A confession

What do you do when a college freshman, who has passed the required classes and tests to get into college, says the Subject of the sentence, After being forced to look into a deeper meaning I realized how that one little factor could alter your mood, is “mood?”  (Please ignore the other problems with word choice, pronoun selection, etc.)

My question followed a review of the placement of commas and other punctuation.  (We had reviewed Chomsky’s Colorless green ideas sleep furiously sentence in which the grammar is perfect, but there is no meaning, and Eats shoots and leaves which is unclear until the punctuation is added. The class was intrigued.)  I went on to indicate that the required comma after the word, meaning, separated an introductory phrase from the heart of the sentence, which included the Subject and Verb (and an Object too).

As the student struggled to find the Subject, I could fall back on my mention a few days before that English was an S-V-O language, and ask her, “If you are looking for the ‘S’ in S-V-O, why would you look for it at the end of the sentence?”

She got the point and had the look of minor epiphany on her face, and I was pleased.  Asking students to repair sentences which are not quite right without their knowing how the sentence is constructed is asking a lot.  It would be like asking an electrician to fix a non-responsive outlet if she didn’t know how the wires in the room were connected.

The confession part of this is that while one student experienced epiphany, one or two of the other students were either sleeping or wishing they were.

Sometimes you have to teach what needs to be taught and accept the fact that there are a certain number of students who do not want to learn it. Or maybe it will lodge in their brains for a while and they will have their own epiphany at a later date.

I am convinced that teaching students how sentences are constructed is necessary to good writing. It has been my observation that students who pay attention to this instruction more quickly become adequate-to-good writers than the sleeping students. They probably wake up in chemistry lab or their math class.

My conviction has something to do with faith, and something to do with practicality, but I must confess that I may be torturing the sleeping students to no good end at all.  I wonder. I often view myself as teacher-as-entertainer, but sometimes have to ditch that role to do some scales,  some basic mental calisthenics, some just plain drudgery.

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