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Teach Composition and Save the World?

The articles for this week were engaging as well as frustrating to read.  To be quiet honest I did not know who Stanley Fish was before reading these articles but I can say that after getting an insight into his thoughts and beliefs, I am not a fan.  However, I do agree with some of the points he reiterates throughout his New York Times column “Opinionator” and the review that Donald Lazere gives us in “Stanley Fish’s Tightrope Act”.  The rules of grammar should have been successfully taught in the grammar school years (elementary school/junior high).  I agree with Fish when he says that teachers in high schools have not been focusing on grammar as much as they should because it was evident in the papers he was grading.  What could be the cause of poor grammar usage in college?  Could it be the pressure that teachers face to ‘teach to the test’?  Preparation for standardized testing has taken up valuable class time because that is what the department of education and the core curriculum has forced teachers to do in recent years.

            Stanley Fish emphasis the fact the real writing is not taught in writing courses.  He condemns courses that advocate writing but focus on the thoughts and ideas of the students.  Most of Fish’s beliefs are opposite of what I believe an English class should be.  I believe an English class is a place where students have a voice and literature can be discussed orally and in forms of writing and not have to worry about grammar mistakes.  I strongly agree that proper grammar has to be instilled at a young age so when students enter college they are capable of expressing themselves in complete and coherent sentences.  Nonetheless, I do not agree with him that writing courses in college involve only the rules of grammar.  Writing courses are named for that sole reason, writing.  In a writing course a student has the freedom to write about a topic that they feel passionate about.  There is no concrete rule that states that grammar should be the only focus to be studied in a writing class.  When a teacher makes grammar usage too important in their writing class, I feel that it daunts students as well as makes them feel insecure about the message that they are trying to convey in a piece of writing.  In my opinion I feel that grammar lessons make a class boring.  What can teachers do in high schools to make grammar lessons interesting and motivational for students?

Fish’s approach to teaching grammar is antiquated for students in an urban setting.  Understanding the relationship of the forms of grammar in order to apply to future writing is good way to teach this but will it work in a New York City public school?  My question is, and it is arguable, that considering the different methods of teaching, will students give his approach a chance?  The study of forms of grammar is slowly becoming obsolete in NYC public schools because of standardized testing and “teaching to the test”.  My final question about this topic is, how can new teachers deal with the pressure of all the standards and preparation that are imposed on them without forgetting an important characteristic of English, which is grammar?

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12 Responses

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  1. Travis Lamprecht says

    I agree with Stanley Fish that the teaching of grammar is imperative to a student’s ability to write and communicate effectively. While it may be a boring subject to teach, I believe there are always avenues to take to make any subject exciting. After teaching students the rules of grammar, I would use competition as an exciting practice to get the students acclimated with what they’ve learned. For example, if I had a class of 25 students, I would divide the class into 5 teams. I would then give each team a different sentence to diagram on the chalkboard in front of the class. I would give each correct part of the diagram a five-point value. Whichever team has the most points at the end of the competition would be rewarded with extra credit. I would use it as a weekly exercise that students could look forward to. It would also cause students to practice diagramming sentences together with their teams or by themselves at home, on their own time, in anticipation of the game. I believe this is a more effective practice rather than just reading a dull book about grammar. This would result in students equating grammar with fun and that is always a successful pairing when learning any subject.

  2. Rachel says

    Grammar is supposed to be taught at the elementary level. Throughout my teaching experiences I have found that many, if not most, of the students that I have encountered cannot formulate a proper sentence. I can’t blame them because half the time I can’t either. We are so quick to blame teachers. Teachers haven’t done their jobs, there aren’t any good teachers, those who can’t do, teach. There are so many excuses that I have heard throughout the years, some of them even coming from my own mouth. A lot of what is learned at the elementary level is forgotten or is just so embarked in our heads that we don’t think about it and it becomes a force of habit and is hard to explain. I have heard from many English teachers that they are not allowed to teach grammar at the secondary level. Let me be more specific, they can’t teach a unit on it, mini lessons are allowed if there is a necessity for it. I took a course on grammar during my undergrad at Baruch. It was very helpful! There should be grammar classes at the college level or at least an extensive review on it during junior high and high school. It would of helped me a lot at the start of college.

  3. Victoria Fontana says

    Rachel makes a good point. Many people are quick to judge teachers for educational gaps. A school administration’s insistance on student multitasking and on a focus for preparing students to ace standardized exams hurts students as much as poorly prepared teachers can. The act of teaching has become diluted and rushed. Young minds learn better when they have the time to absorb information. Also, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Early and continuous preparation is key. If the teaching of grammar is concentrated only at the elementary level, and it eventually wanes, how could college students be expected to write well?

  4. Victoria Fontana says

    In addition, I agree with Bizzell and Lazere that goals for students should extend beyond Fish’s limited viewpoint that academics should strictly teach the material of their discipline, that there is great value in academic truth-seeking and personal viewpoints should be omitted from classroom discourse, completely. There is, however, value to Fish’s response to why many students are unable to write clean English sentences. The common classroom abounds with educational inequities due to cultural, social disparities, etc, which contribute to writing difficulties. This calls for immediate remediation on part of every educational institution. Lazere points to the crucial fact that grammar should be taught in “grammar school” (535) or in high school. With the focus on acing standardized exams, students are not getting the time and attention to focus on grammar, style and rhetoric in early education. Starting in college is just too late.

  5. Dana Choit says

    I definitely agree what Rachel and Victoria have added. As I first began reading Fish’s article, I was immediately reminded of my own experiences in undergraduate education courses. As I was student teaching, my professor posed a question to the class on the first day: What are you afraid to teach? We answered anonymously on index cards. One of the more popular answers that emerged was grammar. Why? We didn’t remember much, we were not required to take any grammar course (if there was one available) as an English major or eng/seys students, and therefore had zero refreshers – so how in the world could we teach it to others? Thinking back on this, I can see merit in Fish’s idea to focus on grammar. A grammar course is something that I feel would have/ still is beneficial to take as an eng/seys student. The methods he states as examples to use with students also aim to create more engaging lessons and he almost creates “ a story” or “content” within a single sentence to help understand the structure behind it. These fundamentals of writing are definitely an important piece of the puzzle that has seemed to be put on the back burner.

    However, it is indeed only a piece. While the point of having a course title match the coursework is something I am behind- I don’t think Fish’s ideas follow through. The course he imagines, with the necessary building blocks of writing enforced, describes a course on grammar or the literal structure of writing. In my opinion, writing is about so much more than that. While indeed the “forms constrain and shape it” it is there on the page as a form of expression for whatever purpose, academic or personal.

    Though not his words, he uses comments as support. He quotes, “good writing skills instill good thinking”. However, he pairs this with “young people who can’t write can’t think”. I feel this absolutely false. Some students may have the ability to think but lack the ability, skills or fundamental knowledge on just how to write it down.

  6. Guadalupe Bueno says

    I agree that grammar has become obsolete in NYC public schools, and that the current trend of “teaching to the test” has significantly impeded it from being taught. We are living in an age where teachers are being hammered by the same institution that is supposed to support them-the Department of Education. How are teachers supposed to teach a significant unit on grammar, when they are rushed to prepare students for the next test? We cannot forget that grammar is at the very heart of writing; however, drilling students, especially young students would only scare them away from writing. Although I disagree with Fish at certain times, I think the exercises Fish shares in part three of The New York Times piece would be great because students would not only have re-create a sentence without losing its structure, but also explain the choices they have made in making the sentence changes. The level of analysis this exercise emphasizes is great because to cite Fish-“good writing instills good thinking.” In addition, from the comments above, I think Travis’ competition themed grammar lessons would be a rather exciting form of teaching grammar.

  7. johnjparente says

    I like that Johanna emphasizes, in her answer to the Fish, that college writing courses should not only teach grammar. I think she would agree that by the time we reach college in America, students ought to show control of the English language. I agree that, as she states, “In a writing course a student has the freedom to write about a topic that they feel passionate about,” and would only add that I used that freedom to my advantage as I thoroughly enjoyed a creative writing course in my undergrad English studies. After watching Sam Shepard’s True West with John Malkovic and Gary Sinise we were instructed to “..go crazy and write a short story. Don’t actually smash a typewriter, unless you absolutely have to in order to get your ten page story done.” There was no grammar taught in that class.

  8. MichelleC says

    I think that it is hard to either strongly agree or disagree with Stanley Fish. It seems that grammar is a topic that is taught either too little or not at all in classrooms today and that there are many reasons such as the time constrictions/administrator pressures that both Rachel and Victoria pointed out. Being a product of Parochial school and one of those students Fish describes as having a good grasp on grammar, I find that writing does not come easier to me just because I had a fourth grade teacher that made me construct sentence trees all day, everyday.

    I do agree with Fish in that grammar needs to taught in college because all too often the reason why college kids have trouble with writing is because they are no exposed to it. As Victoria said, if you aren’t using it, you lose it. (I am certainly a victim to this) As a student teacher, I was told not to bother correcting grammar mistakes and to simply focus on the content of the writing and there really needs to be a balance because I was left wondering about grammar rules myself.

    With that being said, to propose that grammar be taught strictly as just that, without taking into account a student’s opinion or ideas on a certain topic is (in my opinion) unrealistic and a waste of time. All you will do is succeed in having a group of bored, restless and utterly confused students- especially in college. To Fish it seems impossible to blend both a course on persuasive writing and rhetoric and this is where I highly disagree with him. As John above states that if a student can write about a topic they feel passionate about, they will WANT to do the work. Sometimes a student just doesn’t know how to express themselves in writing and that is where the lesson comes in. To try and separate the two seems counterproductive.

  9. mobrien says

    Ah, the much debated grammar argument. I am a HS English teacher and this is a cause of frustration, sadness, and anxiety for me at multiple times throughout the year. Unfortunately, with the creation of the new Common Core Standards, and the new Regents exam, grammar is no longer a strong focus for students in terms of what they will be tested on during their academic careers. However, I do think that there is a huge disconnect in Fish’s argument. First, he states that “you are not to make your students better people or better citizens, or help them with profound life choices.” Then, with regard to grammar, he says, “You’re not going to change the world if you are not equipped with the tools that speak to its present condition” and “good writing instills good thinking.” So, I take serious issue with Fish. As an educator, I believe I am partially responsible for the success of my students when they leave my classroom. Making my students better people or better citizens means that they are presenting themselves in a way that make others percieve them as well educated, articulate, observant individuals. I do not see how students are able to make this impression on others if they disregard grammar and the standards of written and spoken language.

    Grammar, and language standards are put into place for a reason. As I say to my students, “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.” I cannot tell them who created these standards, or for what reason. What I do know is that they have to think, they have to reason, they have to formulate arguments and express them clearly either in spoken or written form. I cannot expect them to do this at a higher level until they know the basics of how to effectively develop their ideas, and this requires them to have the grammar knowledge. I currently teach freshmen and seniors. At both levels, there are students who have a great command of the English language, and students who I’d swear have never heard the word grammar before. But, the truth is, they have definitely had grammar lessons. They have been taught the rules. Yet, there is still a major disconnect between the standards they are expected to meet and the work that they actually produce. So maybe the issue is that there is not enough follow through with these rules and standards. Perhaps grammar has been an isolated “mini-lesson” here and there. I cannot expect my students to understand and implement grammar rules and writing standards if I am not consistently holding them accountable for each. Unfortunately, because this is not something they are tested on in a larger forum, these lessons do not stick with them.

    I do not know where the answer is, but I do know that I have a problem with Fish’s contradictions. I know that I cannot confidently send my students into the outside world without making an effort to hold them to the standards they will be held to in the future. Perhaps I can’t force them to make good moral decisions, but that does not relieve me of the responsibility to educate them and help them become productive members of society. This cannot be disconnected from the standards and rules that students should be held accountable for in their work. Whether they are tested on these standards during a state exam or not, the real test will be when they are on a job interview, applying to college, writing a proposal, or developing a term paper. Their success in the outside world is dependent upon their ability to effectively communicate their ideas, and this is where we are all responsible as teachers, despite the age of the students we are educating. These are habits that cannot be taught too early, and will have an enormous effect on student success in the long run.

  10. Rachel says

    My parents always made school important and so I took it as serious as I could for my age at the time. I always had great English teachers and in seventh grade I decided that this would be my field of choice; an English teacher. What I did not realize then but still see well into my college years is that grammar is not taught. College courses teach everything but grammar. How am I supposed to get through a college class if I can’t clearly express my ideas. I was reading an article the other night and at the bottom was a picture. The caption said: “I’d like to eat grandma.” vs. “I’d like to eat, grandma.” I decided to pull it up on the smart-board and show my students. They didn’t know the difference and that depressed me. I had to explain that the first one meant that they wanted to eat their grandmother. Something as simple as placing or adding a comma can make the biggest different when writing. Someone should really place more emphasis on writing and grammar at all levels. I completely agree with Michelle’s comment about losing it if it’s not used.

    • Christopher Grimm says

      Great comment, Rachel. I really like the “let’s eat grandma/let’s eat, grandma” example. That’s the basic drive behind the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves (and its title). Everyone should check this text out at some time in the future (bookstore browsing, anyone?).

      Hmm. Someone should title an essay/book pertaining to grammar: “Let’s Eat Grandma!”

      Great class tonight, everyone; I enjoyed your insights. 🙂

      –Christopher Grimm

      • Rachel says

        Thanks, Christopher! Grammar isn’t an easy thing and I either find myself over using it or under using when I write paper for school. A grammar class at this point in time would be amazing. I wouldn’t mind a refresher course on some other English stuff also. I find myself having to look things up before I teach it to my students; and basic stuff 🙁 Makes me feel as if I’m not good enough to do what I want and love. I guess I’ll learn as I go and get better.