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Teaching Grammar

Teaching Grammar - Previous Revision

Warriner’s Grammar and Composition—a name, a title, almost for many a book of faith. For me it was just a beginning, both positive and negative.
My first semester teaching high school, I taught four sections of Grammar A, which if my memory holds, were followed by four sections the next semester of Grammar B. (This was during the mid 70s when grade-level courses were turned into semester options we called mini-courses.) I don’t quite trust my memory because I know for sure that one day during my own learned lecture on participles, delivered to a class of more or less un-focused eyes, I fell asleep—at least, I woke or became aware that I hadn’t the least idea what I was talking about or what my last significant comment had been.
Suddenly, I realized my college degree was worthless, and my teacher prep courses were on the line. “Adapt, improvise, overcome”—Heartbreak Ridge had not been filmed, but I knew the lines instinctively. I accused a tired-looking kid in the back row of not paying attention, and asked the bright, straight-A girl in the second row if she might explain my point to the confused scholar in the back. She loved showing off and explained my point perfectly, clueing me in on where I had dozed off. I envied the kid in the back who had the temerity to snore.
I have often wondered if my class knew I was in a semi-unconscious state. We all were, except the clever girl in front. For years I kept trying to teach what I was told to teach—trying to master Grammar A, Grammar B. 
I’m not sure when I first found myself really teaching, but now I teach things differently—even grammar. I still find myself teaching participles, but I approach the subject more thoughtfully: not as an end but as a means to the richness of language. For example, a woman called the other day to ask which sentence is correct: “We are heading in the wrong direction” OR “We are headed in the wrong direction.” Apparently she and her husband had gotten lost driving to the lake, and grammar had at least provided the couple common grounds to argue. The phone call became a teachable moment. I asked a class how they would explain the different forms since both sentences pass the fundamental student test: they both “sound” correct. Finally class discussion moved from which is right and wrong (as the woman posed the question) to meanings—the difference in meaning instead of “correctness.” That is what I aim for now, and maybe it is why I still love teaching.

Andy Anderson
Johnson County Community College
Overland Park, Kansas

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