Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate? More

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Sacrificing to the Test

I spent about 15 hours last week proctoring the state proficiency exams we are required to give to our students. It is an awful week for everyone. By Friday, the students were so burned out that they could barely think.

My responsibility as a proctor was to stare at them for two and a half hours, occasionally walking up and down the rows and looking over their shoulders. It occurred to me as I was sitting there that I didn’t know the etymology of ‘proctor.’ Obviously Latin, but I couldn’t think of what word it came from.

I couldn’t abandon my staring duties to go find a Latin dictionary, so I just forgot about it until a few minutes ago.

‘Proctor’ is a medieval shortening of ‘procurator.’ We think of procurators as people working in museums, but it originally meant a steward or treasurer. ‘Procuro,’ the verb it derives from, means ‘to look after, administer, have charge of.’ Interestingly, it also has the meaning, ‘to avert by sacrifice, to expiate.’

Etymology yields such interesting ironies. Who are we sacrificing with these tests? What sins are we forcing our children to expiate? More

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