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Teach Joy of Reading Over Rules of Grammar

San Leandro High English teacher says opening students' minds to the world beyond their iPods is a better investment than knowing when to say who versus whom.


(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High. This week's column is the second part of a story that began last week on the under Obama that follow the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative under Bush.)

One of the many advantages of having a summer vacation is that it gives me the opportunity to start over. I can try to correct last year’s mistakes and think creatively about the year ahead.

 Since there are only a few weeks left before the new semester begins I thought now would be a good time to ask myself some basic questions. By trying to explain to you my ideas I hope to clarify my own thinking and maybe improve my teaching.

Next week I’d like to discuss grades but for today I’d like to begin with a seemingly simple question:  what should an English teacher teach?

I’d like to tell you about the fundamental goals of my teaching and explain why you might have a problem with some of the things I try to do.

I suspect that, if I were to ask one hundred average citizens what should be taught in a high school classroom, 98 would give answers that have something to do with the rules of the English language.

Introduce yourself at a cocktail party as an English teacher and you are sure to make a few people nervous.

 “You aren’t going to check my grammar, are you?” they ask.

There will always be one person who will want to tell you about their favorite teacher who taught them to diagram sentences in the sixth grade.

People assume that I am the gatekeeper of the official house of the King’s English.

If you’ve read any of my columns by now you know I wouldn’t have brought up this subject if I didn’t harbor a contrarian view of the matter. The fact is that I believe that the rules of grammar currently occupy a too-exalted position in the high school classroom.

You all know the arguments for learning grammar. Employers won’t hire you, colleges will remediate you, and smart people will mock you for your errors.

Some of that may be true, though I hope, in future columns, to point out the flaws in each example. The point of this article, however, is not to disparage grammar (which I do spend time on) but to suggest that there are things I teach which will benefit my students more than remembering when to write who and when to write whom.

I teach the joy of reading. Books, magazines, comic books, websites, cereal boxes. I try to suggest to my students that the world is large and they are a small part of it, but that reading can make them grow in ways that an iPod or the latest Batman movie will not.

I teach the unearthing of ideas, the ideas contained in literature and history and anywhere that writers package them. I try to show them that there are perspectives out there that can enrich their lives.

I teach writing, the kind of writing that forces them to observe and to think.

I attempt to get my students to slow down and really look at things (descriptive writing), to really hear what people say (writing of dialogue), to find information and use it to educate (research), and to see if they can make an argument based at least partially on reason and not prejudice (persuasive writing).

I thought, when I began this piece, that I was going to write something controversial. Now that I’ve arrived at the end I see that I’ve stated things that probably are pretty obvious.

I ended last year thinking I’d gotten off track on these fundamental goals. My loyalty to the school (increasing test scores) got in the way of my loyalty to my students (reading and writing practice). My goal is to repair that imbalance in 2012-13.

(You can read more essays like this in the  archives of Entirely Secondary.)

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