Monday, March 22, 2010

Champion Teachers misteaching grammar

Inspired by the New York Times article a few weeks ago, I started reading Doug Lemov's Teach like a Champion in spite of a title so bad I can hardly bear to repeat it here. I very much like the idea of a teaching book that focuses on the mechanics of teaching, rather than on higher-order ideas that so often can become muddled or meaningless in practice.

Completely incidental to the points the text is making (which are content-neutral), I've already found two examples of "good" grammar teaching that are rather distressing to me.

In the first, the answer is right but the definition wrong, in the second, only the definition, which is wrong, is given.

1. Definition of a Subject

The task is to identify the subject and the sentence is: "My mother was not happy." The student (A) in the example guesses "happy." The teacher asks for clarification from another student (B) and gets the definition that "The subject is what the sentence is about." The teacher says this is correct and then asks student A what the subject is again. Student A replies "mother." End example.

This is an example of the rule "No opt out," where students always are forced to give the right answer, even if they at first get the answer wrong. You might think that the teacher above was just going easy on student B to move the lesson along, but the next section of the book, "Right is right," is about how important it is not to pretend students are right when they're not, so I think we can safely assume that Lemov thinks this answer is right.

If you're wondering why the definition is wrong, it's easiest to just give some counterxamples:
1. It is raining. Grammatical subject: "it." Subject according to above definition: rain.
2. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Grammatical subject: "it." Subject according to the above definition: marriage.

2. Definition of a Noun.

The task is simply to define a noun. Lemov gives the example of a student who says "A person, place or thing." The champion teacher does not accept this answer but prompts a more thorough response, until given "A person, place, thing or idea."

The importance of the idea clause here is telling, because it is the vagueness of the concept "idea" that has let so many educated people believe this definition for so long. It is, after all, entirely obvious that not all nouns are people, places or things. However,if you consider that things like "liberty," "truth," and "proof" are ideas, conceptual entities if you will, then it seems like this definition might just do.

The trouble is many nouns are clearly actions. In fact, we have suffixes that let you turn verbs into nouns, thus creating newly minted nouns out of any action we please. Here are a few very simple cases of nouns that are not people, places, things or ideas:

"Destruction" as in "The hurricane resulted in devastating, wide-spread destruction."
"Liberty" as in "I am not at liberty to say."

How would I define "noun," you may ask. I teach students the following simple procedure for identifying a noun. It is not perfect, but it is close, and it doesn't include any out and out lies: "If for a given word X you can say "the X" but not "very X", then X is a noun." Every native speaker can apply my rule perfectly every time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Grace's first linguistic question...

Following up on the topic of taboos, Katharine reports that today Grace asked her her first question:

G: Mama, what's doo doo?
K: poop.

Pesky taboos

Quote of the day: "Está jodido", said by an earnest Spanish 2 student describing a character in a movie about to be carted off by fascists...

Meaning and usage learned correctly from an Orishas song he studied earlier in the semester. The description of the character was also correct. He just missed the pesky detail of register... It's always interesting to see the kind of Spanish students speak (and the kind of errors they make) when you give them authentic sources.

This is one of many words that students would typically never encounter in a textbook but which they would likely hear within a few days of arrival in a Spanish-speaking country (presuming they make contact with other youth, that is). Not all these kinds of words are swear words, they also include simple phrases like "mande", "vale", "venga" or "anda."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Grace's first subordinate sentences

Over the last couple of days I've started noticing sentences like this one in Grace's speech:

"Mine not know this goes"

The sentence above translates into standard English as

"I don't know [where/how] this goes."

The context is putting a puzzle together, so it's pretty clear that this is what she means.

Null complementizers are of course allowed in English in sentences in alternation with "that" (I saw the man you mentioned / I saw that man that you mentioned, etc.). However, Grace is using a null complentizer where we would use an unstressed question word as a complementizer -- where, when, how, etc. She knows these question words in other contexts, but question words as complementizers play a different grammatical function and are harder to pick out, I'm sure, since they're unstressed, so it makes sense that she hasn't picked them up here yet.

I wonder how comprehensible someone would be if they left out all of the question word complementizers... evidence so far is that it wouldn't be too bad -- when I first mentioned the sentence above to Katharine, she could swear she'd heard a "how", though when we got Grace to repeat it it was clear there was no "how" there. It's amazing how much filling-in we do when we listen, and how much of it is unconscious. Even though I'm aware of lots of the irregularities of Grace's speech (using a "t" for a "k", for example), in every day interactions it feels like she says words like "kitchen", "cook", etc. completely normally (until, that is, I misunderstand her, at which point I realize that for a "t" sound I have to guess a wide range of possible letters -- t, k, qu, etc.).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How not to use war photography in a lesson...

I'm about to start teaching the Spanish Civil War in my Spanish II class. I was looking around for some resources on the web -- I'd gotten it into my head that if I could find some resources aimed at lower-level native speakers I could make use of them for my students. In the course of my search, I found the following puzzling activity:

The instructions say: "El fotógrafo estadounidense Robert Capa realizó una de las fotos de guerra más célebres de la historia an la contienda civil española. Ordénala." [The American photographer Ropert Capa took one of the most celebrated war photographs in history in the Spanish civil conflict. Put the pieces in order.] In case it's not clear from the screenshot, this is a web applet that allows you to play one of those sliding-piece puzzles where you have to put the picture in order. I have a feeling this was one of many generic "plugins" that were part of the suite of "educational" software... I can't imagine the author ever expected to see this sort of image show up in the shuffle.

I have a pretty heavy level of disdain for this sort of activity... it makes me fear for the time when Grace enters elementary school and a good bit of her time is taken up with activities designed to kill time (pointless word searches, easy "puzzle" games vaguely related to the curricular content, etc.). Not to mention what Susan Sontag might say about this particularly unexpected use of photography... (what do you say to the child when, after putting the pieces in order, they realize they seem to be looking at a man's death?)