Teach Joy of Reading Over Rules of Grammar

San Leandro High English teacher says opening students' minds to the world beyond their iPods is a better investment than knowing when to say who versus whom.


(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High. This week's column is the second part of a story that began last week on the under Obama that follow the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative under Bush.)

One of the many advantages of having a summer vacation is that it gives me the opportunity to start over. I can try to correct last year’s mistakes and think creatively about the year ahead.

 Since there are only a few weeks left before the new semester begins I thought now would be a good time to ask myself some basic questions. By trying to explain to you my ideas I hope to clarify my own thinking and maybe improve my teaching.

Next week I’d like to discuss grades but for today I’d like to begin with a seemingly simple question:  what should an English teacher teach?

I’d like to tell you about the fundamental goals of my teaching and explain why you might have a problem with some of the things I try to do.

I suspect that, if I were to ask one hundred average citizens what should be taught in a high school classroom, 98 would give answers that have something to do with the rules of the English language.

Introduce yourself at a cocktail party as an English teacher and you are sure to make a few people nervous.

 “You aren’t going to check my grammar, are you?” they ask.

There will always be one person who will want to tell you about their favorite teacher who taught them to diagram sentences in the sixth grade.

People assume that I am the gatekeeper of the official house of the King’s English.

If you’ve read any of my columns by now you know I wouldn’t have brought up this subject if I didn’t harbor a contrarian view of the matter. The fact is that I believe that the rules of grammar currently occupy a too-exalted position in the high school classroom.

You all know the arguments for learning grammar. Employers won’t hire you, colleges will remediate you, and smart people will mock you for your errors.

Some of that may be true, though I hope, in future columns, to point out the flaws in each example. The point of this article, however, is not to disparage grammar (which I do spend time on) but to suggest that there are things I teach which will benefit my students more than remembering when to write who and when to write whom.

I teach the joy of reading. Books, magazines, comic books, websites, cereal boxes. I try to suggest to my students that the world is large and they are a small part of it, but that reading can make them grow in ways that an iPod or the latest Batman movie will not.

I teach the unearthing of ideas, the ideas contained in literature and history and anywhere that writers package them. I try to show them that there are perspectives out there that can enrich their lives.

I teach writing, the kind of writing that forces them to observe and to think.

I attempt to get my students to slow down and really look at things (descriptive writing), to really hear what people say (writing of dialogue), to find information and use it to educate (research), and to see if they can make an argument based at least partially on reason and not prejudice (persuasive writing).

I thought, when I began this piece, that I was going to write something controversial. Now that I’ve arrived at the end I see that I’ve stated things that probably are pretty obvious.

I ended last year thinking I’d gotten off track on these fundamental goals. My loyalty to the school (increasing test scores) got in the way of my loyalty to my students (reading and writing practice). My goal is to repair that imbalance in 2012-13.

(You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)

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Angela Marrujo July 27, 2012 at 01:11 AM
I remember reading Huckleberry Finn in Junior year at SLHS. Personally, I believe reading is essential to being a good writer. They go hand in hand. Exposing yourself to as much literature as you can (and it doesn't have to just be novels, like Mr. Heverly said) really does result in you unconsciously picking up the skills a good writer should have. Granted, teaching grammer is essential, but knowing what is and isn't grammatically correct can't help you if you're not also being exposed to writing in which those skills are being utilized. I grew up reading novels, comics, graphic novels, the newspaper, magazines, hell even video game strategy guides - and they all helped me develop as a writer. You learn how to develop sentences and paragraphs that flow naturally, you pick up vocabulary you may not be exposed to in school, etc. As an English major I think it's important for me to keep reading and honing my abilities.
Thomas Clarke July 27, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Jerry, if all you do is to teach the jobs of these books and short stories you will finally earn your keep, They are each worthy of a lifetime's efforts and exploration. Angela, your grammar needs some help from spell check.
Angela Marrujo July 27, 2012 at 01:52 AM
Thanks for taking the time to point out that misplaced "e" versus an "a" Thomas. I sincerely hope your ability to read and comprehend what was written wasn't compromised by that innocuous error. And while we’re on the subject of innocuous errors, who told you "they" should be capitalized in your sentence, Thomas? Or did you intend to end that sentence before "they" with a period, instead of a comma? You do know the difference between the two, correct? Best check your grammar before you go checking someone else's.
Lary Huls July 29, 2012 at 02:24 AM
I really think this is a false dichotomy and very wrongheaded. When I went through school, we learned spelling, grammar (yes, even the dreaded diagramming), which helped us write while we were reading good literature which informed our writing and so on. We grew up appreciating and reading Steinbeck, Irving, Updike, Faulkner, Hughes, Nabokov and, later, Atwood among others. These people were all taught grammar. They all write sentences and paragraphs that one wants to read repeatedly because they are concise, beautiful and lyrical. When my son was in the San Leandro system, they were going through some silly phase that said that the students should just be allowed to write anything, spelling and grammar be damned, so that they could feel good about themselves. Consequently, he graduated and couldn't spell and his sentence structure often made Hemingway sound long-winded. He became interested in writing short fiction and pretty much had to learn good grammar on his own and with his parent's help. Saying that you're an English teacher that doesn't teach grammar is like saying you're a driver's education teacher that only teaches the gas pedal and not the traffic laws.
Leah Hall July 29, 2012 at 03:36 AM
As I have grown older, I have learned to appreciate the breadth of learning encompassed by the subject "english". Grammar is the set of rules that the craftsman uses to express oneself effectively. But without a muse, what use are a set of tools and craftsmanship. Without craftsmanship, the muse is hidden behind a muddy veil. The best english teachers have to teach both. We could all use grammar lessons as we go through life to better express ourselves.


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