Yes. I’ll admit it. I’m a nerd. A big one. I’ll own it. Grammar really gets me going. Word origin, homophones, rhetorical devices and literary analysis excite me. Old AP fill-ins were a challenging game I played against myself. The Académie Française has nothing on me! (You French teachers know what I mean!)
I won’t ask for a show of hands (no need to embarrass anyone) but I would hazard a guess that many of you are like me. We love words and how they sound and all their subtle definition and connotation. We can spot a grammar error a mile away. So it’s no wonder that sometimes the path to proficiency causes me to break out into a sweat when I realize the language functions needed for this unit don’t incorporate all the rules of say, the imperfect subjunctive. In my enthusiasm, I want to teach (torture?) my students with all of the tiny grammar rules of every single one. Because they’ll love it as much as I do—right?
Anyone who’s been teaching any amount of time knows that the majority of kids out there could care less about the past participle agreement with preceding direct objects or the present progressive. And honestly, how often in everyday interactions do we need to know those million rules to effectively communicate—even at a high proficiency? If I’m honest, very few.
And then … it happened …
I was looking at the scope and sequence for third year and it says “I can express impersonal phrases using the subjunctive mood.” How is that proficiency? So I thought, I’ll change it to “I can give advice.” That’s pretty real-world, right? I mean, aren’t we always telling other people what they should do? That way, I can incorporate all those impersonal phrases about what one needs to do and what is good to do. We had just celebrated Mardi Gras and learned a bit about Louisiana. This was perfect—they could give me advice about what to do there. I planned it all out. It was beautiful. It took about a week and a half to practice and assess.
And then I had a bit of melt down. I looked at the scope and sequence again; at all the other rules of subjunctive that are listed there and thought “There’s no way I can do this proficiency lesson with every rule! I don’t have 10 weeks to devote to this! I still have all this other stuff to cover! And this is just the 3rd quarter document! We still have to get through the 4th quarter!” I will confess, I was on the ledge. I was stressing out and fearing I was going to have to revert back to my old ways and grammar books and rules. And then, my colleague walked into my room. As I started to share my dilemma and concerns, that’s when it happened. I had a major epiphany:
It’s ok to only teach part of a concept!
Yes. That’s what I said. It’s OK to only teach part of something—the part we will use most often. What? Not every single rule? Not every little exception to every single rule? Wait a minute. I’m starting to hyperventilate thinking that my students won’t know every little rule? But then, did they really know them before? Or did they memorize them for a test and fill in blanks and promptly forget them and never actually use them? Oh yeah. That’s what they did. Why do I need to bombard them with all these structures, out of context? I’ve given them the main phrases and relevant, realistic reasons to use them. That’s one of the main reasons were on this path to proficiency, isn’t it? To make language study more relevant and applicable. And to that end, I had a second epiphany:
It’s ok not to master everything about everything!
Whoa!!! Hold it right there. You mean I don’t have to drill and kill all those tiny grammar rules? It was as if a giant boulder was lifted off my shoulders. I felt so liberated. This approach to planning is so much more fun, not to mention useful, to both me and the students.
Of course, the old grammar nerd inside me wants them to know those rules, but the reality was that before they could recite the rules but they couldn’t DO anything with them. They applied them haphazardly, if at all. Now, by teaching the grammar as functional language and within a realistic, real-world context, the students naturally apply the correct mood–even subjunctive— when needed. That’s right. My students are using subjunctive as if it’s no big deal! I feel like breaking into the Hallelujah chorus!
By focusing on a performance task and the language necessary to accomplish it, I was able to narrow my focus to just the right amount of input to move my students to the next step. No more. No less. Enough is definitely as good as a feast!