1. sea_shellsk
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    sea_shellsk New Member

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    How to teach grammar in creative writing classes

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by sea_shellsk, Jun 21, 2011.

    Hello,

    I am new to this site. I am getting ready to write a paper about teaching grammar in creative writing classes. So often it seems like creative writing classes are that safe and free space where students let loose. Punctuation and grammar become merely manipulative reminders of a traditional form- a form that the creative writer tends to reject as stiff and limiting. I have to wonder though, how often do students understand grammar and punctuation? Are they merely manipulating a language they mastered or are they throwing commas and apostrophes in places they "think" or "guess" they should go? As someone who is always working to refine my grammar skills I am guessing most students fall into the latter. The question then becomes, should grammar be taught in creative writing classes? Let me know what you think. If it should be taught how do you think it should be taught? Should teachers rely on a drill and kill method, or are there better ways?:confused:
     
  2. -oz
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    -oz Active Member

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    I say yes, grammar should be taught in creative writing classes.

    I can not begin to count the number of books I've read in which, despite having an entertaining and creative story, the sentence structure (starting with conjunctions and the like) and sometimes even the grammar winds up distracting me from the story. English is not just a list of words in a dictionary, it consists of structure and grammar as well. It doesn't limit creativity either, there are a ton of entertaining authors that follow "strict" grammar rules and do a superb job at it.

    Going through high school, we had to do a grammar workbook, which amounted to about one sheet every other day. This wasn't hard work at all, but it taught us the basic rules (and more advanced rules, eventually) and kept up USING that knowledge with the few practice sentences to correct each day. It was always frustrating having to do those pages, but I really do appreciate the rock-solid knowledge that I can build upon. While I think students should already be well-versed in grammar (provided this is an upper grade in high school or a college class), it might not be a bad thing to do something like this worksheet. It's not much work, and after enough time, the students will hopefully conform to basic English rules.

    You can take those four cents and stack it with the rest of the advice you already have and know. Mind you, I'm not a teacher or anything, I'm just a dumb kid with a grammar monster living inside of him. :p

    Hope this helped a little bit! Have fun! Welcome to the Forum!
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think students should have mastered grammar before taking a "creative writing" course. And they should also be aware that not all the "rules" of grammar are hard-and-fast rules -- I just started this sentence with "and" and that's just fine. Apostrophes are pretty much absolute; we know where they go. But commas are very flexible. You can put them in or not, depending on how you want your sentence paced.

    I read once that John Dryden went back, late in life, to his old works and painstakingly edited out all of his split infinitives, so that he conformed to the "rules". Seems to me like he wasted a huge amount of time.

    A student should master grammar before taking a creative writing course. That way, the precious time spent learning creative writing isn't taken up by dealing with grammar issues that should have never arisen.
     
  4. Venusian31
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    Venusian31 Member

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    I agree with this. A student should have learned basic grammar by the time they take a creative writing class. The class should offer some basic grammar guidance, maybe, but not hard and fast teaching. It will disrupt the creative writing process. That's why writers are constantly advised not to edit as they write. Write first, then edit during the rewrite. Same rule should apply in a creative writing class.

    Teach the creative writing process and don't focus on the grammar. If some of the students turn in work that has some serious grammar issues, the teacher can point out the weak spots and give some general guidance on correcting the problems and provide them with a list of resources for getting their grammar skills up to speed. If necessary, recommend another class that is focused on teaching grammar and good writing skills.
     
  5. JimFlagg
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    JimFlagg Contributing Member

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    I agree with the above. I hate run-ons and comma splices. Double negative drive me crazy too. As for split infinitives, I think the jury is still out on that one.
     
  6. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    Grammar

    I find that unless there is some explicit grammar instruction in the trouble areas, many times pieces do not change.

    I think that in a creative writing class, it's essential for students to understand what the basic sentence structures are and what rules can and can't be broken. Honestly, although it is true that creative writers can begin sentences with AND, I tend to repeat the mantra that students should know what the rules are and how to follow them before they suddenly choose to break them. Before I would allow a student to begin a sentence with a conjunction, they should at least be able to show me from the rest of their piece that they are not relying overly on these types of sentences and that they do, in fact, understand the rules.

    In my classes, kids frequently struggle with how to use quotation marks correctly and how to format dialogue on a page. This is because in Spanish, there are not quotation marks to do this job. Dashes are used to set up quotes. It's a completely different style of punctuation. I have a short story unit solely for the purpose of making sure that students understand the basic structure and punctuation of dialogue. Simple rules like "new paragraphs for new speakers" are also helpful.

    I also find that students sometime misuse higher types of punctuation like semicolons. I think that this piece of grammar is quite useful to understand. You never know when a beautifully-placed semicolon would achieve amazing results.

    So, to summarize,

    AFTER students have written a fairly decent piece that has some depth and good sequencing,
    Teach a type of grammar explicitly.
    Take a piece that students have already written that conceptually is good.
    Have them edit it for that one particular piece of grammar.
    Come back to the drawing table.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    a lot depends on who you'd be teaching... adults, or schoolkids?... if the latter, what grade level?
     
  8. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    If it were a college course, I would say that grammar instruction is nearly nonexistent in a creative writing class. In an intro course to English, it is touched upon a little only where it can be useful, but in a creative writing college level class, they are assuming that you are using your own resources to turn in a polished work as an assignment.

    My entry was based upon teaching high school students.
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Such as the King James version of the Bible? Starting sentences with conjunctions has always been part of English, for as long as it has been English. It's not a grammatical error, it's a stylistic choice you don't like. And that's a danger with teaching grammar in any context but particularly in a creative writing class: you end up teaching style as if it were grammar. That's not to say that grammar shouldn't be taught -- it should -- but with more care than it usually is and probably not in a creative writing class. In a creative writing class I think the furthest you can go is to discuss whether specific instances of non-standard grammar support or detract from the passage they are in. As the original questioner pointed out, you can't tell from a passage whether a writer has bent the grammar for effect or simply didn't know the grammar in the first place. What you can tell is whether it works for you.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ok, so for hs, i'd say the teacher should point out grammar goofs and mark down for them, as necessary, but not waste 'creative writing' time by teaching what has already been taught and the students should know by now...
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would make a grammar reference a required book, for a high school or college course. I would not, however, make grammar lessons part of the high school or college curriculum. The basics of grammar should be taught in elementary school.

    In high school or later edcucation, if I were a teacher grading papers, I would focus on the three to five most egregious or oft-repeated grammar errors in a particular student's assignment, and point them out with a brief explanation.

    That way, you don't inundate the stuident with a bewildering splatter of red ink. Instead, you present him or her with a manageable number of learning points.

    It is the approach I prefer to take in critiquing someone's writimg.
     
  12. JPGriffin
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    JPGriffin Senior Member

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    With grammar, I think of it as a way to control the flow of the piece. If I refuse to use commas periods and semicolens then the sentence will naturally read faster as I did in this sentence. If you use commas, though, you get a good steady reading pace along with space to breathe. Grammar is essential, for sure, but the approach shouldn't be, "You need to do this, this, and this," because all students see are rules. I'd say try a drill and kill, but let the students apply them to their own work. That's where a lot of students get lost, when they think the knowledge doesn't apply to them (History is such a drag because of this). What age group would this be applied to? The methods would vary with age, so you'd have to adjust them accordingly.
     
  13. sea_shellsk
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    sea_shellsk New Member

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    Thank you for all of your responses. I enjoyed everyone's thoughts. I should have specified this in my first post, but my paper is about teaching creative writing in undergraduate creative writing classes. Your ideas and comments gave me the insight to come up with my next idea. In creative writing classes most writers are concerned with not only pleasing their teachers but also pleasing an audience of their peers. Undergraduate creative writing classes are generally structured as process workshops, which focus on revision, rewriting, and editing. Let's say that a undergraduate creative writing student, for my example let's call him Dave, is asked to write four short stories over the semester that will be workshopped by classmates. For his first story Dave will write the assignment, but he will also pick one grammar issue (subject-verb agreement, commas, etc.) to work on. After the creative writing teacher workshops Dave's first story she notes that Dave also had issues with dangling modifiers. In Dave's second story he works on producing a story with no dangling modifiers and so on and so forth. When Dave's portfolio is due at the end of the semester the creative writing teacher can grade Dave's portfolio based on the quality of revision and the lack of grammar errors that Dave worked on over the semester. If the student minors or majors in creative writing then they could potentially master all units of grammar by the time they graduate. Do you think this would be an effective teaching model for grammar review and education? Or, as was mentioned in the posts above, should teachers not waste time on grammar if students seem to understand the basic principals because their lacks grammatical errors?
     
  14. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Although your students might already have a good grip on grammar, there are certain grammar and punctuation errors of novice writers that impede understanding or make the work harder to read. I know creative writers are supposed to be free to express themselves, but you might like a fun activity e.g. concept checking to illustrate that the rules can be played with only up to a point!

    e.g.s of problems and errors, which IMO certainly should be covered in a writing course because they are so common:

    misplaced apostrophes
    comma and semicolon confusion
    adverb/adjective
    participles
    mixing 3rd and 1st person
    lack of agreement for verb/subject

    Not a mistake as such, but over-use, of relative clauses, qualifiers etc.

    Have fun!
     
  15. James Scarborough
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    James Scarborough Member

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    In order to write well, one must be able to use language effectively. To use language effectively, one must understand its grammar, word usage and vocabulary. A college-level creative writing course shouldn't waste valuable class time teaching this. If a student doesn't have sufficient mastery of the language to be able to write effectively, he doesn't belong in a creative writing course.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with those who say a creative writing course should not be wasting time teaching grammar. There are other courses for that purpose, and students who need to learn grammar should avail themselves of those courses prior to taking creative writing.
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yes!... the course is an elective one, so those students who can not meet its demands should be advised to drop it in favor of 'remedial grammar' or whatever...
     
  18. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think for the first assignment you should assume that the student has no grammar issues to work on. It's rather insulting to assume that they don't have what should be a prerequisite for the course. If the teacher does notice grammar problems then yes, they should point them out and challenge the student to work on them. But I'm also worried that you seemed to be suggesting that the marking be based on improvement rather than the final standard of work. If word gets out about that then all the students will submit the worst rubbish they can at the start, so they can get top marks by simply writing to their normal standard by the end.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes; correct grammar should be a prerequisite, not a specifically taught element of the course. Grammar issues may come up, but unless the course is deliberately planned as "grammar improvement through creative writing", I don't think that there should be a planned, structured focus on grammar. The students will write, the writing will be discussed and critiqued, and grammar errors will be a legitimate topic for criticism. But it is still not a grammar class.

    ChickenFreak
     
  20. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    A lot of 'creative writing' and journalism coming out now indicates that, contrary to what posters have said, a number of people have in fact got rather a poor grasp of grammar (and spelling, and vocabulary use, and punctuation). I believe the reason for this is partly that it hasn't been taught as thoroughly as it used to be in schools. By this, I mean 'schools' in the British sense, not university, btw. In Britain, universities do not normally teach English unless it is your degree subject--there isn't compulsory English 101.

    Actually, I've heard teachers in France complain likewise, about students writing in their own language. I think the teaching philosophy of the last 30 years has a lot to answer for. Teaching by osmosis and instinct doesn't always produce impressive results--at least as far as accurate grammar is concerned.

    Although I absolutely agree that the focus of a creative writing course should not be on error correction of this type, I think some guidance is essential to help writers develop in these areas. What on Earth is the benefit to a writer who wants to improve in ignoring them? I don't see why anyone would think it is demeaning. I don't think there should be set 'grammar lessons', but the nuts and bolts should certainly be there to hold things together.

    Also, I'm not sure what you mean by 'take grammar courses'. Where are people supposed to find those? Private tutors? Have you any idea how much that costs in Europe? And anyway, if people are paying out money to improve as a writer, why should they have to attend another course to address issues the creative writing teacher prefers to ignore?
     
  21. Heather
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    Heather Contributing Member

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    This is what my History teacher used to do - if there was a grammar mistake made by several people in the class, he would spend a minute going over it, for example, he was always reminding us how to punctuate Nazi's and Nazis. For one off mistakes, I would just underline them in red in the students paper. If one person in particular kept making many mistakes, take them aside and suggest reading up on grammar.
     
  22. Terry D
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    Terry D Active Member

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    A creative writing course should teach how to bring style, theme, pacing, and execution together to build a strong story. It should not be the place where the basic elements of writing are taught. Any piece written for such a class should be held accountable for its deficiencies of grammar as much as it would for deficiencies of style, pacing, dialogue, or theme.
     
  23. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, this is the point I am trying to put forward. And there are many promising writers who don't have a strong grip on grammar, but it would be very elitist to exclude them by saying, 'Too bad, why didn't you learn grammar properly at school?'
     
  24. wolfi
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    wolfi Contributing Member

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    Maybe it's just me but do you realize how many pepole cant properly learn grammar in basic school? not because of them selfs but because of the school?
    For example me, I had speak class form kinder till 5th grade, and guess what? anytime we had English where did I go? yep, so I did not learn grammar and I'm FAR form the only one where the system did this to, I think its unfair to say "you should of learned it before get out"
    This is a creative writing course, not a grammar course, would it be smart to learn grammar first? duh, but I see nothing wrong with staying with it.
    As you can see by my posts, I'm teaching my self grammar but yet I'd say I'm a pretty good creative writer even with out grammar.
     
  25. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, I'm not saying ignore it. There are a thousand mistakes that a writer can make, and grammar mistakes should be addressed along with the rest of them. I'm saying that the class shouldn't be _structured_ with a pre-planned grammar segment. If by some miracle every student in the class has a competent grasp of grammar, that shouldn't require a restructuring of the lesson plans to eliminate the lectures on grammar.

    And if all but, say, two students have a competent grasp on grammar, I think that the amount of class time spent on remedial instruction for those two should be limited. The idea of prerequisites isn't unique to writing courses, and while it may be frustrating sometimes for the student who hasn't mastered those prerequisites, it's pretty well established.

    If this causes a problem due to wildly divergent levels of grammar competence between students, then perhaps "grammar instruction through creative writing" would indeed be a dandy course to create.

    ChickenFreak
     

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