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. 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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