Public Grammar: Creating Community

Larry Gavin

There are five things most educators can agree on. First, most educators value student questions as a measure of student engagement in the classroom. Actually, questions are frequently the most important thing because they move the conversation forward and verbalize learning. They make learning occur “out loud.”

Second, the more heterogeneous, the better. The beautiful thing about questions is that, even if they come from an unexpected place, they can move the class’s learning forward. Classes that are democratic create the chance for divergent questions to exist.

A third important characteristic is that classroom learning unfolds into learning that is connected to the world.  Reading about the isolation and loneliness of Santiago as a result of his age in The Old Man and the Sea leaves the classroom and connects to a realization about the isolation and loneliness of grandfather or grandmother that you haven’t talked to because you are so busy. Then you call or visit.

Fourth, good classrooms offer choices. Students make decisions, and those decisions have meaning and are scaffolded for student success. What that success looks like is also clear, because it is defined by learning targets. In addition, there are ample opportunities to practice learning.

Finally, students want to feel welcome and be heard. They want to get their voices into the room. They want to see an interest in them. They want to move, and that goes beyond just school. Classrooms that make students feel connected are cognitively driven.

I teach grammar publicly. I teach grammar with the only context being grammar. I teach grammar in isolation. All of these are things that language arts gurus hate. This is triage grammar, performed before the student knows they need it. The only context is the sentence problem with which we are dealing. Grammar taught from the students’ own writing comes later, but with this instruction, many of the errors in that writing don’t occur in the first place. I do what works—what works for me, what works for my students, and what fulfills the characteristics research shows makes a good classroom.

How do I know? It began about four years ago with a note. “Mr. Gavin, thanks for doing grammar prep each day. After a semester with you, my score on the xxx test went up three percentage points.” There were no grammatical errors in the note.

And then another: “You may not remember me….” And then many more. At one time I kept the notes because of their rarity. Now I don’t, because they are common.

Students write me and comment on lessons that in some cases happened in 2004. At first, grammar in isolation was just my secret. I never talked about it. Now I’m going public.

Each day, students come into the room and sit down to complete the three grammar sentences on the board. Usually students start before the class period bell rings. They are starting class before class starts. I consider that a positive. Then one student volunteers to go to the board and make changes in the sentence. They say what they are changing and why. I provide any additional instruction needed. Then the marker is handed to the next person. They make a change. Student stuck? The whole class helps them, because we’ve all been in the position of not knowing the answer. And the questions are the important thing. The whole process takes ten minutes.

That’s the mechanics; here is the real story. Students are engaged in class work immediately in the period. They are talking about language right away. They are engaged in a mechanical activity that connects to their cognition and allows them to struggle with making meaning. As students approach the board, I use the opportunity to learn their names. It usually only takes a few days before I know every person in every class. That way I can address them by name early in the semester. We all like to be called by name. Students are moving, walking through the room, and getting out of their seat, but moving with a mission, a purpose.

Where this all really comes alive for the citizens of my classroom is when people have questions, and they always do. They actually ask questions about tense, pronouns, subordinate clauses, independent and dependent clauses, and the myriad of meanings the language suggests. They are also making choices, deciding what to do about specific problems, stating their ideas about why a change makes sense. Learning about the language becomes a habit. It becomes, as Aristotle said of excellence, “what we repeatedly do.”

The learning goes into the world too. Students come in and say, “Walmart’s express lane says ‘twenty items or less.’ It should be fewer. Less is volume: fewer is number.” Not a big thing—in fact, perhaps the smallest of things—but maybe what is learned by having school spill into the world is a big thing.

The most important learning occurs between getting the marker and sitting back down. The conversation we have about the learning. And after the student makes the changes, I say, “Good job, thanks.” I get to talk to every student every couple of days, and I get to show them that they are important. We have a focused daily conversation centered on learning. That seems like a good thing.