Student Engagement in the Teaching and Learning of Grammar: A Case Study of an Early-Career Secondary School English Teacher

Article excerpt

   I don't think [a teacher I observed] really looked to
   see if the kids were interested in what they were
   doing or not.... They were bored. I felt like I was
   watching the scene out of Ferris Bueller's Day Off
   [Hughes, 1986] when the history teacher is lecturing,
   and all of the students are in a dead stare,
   sleeping, or writing notes. The class did not care.

This entry is taken from the journal of case study teacher and coauthor Laura Wright, who wrote it in relation to a practicum prior to student teaching. Her observation voices the dilemma that drives our analysis of her early-career efforts to develop a conception to inform her teaching: how to engage students with the high school English curriculum, particularly the "language" strand most commonly taught as formal grammar. Laura's account of this class reveals the conundrum that many early-career teachers face as they address aspects of the curriculum that have historically proven to be difficult to teach.

Observers of schools have long noted the lack of affect that characterizes most students" experiences in most of their classroom studies. Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1984) argued that

   Schools apply methods of mass production and
   industrial efficiency to the socialization of youth.
   They try to change attentional structures--goals,
   habits, cognitive skills--by coercing youth to attend
   to standardized, sequential information. The curriculum
   is an assembly line that pushes ideas and
   activities in front of the student at a fixed rate, ready
   or not. What is manufactured, however, is a great
   deal of internal discomfort. (pp. 256-257)

Goodlad (1984) concurred with this characterization of school, finding that "the emotional tone [in classrooms] is neither harsh and punitive nor warm and joyful; it might be described most accurately as flat" (p. 108). In the current study we investigate Laura's effort to teach a strand of the English/language arts curriculum that Weaver (1996) and others have found students consistently experience as drudgery: language, usually interpreted as instruction in English grammar. As Weaver noted, grammar instruction typically comprises the sort of seatwork that Goodlad found pervasive in classrooms: "listening, reading textbooks, completing workbooks and worksheets, and taking quizzes" with "a paucity of activities requiring problem solving, the achievement of group goals, students' planning and executing a project, and the like" (p. 213). These latter, less frequently occurring activities presumably would result in student engagement, a condition that has received considerable attention from observers and practitioners interested in English/language arts instruction.

We study Laura's teaching in relation to the following question: In the four primary settings of her learning to teach--her university course work and practica, her student teaching, her first job, and her second job--how did Laura endeavor to teach grammar and usage as part of her broader goal to teach in ways that were engaging; that is, in ways that her students found enjoyable, interesting, and relevant?

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

To frame our investigation, we review literature in two areas: students' engagement with the school curriculum and the teaching and learning of English grammar.

Engagement

Various conceptions of engagement have focused on factors ranging from the learner's internal disposition to the setting of learning. Taking an individualistic perspective, Helm and Gronlund (2000) were interested in learners" skills and dispositions to acquire information, suggesting that engagement is something that individual students develop as they work toward meeting educational standards. Wilhelm (1997) focused on the individual student's use of "strategies to enter and involve herself intensely in worlds of meaning" (p. 144), helping to build confidence and competence with literary reading and thus contributing to engagement. …