Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Is Our Children Learning....Grammar?

From the Washington Post:

Mike Greiner teaches grammar to high school sophomores in half-hour lessons, inserted between Shakespeare and Italian sonnets. He is an old-school grammarian, one of a defiant few in the Washington region who believe in spending large blocks of class time teaching how sentences are built.

For this he has earned the alliterative nickname "Grammar Greiner," along with a reputation as one of the tougher draws in the Westfield High School English department.

Or, as one student opined in a sonnet he wrote, "Mr. Greiner, I think you're torturing us."

Greiner, 43, teaches future Advanced Placement students at the Chantilly school. Left on their own to decide where to place a comma, "they'll get it right about half of the time," he said. "But half is an F."


Several factors -- most notably, the addition of a writing section to the SAT college entrance exam in 2005 -- have reawakened interest in Greiner's methods.

Nationwide, the Class of 2006 posted the lowest verbal SAT scores since 1996. That was the year the test was recalibrated to correct for a half-century decline in verbal performance.


For a half-hour one recent morning, students repaired broken sentences, one after another, an exercise with all the glamour of a linguistic assembly line. When one young woman read right past the proper noun "southwest" without stopping to capitalize, Greiner politely reminded the class: This very word, or something like it, is bound to show up on Virginia's Standards of Learning exams in spring.


"Other teachers in this county say, 'Fix the writing, and the grammar will come along.' Not me," Greiner said.

I'm all for Greiner's content. I remain thankful for the entire year of diagramming sentences I did in the 8th grade. We would get a set of sentences and then be called up at random to diagram them on the board about 4 or 5 students at a time. The remaining students were expected to maintain a vigilant watch. If one spotted an error, your task was to go to the board and write your initials. After the student making the initial attempt had his/her say as to why he/she made the particular decisions, then you could suggest your alternate approach...and then be open to correction yourself. At the end of the year, we diagrammed the Declaration of Independence.

What's lost with holistic anything in the educational setting is stringent accountability. Slickness or any other overcompensation is supposed to balance out schlocky writing. So we get PowerPoint presentations which are aesthetically pleasing but are jammed with distracting misspelling and grammatical errors. Understanding the guts of a sentence, its mechanics, empowers the writer to better manipulate words to best express his thoughts.

Comma, placement, matters.