Prescriptive Necessity

In the Pacific Northwest we’ve been focusing on Common Core standards for several years now.  I automatically include references to the standards in my lesson plans, white board objectives, PLC notes, data protocol charts, WICOR evidence, and evaluation summaries. I cover as many as humanly possible. The district has chosen specific standards for us to focus on and we’re to imbed as many of the others as we can throughout the year. The list of standards in language arts (apparently it’s gauche and noninclusive to call it English anymore) is mammoth, and to properly pretest, teach, assess, reteach, reassess for each is ridiculously impossible in one school year.

Of course, this creates a palpable sense of time whizzing by as I spin and grasp to catch just a little more. (Feels like being fifty, by the way.)  Anyway, it also makes me really think about what’s important. What do I want my kids to leave my class knowing and thinking and believing and hoping about themselves, our country, their future. And how do I impart that in a balanced, nonindoctrinating, skill (& fact) -based, critically-thinking English class while covering the standards?

Today’s teacher indoctrination camps- er, training programs – like to celebrate Noam Chomsky as the hero of language acquisition and “social justice” warriors. He’s the guy who falsified research (No matter – he is a flaming anti-Israel, anti-America, Holocaust and genocide-denying Communist, so education elitists love him) who basically contends that memorization is useless in grammar and spelling because language is acquired naturally via hard-wired instincts. This has become clearly inaccurate, but change in education is slow when it upsets the elite.

So for years teachers have been instructed to avoid prescriptive grammar rules and rote memorization, and simply give students encouragement and time to self-discover grammatical truths in texts. Prescribed rules are oppressiveanti-woman, etc. If you ever have trouble sleeping, you might try reading the white hot iron missives driving the very real, very angry grammar wars.

All this to say that as much as I’d love to have time to nudge each child to self – realization, sometimes rote memorization is the best approach. I want my freshmen and sophomores to know and love words. They need to define and spell them, understand how they function in a sentence, and what their roots are. Kids need structure. Knowing that there are basic rules, albeit sometimes confusing and seemingly random, helps build confidence. Sure, they have a computer in their hands,  but if they don’t have basic linguistic knowledge, they won’t know when, why, or what to search. In my experience students who have few learned prescriptive rules rarely take chances with language. They use basic vocabulary and simple sentence structure.

To boost writing confidence, I frontload 10-15 vocabulary words weekly from the texts we read:

1. Taking Cornell notes: words on the left, definition on the right. I walk the class through predicting definitions using root words, labeling parts of speech, discussing the role each word plays in a sentence, declention, etc. Yes, this takes time, but I strongly believe that magic happens in the brain when a hand writes a word, and inquiry encourages critical thinking. I do not allow students to take pictures of any of our notes.

2. Writing a story using all the words (also functions as Cornell notes summary).  This is completely open to student interpretation. I grade on proper word usage, spelling, and as we progress with rules, grammar. My only restrictions are that the stories are classroom appropriate and demonstrate understanding (no long lists of spelling words just to include them). They can be half a page to (yes, actually) ten pages long. With Common Core emphasis on non fiction texts, exposition and argumentation, the joy of writing and reading is headed for extinction. This weekly fun story has become so popular in my classes, that when I decide to give them a break or we have to juggle time, inevitably there are students who continue to write them anyway, sometimes finding their own vocabulary words.

3. Weekly vocabulary quizzes. I say the word, students write it and write the definition. We assess the quizzes with partners and as a group for immediate feedback.

Nobody really likes to memorize anything because it takes effort. But maybe more effort is really what we need.

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