Grammar Doesn’t Have to Be Boring!

Sheri Viota, my colleague at CPN and the Borinquen Writing Project, created this fabulous slideshow in defense of grammar instruction. Sheri’s blog is My Thoughts on The Matter (in the Other BWP Bloggers list). Enjoy!

How I have grown as a teacher and a writer these past few months at the Borinquen Writing Project

Taking these two graduate courses at USC has afforded me the opportunity to take a break from the bustle and hustle of my daily teaching routine and reflect upon my instructional practices. It has also allowed me to bond more closely with three of my CPN colleagues, renew and refresh my knowledge of Elbow, Graves, and Atwell, and encounter some new and useful theorists and theories which will surely continue to inform my teaching in the future. Most importantly, my time as a student at the Borinquen Writing Project has enabled me to become part of a wonderful community of teachers who are engaged and dedicated to the teaching of writing in Puerto Rico. I look forward to becoming a BWP teaching consultant and expanding our teaching and learning community even more.

In the past two months, I have enjoyed spending time with my fellow teachers, writing, sharing, and responding to each other’s writing. I particularly enjoyed sharing with the other participants my experiences implementing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the classroom; preparing my presentation helped me both reflect on last year’s NaNoWriMo journey and plan for this year’s extension of the activity beyond my classroom and my students. I also appreciated the strategies and resources other teachers shared with us, such as Pilar’s innovative use of radio technology to inspire kids to write, Harry’s cartoon-related activities, Jann’s postcards inspired by The Time Machine, Marisa’s concrete writing, Annette’s writing cards, Sandra’s movie-based vocabulary instruction, and of course, Sheri’s defense of grammar.

As a fellow grammarian, I appreciate Sheri’s attention to the conventions of language, and her insistence that teachers must master these conventions in order to both model and instruct their students properly. It behooves us teachers to be careful in our own use of language, and to have enthusiasm for the more ‘arid’ areas of language learning, such as vocabulary and grammar. If we teachers don’t evince joy in and enthusiasm for learning, how can we possibly expect our kids to be joyful, enthusiastic learners?

The truth is that we can’t.

We must work to transmit to students an honest appreciation for the complexities and the beauty of language that is anchored in a deep understanding of how that language works. Perhaps it is my experience with older students, including five years teaching undergraduates and my current position teaching eleventh and twelfth grade students, and conversely, my dearth of experience dealing with young students, that fuels my desire to make sure my students are both creative AND conversant in the rules of the English language. I want my students to let their creative juices flow as they write their novels, but I also want them to do well in the standardized tests that are required for college admission. It’s a delicate balance, but one I strive to achieve every single time I step into my classroom.

So, thank you, Prof. Monllor, Prof. Avilés, and fellow BWP participants, for reminding me of the myriad reasons I love teaching. And of course, for pushing me to start and keep a blog! I intend to continue blogging as way to continue growing, changing, and developing.

What have I learned from NaNoWriMo, so far

As a writer in a community of writers
I have learned that I write much more, much better, and in a much more relaxed, enjoyable manner, when I am working within a community of writers, because I feel more connected and it takes me outside myself. When I look around and see other people writing –particularly when I see my students writing and I know I need to model good writing behavior and strategies and habits for them—it makes me less self-conscious and more proactive. I am not stuck inside my own head bemoaning my perfectionism or my lack of talent, but instead am focused more on channeling my thoughts and listening to the voices of my characters. When I am immersed in writing within community, I feel accompanied and supported, even when we are all actually working on our own manuscripts, silently banging on the keyboard. The mere act of listening to the tap, tap, tap is comforting; looking up and seeing all these writers intent on their creations gives me a rush of good feelings, which I think is essential to sustain the writing process.

Now, the question is, how to sustain this feeling beyond NaNoWriMo? That is something I have to ponder.

As a teacher, alone and in a community of teachers.

Last year as the only teacher whose students were wrimoing, it was a little solitary, though I felt sustained by the hope of having my crazy experiment validated by the kids’ success, which, thankfully, it was. That success is why all of us middle and high school English teachers are now doing NaNoWriMo with our kids, and why the fifth grade teacher and her class also joined in.

It is nice to be able to guide the other teachers through the process, to let them know that there will be days in the adventure when enthusiasm will flag and word counts will stall. In fact, that discomfort is one of the most useful things about NaNoWriMo – we have to face obstacles, such as writer’s block, a lack of motivation, a perceived lack of time or excess of responsibilities, and create and implement plans to muscle through to victory. It is a very useful lesson – that on the path to a goal that takes time and effort, you can lose your way, and you can also choose to find your way back.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity

I just saw this wonderful talk that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Pray Eat Love, gave last year for TED.

Gilbert talks about creativity, and proposes that we should all conceptualize the creative spark the way the Greeks and Romans did, as an inscrutable exterior force that bestows genius upon the artist as it may, instead of continuing with the Renaissance idea that the genius is individual and inhabits within. Her point is that the idea of genius as other frees the artist from the tyranny of self-doubt and self-hatred that tortures many artists, and which has led to the stereotype of the tortured artist (and which has contributed to so many artist suicides).

Gilbert argues that as an artist all you should do is show up and do your life’s work, without fixating on how it will be received or whether you have what it takes or can top your own success. Just show up and do your own thing, and attribute everything else to that whimsical, irrepressible, enigmatic sprite –muse, daemon, genius—to take care (or not) of everything else. It is liberating, Gilbert claims.

I have decided to embrace Gilbert’s idea, and have decided to name my own creative daemon Ariel, after the magical androgynous sprite in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If that Ariel could help Prospero shipwreck enemies, find a mate for his daughter, and reclaim his lost dukedom, I think my Ariel could help me through NaNoWriMo 2010.

(Latest word count: 14,140 words!)

Students on textspeak

Awesome teacher and fellow blogger Sandra Garced sent me the link to this student-produced video on the prevalence of texting among adolescents. It highlights linguist David Crystal’s observation that students perceive textspeak as detrimental to their own and others’ language skills, though research has demonstrated this is NOT true.

SchoolTube – Texting Communication Breakdown!.

Textspeak: not a threat to literacy

The three articles about computer-mediated communication (CMC) sparked my interest in netspeak and led me to seek out the linguist all three cited: David Crystal. As a linguist, Crystal differentiates between CMC and “textspeak,” which far from being a distinct language, as Aliza Sherman claims in her blog post, is rather an “idiosyncratic variety” of speech that is driven by the constraints of the technology which spawned it. Textspeak is not the demon spawn of standard written English, but rather a useful play on written language. In his own writings, Crystal debunks many myths related to textspeak, including the ones related to texting’s corrosive influence on children’s literacy. In fact, Crystal argues, kids who text use language more than non-texters, and thus have more practice writing. Texters, he continues, must have an awareness of standard rules of written English, which they purposefully subvert. In addition, according to his own research, ninety percentage of text messages are written in standard language; only ten percent contain the abbreviations that so enrage critics. These abbreviations, far from being subversive neologisms coined by contemporary texters, are for the most part common abbreviations in circulation for centuries already.

Reading Crystal, I am convinced that standard language is not in peril, and that we should not snatch cell phones from our kids to protect them from the pernicious effects of textspeak. In fact, Crystal points out that the popular story about a student who turned in an entire essay written in textspeak turns out to be an urban legend; no one has been able to track down the source. That this textspeak story is apocryphal seems logical to me; kids are remarkably perceptive about audience and purpose, particularly when it comes to homework – I just don’t think a student would use textspeak on an assignment as anything but a lark.

Tyler Clark’s comment to Aliza Sherman’s blog post on how email, SMS, and social media communication tools are changing both written English and communication in general echoes the spirit, if not the words, of Crystal, at least when it comes to considering textpeak as a putative new language:

“[Sherman wrote:] They are effectively speaking a new language entirely — so who is to say if it is “right” or “wrong”?”

Who is to say? Me. I am to say…I think that the internet has largely killed good writing.

It is not the abbreviations that kill me. It’s the lack of coherence, proper spelling and punctuation. The biggest problem is that this grammatical wasteland is not limited to social media. It has bled into emails, blog posts and writing of all kinds. I often receive inarticulate, punctuation-free, misspelled, verb-less emails from coworkers. Coworkers! Sometimes I need a decoder ring to figure out what they are trying to communicate.

Writing for the digital age should not require sacrificing clarity and the beauty of language.”

Hear, hear, Tyler! You took the words right out of my mouth, which is why I felt compelled to cite these comments so extensively.

Carelessness and linguistic transference from Spanish to English are more of an issue for my students than textspeak, which is why I will continue to stress coherence, clarity, and the appropriate use of conventions (grammar, spelling, etc.) in my classroom.

How can discourse analysis influence teaching and help in text selection?

Discourse analysis (DA) stresses the importance of context –historical, social, ideological, and cultural—in understanding any kind of communication, from texts to movies, from speeches to advertising. Critical discourse analysis (CDA), a branch of discourse analysis, narrows the focus down to just one type of context: ideological. In “Critical Discourse Analysis: A Primer,” home economist Sue L.T. McGregor privileges the ideological to the exclusion of other contexts, emphasizing the power differential between the powerful and the oppressed, the government and the masses, the wealthy and the poor. She focuses on the potential of CDA to effect change by “mak[ing] clear the connections between the use of language and the exercise of power.” McGregor wants everyone to use discourse for “resistance and critique” instead of for “assertion of power and knowledge.” CDA has an inherently political and ideological purpose.

The second article is on “Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers” — and focuses on understanding context in its broadest sense, and does not focus on ideological issues or power inequities. This article, a digest of other research, discusses how ESL classroom teachers can use DA technique of Record-View-Transcribe-Analyze (RVTA) to understand the linguistic interactions and development of their students as English Language Learners and themselves as teachers.

Frankly, I cannot imagine myself ever using such a time-consuming technique as RVTA; I just don’t see the benefit when compared to the investment of time and energy. As for CDA, I don’t see much use for it either. I already emphasize the importance of context –social, historical, cultural—in understanding texts, film, images, etc. I do not feel the need to turn every lesson into a pitched battle on ideology. When I select materials to use in my classroom, I am mindful of the context in which the materials were created, as well as of the context in which they will be used; I am also cognizant of the diverse contexts in which I teach, and try to select both materials and instructional techniques that will be appropriate.

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