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  • Pam Koutrakos

The Journey: Taking Language Instruction from Ho Hum to WOWZA!

When I was first hired as a teacher, I excitedly walked into my classroom to find… the “goods” had been pillaged. There was a teacher’s desk with drawers askew, mismatched student desks, and a wall of faded, bulletin board paper covered with last-week-of-school graffiti. I wandered around, opening closets and drawers, discovering again and again that they were empty. But, there was one shelf with stacks of grammar textbooks. I wiped off one of the dusty orange covers with my shirt sleeve, and opened the cover. The binding cracked from old brittle glue. As I flipped through the pages of numbered fill-in-the-blank statements and multiple choice questions, I remember thinking to myself, This doesn’t bode well, that these books are the only things here. I was too green to trust this inkling, and too desperate for resources, so that fall, 26 more of those bindings cracked open. Students sat quietly copying sentences onto lined paper and handed them in to me. I dutifully marked each line with a check or x. I don't think many of those corrected papers ever made it to a folder, backpack, or home. Ho hum. Ho hum. Ho hum. My heart sank. We put the textbooks away. By the start of winter, my first-year adrenaline wore off and I got sick… quite often. Those grammar textbooks equalled easy-to-carry-out sub plans, so they came back out. But the end of that year, feeling full of first year success, I moved classrooms, and triumphantly waved goodbye to those orange textbooks once and for all.

Next Stop: Well-Intentioned Efforts Gone Amiss

The next few years, I was confident, enthusiastic, and built up my storehouse of school-germ immunity. I read about this thing called writing workshop and decided to give it a shot. We got going, and there was not a textbook in sight. I replaced those textbooks with—wait for it— copied half sheets of paper (AKA “Daily Language Review”). Each afternoon, students were welcomed by sentences filled with spelling and grammar errors. I was particularly proud because I did not use samples from a purchased book. I instead used my prep and home time to recreate the (broken) wheel, writing incorrect sentences using the names of my students and the currently hip TV shows and musicians. Using overhead transparencies, I invited students to share their edits with the class. I provided time for peer editing and handed out pre-made editing checklists. I proofread student writing, taking on the role of copy editor. I was working so hard. The students… not so much. Unit after unit, month after month, year after year I waited and waited, hoping to see my efforts pay off, hoping to see students get interested in grammar and transfer what we practiced and what I corrected. Spoiler alert: it never happened.

Destination 1: Discovering Mentors

And then IT happened. I found Jeff Anderson, Mary Ehrenworth, and Vicki Vinton. (Signal clouds parting and angelic music playing). I devoured The Power of Grammar (2005) and Mechanically Inclined (2005). These professional texts pointed me in the direction of Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar In Context. Constance Weaver wrote “Because some of us are convinced we benefited at least somewhat from the formal study of grammar, it can be difficult for community members and teachers alike to believe what decades of grammar studies tell us: that in general the teaching of grammar does not serve any practical purpose for most students. It does not improve reading, speaking, writing or even editing for the majority of students.” Instantaneous “aha” moment. Two important things happened right then and there: first, I got excited… about grammar (yes, you heard right) and second the “I” in my grammar instruction became a very intentional “we.”

Destination 2: Renewed Commitment to Reading, Trying, Approximating, and Learning

Over the next several years, I became a mom, worked in an early childhood setting, became a literacy support teacher and instructional coach, and then followed my heart back to the classroom. In each role, language became more playful, joyous, and fun. Learning became successful. Transfer happened. Grammar started and ended in context. And as frequently as possible, we dipped into reading and writing while focusing on grammar. We pulled mentor sentences from class read alouds, and engaged in discussion around words. We used modeled, shared, and interactive writing to further explore these conventions. I taught reading and writing mini-lessons on remembering and applying what we learned and methods for checking for conventional use of spelling and grammar. Students utilized tools (old-school reference books, online resources, and peers) to experiment, tinker with, and step up the language in their writing. This then began happening throughout a unit of study, not only at the end as we “fancied up” pieces to prepare for publishing. Language became empowering —providing us with the superwriter ability to create a mood, elicit a feeling, write with authority, and use our words to convince others of the strength of our opinions. Language instruction transformed. Language looked different, acted different, felt different, and finally… it worked.

Destination 3: Sharing and Growing—Thanks to a Larger Community

It seems I was not alone in my journey, attempts, or frustration. Others in education admit to feeling the same! Most recently, I have partnered with educators near and far in hopes of revamping and recharging language learning. We created spiraled scope and sequence maps across all grades, and aligned language standards to reading and writing units of study. Together, we have very intentionally facilitated discovery around language and embedded language into both reading and writing workshop. We supported students using the gradual release model. We have used the components of balanced literacy in thoughtful and creative ways.

Now, l hope to learn with you! For the next several months- from now through the spring- I plan to share stories and advice for energizing language learning. One step at a time, we will rediscover the power of grammar and the how behind active, student-driven learning around the language standards. I hope you will stay tuned—and share your own experiences, advice, and snapshots of learning all along the way. This journey is far from over.

This is the first in my language focused blog series. In my next installment, I provide specific advice for building a classroom culture of word appreciation so language learning is emphasized, authentic, and co-created!

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