Grammar’s Not Your Gramma

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...
Cover via Amazon

I remember the videos on TV in the 70’s under the title Grammar Rock.  I really loved these videos.  Grammar seemed like a fun concept when I was a kid.  Lately, though, we seem to have lost some of our enthusiasm for excellent grammar.  Back when Grammar Rock was playing on Saturday morning television I had a junior high teacher named Mrs. Wallace.  She taught me how to diagram a sentence.  It was a game to figure out where prepositional phrases fit and what could be done to repair a dangling participle.   I believe this activity is now limited to college linguistics classes.

Since the 70’s I have been a grammar champion.  I know the difference between lie and lay (thanks to my Aunt Gwen) as well as how to use  objective and nominative pronouns.  A few years ago, my eldest daughter asked for a book titled Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a hilarious take on the misuse and correct use of English grammar.  We referred to her as the Grammar Nazi all through high school though she was not allowed to use the moniker online as it contained the dreaded ‘n’ word.  She corrected spirit signs in the hallways of her school with a little red Sharpie.  She later took to calling herself the Grammar Bandit.  Very few people knew who was defacing their grammatically impotent signs but still she found satisfaction in the act.  It’s not a crime to break the rules.  It’s limiting, though, if you don’t even know what the rules are.  My other daughter is a writer who knows the rules and chooses to break them regularly.

It seems to me there are more and more journalists and other types of writers graduating without a solid foundation for their writing.  Grammar is important for linguistic continuity and as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) point out in a position statement on the teaching of grammar in American schools, “knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.

I thought playing the grammar game in junior high was a lot of fun.  I really enjoyed diagramming sentences and I work hard not to end a sentence a preposition with.  This is, sadly, something many radio and TV journalists have forgotten.  Many times, I hear them say things such as, “where the economy is headed to” or “here’s where we’re at” and I cringe.  I know the preposition they are adding is superfluous but, clearly, it seems necessary in an age where words seem cheap.  But words are not cheap.  It’s how we use them that cheapens them.

Ernie Kovacs and TV Art

Ernie Kovacs
Image by geminicollisionworks via Flickr

I first learned of Ernie Kovacs on a random stop in 1984 when I stumbled into the New York Radio and Television Museum.  I was dumbfounded when I learned I could view old Kinescopes of shows I had never even heard of.  A docent recommended an Ernie Kovacs kinescope and I was hooked.  I spent a couple of hours looking at rare footage and falling in love with his childlike spirit and risk-taking comedy.   As an arts teacher I am constantly in search of ways to show my students what artistic expression can be.  Ernie Kovacs used the medium of television the way Picasso used brush and canvas or Julie Taymor uses the stage.  Unfortunately, for Kovacs, his legacy is only just now being heralded with a release of a retrospective by Shout! Factory.  He was a clear creative genius at a time when his talent found a voice in a brand new medium of expression.  His ideas and the medium were new.  Everything about his art was difficult to assess as there was no precedent for what he was doing.  This lack of a grade or measuring stick made it possible for Kovacs to play as a child would play.  It was a gift to television and comedy in general that he  create fearlessly.  Some ideas failed, others were before their time and still others kept his fans tuning in and his fan base growing.  To this day there are numerous iterations and flat-out copies of his work.   His comedy is as fresh and funny as it was when he was competing with Uncle Milty, Jack Benny, Steve Allen and Danny Thomas for laughs.  Television comedy is an art form that doesn’t garner a great deal of respect.  But if you are interested in seeing the work of a true artist regardless of the art form, consider giving Ernie Kovacs your attention.

[brightcove vid=904632137001&exp3=221161720001&surl=http://c.brightcove.com/services&pubid=62612233001&pk=AQ~~,AAAADpP62yk~,CYkGoUDqnqXwjxBzr8ZZKUGJUGaM1ZMb&w=300&h=225]

NPR Story on the release of the new Ernie Kovacs anthology

Part 4 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

Chemical structure of Penicillin G
Image via Wikipedia

This series could go on indefinitely but I thought I should wrap up this segment on reconceptualizing education with an idea.  Reconceptualizing isn’t just about innovating.  It’s about how and why we innovate.  So, instead of featuring an education innovator from the national stage, today I want to acknowledge the innovation of teachers a little closer to home.  Last night I attended what we refer to at my school as School Out of Doors or SOOD for short.  For my team, it was a chance to take 70 7th grade students into the wilderness with tents and sleeping bags and create something memorable for the class of 2016.  But we live in the only state about which Will Rogers famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait five minutes.”  With sudden thunderstorms, threats of baseball-sized hail and an eerie tornado warning, we spent our School Out of Doors INdoors.  While sirens were blaring outside, we gathered the kids into a cinderblock hallway near the gym and sat them on the floor with all their belongings.  The amazing part to me is due to the calm and positive response of the teachers, all the students behaved as though this was an expected part of the weekend.  They played cards, sat and talked with friends, read books and seemed genuinely happy to be in a hot, dark, smelly, cramped hallway with 70 of their closest friends.  When it became clear there would be no night hike, cooking over a flame, or outdoor games, the 7th grade teachers sprang into action.  Okay, maybe we didn’t spring, but we all had a trick or two up our sleeves.  The Dean set up a projector and sound system to show a movie on the gym wall to rival any drive in.  Parents brought in pizzas, the 7th grade teachers helped the students create an indoor campsite complete with tents and flashlight games.  In the morning, they supervised the breakdown of the campsite treating it as they would any clean up they would have to manage in the woods.  This morning we took our students to the school’s courtyard where they made pancakes on camping stoves and ate off tin plates.  There were buckets of suds outside the library where the kids washed their dishes and after eating they broke down the cook sites.  It may not sound wildly innovative but in light of the circumstances the teachers were creative, innovative, encouraging and modeling a critical skill; flexibility.

As teachers and parents we often get caught up in the outcomes game.  If the outcomes don’t match our expectations, there is disappointment and frustration.  We too often pass this culture of inconvenience to our kids.  What would it take to change the mindset that has us become irritable when things don’t go as planned?  If we could make that important adjustment and teach our kids that a change in plans doesn’t have to be negative, we would create a generation of curious and motivated innovators.  I’m all for making plans and following through, but if change is necessary or a better idea reveals itself, shouldn’t we be vigilant and prepared to shift gears?

Smart Dust, now used as a tool in destroying tumors, was a graduate student’s ruined homework.  At USC, Jamie Link accidentally blew up a silicon chip.  Because she was vigilant, she discovered properties in the detritus that made her famous in medical circles providing a previously unknown cure.  The Popsicle, invented by Frank Epperson, was a result of a mess left outside when Epperson was 11 years old.  He left a drink with a stir stick on his front porch.  The cold night left him with a frozen treat on a stick the next morning.  He patented the dessert two decades later much to the relief of kids everywhere with sore throats.  In 1928, Alexander Fleming‘s experiment with bacteria was ruined, or so he thought, when mold showed up in the Petri dish.  His vigilance allowed him to see where bacteria were avoiding the mold.  This led him to a discovery that has saved millions of lives.  Penicillin was the first antibiotic and his flexibility and open mind allowed him to create something exponentially better than what he had initially intended.

The most important lesson we can learn about innovation is this: If we are vigilant, a change in plans can produce greater results than any outcome we could have imagined.  There are myriad stories of greater-than-expected outcomes in science, math, art, literature and every other academic discipline.  This mindset is what we can teach our kids in an age where knowledge is secondary to creativity.  As one of our greatest thinkers once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Part 3 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

[ted id=892]

This 19 minute TED talk is well worth your time.  I have ADD and I couldn’t find a distraction that could tear me away from this man’s talk!

Charles Leadbetter is an unintentional innovator by virtue of his intense curiosity. His interest in finding out what’s available in the world of education beyond the borders of ‘sanctioned methods’ is one of the most exciting reformist efforts today. Rather than speak about education with a collection of theorists, he is out in the field on a quest. His quest is every bit as important (perhaps more so) as the panel discussions, policy debates and academic lectures. He has discovered the purest form of learning; people hungry for knowledge are using available resources to feed their hunger. What could be any more pure? This ties in with the slide show titled “Shift Happens”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/33834 created by Karl Fisch which compares India, China and U.S. digital and educational revolutions by the numbers. It’s very provocative and I think it informs the conversation concerning what’s happening in education in rising nations.

Part 2 (of 4) – Reconceptualizing Education

Educational innovator, Dr. Jim Taylor, Huffington Post blogger and author of twelve books on parenting, education, and sports psychology, asserts that it’s time we trade in the S.T.E.M. educational model “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”and, as he puts it, “Broaden our focus into S.T.A.M.P.E.R… which stands for Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, Physical (activity), Emotions, and Reason.”

Everyone admits the current system is inadequate to the future we envision, but changing anything often means spending money.  Right now, with districts cutting everything from teacher salaries and jobs to closing entire schools, folks cannot imagine affording any kind of sweeping change.  It causes many reform-minded administrators to lose heart.  Taylor argues for the inclusion of the arts in the new model because, “Inventive thinking cannot be “taught” in the traditional sense of the word, but it can be experienced and nurtured through the various forms of artistic expression.”  Experience, free play, and the freedom to fail and recreate a project is not unique to the arts but arts teachers understand better than most the value of these concepts.  Without ‘failure freedom’ actors would hesitate to get on stage.  Without the experience of playing with a particular medium, an artist might not consider combining it with another medium to create a new form.  Recreation is essential in dance where an artist must return to a piece again and again to perfect her physical communication.

Dr. Taylor is recently fond of pointing out that success in education begins before school starts.  In addition to supportive families and a loving home environment, he supports free play and recess for the development of children’s imaginations and he is definitely interested in encouraging kids to push themselves hard enough to fail.

Our most famous innovators would certainly agree that free play and social creativity, ‘freedom failure’, and experience make for success in nearly every field..  Henry Ford was interested in social creativity.  He once said, “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”  Thomas Edison was known for monetizing his failures.  He famously noted, “I make more mistakes than anyone else I know, and sooner or later, I patent most of them.”  And Pablo Picasso remarked, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Perhaps Taylor is not saying anything particularly new and fresh, but if enough educators such as Taylor speak out about these common sense strategies we may finally begin to reconceptualize education for the 21st century.  We may indeed learn to honor the current generation’s needs more than we honor education’s poorly performing past.

Struggling to Post!

Thanks so much to those of you who check in with me on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  I am posting part 2 in the 4 part series on education innovators this weekend and I’ll be back on my regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule on Monday, April 11.  Thanks for those of you who are readying the blog.  Please pass it on to anyone who cares about education!

“Reconceptualizing” K-12 Education (1 of 4)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6l8-1kHUsA&feature=player_embedded]Like Coca-Cola, penicillin and plastic, it seems inventing a workable school reform plan is only going to happen accidentally.  Everything that should work (NCLB, teaching to the test, the bell curve) doesn’t, and some novel approaches to learning show more promise than 110 years of testing and measurement. Dr. Tony Wagner, Harvard Professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap, calls this “reconceptualization”.

In a column we could label “reconceptualizing”, one of the most exciting innovations is happening online with Salmen Kahn‘s discovery of a learning model that works almost magically.  Khan created a series of videos demonstrating math concepts as a way to help his family members understand challenging ideas.  As he created more videos, a thought occurred:  He could create a self-paced software allowing learners to study at their own rate.  Students could practice concepts at home and hone them with teacher-mentors at school.  According to the Huffington Post, “his innovative methodology turns the classroom dynamic upside down.”  The article goes on to characterize Khan’s own view of the discovery, “Khan says his program’s success is largely happenstance.”  Happenstance or not, deep pockets such as Bill Gates and Google have been funding the Kahn Academy of late and according to Forbes online, “You Tube told him he has the most popular open-course video library on its site, with more views than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley.”

Khan is not the only innovator in the reconceptualization game.  But he does represent a type of thinking emanating from theorists outside the usual channels.  Sometimes the brilliant accident occurs when the innovator is thinking about something else.  Khan simply wanted to make some videos to teach his cousins a few math concepts.  When they shared these videos with friends, it spread like an Internet meme.  Fortunately, Khan’s experiment doesn’t carry a lot of overhead.  This may be one reason educators in Los Altos, California have been willing to try his ideas in a  school setting.

For more on this story, look for a continuation in the next three posts.

Can U.S. Teachers Truly Be ‘Nation Builders?’


This post breaks education needs down just as a contractor might when building a house. It’s an interestin­g metaphor. I was especially surprised to learn that more than half of public school teachers held masters’ degrees. He reveals this while at the same time asserting that “most of the new hires are coming from the lower quartile of college graduates”­. He also does a dis on alternativ­e certificat­ion programs which I believe could be the saving grace of the teaching profession­. For the most part, teachers are the most compassion­ate, intelligen­t, quick-thin­king people I know. A teacher who goes from class to class with five minutes prep time to face 30 or more students over several hours has got to be a pretty fantastic people manager… or a magician. Would anyone you know in human resources manage adults in that context any better? The thing we rarely acknowledg­e is that despite the poor model, teachers who care will work their butts off to improve student performanc­e. Daily we pack our fairy wands, magic dust, and sorcerers’ hats and sail into the classroom prepared to watch and listen for magic. When no magic happens, we use all the tools we bring; when that doesn’t work, we go for more wizard training; and when that doesn’t work, we blame ourselves. Let’s consider setting teachers and students up for success. That could create some real magic!
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost