Monday, September 23, 2013

Handing Out Sentences in College Comp

The trials and tribulations of young college students fill my days again, and while I dare not try to help them sort out the existential questions that plague them, I am once again setting to the task of helping them hone a key skill of expression: writing. I’m having a hard time communicating with them, though. It’s not that social media slang or inside jokes get in the way, or that pop culture references are sliding over my head. (They are, but it’s not that.) The problem: my students don’t know the language of their language.

Here’s an example. I take a snippet of student writing that is a run-on sentence, and I project it onto the classroom screen and say, “This is a comma splice because two independent clauses are connected with punctuation that is too weak. How might you fix this with a conjunction?” There is sudden attention to tying shoes, searching for things in backpacks, responding to noises outside the windows. No one wants to be exposed as not remembering what an independent clause is, or a conjunction. And even a minor sentence-related engagement with me could lead to worse. I might use words like “subject,” “object,” “indefinite pronoun.” Sure, some students recollect one or another grammar term from sing-alongs with School House Rock or Sesame Street, but that is rarely enough facility to sustain an actual conversation about what is wrong with particular sentences they are writing.

So, I’m getting set to use a different approach. I’ve bought myself a large package of jewel-toned dry erase markers, and I’m going to start sentence diagramming! While that term tends to produce at least an eye roll in the parochial school educated among my cohort, I have noticed that those who were taught grammar by way of diagramming know the English language far better than those who were taught rote grammar. (I fall into the latter category and had to teach myself grammar once I got to college.) Maybe the visual nature of the task imprints on the memory better, just as the aural nature of grammar songs does. I taught diagramming in middle school English a few years back, and many students saw it as cracking a code. Even the hardcore math kids who had theretofore shunned all aspects of English were tuning in. Diagramming appeals to the active student, too, because he or she can get up and draw on the board. Colorful markers have a way of drawing in the artsy of the class, as well.

I’m finding that other educators, from primary grades up to college, are getting the same idea. There are some good sentence diagramming resources on YouTube and various education websites. And for those needing to connect Common Core or state standards, it couldn’t be easier. Every aspect of grammar, thus every term, comes to the surface when you are viewing the language in this broader way, through sentences.

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