Teaching -- The Dull Stuff
Last April a high school history teacher with 40 years of experience in public education unloaded on his
school district. With much passion
Gerald J. Conti declared: “I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely
cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that ‘Education is not
preparation for life, education is life itself.’ This type of total immersion
is what I have always referred to as teaching ‘heavy,’ working hard, spending
time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew
enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only
devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. … ‘data driven’ education seeks only
conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow
and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called
Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy,
experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix
what is not broken in our system of public education …” Syracuse, New York
“My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests … or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth … that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven” (Hannagan 1)”
In my school district (
) at the
time that I taught (1960-1991), veteran teachers were valued especially for how
well they had learned to teach. Like Mr.
Conti, any teacher worth his salt pushes himself. He learns by being innovative and by not
being afraid to make mistakes. Eighth
grade English teachers have always had to teach the dull stuff: rules of
capitalization and punctuation, parts of speech, standard word usage, and
correct sentence structure. The
challenge has always been to make it palatable and useful. Early in my teaching career my students scored
well enough each year on the near school year-ending, California-mandated, standardized
assessment test. Their success seemed to
me, however, artificial. Teaching students
when to capitalize “mother” and when not to, expecting them to identify adverbs
that modify adverbs, and insisting that they know the difference between a
direct object and an indirect object seemed like instructing dogs to “sit” and
“lie.” I wanted my students to utilize what I taught! Motivating them to learn and put into
practice all that I taught them indeed requires “creativity, academic freedom,
teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation.” My school district did not stifle me. It did not cause me to look over my
shoulder. It allowed me to stretch
myself, benefit my students more, and experience great satisfaction. I am very grateful. Orinda Union
I would like to tell you how I instructed. Please imagine yourself to be a normal eighth grade student in my classroom in 1990, not excited about learning dull subject matter but having enough pride in yourself on most days to persevere. At the end of the school year this is what you might recall.
Capitalization and Punctuation
Lots of drill. Oh my! Our teacher wanted us when we write dialogue to recognize spoken sentences within narrative sentences. Don’t use a period before a “he said.” Ever! Use a comma, question mark, or exclamation point, depending on what the spoken sentence requires. Confused? Here are some examples:
“I saw your brother yesterday,” he said.
“Did you see my brother yesterday?” he asked.
“What a great game!” he shouted.
My teacher, Mr. Titus, never wants to see this:
“I saw your brother yesterday.” he said.
“I saw your brother.” he said. “At the game.”
We have to understand that end punctuation marks (periods, question marks, and exclamation points) are used at the ends of sentences. That includes spoken sentences! If a “he said” interrupts a spoken sentence, I have to mark the interruption with commas, before and after.
“I saw your brother yesterday,” he said, “at the game.”
“Did you see my brother,” he asked, “at the game?”
Learning to punctuate dialogue was a bit challenging because it was new to me. It was kind of interesting. So also was knowing that commas are needed to isolate one-word responses like “yes” or “heck” that begin sentences. You also have to separate anywhere in a sentence what our teacher calls nouns of direct address. Figuring out where to put the commas was kind of like doing a puzzle.
“Don’t close that door, Mark.”
“Dad, pass the butter.”
“Stop singing, stupid, if you know what’s good for you.”
Mr. Titus put our names in the sentences we had to capitalize and punctuate. What he had us say and do in the sentences was funny. Shy, polite Kenny was a bully ready to kick butt. Popular, bubbly Hazel was so shy she hardly spoke. The class brain was stupid. The class jock was a coward. We all looked to find our names and read what he had us saying and doing before we started doing any of the sentences. This is kind of like what the sentences looked like.
please don’t hit me you bully carl jenkins cringed if you do he said I’ll tell mr. carbunkle
I’ll do whatever I want kenny jones growled see that you give me double your lunch money tomorrow he ordered
unhand that little wimp it was the class hero jonathan turner unhand him this instant or I will smash thrash and render you unconscious
yes please do samantha mason said I plan to invite him to my party which is this thursday and I don’t want him damaged I need him to bake cupcakes you can come too kenny if you promise to be nice
hey baby how about you invite me the school lover jake johnson said get a load of this he flexed his right bicep
wow I certainly will Samantha gushed be still my heart
After we got pretty good doing the sentences, Mr. Titus assigned us to write a brief short story scene that used a lot of dialogue. We had to use at least once each of the following to show that we knew what he had taught us.
Noun of direct address
One word response at the beginning of a spoken sentence
An appositive phrase
A series of words or phrases
A spoken sentence interrupted by a “he said”
A spoken sentence that asks a question.
A spoken sentence or expression that is an exclamation
Later in the year, Mr. Titus assigned us to write a three to four-page short story scene. He also had us write about an autobiographical experience. We had to use dialogue in both assignments.
Proper Word Usage
After capitalization and punctuation we learned what Mr. Titus called standard usage. Take this sentence.
The boy (run, runs) fast.
Not even a dummy would choose “run.” It doesn’t sound right. How about this sentence?
Each of the high-achieving students (expect, expects) a high grade.
Most kids would choose “expect” because it also sounds right, but the correct choice is “expects.” Before we got into subject/verb agreement and learned why “expects” is correct, Mr. Titus gave us a 20 sentence quiz that looked much like these sentences.
1. I haven’t (did, done) that.
2. I have (laid, lain) here for three hours.
3. That girl in the red dress speaks (good, well).
4. None of the goats (was, were) raised by that farmer.
5. Sally baked the cake. I (brought, brung) it to class.
6. That ugly kid is friends with Jack, Carl and (I, me).
When we were finished with the quiz, he told us to write in the upper corner of our papers the number of correct answers we thought we would have. I wrote “18.” Then he gave the correct answers. Here are the answers for the example sentences above.
1. done; 2. lain; 3. well: 4. was; 5. brought; 6. me
I got 12 sentences right, not 18. Nobody did as well as he or she thought. The odd-numbered sentences had easy word choices. The even-numbered ones weren’t so easy, even though we thought so. Our teacher drew two circles on the blackboard. They pretty much overlapped. He labeled one of the circles “conversational.” The other circle he labeled “standard.” He said that where the two circles overlapped is where what sounds right and what rules determine to be correct give you the same answer. He said that because most of our parents are college educated and we learn to use words by what we hear, the overlap between the two circles is fairly large. It would not be with students in the
school where he taught his first year of
teaching. He said that “conversational
usage” is what you are accustomed to hearing and what you yourself use in
normal situations. “Standard usage” is
determined by specific rules. It is used
by educated people whose profession or social status requires it. It was his duty to teach us standard
usage. He didn’t mean that we shouldn’t
use conversational usage when it was appropriate to do so. But we needed to know the difference between
the two usages and be able to use standard usage when it was needed (like on
standardized tests, but, more importantly, when we needed to demonstrate in
real life situations an educated command of the English language. Los
Thereafter, we learned the rules of subject/verb agreement, personal pronoun usage, adjective and adverb usage, agreement of pronouns with their antecedents, irregular verb form usage, all that dull stuff. He never let us forget what we learned. Every test he gave us included stuff we had learned earlier. He’d be testing us about using irregular verb usage (“went” or “gone”) and we’d also have sentences that needed punctuation and that had subject/verb and “I” or “me” choices. We really learned that stuff. I also had fun correcting my parents when they used “I” in sentences when they should have used “me.”
Grammatical Sentence Structure
At the beginning of the year I expected I’d have to learn more about parts of speech. “Wait until you have to diagram sentences,” my mother warned me. Well, Mr. Titus didn’t do that. He didn’t even use the grammar textbook. We did learn a lot about parts of speech when we covered standard usage. Especially nouns, pronouns, verbs, and prepositions. There was a real purpose in being able to recognize them. (You have to be able to spot a preposition to recognize the object of that preposition and not get fooled thinking the verb that follows it must agree with it -- One of the boys is [not ‘are”] here). Near the end of the school year we got into sentence structure. He really went into what he called adjective and adverb modifiers. I’m talking about phrases and clauses, not just one word modifiers. He started off by giving us what he called a fact sheet. It listed all the kinds of modifiers. It looked like this:
Adjectives of various types – The tall boy thanked several girls for baking those cakes.
Prepositional (adjective) phrase – The boy in the kitchen is making too much noise.
Participial phrase – The boy sleeping on the sofa is late for school. This novel, written by John Steinbeck, is outstanding.
Appositive phrase – My friend, a good student, wants to write a short story.
Relative clause – Bill, who is a good student, reads many books.
Adverbs that indicate the manner, place, time, and frequency of an action
Bill spoke slowly. Jack studies here. Tom took his test yesterday. Max plays basketball often.
Prepositional (adverb) phrases that provide the same information that adverbs do
Bill spoke with a drawl. Jack studies in a quiet room. Tom took his test before noon. Max played basketball for a month.
Adverb clauses, indicating manner, place, time, frequency, and reason
Bill spoke as if he were afraid. Jack studies where it is quiet. Tom took his test before the other students came into the classroom.
Max plays basketball whenever his friends ask him. Because he was tired, Phil took a nap.
He had us do practice exercises that looked like this:
(adj. – number) (adj. – descrp.) girls (adj. phr.) sang (adj. – descr.) songs (part. phr.) (adv. cl.)
Three giddy girls from
silly songs written by several friends because they were bored. Chicago
To break the monotony of doing these exercises Mr. Titus occasionally had us play a relay game. He divided the class into three teams, nine to a team. Each team numbered its players. He put three five by eight file cards on the blackboard tray. Each card had nine numbers and after each number a specific adjective or adverb modifier. The cards were identical. This is how they would look.
1. adjective phrase
3. adverbial clause –time
4. participial phrase
5. adverbial clause-reason
6. appositive phrase
7. relative clause
8. adverb phrase-manner
9. participial phrase
When Mr. Titus said, “Go!” the number one player of each team ran to the blackboard, looked at the modifier written after #1, and wrote an answer. The next player of each team could not run to the blackboard until Mr. Titus said that the answer written on the board by the previous team member was correct. This continued until all of the players on one of the teams were finished. If somebody got stuck and couldn’t write a correct modifier, after about ten seconds Mr. Titus would say, “Help!” and the team captain would take over. It was fun watching everyone getting excited urging his or her team on and laughing at how the kids at the blackboard acted. (It didn’t hurt that Mr. Titus gave each winning team member a Brach candy) I noticed when we played the game for the third time that we all had gotten a lot better writing correct answers.
We got familiar with the different places in a sentence where these modifiers are used. We learned, for instance, that adverbs and adverb clauses can begin a sentence as well as follow the verb or verb phrase that they modify.
Cautiously, he drove through the fog. Before the bell sounded, Jim headed for the door.
Mr. Titus really zeroed in on relative clauses. He showed us that if a relative clause has a certain form of be (is, are, was, were) as its verb, we can delete the relative pronoun (that, who, which) that begins the clause and the form of be that directly follows it and use what is left of the clause as an adjective modifier.
The man who is smoking a cigar knows my brother. Jack, who is my brother, enjoys football.
The man smoking a cigar knows my brother. Jack, my brother, enjoys football.
The resulting phrases will be either participial phrases (phrases that begin with a present or past participle) or appositive phrases. If they modify the subject of the sentence, you can place them at the beginnings of sentences.
Bill, who was smoking a cigar, waved to his friends. Smoking a large cigar, Bill waved to his friends.
Jack, who is a very good friend, invited me to his party. A very good friend, Jack invited me to his party.
Mr. Titus gave us a lot of practice adding relative clauses and their deleted forms to simple sentence statements.
He also stressed the importance of parallel construction. When you use “and” or “but,” you have to use the same kind of word, phrase, or clause in front and behind it.
Jack likes big and tall girls.
The cat ran across the lawn and into the street.
The man who reads Steinbeck and whom my sisters think is funny was given an award.
After the clouds gathered but before the rain started, Mother brought her lawn chairs into the garage.
Published in 1967 and read by millions, the best-selling novel was made into a motion picture.
After all of this practice, we had to demonstrate that we could write complex, correctly constructed sentences on our own. Mr. Titus gave us bunches of information about a made-up or real person.
1. is my seventh grade math teacher
2. writes weird poetry
3. is a veteran of the Vietnam War
4. likes Italian food
5. drove through a picket fence
We had to include all the information about the person in one correctly constructed sentence. I kind of liked doing this because it was a challenge and because it wasn’t all that hard. Here is how I would write a sentence about Mr. Carbunkle.
My seventh grade math teacher and a veteran of the Vietnam War, Mr. Carbunkle, who likes Italian food and who writes weird poetry, drove through a picket fence.
Mr. Titus told us that we shouldn’t always try to write long sentences. Being clear is what is important. However, there are times when long sentences are useful. He also said that when he doesn’t like the sound of one of his long sentences, he looks to see how he constructed it. Almost always he discovers an error in modifier placement or wrong parallel construction. He said he likes beginning sentences with participial phrases and that we should try to use them. He wants us to use everything of the dull stuff that he has taught us in our writing and, when we have to, in our speech. The more we do this, the more our using it becomes natural. But we will never get right everything we write on the first try. Read out loud what you’ve written. If it doesn’t sound right, you’ve probably used too many words or you might have misplaced or misused one or two modifiers or messed up your parallel construction. Always go over what you write. Don’t settle for something that is less than what you can write.
Teaching the dull stuff is essential. The challenge is getting your students to recognize that it is useful and relevant. Teaching it takes time and ingenuity, imperatives that teacher-bashing “reformers” refuse to recognize. Teaching the dull stuff helped me considerably as a writer. I could not have written the following passage from my novel “Crossing the River” without my knowledge of adjective and adverb modifiers, their placement in complex sentences, and parallel construction.
Profit necessitated subservience. Having failed to achieve it first by use of intimidation and then by economic hardship, King and Parliament had resorted to heavy-handed subjugation. This redcoat invasion of the country, this desist-or-die attempted confiscation of private property, had inspired armed insurgency. Disdained by Parliament, the aristocracy, and the British mercantile class, these compatriots, these commoners, these
toilers this day had attacked
militarily the master. … Yet they had cheered him [Dr. Joseph Warren]. It was true that he had instructed them,
encouraged them, in the end incited them.
He, with others, had brought them to the river that could now be called
revolution. They, knowing full well the
danger, had, of their own volition, crossed over (Titus 338-339)! Massachusetts
Hannagan, Charley. “Goodbye, Mr. Conti: a Westhill High Teacher's Retirement Letter Hits Home with Students, Parents.” Syracuse.com. April 2, 2013. http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2013/04/goodbye_mr_conti_a_westhill_hi.html. December 5, 2014. Web.
Titus, Harold. Crossing the River. BookLocker.com, Inc. 2011. Print.