Plan. To Adjust.

18 Feb

My dad is fond of saying just that: plan. To adjust. It’s his way of describing how best to design curriculum in that we should have a clear plan of where we are going but be flexible about the way we get there, allowing for adjustments along the way.

The “adjust” part hit home for me this week.

I had pre-assessed my grade 9s on their grammar knowledge and they seemed relatively strong on the pre-assessment. They also assured me they had spent the bulk of their time in eighth grade drilling grammar, so I planned to do a brief run-through of parts of speech and then move on to phrases and punctuation (so that we could use this understanding to combat fragment and run-on sentences.)

I gave them a brief lecture on parts of speech, we practiced identifying parts of speech in class, we did several Mad Libs, and we repeated my parts-of-speech mantra over and over: “What is this word doing here?” which is my way of reminding them that verbs are only verbs when they act like verbs (compare the word “run” in the sentences “I run every day” to “I want to go for a run.”) I taught them clues for identifying nouns (put an article in front of it; substitute another noun in its place), gerunds (ditto), prepositions (imagine a little mouse and two cardboard boxes. The mouse is in the box, on the box, under the box, beside the box, between the boxes, etc.), and the acronym FANBOYS to memorize the coordinating conjunctions. I offered extra-help practice after school before the quiz and twenty-five kids attended. The students seemed pretty solid with the parts of speech. My plan was to give the parts-of-speech quiz and then move on to phrases and clauses the following week.

But then half the class bombed the quiz. 10 – 15% scored less than 50% and only one student out of 70 got every part of speech identification correct. Looking over the quizzes later, I realized I had made the quiz too hard — a bit harder than most of the practice we had had; and students did not know as much as I thought they did. I knew this because about a third of my students made mistakes, like labeling pronouns as adverbs, or adjectives as verbs, that show a very weak grasp on understanding how the parts of speech function.

So I scrapped my plan to move on to phrases, clauses, and punctuation next week. I decided to spend the rest of the quarter on parts of speech until they really understand it. (For the record, I am a fan of teaching the grammar that is most directly linked to writing errors common in student writing; I want a student to be able to know that she can’t write, “She sat next to Alex and I” because “Alex and ‘I'” are the objects of the preposition and therefore must use object pronouns. She should write “Alex and me” because that is grammatically correct. But I can’t explain the concept if the student does not understand or recognize what a preposition is.)

The bulk of our focus right now isn’t grammar, but rather The Catcher in the Rye. We are about a third of the way through the book and students took a break from reading the novel last night to read a chapter from The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Teens by Sean Covey. I thought a couple of chapters from that book would serve two purposes: allow students to analyze Holden from a more psychological lens (“He complains a lot and blames others for everything”) rather than an emotional one (“He’s so annoying!”). But I also want students to consider their own adolescent and psychological mindsets, and the book offers many ways to do that.

My original plan was to have students come in to class to discuss the 7 Habits reading and compare it to Catcher. But I “adjusted” at the last minute, based on those weak grammar quizzes.

Usually my class is set up in a circle, but I put the desk in clusters of three and four and strategically seated students so there would be a mix of abilities in each group. I asked them to take out a piece of paper and I said, “You have 120 seconds to brainstorm as many adjectives as you can to describe Holden. Go!” They were off like a shot. They began firing off lists of descriptions to each other and scribbling them down. The energy and excitement rose as the clock ticked down and some groups would hear other groups’ answers and steal them, causing protests and laughter from across the room. When the buzzer sounded, I asked them to tally their adjectives and announce who had the most. We then went through each list, questioning whether each was an adjective. “Idiot” was struck from the winning team’s list, because, as another student pointed out, it was a noun. “How would we make ‘idiot’ and adjective?” I asked. They wrestled with that until one girl suggested “idiotic.”

My “adjustment” plan had been to use only adjectives as the brainstorm and then to move on to the 7 Habits work, tying it in to the students’ descriptions, but the parts of speech race was working so well — students were so engaged and energized — that I decided on the spot to keep it going. I realized the potential to correct students’ errors on masse on the spot was a really valuable use of class time.

“OK,” I said. “You have 120 seconds to come up with as many adverbs as you can to describe how Holden acts. Go!” In each class, a few sharp kids noted that you could add “-ly” to most of their adjectives to form adverbs that would describe how Holden acted. Again we counted down, tallied up, read them out for errors, laughed over funny mistakes, and gave a point to the winning team.

It wasn’t until a second ninth grade class later in the day that I realized we could do the same with nouns. “120 seconds to list as many nouns that accurately depict Holden. For example, he’s ‘a slacker.’ Go!” We had great fun with these lists, as students exhausted the possible nouns with such examples as “son” and “homo sapien.” It was a great way to distinguish between adjectives and nouns, such as “cynic vs. cynical.”

In the second class we also had a tie between the top teams and needed a tiebreaker. I quickly racked my brain and it came to me: “OK, you must write sentences that are true statements about Holden that have a preposition in them, and you can only use each preposition once total. Go!” This was significantly more challenging to them, and shortly there were questions like, “Is ‘without’ a preposition?” When I assured them it was, students wrote, “Holden is without his mother.” The winning team blew the competition away by focusing on simple true statements, such as “Holden is above the ground. Holden is below the sky.” There was a little chocolate for the winning team and the mood in both classes of grade nine was one of high energy and good humor.

After this parts-of-speech brainstorm, students were asked to examine the “paradigms” that Holden was centered on, according to the paradigms listed in the 7 Habits reading. They then had to search for quotes in their books to support their ideas. They then had to suggest a paradigm shift to a principle, per the 7 Habits suggestions for being a successful teen, and find a quote to support their thinking on that as well. For example, one group of students decided Holden was centered on the paradigms of lying and siblings. They found quotes to support these ideas and wrote them down. They then suggested he shift his paradigm to the principles of honesty and school, so that he lies less and doesn’t fail out of any more schools. They found two quotes to support the idea that this would be a positive paradigm shift for Holden. Lastly, they created a visual metaphor to represent Holden in a symbolic way, per their thinking about his paradigms. One group decided to make a puzzle, with each piece representing an aspect of Holden’s life: school, family, girls, etc. The final piece represented Holden and didn’t fit with the puzzle — it had the wrong shape to fit and complete the puzzle.

The final product at the end of class was a poster for each group that listed the three best descriptors of Holden from their list of brainstormed parts of speech to describe him, his current paradigms (with quotes to support), a suggestion for a principle he should focus on (with quotes to support), the visual metaphor, and a brief explanation of the metaphor.

Both classes worked very productively and I was really pleased with the result. In one class period, students were able to work more deeply on their knowledge and understanding of parts of speech, character analysis, using textual quotations to support ideas, correct MLA citation, and metaphorical thinking.

I’m so glad the students’ poor grammar quizzes stopped me in my tracks and led me down a different path. Sometimes “adjusting” can be the best plan of all.

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