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Mad Libs and Dangling Participles

Monday, January 09, 2012 - 02:36 PM

The most seemingly mundane aspects of English teaching tend to provoke the most intense controversies in the classroom.

Grammar, the necessary “evil” that we cannot sidestep as English educators, is an integral part of self-expression; however, it is usually forcefully resisted, both by students and teachers alike. Thus, as a society, we have developed a severe case of Grammarphobia.

DESCRIPTION Jessica Nevitt

Friends and family commonly assume that as an English teacher, I must love grammar; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Grammar is a subject that I have struggled mightily with, as a student and a teacher.

My elementary school experience made me a product of the “whole language” movement. My teachers emphasized the importance of reading and daily journal writing, which in turn, translated into a grasping of the English language, which was organic and boundless.

The rote memorization of grammar rules through charts and workbooks, a hallmark of more traditional forms of grammar education, was seen as archaic and even inhumane.

Because I was both an avid reader and writer, the whole-language approach allowed me to understand grammar in context, without forcing me to spend countless hours memorizing charts and squelching my creativity. Although this approach seemed successful, it was not until years later that I realized something was missing.

During my first attempt at the SAT exam, I nearly passed out when I encountered the then-recently developed “writing” section. The questions asked me to select, in multiple-choice style, the grammatically correct version of a given sentence.

I used my intuition, based on years of whole-language reading and writing experience, to guess at the correct answer, and managed to squeak by. But it became clear at that moment just how clueless I was about grammar.

Thanks to this experience, I am now able to empathize with my students at Dwight School when they struggle with grammar. Dangling modifiers, participial phrases, subjects and predicates -- all of these terms have as much meaning to students as their Latin counterparts. I have found that hitting students over the head with these definitions (metaphorically speaking) often proves futile.

I am lucky to work at a school that allows me to experiment with different methods of grammar education, and to borrow from both traditional grammar instruction and more contemporary “whole language” methods. But irrespective of the technique I am using, I have an ambitious goal for the year: to make grammar engaging for my students, something worth tuning into and investing in.

In my seventh- and eighth-grade English classes we have been learning the parts of speech. Yes, we have spent some time defining the parts of speech, and, yes, we have used workbook exercises to solidify their initial understandings. However, once my students had a grasp on the basics, we were able to have some fun.

Mad Libs -- the popular children’s word game that requires players to fill in verbs, adjectives or other words to tell a story -- is perhaps the single greatest grammar tool I have used to engage my students.

With the first few Mad Libs that we completed, the students had fun coming up with “silly” words that fit the part of speech required. However, as they gained a greater mastery of the parts of speech, we began to discuss the nuances of word choice and the incorporation of more sophisticated adjectives and verbs. Thus, grammar became a gateway for the teaching of writing.

Ultimately, the end goal of this exercise is to have students create their own Mad Libs. Students will have to form their own sentences with blanks, leaving out a particular part of speech. By doing this, students will not only gain a better understanding of the different roles that words can play, but also gain an understanding of the relationship between the parts of speech and the structure of a sentence.

Grammar should not be something that students (or teachers) fear. There are ways to make it engaging, without losing its purposefulness. There can be harmony between more free forms or creative methods and traditional methods of grammar education.

Ultimately, I am finding that striking a balance between the extremes is crucial, and I really believe that this will result in the greatest amount of success in the classroom, on those pesky SAT tests and (if we’re lucky!) in the establishment of a life free from Grammarphobia.

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