, my sophomores slaved away during fourth period on their first official writing assessment, attempting to write literary analysis.  I was about to paraphrase Coleman’s words in a pre-test pep talk, but I decided against it. 

It’s true–their feelings don’t matter on this exam, but their command of formal writing conventions does.  As does their ability to think critically.  We’ll eventually write some personal essays.  Hopefully, when we do, they’ll be able to incorporate some new skills to enhance their self-expression.

What do you think about the role of creative writing and grammar instruction in schools?   Is it a good thing to swing the writing curriculum pendulum more towards analysis and argumentative writing?  What do you remember as your most effective, lasting writing instruction?

Striving for Balance–Enforcing Work Boundaries

No Stone Unturned

I’m sitting on my front porch in a refinished Adirondack chair, enjoying a warm afternoon breeze and a glass of ice water.  I’d rather post to Mindful Stew than grade papers or check my work e-mail.  Or call parents.  Or attempt to get ahead on my lesson plans.  Or log on to Edmodo to respond to some student posts.

Grading these essays will have to wait.
Image from

Teaching never ends during the school year, but I’ve found that I’m most effective and energized during the school day by limiting the time I work, despite the fact that the “To-Do” list will never end.  I want to and have to turn off my job.

I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but not so much that it will drastically interfere with other endeavors that keep me sane, fulfilled, and content.  During the fall, I bow-hunt.  This is a demanding hobby, requiring hours practicing shooting the bow, scouting deer in fields and forests, and spending hours sitting idly but alert in a tree.  Combine hunting with spending quality time with my fiance, cooking, blogging, brewing beer, and watching football, and there’s not many hours left in the day.  But I’m fortunate to have enough time to do all of these things, only because I choose to stop working.

In this Ted Talk, Nigel Mark provides a pointed take on work/life balance. 

He states, “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet screaming desperation where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things that they need to impress people they don’t like.”  A bleak assessment, and I feel fortunate that I don’t fall into that boat.  Unlike many people, I’m able to make decisions about how much I work outside of school hours without worrying about providing food, shelter, and care for any dependents.  That said, I wonder how much our society’s expectations relating to work, child rearing, and lifestyle affect how much time we feel we need to work, in addition to how much money we must accumulate to pursue satisfying lives.

Marks also contends that “we have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries we want in our lives.”  Last year, a coworker had the audacity to tell me that I needed to have less work/life balance in order to do more curriculum work.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was teaching my ass off.  At that moment I realized I needed to set more boundaries, not be afraid to say no to coaching or other committees, and to guard my own time in an attempt to create my own vision of work/life balance.

Mark continues, “…commercial companies are inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with.”  I think about–and feel sorry for–those who are attached to their cell phones due to the need to compose and respond to work e-mail.  I will never sign up for a job with this requirement.  How can one reasonably expect a work/life balance in that situation?

The problem for many people seem to believe that career success must solely be measured monetarily.  And in an economic recession, the topic of this post may be irrelevant and even off-putting to some.  Nonetheless, it’s worth discussing.

Do you have a job that’s tough to turn off?   How do you accomplish, or struggle with, a work/life balance?  What’s your idea of a perfect day in the context of work/life balance?  Did you watch Nigel’s Ted Talk?  What do you think?

A Seventh Grader Said “Poetry is Gay”

Classroom Tales from the Archives

I’ve decided to post narrative e-mails from my first few years of teaching middle school.  It was my way of journaling and reflecting on my craft, student behaviors, and experiences–both good and bad–in the classroom.  This is an account of attempting to teach 7th graders poetry from January 2006, my second full year teaching (student names have been changed):

I hate it.

It’s for sissies.

I don’t understand it.

I only like lovey-dovey poems…

We did poetry in fourth grade, that’s all I know.

Shakespeare sucks!

NO i do not Like poem because i can’t keep a good poem going so that why i can’t stand it!  Tim, age 14

The above lines represent initial comments my students wrote about poetry before delving into the genre.  In early December, I had just returned from the National Conference for Teachers of English (NCTE) in Pittsburgh. I was lucky to see Nancie Atwell speak, as she is the Michael Jordan of middle school language arts.  She said something along the lines of over the years I’ve found that once my kids understand and appreciate poetry, their writing and reading flourishes

By golly, that’s all I needed to hear to begin scheming up a poetry teaching plan.  On the flight back from Pittsburgh, I started brainstorming.  I folded down the crusty tan seat tray, squished my knees against the seat, and took out a notepad and pencil. 

As I finish up a poetry unit, I can’t say it has been a rousing success for all students.  Some still believe poetry is exclusively for fruitcakes; others have trouble with anything resembling abstract or creative thought.  But some of the most unlikely students have inspired me after, I suppose, I inspired them to open up a little bit.  Encouraging students to write poetry began with a poem by George Ella Lyon, a native Kentuckian.  It’s called “Where I’m From” and contains lines representing various facets of one’s life, like faith, family, common phrases, etc.  This is the first stanza of the poem:

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

Most students have enjoyed writing Where I’m From poems, especially struggling writers who gain confidence and exude pride while penning honest images about their lives.  Steel-toed boot kickin’ Jake and Tim are two of my struggling readers and writers.

I wish I could show you the jumbled mess most of Jake’s writing is.  His handwriting looks like a cross of Russian and Arabic.  Uhhhhh, Jake, could you read that to me?  I have no idea what it says.  He is representative of a group of boys who view literary exploits as feminine.  Like Jake, Tim—whose verbatim quote at the top of the e-mail is both alarming and poignant—is functioning at a literacy level way below that of his peers.

Tim—100% deer hunting, four-wheeling, tobacco-spitting—has approached me several times about his Where I’m From poem.  “I got it out during science class and re-wrote it,” he mentioned a few weeks ago.  “Can I bring it home to show my dad?”

I honestly believe this was the first time he’s ever been proud of something he wrote at school, besides crude notes he passes to friends.  Jake also got excited over his rough draft.

“I showed my family the poem,” Jake mumbled one day, seemingly embarrassed with that very act of sharing.  “They all really liked it, but my dad said poetry is gay.”

“It’s not,” I responded. “Let’s write him a poem about 4-wheeling and guns and see if he says the same thing.”  I have yet to help his with this poem, but it could happen.  The rest of his family thought the poem was sweet. 

I’ll admit some students can compose a poem that belies their actual shaky grasp of the written word when it comes to longer, more complex projects.  But the mere fact that this type of student is excited about his writing—a feeling I suspect has few and far between—is wonderful.

 So that’s the news from East Middle School in Shelbyville, Kentucky.  Hard work but this type of student response could keep my motor running all day.  I’ve copied Jake’s rough draft below (I helped him with spellcheck).

Jake’s Draft

I’m from Longview, Texas

From the Texas woodlands

Full of spruces and pines.

I’m from Laura and Chris,

From a family of five.

I’m from sweaty shoulder pads,

From chicken and mashed taters.

I’m from I’m telling mom

And from a dog named Fletch

With his blue eye that could

Light up a room.

I’m from a cranky old man

I call grandpa.

I’m from a green shingled

Dog house in my backyard.

From a long line of athletes

Once was and never was…

How much detail is simply too much?

No Stone Unturned

Great commentary on one writer’s take on weaving personal details into your digital footprint.  What information should we share?  What should we withhold?  Why do so many people publish what seem to be personal journals?


Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

— I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

— I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

— My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

— My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

— My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?


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