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Grammar Nerd

This title is a bit misleading. For while I do consider myself a word nerd, I have never considered myself a grammar nerd. Yes, I spent my middle school language arts years diagramming sentences, and, yes, for the most part I understand and can teach about grammar. But I am not a specialist in grammar. I don’t study it, and if I am honest, I really don’t enjoy it all that much.

So it is a bit of a stretch for me to be working on an online class devoted to grammar, and I thought reflecting on the class and my goals for it might help me fully conceptualize the class. I should start by noting that this is a class that was originally designed by a friend of mine, and it served the purpose he imagined for it when it was created. Since then it has been taught by a number of faculty, but no one has made any substantial changes to the class. It is a skill-and-drill grammar class that is completely correspondence based: read these chapters, do these practice exercises, take these quizzes and tests. Everyone in our field knows that this is not how to teach grammar or writing effectively and that students who participate in this class might very well pass the tests, but this does not mean that they will incorporate any of what they encounter in the class into their writing.

The other issue with the class involves audience. Some students take the class because a professor along the way told them that they had grammar problems (but the class is not a remedial course meant to help these students become better writers). Some students take the class because it is known as an easy class, and for reasons I do not understand, MDE allows it to count as part of the English endorsement for elementary school teachers (this is beyond problematic). Other students take it as a required course for a teacher’s aide program (I also do not understand why we offer such a program, but that is another topic). And the occasional English major takes the class as an elective because it is definitely an easy class for these students (but there is no real takeaway or transfer).

So one of the things I wanted to do first was rethink the goals of the class based on this diverse audience. Ultimately, I decided the class needs to introduce students to grammar terminologies and function, but it also needs to encourage students to think about grammar in meaningful ways. The class is fully online and is taught in a compressed semester, so I also needed to think about what students might be capable of doing in eight weeks and what I am capable of doing. Eight weeks, after all, is a short semester.

I am now immersed in designing the class, and I decided to keep the grammar quizzes but lose the bi-weekly exams. Most importantly, I wanted to incorporate writing so that students were using and reflecting on grammar in interesting ways. Thus, I am going to assign five mini-essays in which students play and wrestle with different ideas about grammar, and I am going to use the blog function of our LMS so that students can read one another’s essays and respond to them. I have three of the essay prompts designed, but I still need two more prompts, so if you have ideas please send them my way.

The first mini-essay will be a riff on the traditional literacy narrative and ask students to introduce themselves to our online community and to describe in detail an experience they have had with grammar or language use. I am indebted to my friend Paula Patch and to the work of Patricia Dunn and Ken Lindblom and Jon Ostenson for the second mini-essay: a grammar rant analysis. This essay will ask students to find, read, summarize, and analyze a grammar rant they find online. I’ve spent some time searching for grammar rants, and they are everywhere. I hope that students enjoy thinking about why people make grammar rants, whether or not these rants and typical cries of literacy crises are valid, and the politics and power behind standard edited English as they write these essays.

The third essay will be a passage imitation essay, and my academic spirit animal, Rebecca Powell, turned me on to this one. In this project, students will choose passages that I have supplied to them and spend time imitating the grammatical structures in the passages. This sounds easy, but it is actually surprisingly difficult. My goal for this project is to have students think through the ways speech typically informs our writing and contrast these ideas with how different writing styles can be used to inform our writing. There are so many online resources available for this type of project, but see the chapter on sentence imitation in Don and Jenny Killgallon's text for a helpful explanation.

The last two essays are still up in the air. I have considered going the Micciche route by encouraging students to use rhetorical grammar methods (of course Micciche also suggests sentence imitation as a means of involving students in what it means to consider intentional language use). They could compose one essay in which they analyze a passage of their choosing for the effects of various grammatical choices, and they could write another essay in which they analyze a piece of their own writing. I like this idea, but I am not sure I want to do this for both essays. So if you have ideas, give me some feedback!

Designing this class has been both more difficult and more exciting than I anticipated. I will let you know how it goes.

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