Part 4 of Inquiry
I conducted my inquiry research within one of my seventh-grade Language Arts sections at Gilman School, a private, all-boys, K-12 school in Baltimore, Maryland. I knew each of the boys by name from the previous year, but had not seen any of them in an academic environment when I began. We met each day from 10:25-11:05 a.m. just after morning recess. In choosing to focus on only one of my sections, I elected to zoom in on these thirteen boys, using my free fourth period to maintain a teacher journal that reflected on each day’s events. Six of the students came from various racial minority groups, and four boys brought learning profiles that required accommodations for ADHD or dyslexia. All these boys had learned grammar previously at Gilman, and the opening survey given the second day provided contextual information that told me their experiences and perceptions were mixed (See Figure 1 in Analysis). At the onset, there was no correlation between their attitude towards grammar and perceptions of their own success at it, nor was there a significant correlation between affinity and how important they found it. I had a group that had become used to the note-taking and workbook learning of years past, one whose perceptions of grammar were skewed by the limited intellectual role they played in their acquisition of knowledge. It became clear that these boys largely saw grammar as something they were told they needed, but nobody quite knew why. Crucially, this seventh-grade group was skeptical of grammar, but not yet completely jaded, as their minds were still open to new possibilities of what it could become.
In my classroom, I experimented with how to overhaul the experience of learning grammar that in their previous years required little more than memorization and copying. While the curriculum mandated the set of terms and functions I taught, and required frequent quizzing, I sought to find ways within a given unit to make these lessons more engaging. Even as I taught a set of rules, I tried putting the grammar in a more useful context, whether through discussing the subtle ways in which the placement of a term impacts a sentence's meaning in writing, or by complicating traditional definitions with their evolving role the 21st century. Most days, we did roughly ten minutes of grammar, quizzing approximately every six or seven classes at the end of every unit. Each unit began with a presentation of a grammatical term or concept, then I tried to follow that with a set of sentences, another activity for practice, a practice quiz, and a quiz. Over the course of the year, I varied each of those types of lessons, attempting to find a balance of engagement, enjoyment, and academic success. For feedback, I listened to the students during the activities, solicited their opinions after especially novel activities and in surveys, and followed up with boys in focus groups at the conclusion of my research.
My classroom served as a laboratory - a space for co-exploration with my students
Though my dual roles as teacher and researcher predominantly aligned, certain obligations as a Gilman teacher pulled my inquiry away from the completely descriptive grammar I had hoped for. I could not abandon the notion of “correct grammar” as a true descriptivist would have within the system I operated in. The requirement to quiz, my requirement to produce grades, and the expectation that boys would learn to break down sentences in a particular way all compelled me to maintain a largely prescriptive approach to assessments. I needed to prepare my students for their future English classes in this regard. However, I did always add more open-ended questions to assessments so that I could assess for both types of knowledge on quizzes, and see them work in tandem. While those reigns initially frustrated me, I ultimately learned that kids could not properly discuss and conceptualize a term without first understanding its traditional operative role.
As a researcher, I arrived at each class eager to go deeper into the learning of each boy, tracking attitudes, habits of mind, writing progress, and other information throughout the year. In my daily teacher journal, I recounted each day’s grammar-related activities, noted levels of engagement, recorded quotations, vignettes, and offered my thoughts and questions. Every two months, I asked the boys to complete a survey for me so that I could couple the qualitative data with a quantitative element. I looked at each unit as an opportunity for my own growth, and frequently asked students for their input. After returning from the midyear exam, I met with students in pairs to look back on the year in focus group settings. Outside my classroom, I observed how other teachers taught grammar across all three middle-school grades, and bounced ideas off my colleagues in the Language Arts office.
In analyzing six months of data across those multiple data sources, I sought to identify a narrative. Looking across the bimonthly surveys, I coded for affinity, perceptions of success, and perceptions of importance for each student, producing a linear visual that could portray the shifts in mindsets over the year (See Figure 1 in Analysis). I wanted each boy’s journey to be afforded its unique space upon which I could map emic quotations and behaviors to get a full picture of their mindset towards grammar. With focus group interviews offering a space for the boys to reflect on the year, their self-reflection and analysis of the class could stand next to mine. While I collected a large swatch of writing samples for each boy, I concluded that coding those for evidence of certain constructions went against the ideas I espoused - I could not quantify good writing, as each kid's development was unique, as were their intents. Furthermore, with the predominance of grammar research on that topic, I wanted to expand the scope of the research in the field by looking at alternate outcomes than what the previous scholarship had examined. So instead of measuring success of a grammar unit through these writing samples, I looked at these samples as ancillary evidence of boys’ curiosity with language. They could hint at confidence, but they never revealed understanding.
While I believe this data has immense relevance, it is important to note that the inquiry’s authenticity might be affected in certain ways by my dual-role as researcher and teacher just as I benefitted from understanding each boy at a much deeper level through my dual roles. In knowing I was conducting this research, certain students hinted at saying what they felt I wanted to hear. Benjamin and Chris, for instance, chafed at the notion that asserting a negative opinion about grammar would not affect their grade in mid-December. So while I attempted to make the class co-researchers alongside me as a way of minimizing the power-dynamic that can affect the students’ transparency and openness, I recognize not every student trusted me the same amount. Additionally, it is important to note that this inquiry happened with middle school boys who had experienced multiple years of prescriptive grammar instruction. Students who do not have such a background may not experience the same way of learning even in a similar school context.
 For confidentiality purposes, I refer to each student by a pseudonym created in consultation with each boy.
Click here to continue to part 5 - my Results and Findings