Six teenage boys wearing sweats huddle around a few chairs and desks. Fluorescent lights expose freckles, facial stubble, or no stubble at all. A tall boy named Mike leans over his desk and tells the others, "This guy was, like, on crack or something."
"No," says a boy named Max in a black rock band T-shirt. "He was on PCP."
A few nod their heads in agreement. They could be talking about a sophomore who got wasted over the weekend or a senior who got busted in the parking lot, by all appearances, but they're actually discussing the president of a road-racing company, a man whose crimes had nothing to do with illegal substances. He earned the attention of these students through a poorly written letter, one that caught the eye of Ms. Andrea Bassett, an Honors English teacher at Needham High School in Massachusetts.
Max reads a printout of the letter to the other boys as if he were dropping meat into a shark tank.
"'In trying to formulate what to say in regards to yesterday's events," Max quotes, "'I realized that what I said over and over to the folks I helped get on returning shuttle buses was exactly what should be said to all."
"What?" someone exclaims. Everyone laughs.
"He just throws in words!" Max says. He goes on to finish the opening paragraph.
"'While it became repetitive, it was no less from the heart in any one time from the other:'"
"He ended with a colon," says a boy who didn't shave that morning.
"You can pretty much revise the first paragraph," says Mike, his cheek on his hand.
A stocky kid named David chimes in. "That's not just bad grammar," he says, indignant. "That's, like, bad PR."
His comment catches the attention of Ms. Bassett, who is making rounds to each cluster of students. "David," she says, "the life lesson here is that bad grammar is bad PR. You guys remember that."
Ms. Bassett is the newest faculty member of the English department at Needham High, a lean, athletic blonde who chose to show this letter to her students as a good bad example. It was an apology for a poorly managed 15K, a race that Ms. Bassett herself ran, averaging a 10-minute mile. In the letter, the president of the road-racing company tried to explain how the runners had gotten misdirected and why there was no water at the finish line. Ms. Bassett thought the greater indignity was enduring an apology from a president whose prose waddled along for 40 paragraphs, weighed down with extra words and never-ending sentences.
"He would definitely fail a grammar assignment in this class," she says, to wide classroom approval.
Ms. Bassett is part of a department that has decided to take grammar seriously. Too many students were claiming that nobody had ever taught them the rules. Needham High School's seniors, mostly from upper-middle-class families, were graduating without knowing the parts of speech or parts of a sentence. They would sometimes write "u" instead of "you" in their essays, or a lowercase "i" instead of "I." The high school, like many others, had been suffering from a lack of standardized grammar instruction throughout the grades. Over the summer of 2011, the English department created a series of PowerPoint presentations to coordinate grammar instruction across the grades, hoping to provide their students a better, more uniform understanding of the rules. The goal was to set a baseline for Needham High students, allowing them to review old lessons and master new ones through the slides.
"They actually like it. They like something in front of them that's task-oriented," says Ms. Bassett. The PowerPoint slides look like blueprints, with their simple, white-on-blue form, and they lay the rules out in a straightforward way. Needham High's teachers have been using them for more than a year, and Ms. Bassett believes that they have made a subject that was once confusing Ct "concrete and quantifiable. …