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Move Over, Sisyphus

Move Over, Sisyphus

When I was a new teacher, I dutifully pulled out the grammar textbooks, taught — and learned — parts of speech and grammar "demons" lessons. I noticed that students could get questions right on my ditto sheets (old days) and even pass the end-of-chapter grammar tests, yet still make the same errors in their writing. My students' writing was stiff and unnatural as if they were wearing a too-small suit. Over the years I learned that my work with students on their poetry led to a stronger grasp of parts of speech, especially verbs, nouns, and adjectives, than my old worksheets. But, even more significantly, my students' language jumped off the page. They slide their verbal dexterity from poetry to essays and narratives.

When students warm up their tongues through poetry, they carry that language play into their essays and narratives. Khalilah Joseph, for example, uses juicy language, full of rhythm, action, alliteration, and attitude in her essay "Tar Baby":

I can watch a video by a given artist and before the end of it, the object of desire will prance across the screen, and, of course, she'll be a honey dipped, barely-brown bombshell.... Be gone with those tiny waisted, no-hip-having heifers. Bring on the models who range in color from caramel to dark chocolate. [The full essay is included in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, p. 70.]

In her essay about the education of black students, Valentina Harold uses the poetic devices of listing, repetition, and metaphor as she pushes her point: "Few people of color at Grant High School take AP classes. I understand why: They are afraid of failing, afraid of looking bad, and afraid of being the only black in a sea of white."

By letting go of the rules and the mandates about teaching grammar, I freed my students to find their voices, to learn how to write instead of how to answer multiple choice tests about parts of speech or how to correct someone else's language.

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