Ebony Haywood on her own grammar journey

A "rookie" finds her way and shares an exercise that works I teach ninth grade English at Dominguez High School in Compton, California. In June, I completed my first year as an English teacher, and it was no small feat. Prior to my English gig, I taught music for nine years. The leap from music to English, from elective to compulsory, frightened me. My fear morphed to frustration as I tried teaching my students how to write. I didn’t know how to help them improve their writing. Then the rookie English teacher gods knocked some sense into my head and said, “Ebony, you have to teach them grammar—explicitly.” There was only one problem: I didn’t know grammar explicitly. I couldn’t identify a clause or phrase if my life depended on it. Hence, my grammar journey began. I started with an iTunes University grammar course, taught by Dr. Clive McClelland.  After reading the textbook twice, I plunged into teaching the content to my students. Here’s an important principle I’ve learned thus far: Students need to use grammar purposefully in their writing, and every day they must write. At the beginning of class, my students write one paragraph, usually in response to a vocabulary prompt. I require their paragraphs demonstrate three concepts, and I provide them with a list of choices. Here’s an example of a typical Do Now assignment during the first fifteen minutes (sometimes twenty, sometimes thirty!) of class.
Describe a predicament and how you dealt with it, in one paragraph. Demonstrate three of the following concepts in your paragraph:
  1. Subordinate clause, main clause (A sentence opens with a subordinate clause and is followed by a main clause or visa versa.)
  2. Participle phrase
  3. Parallel structure
  4. Nonessential clause
  5. Essential clause
  6. Gerund phrase
I know this may sound like a lot to demand in one paragraph. Writing is an intimidating task for students who fear they lack eloquence. And for those with enough hubris to last a lifetime, writing can still trigger a few heart palpitations. I use this method because it improves my students’ writing. It propels their “I don’t like spiders,” sentences to “Spiders creeping in the corners of my home disgust me.” Small shifts like this make my heart sing, dance, and believe in the awesomeness of grammar. {Ebony Haywood grew up in Los Angeles, where she has been teaching high school for ten years. When she’s not teaching, she loves kickboxing, eating pizza, and watching I Love Lucy.}

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10 Responses to Ebony Haywood on her own grammar journey

  1. Cindy July 21, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    Great article! I think we all need to go back to the basics sometimes. Before we can be eloquent in our writing, we need to understand grammar.

    I like hearing about how you focused on teaching yourself before your students. That was a very inspirational story. Your students are lucky to have you.

    • Ebony Haywood July 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      Thanks, Cindy. Understanding the basics is essential to building a firm foundation. I’m delighted that you were inspired by my story.

  2. Aaron July 21, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    I must say that as a student who’ve taken AP English courses for half of my four high school years, this was an accurate testament to the importance of teaching the basics. With AP English Composition focusing on academic responses to prompts and AP Literature centered around analyzing classic literary works, alot of the basic elements are skipped as a result of all this preparation for a single test at the end of the year. It is clear that you are genuinely intrerested in the overall well-being and education of your students. Great work, great article.

    • Ebony Haywood July 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

      Thanks, Aaron.

      Preparing our students for tests can definitely hog class time. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn grammar. No matter how old you are, you’re never over the hill for some grammar action. 😉

  3. Ms. Joy July 21, 2013 at 11:47 pm #

    Ebony your story was very touching, caring and inspiring. You take your profession to heart and you want the best for your students. It’s a blessing to see and hear that teachers are also learners and want to improve on their teacher skills. I am a elementary special ed teacher and teaching writing can sometimes be very challenging and frustrating for the students as well as the teacher. I took your advice and I ordered Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I can’t wait to dig into her book. Ebony continue to write and share your success stories to encourage fellow teachers and students. You have a very caring heart for your students.

  4. Ebony Haywood July 22, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Thank you, Ms.Joy.

    As teachers, we never stop learning. That’s for sure.

  5. Claire Duffy July 23, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    I will do that iTunes course and suggest it to others! I’ve returned to teaching english after decades away from it, and although I was taught grammar at school, none of my colleagues was. It is hopeless trying to teach writing without knowing the constructs the underpin it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ebony Haywood July 23, 2013 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks, Claire. Here’s the textbook information for that course because he mentions it briefly.

      Judith Rody and W. Ross Winterowd. The Uses of Grammar. 2nd ed. Anderson: Parlor Press, 20012.

      I don’t remember learning grammar in school either. We need a grammar revolution.

    • Mackenzie Kelly August 1, 2013 at 10:43 am #

      Surely “none of my colleagues was” sounds better as “none of my colleagues” were. Can’t none take on a plural verb?

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