Take a Broccoli Break: Reevaluating Grammar’s Place in the Classroom

Teaching at an international school, where everyone is learning English, has been amazing so far. I have trouble even beginning to explain how great it is to teach this population, how warm and bonded our community has become, the richness of my students’ backgrounds and stories, how ridiculously sweet and adorable they are, with such consistency. But one annoying thing that keeps popping up is grammar.  Not my students’ grammar, not the way I teach grammar, but this obsession with grammar instruction. Even before teaching at an international school, I often encountered this idea that, as an English teacher, grammar is my whole job. Teachers of other subjects have sent students to me with their history essays or lab reports, expecting me to read and correct the grammar in these papers. Non-teachers apologize in advance for their poor grammar in emails or conversation. “I’m not a teacher,” they say sheepishly. Even my students, on the day an essay is due (or, like, a week after an essay is due) come to me in a panic, asking me if I can “fix” all their grammar. And it always seems to come as somewhat of a shock when I explain that I just don’t think grammar is the most important thing.

Certainly, it’s an important thing. I want my students to be able to express themselves clearly and appropriately, to understand their punctuation and not mix up homophones. I want them to be great writers. And that takes more than impeccable, even passable, grammar.

The thing is that grammar is like broccoli. Or Brussels sprouts, or cooked carrots. As a grown-up adult responsible enough to take care of myself (because it’s on me to keep myself alive now), I consume my vegetables with gusto. As a kid, vegetables were not my thing. I didn’t like to eat them – taste, texture, smell, lack of resemblance to ice cream, it all just wasn’t working for me. I had parents and Sesame Street and health class, so I knew that vegetables were good for me. I knew that I should eat them. They were there on the plate every day. I just wasn’t one of those kids that loved their greens, and I was probably a serious pain about this. But what’s great about my journey from veggie-hater to veggie-lover is that it has really informed my approach to grammar in the classroom.

Here are some things I’ve learned about grammar instruction from eating my vegetables:

  1. “Good for you” is not good enough.
  2. If it’s not appealing, change the recipe.
  3. Healthy and delicious as they may be, vegetables do not need to be a main course. They make great sides.
  4. Play with your food!

1. “Good for you” is not good enough.

People often conflate teaching with explaining. When a kid doesn’t understand something, some respond by launching into a long verbal explanation. These people are usually frustrated afterward when, despite their detailed, thorough, and probably oft-repeated explanation, the kid still doesn’t get it, or continues to make the same error. Educators and parents alike are guilty of this approach to kid behavior and kid logic. Explanation has a place in teaching, but it can’t be that surprising that young people with brains that are still developing have trouble remembering, processing, or understanding something they have been told, even a hundred times.

This was vegetables and me. I had lots of sources to tell me why vegetables were good for me. I read adventure books and survivalist fiction, so I was well-informed on scurvy and muscle deterioration and other terrible things that could happen to your body if you didn’t eat your vegetables. I was told, over and over, about the importance of my leafy greens. So I “knew” that vegetables were good for me, in the same way I “knew” that putting cereal on my ice cream did not make it breakfast, even if my college dining hall did leave both of these stations fully stocked and directly next to one another all day. Knowing isn’t enough, because knowing doesn’t necessarily create a need to know. Sure, broccoli has always been good for me, but as long as I was an invincible youth, I didn’t need to eat stuff that was good for me.

It’s the need to know that is missing from grammar instruction. In high school, my teachers pulled out grammar workbooks once a marking period, probably to fulfill some standard or requirement of the state. I was one of the few students in my classes that enjoyed this and retained information from these books, not only because I am and have always been an intense nerd, but because I was a writer. I was invested in grammar because I was passionate about writing. Grammar, structure, literary techniques and devices – I needed these. I wanted to write. Calculus, not so much (sorry, Mr. Quinn).

So, how many of my students are highly motivated writers? How many passionately care about grammar because they want their writing to be effective and powerful, and to reach a wide audience? Unfortunately, fewer each year. When surveyed about writing this year, my students almost unanimously agreed that they write what their teachers tell them, because their teachers tell them, and that writing is boring and difficult. My students don’t want to write for any intrinsic reason; they want to write because they want to pass their classes. They are sometimes concerned about grammar when they have to write an essay for a class, if the grammar will affect their grades, and only for that moment. So I can invent a mnemonic for their-there-they’re and compose a rap about subject-verb agreement and force them to create tableaux vivant illustrating the importance of proper comma usage, but I’m not convinced it will do anything useful for their retention if they don’t have a better reason to learn grammar than “teachers say so.”

Creating a desire for grammar, beyond the last-minute fix-my-essay panic, can be tough. I’m no expert at this, but what I’ve found most effective in making grammar matter to students has been creating writing assignments and opportunities that provide an audience. From This I Believe essays which we can publish online to class books or blogs, giving writing a purpose and potential eyes has generated some investment in the grammar, structure, and style of my students’ writing. We enter into these assignments by discussing what it means to publish, and looking at what writers do in order to publish something (text or video interviews with authors work well here), so as a class we are creating our guidelines for publishing. Grammar and mechanics are always featured in those standards, and this process allows for grammar instruction to have an immediate and meaningful application, because students can work directly on their drafts instead of filling in a worksheet or editing an example paragraph. Authentic and personal, assignments and structure like this have encouraged ownership of grammar. Anecdotally, I have seen more long-term retention since taking this approach.

2. If it’s not appealing, change the recipe.

Cauliflower and I never got along when I was younger. I hated the way it looked like lumpy brains, and the sweet stink of it boiling in the kitchen, and the way it could be both mushy and brittle at the same time. Up until last year, I would just shake my head and say, “I don’t like cauliflower. It’s gross.” Boyfriend, on the other hand, would throw back handfuls of this stuff raw while he told me I didn’t know what I was missing.

Then there was a day that cauliflower showed up in the egg and vegetable scramble Boyfriend had just made me. Probably, I made a face and ate around that albino broccoli until nothing else was left on the plate. I was probably a complete brat about it, but I ate it. And it wasn’t gross. And suddenly I was looking up different recipes and emailing Boyfriend cauliflower porn (“roasted with goat cheese and garlic OMG how are we alive without having eaten this!”) and sneaking raw pieces off the cutting board while he cooked. I just needed a new recipe.

You can see this with Brussels sprouts, too. It might as well have been your job to complain about Brussels sprouts when I was a kid everyone whined about them so much, but there are few adults who won’t eat them when they’re sautéed in bacon fat.

So change your grammar recipe! Sautée that lesson in bacon fat!

It’s about evaluating the approach. The way I teach now versus my first year, it’s worlds apart. I started out teaching as I remembered being taught, and blaming my students (indirectly, by way of lamentation) for not getting it. “The way I learned ____…” is a common phrase heard among teachers, and parents, and adults who have no stake in the education of children. The thing about that attitude is that we’re usually wrong. We say we learned vocabulary by memorizing off of a word list, but we don’t remember, or count, the vocabulary we learn from reading. We say we learned grammar from workbooks, and writing essays from outlines, and we say a lot of stuff about the values of lectures without remembering how far a teenager’s mind can wander when an adult starts yapping. What I try to keep in mind now is that I need to remember who I’m feeding and change the recipe to suit them.

3. Healthy and delicious as they may be, vegetables do not need to be a main course. They make great sides.

I don’t know about you, but when I was not digging on eating my veggies, that whole “you’re going to sit here until that plate is clean” thing didn’t work. And I hope this hasn’t been tried, but if you found that your little one was really not so great at eating broccoli, I can’t imagine it would be too effective to say, “Ok, honey, until you learn how to eat all your broccoli, we’re just going to have broccoli for dinner. Every night. All broccoli, all the time. Don’t worry, if you keep practicing, you’ll get it!” I would bet you’d end up with a very hungry, cranky child who hated broccoli, had serious issues surrounding broccoli and self-worth. That kid still eats ice cream and cereal for breakfast and he’s, like, 40 by now. Yeesh.

But this is what grammar drilling comes out to in my head.  I don’t believe my students learn from being told grammar rules, or completing  worksheets, or deciphering a filigree of red pen corrections laid over their work. I don’t believe it because I haven’t seen it work in my classroom, for me. If other teachers have had success with these methods, I doff my cap to you. The only time I have seen people succeed by focusing strictly and solely on what they are not good at, is when there is a real passion for the activity. I’ve seen kids master skateboarding tricks after eating pavement 100 times in a row, but only kids who are seriously into skateboarding. When I was in chorus in school, I sang myself hoarse trying to nail certain parts, because I loved to sing. Conversely, when I was forced to play the violin, I never progressed past the stop-torturing-that-poor-cat stage, because I hated the violin. I knew I was bad at it, but I didn’t care about getting better. It was hard, and it sounded ugly, and it made my fingers hurt. No, thank you.

Writing in school is not generally fun for students. It is hard and it sounds ugly and it makes their fingers (and brains) hurt. And I think that a unit or lesson focused solely on grammar drills will do little more than exhaust and frustrate students, in the same way that a plate full of broccoli does not a love for broccoli inspire.

4. Play with your food.

I know play is generally discouraged, in eating and in learning. But most of us have brought playtime into both of these activities. If you’ve ever had to feed a kid, you’ve probably needed a few tricks to get more food inside of him than all over everything. You’ve probably pretended that broccoli is really treetops, invented points systems for vegetables eaten to TV time, hidden green beans in mashed potatoes, modeled what good eaters look like with overdone enthusiasm, snuck little bites of the good-for-you stuff in between the good stuff, all to help this kid get his nutrition before he realizes it’s important enough for him to do it on his own.

Grammar needs to be playful, too, and it can be. Yes, it’s important. But it can still be fun, or at least less gloom-and-doom. One of the quickest fixes for transforming a lesson from boring and discouraging to engaging and interesting is shifting your role as a teacher from “deliverer of information” to “facilitator of exploration.”

I no longer teach grammar by handing back writing assignments covered in my corrections. I don’t grade this way anymore. I did for a while, because I felt that my responsibility as a teacher was to tell students what is correct. That belief has shifted though. The way I see it now, my mission as a teacher is to help my students discover. When I teach grammar, it’s almost always when my students have a draft of their writing in front of them. We might do a mini-lesson on sentence structure or semi-colons, or look at a snippet of a student’s writing to discuss what we notice. Where does she use the comma? Why? From there, students go into their drafts. They may work as partners or on their own, but the goal is to work with real writing, to search and analyze instead of fill in. This is hard. There are so many things that go wrong: students not having their assignments done (or even started), new students just joining us, students misidentifying or skipping over errors, and so on. And it’s not like it’s so exciting, to go back through your essay and look for mistakes. But it all fits into the larger conversation of what writers do, and why we write, so I can keep coming back to remind my students that writers reread, and evaluate themselves, and make mistakes that they cross out and replace with more mistakes before they start to get it right.

When we can’t do an editing day, or there is a grammar rule we need to cover but no piece to revise, I disguise the vegetables. I sneak grammar questions and reviews into the day, asking where to punctuate as I write a student’s thoughts on the board, pointing out phrasing or structure in our read-alouds. Once, we played Pin the Semicolon on the Sentence. Sometimes, I put up an example of a grammar rule in context before their daily writing, and after we’ve looked at it & talked about it, I ask them to try to use it in their writing responses. The writing responses have nothing to do with the grammar, because I care more that they write with enthusiasm than if they rock the subjunctive. But when I see it, I praise it. I tell them when they’ve written or said a beautifully composed sentence, and I ask them to look for such writing in their own work and in peer edits.

These less intense, student-driven approaches to grammar discovery (vs. grammar instruction) have made things like spelling and punctuation friendlier. And anytime I can make a challenging topic or skill feel possible and less scary, I know I’m doing right by my students.

Where Grammar Belongs

I’ll say once more: Grammar is important. It does matter that we can express ourselves clearly. But I don’t see it as the most important thing about writing, or reading, or understanding English. I want my students to think, to have ideas, and to express those ideas to an audience. Whether that audience consists of their peers in our classroom, or of anonymous strangers from around the world on the Internet, I know that my students will be judged. Readers and listeners judge us by our grammar and vocabulary, absolutely.  In fact, too many readers are swayed by the way something or someone appears, so that they don’t pay attention to the reality, the substance. I believe that has to change. In the short time I have with my students – because 10 months flies – I want them to value ideas. I want them to read the world critically and be thoughtful about what they say, who they back, what they sign, or like on Facebook, or applaud for. It’s easy to be swayed by eloquence. Someone who sounds “smart” can say and do stupid, or horrible, things and be forgiven, even praised. I don’t want my students to be fooled by empty perfection, and I don’t want them to produce it.

When we talk about “good writing,” writing worth reading, we talk about voice. Creativity. Unique approaches to familiar themes. Often when we’re reading good writing, our brains skip over grammar and spelling errors, filling in the right word or punctuation so we can keep moving through a great story or interesting article. We notice more errors when the writing – the voice, the style, the substance – is lacking, and I’m sure we find them more annoying then, too.

There’s a social justice side to all of this, as well. Students from higher income families have stronger educational backgrounds. They enter school more prepared than students from low income families. They come from more literate homes. They still have to learn their grammar and improve their writing, but as they are more immersed in literacy, more engaged in conversation around school, their grammar and vocabulary is not viewed as deficient. Students from low income families are said to start with a deficit, to be failing before they even show up to kindergarten. That achievement gap we struggle to close widens, creates more gaps, when we insist that students from low income families need grammar drills and intensive vocabulary intervention and structured written responses to catch up to their wealthier contemporaries. We do our students a disservice to deny them the freedom to write, and make mistakes, to try out their ideas and put the mechanics to the side for the moment. Writing, taught this way, is not about expression, or community, or dissent and controversy and creativity and incitement. It is about following rules, putting the comma in the right place, not mixing up then and than. It’s not that these things don’t matter. They just don’t matter most. As their teacher, I need to show them what does matter. If I want my students to develop ideas of their own and value writing as a means of expression for these ideas, I need to make it clear that their ideas are important. That means they can’t allow the anxiety of attempting perfect grammar to eclipse the caliber of their thoughts. Plunking down that plate of steaming broccoli every day isn’t going to convert the veggie-resisters. Getting those important nutrients to my students requires flexibility, understanding, and some killer recipes.

What are your grammar recipes? Tell us in the comments!


2 thoughts on “Take a Broccoli Break: Reevaluating Grammar’s Place in the Classroom

  1. This is something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently. I rarely teach grammar explicitly but will explain it when a) a kid asks or b) it’s relevant. It most often comes up when they notice how I or one of their classmates uses language. Mostly, I am now trying to use the proper grammatical terms for things (like adjective and noun, or speaking about the past) and hoping the kids eventually absorb the meaning. I have found that teaching the past perfect, for example, rarely results in kids who understand or can use the past perfect.

    • Thanks for this comment, Naomi. I like identifying the grammatical terms when I’m writing on the board, or sort of demonstrating, “Here we’re using this word as a noun, but it can be an adjective, too.” I’ve never had or seen success with the direct instruction of the perfects. It always cracks me up; the other day I was Netflix-binging on a TV show in which a character laments being unable to insult her friend in Tagalog because she doesn’t know the pluperfect. It had me in stitches. It always feels like the kind of grammar you use because you know it’s right, but not because you know what it is. My opinions on grammar instruction are constantly evolving and moving, though. I’m definitely mulling with you.

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