In what I hope is the first part of an eventually recurring series, we’re looking at an exercise created by a professor for the classroom. Today we’re talking to Jessica Hautsch, a writing professor at Stony Brook University, to discuss having students write and perform grammar skits.
Hautsch earned her Master’s in Literature from Fordham four years ago. She started teaching at Stony Brook as an EOP supplemental instructor before working in EOP’s Summer Academy and teaching AIM 102 (Expository Writing) and AIM 104 (Literary Analysis and Critical Thinking). Like many teachers, she initially found herself teaching her students as if they were the type of student she had been.
“I imagined I had a class full of me’s,” Hautsch says. She was “assigning six-page essays like it [was] nothing. Students [found] this terrifying,” as this was often “the longest paper [they’d] ever written.” This realization led her to give shorter assignments while thinking of how to yoke shorter-form work with more targeted content. The grammar skits are one outgrowth of this, the seeds of which go back to her graduate studies, where in Ken Lindblom’s class she read Nancy Steineke’s 10 Real-Time Ways for Kids to Show What They Know– and Meet the Standards.
“Kinesthetic appeal was part of initial inspiration,” Hautsch says. Having students physically active while learning appealed to her because of research showing kinesthetic and performance activities “help boost retention and engagement.” This explains the pedagogical appeal of the performative aspect of the assignment: with student-created work, particularly work published and shared within the public space of a classroom, the stakes are inherently raised and emotions are automatically involved. Rather than telling the students why the work matters, or hoping they care or come to care, the personal (and shared) nature of the work means investment is intrinsic.
Promoting self-interest to college-aged humans can be like shooting fish in barrel. But what about the tricky matter of teaching them the relevance of their writing beyond the worlds of themselves? How to guard against the insularity of the ivory tower?
Hautsch took a “Problems of Teaching Writing” class with Professor Patricia Dunn, where she first encountered genre theory. Genre theory, she explains, refers to “authentic rhetorical situations”; through it, teachers use real-world situations to teach the students skills they’ll need outside of the classroom. For example, as a way of studying how to use writing as a means of evaluation, students write different types of reviews for different types of readers, requiring a constant but differentiated/differentiate-able audience awareness.
Another reason genre theory appealed to Hautsch was its real-world relevance. “For many students,” she says, “writing an essay can seem purposeless beyond getting a hopefully good grade from the teacher. Genre theory emphasizes purpose and audience. It teaches them to consider the textual features of [a] particular genre, skills they can apply from genre theory to whatever field/career they enter in life after college.”
Finally, there’s an utterly practical explanation for teaching grammar skits in her 102 class. Everyone knows grammar is “important.” One truth of lesser renown but no less significance is that grammar is one of the most difficult content areas to teach. Hautsch’s students read June Casagrande’s Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. “[Casagrande] has great hooks,” Hautsch says, and in turn the students learn the value of a strong hook by having a clear audience in mind when they write their skits: each other.
Hautsch plays them a piece from Garrison Keillor’s album English Majors called “Who vs. Whom,” then surprises the students by telling them they too will be writing a grammar skit. This, coupled with the realization that they’ll also be performing these scenes in front of classmates, is not initially welcome. “They usually look at me like I just strangled a kitten in front of them,” she admits.
Trust is critical to writing. To build it with her class, Hautsch has taken to using more role-playing in activities, especially early in the semester. In keeping with the pragmatic angle, these scenes often involve a job interview or a scene at a bar when one person is interested in someone who is clearly not interested in them. By lowering the pressure and using these non-assessed, accessible canvases, students often engage in behavior they don’t even realize is intuitive, like code-switching or giving/reading non-verbal cues.
Watching them work in groups, Hautsch not only anticipates the end-product but the kinds of growth observable during the process: students “start out as ‘I don’t know how the hell I’m going to write this skit,’” yet invariably at some point “[you see] the light bulb [going] off.” Skits generally range from three to five minutes. Hautsch passes out a sign-up menu beforehand so each student is working on a different grammar issue, creating heterogeneous groups and skits. Some concepts are slipperier than others.
“Things with punctuation” are difficult to perform, she says, particularly issues like dashes or hyphens, while issues of usage tend to be easier, i.e. “affect” versus “effect,” “than” versus “then,” “it’s” versus “its,” and passive versus active voice. Some of the more memorable performances involved students acting as the grammar police, as grammar superheroes, and a “Who’s On First?” twist on a crime scene where the victim’s last name caused all sorts of mayhem. The skits are ultimately posted to Blackboard.
Hautsch seeks to create “a creative and collaborative assignment because a lot of the writing [students] do in their future careers will be collaborative.” She also wants them to experience the challenges and benefits that come with creating writing in a group. So after three years of grammar skits, what’s the response?
“They love it…at the end,” she laughs. Often the skits exercise comes up in end-of-semester evaluations as something “they really enjoyed doing.” When students write about “what [they] learned,” a number of responses deal with appreciation for the grammar lesson learned, but a number also address realizing a previously-unknown confidence in public speaking and working in a group setting. Another benefit to the skits: the shared nature of the assignment can reduce anxiety for some students; theoretically, any stigma about performing or looking weird is cancelled out by the assignment being mandatory for all. Hautsch reports her classes appear closer afterward, fostering a more comfortable and potentially more receptive classroom space over the rest of the semester.
In the future, Hautsch is interested in media studies, specifically how fan culture can be used to teach writing, i.e. fan videos as a tool for teaching argument by using textual evidence to support an argument, and fan fiction offering an authentic audience to be cognizant of and an opportunity for students to be published writers, which, similar to the grammar skits, inherently raises the stakes while invigorating the emotional connection between writer(s) and text(s). In the meantime, she continues to evolve her grammar skits, her students continue to come out of their shells, and writing students, as always, continue their exposure to lessons and practices that benefit them far beyond the classroom and beyond college.