Sometimes the Truth Hurts

If I ever get my fifteen minutes of fame, you might be relieved to know that I will not use that time to sing, twerk or break the current world’s record for eating hotdogs (a stunning 69 of them in 10 minutes by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, breaking the record, and no doubt the heart, of his archrival, Takeyu Kobayashi, whose previous triumphs included eating 110 roasted pork buns and later, 20 pounds of rice balls.  Until his defeat by Chestnut, Kobayashi’s only rival had been a Kodiak bear who humiliated him by eating 50 bunless hotdogs in two minutes while Kobayashi only managed a paltry 30.  The next time you see a bear in the woods, do not challenge it to an eating contest.  The ending will not be happy for you.  But I digress.)  If I ever get my fifteen minutes of fame, I will not promote a searing memoir about my pimply adolescence, or a sizzling tell-all about the sexcapades of my fellow writers and teachers, though should you know any such tales, please send them my way immediately.

No, if—hell, let’s be optimistic, when—I get my fifteen minutes of fame, I will use that slender window of time to tell the world about Sentence of the Week.

 What’s that you say?  You haven’t heard of Sentence of the Week?   Sentence of the Week is a brilliant technique developed by writing guru Kelly Gallagher; if you’re an English teacher and do not have all of his books, drop everything right now and buy them.  I am not kidding.  No, he is not a relative of mine and I do not even know him.  But he is a career English teacher whose books are crammed with practical techniques for teaching real kids the tools they need to get better at writing.  Gallagher does what few of us can: he breaks down into bite-sized pieces the intuitive, non-linear, messy and personal process of expressing meaning in words.

Of all his techniques, though, Sentence of the Week is the best.  Using it, you can teach any grammar rule, but here’s the genius of it: you make the kids figure the rules out themselves, tapping an innate grammar ability they didn’t know they had.

Here’s how it works: you throw on the board three sentences that use the same grammatical structure.  Those sentences can be simple, or, if you have advanced kids, dazzlingly complex, but the key is that all of the sentences should have identical structures.  In addition, and this is key, you write the sentences to include the kids’ interests and personalities. If the Clippers have just won a game and there’s a passionate Lakers vs. Clippers debate raging in your room, throw down three sentences claiming that Kobe is the greatest player of all time and believe me, your classroom will instantly heat up.  Those sentences can be riddled with semi-colons, rife with dependent clauses, littered with adverbs–whatever you want to teach is fine as long as the sentences have the same structure.

The kids copy the sentences in their notebooks word for word, then, with a partner, analyze the sentences to try to guess how the grammar rule you’re teaching works.  Finally, they write three sentences of their own using the new structure.  Again, this work is highly engaging for them because often they’ll compete to write very entertaining sentences they then read out to the room.

As a final step, you then tell them they own this technique; the next time they write  a paper, you make them use the new structure(s) multiple times.  I’m telling you, this technique works.  It is crazy. Not just because it’s fun, though it is, but because the kids find satisfaction in their newfound ability to crank out professional-sounding work.

I say all of this because of my current obsession with online learning.  In my last post, I admitted my math-addicted binge on the Khan Academy site, an immensely enjoyable experience in which I learned a lot of math, and which I continue to pursue intermittently and voluntarily; I find it relaxing, in much the same way that I used to find knitting before I realized that the scarves I was cranking out were filled with holes and varied wildly in width, something over which I had no apparent control.

Anyway, I plan to continue doing math on Khan Academy in my free time until I hit a wall; I’ll keep you posted on when I am unable to continue even with hints and video lectures.  For now, though, I must say that an online math program has been a very engaging way for me to learn math, and in fact, would have been a welcome supplement to (or in a couple of cases, a replacement for) my middle and high school math teachers.  I want to be clear, though, that I am a very, very remedial student.  To say that I enjoy this program or that I had a couple of horrible teachers is not to say that I yet believe online programs could revolutionize teaching.  But I am starting to think that for intensive, focused practice, and with remedial students who need additional help, once schools have already funded their basic needs, like having enough teachers and counselors, as a second-tier step, an online program could be really useful.

In math.  But what about in English?  Now, even Khan himself acknowledges that his techniques are not right for all subjects.  I don’t think anyone believes that online programs or video lectures can replace class discussions or the reading of student writing (actually, there are people who believe that computers can grade student writing.  But they are evil.  Don’t get me started.)

On the other hand, what about more mechanical material like grammar and vocabulary?  For me, Sentence of the Week is the gold standard.  In addition to being awesome, its cost is zero: no layout whatsoever on hardware or software.  Is there a program out there as terrific as Sentence of the Week?

The short answer: so far, no.  I’ve hit google hard and I haven’t found anything.  Yes, there are a few programs in grammar or vocab, but most seemed to be for homeschoolers and many of them cost money.  And the couple of programs I test-drove were boring.  Yes, they made valiant attempts to be “relevant” by letting the kids pick topics like their favorite tv shows, whose characters were then plugged into sentences, but these were nowhere near as fun as Sentence of the Week’s ability to call out all your class in-jokes.  I mean, they’d be okay on a sub day if you were out of paper but for some reason had a ton of computers lying around.  But as far as I can tell they offer minimal advantage over a regular paper quiz.

Here’s the thing.  What’s fun about Khan Academy math is that…okay, I cannot believe I’m going to say this, but sometimes the truth hurts…math is inherently fun. Damn, that was painful to write.  What I mean is, the puzzle-solving process of doing math exists in a meaning-free vacuum; it’s all about the process.  Free-floating in an online program, devoid of context, it can still be fully itself, like a little mini-biosphere.

Grammar and vocabulary, though, cannot exist in a vacuum; they cannot be disentangled from meaning.  It’s no fun just doing rote reviews of grammar when you’re writing sentences that have no connection to your life, even if they’re about Bart Simpson.  Grammar is fun when it’s play, but it’s only play when you’re using it to say elegantly something you actually want to say, and when another, real person will hear you and respond; that’s why, for me Rosetta Stone programs, filled with bright, shiny, generic strangers, are insufferable for more than three minutes.

Do you disagree?  I hope so!  If you know of a terrific, free grammar or vocabulary program, please tell me.  I’d love to try it out.  In the meantime, I’m going to roll out a couple more hours of math before I hang it up for the day.  It’s cheaper than knitting, and afterwards, I don’t have to find some poor schmuck who’s willing to wear it.

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes the Truth Hurts”

  1. Not that this has anything to do with the sentence of the week, but I do think knitting and math are closely connected. As a math teacher once said to me, you can’t be two inches short on a bridge. That being said, I wish there was anything fun about the way I was taught grammar. This seems like a blast.

  2. Kelly Gallagher’s books are foundational! The reading and writing books offer the best tips and strategies I’ve ever encountered. His “Readicide” manifesto should be a must read for all English teachers everywhere and included into any respectable English credential program.

    Great blog. Keep it up!

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