Text-messages. E-mails. Commercials. Blogs. Music. Mobile-App Advertisements. The overwhelming majority of language children encounter everyday looks nothing like what often gets taught in Language Arts classes. Form letters, five-paragraph essays, and metered poetry have little to do with what matters to a lot of people. In truth, many Americans go entire careers without the need to fashion a professional letter or write a ten-page essay. Jobs like web-design, computer programming, and sales all deal with language, but none truly requires mastery of iambic pentameter.
Please, don't misunderstand me. A few years ago, I could not fathom enjoying the process of rewording split infinitives or adjusting dangling participles, let alone knowing what those are. Sitting down with a couple of friends of mine, who happen to be grammar-buffs, birthed in me a new paradigm: rather than hinder my writing, the rules of grammar sets it free. But this brings up a question: Why didn't I learn those conventions when I was in school?
My ninth-grade English teacher dyed her short-cropped hair red, wore glasses, and sported long, cotton dresses everyday. That's all I remember about her. Solitary neurons weakly firing across distant synapses vaguely remind me she may have also tried teaching me about compound sentences, subject-predicate relationships, and other such things. Despite my clear interest in literature and language, I struggled to engage. (In her defense: She also encouraged me to continue writing poetry, although my interest had begun beforehand.)
The Common Core English Language Arts Standards propound the continued teaching of grammatical conventions, and rightly so, but the forms by which teachers require these of students should include contemporary formats. Perhaps, students should be prompted to "tweet" from the perspective of a classic heroine, or design a website for an imaginary corporation. They can caption photos for a classroom Pinterest account, or contribute to a student-generated blog. The idea is to engage students where they're at--in their context. Although student privacy may be a concern in some of these cases, many of the resources mentioned give users significant control of what the public can see. Let us take advantage of the increasing web-capabilities of schools.
My ideas are not new. (Perhaps I shouldn't word that so bluntly.) Recently, Lorna Collier said something similar in the Council Chronicle, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her article, "Changes in Writing Instruction - the Challenge and the Promise," depicts how technology has changed the way people communicate and makes the case that we cannot predict how communication may continue to change in the coming years. She encourages educators to teach students to think about how to use the conventions of writing to communicate with particular audiences, instead of adhering to formulaic templates.
In conclusion...I will dread posting this because I suspect some of you will be copyediting this essay while you read. ("See, so much for your fancy blog grammar-boy!") Nevertheless, I hope I've clearly communicated the message: Grammar rules! (pun-intended) But can we make its learning more engaging by placing it in our students' context?