Internship in Structure of American English

English 681 - Fall 2007 

About the Course:  
Supervised teaching experience in a classroom setting. 

Master Teacher: Dr. Kathleen Doty

Structure of American English course description: 
"Analyze syntax, with special reference to teaching grammar. English phonetics; text grammar. One of four units is individualized instruction on assigned topics" (HSU Catalog).

For this class I wrote a reflective essay that explains how the experience of the internship affected me and influenced my ideas about teaching and about learning.

A Semester of Learning about Teaching 

The semester I interned in Structure of American English was also my first semester as a graduate student in the Masters in Teaching Writing Program. Because these experiences are inextricably linked for me, I will acknowledge some of powerful contextual influences of my other graduate class work before I begin to reflect on my internship.

Far more than in any undergraduate semester, the content of each of my classes this semester has had deep significance in each of the others. In English 615 Writing Workshop, I spent the semester working on a seminar paper for English 611 Seminar in Teaching Writing. In 611, I read and wrote extensively about human development theorist L. S. Vygotsky and language theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Those theories, in turn, proved relevant not only to my internship but also in the writing lab where I worked as a writing consultant helping freshmen with their first-year composition essays and portfolio. Through all of these experiences, I am beginning to formulate what will become my teaching philosophy.

My activities and experiences during this internships fall loosely into three categories: materials, teaching dynamics and evaluations. 

Creating Materials

Creating supplemental materials for classroom activities was enjoyable, allowed for creativity, and drew on my own experiences as a student. In general, the materials I created seemed to be effective for the students. 

Handout for the Five Sentence Types 

Early in the semester, I made a handout for distinguishing the five types of sentences as a graphic supplement to the lessons that Professor Kathleen Doty gave. Several students told me the handout helped them remember the sentence types,  and I saw several others referring to it regularly during the unit.  I arranged information about the sentence types in columns and rows in a table. When material is very complex, as grammatical rules are, it is helpful to be able to organize the information before one tries to remember it.

Presentation on Relative Clauses

Prof. Doty asked me to “come up with a creative way to teach relative clauses.” Recalling the childhood nursery rhyme, “The House that Jack Built,” I searched for its text online. By accident, I came across mention of a poignant children’s book called The House that Crack Built, a much more memorable example. I had to find a site in Germany to access the striking visual images that accompany the text, then made a PowerPoint presentation to show the students. The theme of the poem is that the effects of drug use are far reaching, from the mistreated workers in the coca fields of South America to the neglected baby of a crack-addicted mother-- an unforgettable illustration of the endless proliferation of meaning possible with relative clauses.

And these are the Tears we cry in our sleep that fall for the Baby with nothing to eat, born of the Girl who's killing her brain. smoking the Crack that numbs the pain, bought from the Boy feeling the heat, chased by the Cop working his beat who battles the Gang, fleet and elite, that rules the Street of a town in pain that cries for the Drug known as cocaine, made from the Plants that people can't eat, raised by the Farmers who work in the heat and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man WHO LIVES IN THE HOUSE THAT CRACK BUILT (Taylor).

Handout on Successful Test Taking 

After noticing that many of the errors students made on quizzes and exams resulted more from poor test-taking than from lack of familiarity with the material, I produced a handout for students called "Test-taking Tips." I adapted these tips from HSU student learning center website, a page about good study habits. I don’t know how effective this handout was for students but the discussion about it was quite lively.

Exploring the Dynamics of Teaching

Grammar begins to seem overly dry if we forget it is inherent in this living part of our culture: our language. That is why I chose the more vivid and disturbing version of this rhyme to show students. In teaching, I try to recall positive experiences I have had as a student and to discern what those teachers did to make it work. Using more of our senses seems to be key to good teaching-- sight, sound, touch, taste and smell-- but I am still at a loss to apply that to grammar.

Lesson on Transformations

I made an entire lesson plan to introduce a new chapter on transformations. Specifically, the plan was to teach students to transform indirect objects into object complements. Transformation is a fundamental skill in a linguistic approach to grammar. I prepared this plan by carefully reading the section in the book and  finding ways to illustrate and discuss this transformation. I also made an activity for students to practice what we had learned.

I taught this lesson alone while the Professor Doty was out of town. I began with an anecdote about toy called Transformer, which were popular in the mid-1980s and undergoing a revival via Hollywood this year. The toy looks like a robot, but with a few twists and turns of various parts, it becomes a vehicle. This is the analogy I made with English sentence-transformations. In teaching this lesson, I also utilized a skill I learned from my community college algebra teacher, the only teacher to make math accessible to me. As I diagrammed, I said aloud everything I was doing, over and over. “First you have a sentence, and every English sentence has a subject and a verb… “ and so on. I feel satisfied with my lesson plan and its effectiveness overall.

The Teacher-Student Dynamic 

I notice I am too conversational when I teach, more so than ever in this class as it contained several friends, people I know, and graduate students. I felt pretentious doing it any other way. My nervousness with this group made me talk too fast, swallow my syllables, stumble often and just generally be a poor communicator. I began to dread the thought that would have to lecture because it made me so uncomfortable. 

Part of what makes this difficult is the subject matter: grammar. I am conflicted about how people want prescriptive rules even as they resent them. They want an authority to tell them what is right and what is wrong, when what the linguist really does is give people names and labels for language phenomena people already know how to do. I tried to remind people of that often. For the native speaker, this is not complicated. For the second language speaker it is. As teachers, these students need to understand the rules so they can explain how the language works to second language speakers. Instead I felt some people taking in the information as arsenal of prescription to use later on.

Weekend Study Groups & the Counterscript

Holding student study groups on the weekends before exams gave me an opportunity to help individual students understand the information. While some students did benefit from these sessions, I encountered an interesting challenge every time, one that I still do not know how to address. As a result of my inability to handle this situation, several students who needed help and had showed up for the session seeking it, did not get help. It happened at all three sessions, but I did not recognize it until the second session. By the third session all I could do was neutralize it, not turn it to the advantage of the whole group as an experienced teacher might.

I recognized what was happening from an essay I had read in Seminar in Teaching Writing. The essay, called “Synchronic and Diachronic Dimensions of Social Practice,”  takes a socio-cultural approach to understanding classroom dynamics. The authors call the classroom a social space defined as “a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways” (156). Within that space, the teacher has a script, “the official activity of the learning event.” On the other hand, there are “those students who resist the normative institutional practices of the classroom for a counter script.“

These two scripts were at play in each of the study groups. Several students were there to get clarification on parts of the material that confused them. One student, who loves grammar and enjoys studying it, was there just to play with it and practice it.  Her contributions to the dynamic of the study groups was as counter-script. In the first session, a truly confused student asked for help, a student who ultimately failed the class and never attended another study group. I imagine she found them useless. The counter script student monopolized my attention and kept the discussion out of the reach of the confused student. At that point I was still trying to be democratic by sharing my attention among all the students, and I was not yet aware of this as a pattern.

On the second occasion, the counter script student used her budding expertise in linguistics to challenge the answers I gave a student who had a mid-level grasp of the material. The mid-level student truly did not understand the concept under discussion and, instead of learning, wanted to find validation for her incorrect interpretation. The counter script student gave her that validation then went to the board to draw it out, putting herself in the position of authority. The mid-level student was looking for an authority to which to appeal. I sat and watched her be misled but did not know how to get her back on track without taking authority, which felt odd in a study group, a round table, peer-tutoring situation. As I feared, the exam revealed the mid-level student’s misinterpretation of the subject in exactly the way I noted.

What went wrong? How could I have prevented this from happening? The stronger students at the study sessions were unaffected by these dynamics, by the way. The ones who suffered every time were the weaker students. I pondered this situation long and hard, analyzing it as best I could. I realize the counterscript student likes to be center-stage, wants to use the board, and is either talking or waiting to talk. How could I turn those tendencies to the advantage of the other students? The essay I mentioned earlier advocates the creation of something called the "third space," where “alternative and competing discourses and positioning transform conflict and difference into rich zones of collaboration and learning” (157).

By the third study session, I hoped to try to deal with it somehow. The counter-script student did not attend the morning session, which proceeded fruitfully with students asking questions which I was able to help them figure out. Together we designed a structure for sorting out all the nominal clauses as well as the various uses of that. We mapped out mnemonic techniques, but our map was a new and delicate structure, a house of cards as it turned out. When the counter script student arrived for the afternoon session and soon demanded the floor and the white board, I sat back to watch. Everyone became confused, even me.  The session fell apart and everyone had to go. I was just about to address this directly with the student when she informed me that, unlike most of her classmates, she did not intend to become a teacher. 

So the problem remains mine: what am I going to do when I am inevitably faced with an intelligent student who loves recognition, yet confuses the other students? How can I create a productive third space? If only that team of Vygotskian sociolinguists had been present at the three study groups to analyze this discourse.

Creating Evaluation Tools

I did learn a lot about testing this semester, although I still do not know if I could design a test that would accurately evaluate students’ understanding of material. I could not recognize what made certain quizzes harder than others until I took them myself, bringing to mind what I read years ago about recognition and recall, two distinct cognitive activities, the former more difficult than the latter. I could not tell when instructions were unclear until I saw the many ways students interpreted them. 

My only foray into the area of evaluation design was in rewriting the sample sentences to illustrate particular grammatical characteristics. This was hard! Doing this and grading exams afterward was like taking the test over and over. My strength in this material has grown considerably this semester.

Conclusion

Indeed, interning in this class was like taking the class over again, solidifying my understanding of English syntax in a way I did not understand my first time through. This experience confirms Vygotsky's observation that by teaching others we ourselves learn. While my understanding of grammar has grown stronger, I still have much to learn about teaching. The successes and failures point the direction for my future development as a teacher.

Works Cited

Gutierrez, Kris D. and Lynda D. Stone. “Synchronic and Diachronic Dimensions of Social Practice: An Emerging Methodology for Cultural-Historical Perspectives on Literacy Learning.” Vygotskyan Perspectives on Literacy Research: Constructing Meaning through Collaborative Inquiry. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Taylor, Chuck and Jan Thompson. “The House that Crack Built.” GRG23Alterlaa Online. Universitat fur Musik. 14 December 2007. <http://www.grg23-alterlaa.ac.at/crack/crack.html>