All posts by Katie Allen

Keeping Tradition Alive: When Grammar Actually Matters

the-most-dangerous-phraseI recently came across a quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper that reminded me of our in-class discussion about grammar. She says, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.'” It’s interesting to think about how often, one of the main arguments people have about sticking to a certain way of doing something is because it is “time-tested,” or worse, based on some nostalgic sense of tradition. I believe the importance of constantly examining what we do and why we do it cannot be understated; as we evolve culturally, the “old ways” of doing various things begin to make less and less sense in light of new technologies, ideas, or understandings.

As an English Education major, I feel guilty for sometimes wondering about our practices, when perhaps the more loyal act would be accepting them wholly. For instance, in English courses we use MLA format, while in Education courses we use APA. There are no major differences between the two: they both require double-spacing with a legible font, similar margin sizes, bibliographies, in-text citations, and so on. Of course I understand the use of being able to quote from another source in order to avoid plagiarism and to give credit where credit is due, but I sometimes wonder about the necessity of the extremely rigid rules of both MLA and APA, especially for middle and high school students who are unlikely to be publishing their work. Does it matter that their works cited page is indented and spaced properly? That their in-text citation includes all authors’ names on the first occurrence, but then the first author followed by “et al.” for every other instance? Do we continue practices like these merely because we have always done them this way, or because they make the most sense and are 100% necessary?

With that being said, there are some aspects of Standard English that I find to be completely unlike this comparison of traditional practices in that I would not change them even if I had the power to do so. In his essay “The Decline of Grammar,” Geoffrey Nunberg notes that for centuries, people have worried about language because it seems to be constantly diminishing. He states that certain battles grammarians used to fight are no longer even an issue in contemporary times because the mistakes have become so commonplace, they are now accepted as being proper. For example, it used to bother some that “contact” and “process” were becoming verbs. Yet now, we are constantly changing nouns into verbs – “texting,” “trending,” and even “parenting” are phrases used by people of all classes and races. Nunberg’s argument, then, is that maybe language isn’t “diminishing” as much as it is “shifting,” and that our efforts would be better spent figuring out which aspects of the shift are worth worrying about, and I tend to agree. To quote from his essay directly, Faced with a particular change, then, we need rules of thumb. I submit that the two questions we ought to ask are: Does it involve any real loss? and Is there anything we can do about it? [emphasis mine]” Often, the answers to these questions are “no,” and “maybe,” but I am more inclined to worry about when they are “yes,” and “probably not.” There are a few cases in which I believe the grammar rules we practice today make perfect sense, and if they aren’t broken, why fix them? Even if it seems we have always enforced these rules, and some choose to fight against this (as is logical and important to do), at the end of the day, I believe we should keep the most basic of these rules alive because they are vitally important.

Here are a few examples of times I believe misusing grammar indeed causes us to “lose something,” the argument about “correct” (also arbitrary) grammar being adopted and passed down from upper to lower classes aside:

quote9Incorrect Quotation Marks. Nunberg mentions a rise in the incorrect usage of quotation marks, which I agree with, and think needs to be dealt with as seriously as the recent abuse of the letter “i” (iPhone, iCloud, etc.) – just kidding about that part. I’m serious about the quotation marks though, because I think it’s getting out of hand. See 40 Ordinary Signs that Became Suspicious When People Misused Quotations for more examples like these: If you are “pregnant” please inform the technician, day old “bread,” professional “massage.”

Mistakes in punctuation or other grammar that actually change the intended meaning of a sentence, like in these unfortunate examples:

* “Let’s eat, Grandcommama,” versus “Let’s eat Grandma”
* “Try our sausages; none like them,” versus “Try our sausages. None like them.”
* “Slow, Children Crossing,” versus “Slow Children Crossing”
* “Elephants – please stay in your car,” versus “Elephants please stay in your car.”
* “Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage,” versus “Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage.”

Incorrect subject/verb agreement and other usually-simple-enough-to-follow rules. Perhaps it’s true that grammar rules which make up “Standard American English” are oppressive, and that we should be fighting to change the way we view populations who use variationgeorge-bush-sours of English instead. However – and especially if someone is in a position that lends itself to criticism – judging others for their improper use of English is a pretty natural response. Consider this site, called Grammar Lessons from President George W. Bush, highlighting  some of his most embarrassing face-palm moments. Some of my favorites include, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test” and “It’s a time of sorrow and sadness when we lose a loss of life.” Sadly, my all-time favorite didn’t make the list: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Sorry Former President Bush, I couldn’t help myself.

Of course, these are all light-hearted examples of when grammar has taken a hit, but at the same time, it is easy to imagine when misusing grammar or using language opaquely causes real harm. Some of these instances are outlined in George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” and Professor Paku shared an anecdote about a situation with clinical patients that hit home for her. So while it’s useful to wonder about whether an established practice should remain as it is because “we’ve always done it this way,” and even some aspects of Standard English and academic practices don’t always sit right with me, I do believe we should keep in place the most obvious grammar rules such as punctuation use, singular/plural agreement, and subject/verb agreement. We are obviously struggling enough when grammar rules are spelled out for us – the last thing we need is for them to become even muddier, making people look even more foolish or causing even more harm. We can write off other established practices as “stuffy” or in need of revision because tradition doesn’t always trump usefulness or common sense, but correct grammar isn’t one of them.

Teaching for the Students, a Service Learning Reflection

Teaching in York this past week has been an incredibly value experience, both for myself and hopefully for the students as well. I haven’t been in a classroom formally for a while, and though I’ve never doubted my decision to become an educator, the past few days have reminded me that I’ve absolutely made the right career choice. I enjoyed working with the 9th graders so much!

Visiting York helped to reinforce both ELA content and School of Education pedagogy for me, so I feel that it was the perfect exercise for an English course with education components. For example, I made a handout about how to write a thesis statement and how to organize an essay that I feel was helpful for students, and the creation of this material required me to reflect on both my knowledge of language skills and my experience with effective teaching strategies. This project allowed me to use my understanding of teaching English in a practical way, and certainly helped to give me relevant classroom experience related to the pertinent topic of essay writing. For these reasons, I feel this exercise perfectly bridged the gap between English and hands-on educational experience.

Additionally, I relied on some of the lessons I learned from the School of Education during this process, such as how to accommodate for different learning styles and how to interact with people of diverse cultures. The materials I made provided scaffolding for students who have a very wide range of abilities, and the lesson plan I created allowed some students to move ahead when they were ready, while others were able to receive additional support at the same time. Also, the students I worked with were certainly of diverse lifestyles. For instance, access to relevant technologies such as computers and printers might signify a different lifestyle than one where these luxuries are nonexistent; half of my students (two out of four) said they had a computer at home, while the other two did not. I was able to accommodate all of my students by allowing those who had computers to type their final drafts and print them, while I allowed my students without computers to hand write their essays, asking them to double space. Interestingly, but I suppose not surprisingly, the two students who struggled the most with this assignment and who needed additional support were the two without personal computers, which might lead to any number of conclusions, but is perhaps one of the reasons these particular students were further behind their peers.

Being in the classroom again definitely improved my sense of self-efficacy and professional development in both smaller and more significant ways. Even the simple act of waking up early, dressing in teaching attire, and walking through the hallways abundant with lockers and student artwork helped focus me in terms of adopting the role of “teacher.” Having a sense of my purpose in York’s environment allowed me to easily flip the switch from “Geneseo student” to “instructor,” allowing me to have a more authentic experience than if, say, the York students were to travel to SUNY Geneseo for tutoring.

Finally, I feel a greater sense of responsibility for the achievement of the students at York because I view them as my neighbors now (literally, they are so close!), more so than I did before this experience. My belief is that when teacher candidates learn out of context of an actual classroom, and instead encounter content and pedagogy within the confines of a college campus, something is lost. In a college classroom, we don’t create, implement, and modify our lessons for real people, but for hypothetical students who we are told we’ll meet sometime in the future; the motivation to achieve mastery is much less when it is clear that the only person who will ever see the materials we create is our professor. In the case with York, I feel as though I spent much more time and energy thinking about how to get my lesson just right, so that the real students I would be sharing it with could get as much as possible out of my teaching. The difference between these two scenarios is the people, and the community which is created through entering into their classroom has proved to be a powerful motivator.

After being made aware of the specific needs York has, I feel drawn to the district, and hope that I might be able to contribute to the students’ growth in a greater way after partaking in the service learning component of my class. I hope to reach out to Amy Ivers again in the future and perhaps offer a tutoring service for her students who wish to improve their writing, because I am no longer operating with the idea of hypothetical students in a room I can’t imagine. Instead, I am picturing the actual faces of the students who need my help, inside a room that I’ve already been. This is what stands out to me the most about our service learning experience, and what I am most grateful for having a chance to experience.