Jonathan R. Freeman didn't mind teaching grammar, but he hated the textbooks. And he was fairly sure his students hated them, too -- if not the whole subject.
So, "in a six-week blitzkrieg" two summers ago, the Bryn Mawr School teacher created his own text tailored to his students and to his approach to teaching, which is considerably more lighthearted than that of most grammarians.
Out of the sweat of that summer came "GRAMMARRRRGGHH!!!!! a guidebook for students lost in the land of language."
From that text and Freeman's approach came a greater tolerance for grammar among his middle-school students -- and interest from other schools, including Roland Park Country and Towson State University, in teaching the Freeman method.
"It's really just a matter of making it more palatable bringing it down to something they can relate to," said Freeman, a Yale graduate who has taught English and drama at the Baltimore girls' school for four years.
Freeman pulled together grammar examples and work sheets he had been using, loaded with familiar names and references, and he laced the book liberally with humor and downright silliness.
He distilled the essentials of grammar to 65 pages, concentrating on punctuation, parts of speech and parts of a sentence. He included 10 more pages, called "frequently misused words or stuff that just didn't fit anywhere else in the book."
Now, some seventh-grade students acknowledge reading ahead.
"Last year, English was fun, but it wasn't funny," observed Katie Baylin.
But Freeman's book "has a lot of jokes in there," said Tyson Obrecht.
Said Rachael Oxman: "It keeps you interested." Freeman's work is often the stuff of middle-school yuks. Take, for instance, a four-sentence exercise in which students are to identify and connect the subject and the predicate:
1. Mike told a really funny joke in the middle of lunch today.
2. Unfortunately, Jordan was drinking root beer at the time.
3. After a little while, root beer bubbles came out of Jordan's nose.
4. I wonder what would have happened if he had been eating an egg salad sandwich.
Compare and contrast that with examples from the pre- "GRAMMARRRRGGHH!!!!!" era:
President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark across the continent. Their task was to find out the extent and nature of the vast territory west of the Mississippi. They were to make scientific observations and to establish friendly relations "
No need to worry about that passage breaking up a class.
Despite the laughs and the looser approach, "grammar is still a tough sell," said Freeman, whose course includes literature, vocabulary and writing. "It's probably the hardest thing I have to teach. They [students] are already fluent in the language, and you are trying to expose the structure beneath it."
As in his textbook, Freeman has an easygoing manner in the classroom.
"What's the verb?" he asks one student during a midterm review.
"Very," she replies tentatively.
"Can you stand up and 'very'?" Freeman questions.
If not, then "very" is probably not the verb, because verbs do something -- act, help or link, he reminds the class.
After his book was well-received at Bryn Mawr, Freeman produced an edition for a colleague at nearby Roland Park Country School. This year, it's being used in five other prep schools on the East Coast and at Towson State.
Each school has a customized edition, with familiar names and places. In the Towson State edition, for instance, President Hoke L. Smith replaces Bryn Mawr Headmistress Rebecca MacMillan Fox in many examples.
"There are some big, funky grammar books, but I thought it would be fun to use something different," said Ned Sparrow, a Towson State instructor who uses "GRAMMARRRRGGHH!!!!!" in his freshman writing course.
He introduced it in the fall to about 60 freshmen, and will use it again in the spring semester. Sparrow particularly likes the title because "it acknowledges that English has so many quirks."
As for the humor: "Some of them find it pretty corny," Sparrow says of his college students, "and some of them think it's the funniest thing they have ever read."
Freeman concedes that his book has been better received by students and colleagues than he ever imagined.
"I would love it to spread," he said. "The more kids that use it, the more kids that will be having fun."
With grammar, believe it or not.
Here are some excerpts from "GRAMMARRRRGGHH!!!!! a guidebook for students lost in the land of language," by Jonathan R. Freeman:
Verbs: Action verbs have all the fun. They express what is occurring in the sentence. Just like an action movie, they can be thrilling, explosive.
Passive voice: Avoid it whenever possible. It's weak and ugly, it has bad manners and it breaks another of the cardinal rules of English: Without sacrificing detail or feeling, be as concise as possible. (Translation: Say what you're going to say in the fewest number of words.)
Noun clauses: Sometimes -- and this is where we begin to despise whoever invented English -- a whole bunch of words get together to form a gigantic, scary, fire-breathing noun when one word just won't do the job. When that bunch of words contains its own subject and verb, it's called a noun clause.
Introduction to adjectives: Armed with your vast knowledge of verbs, nouns and pronouns, you can now confidently construct sentences like these:
Hamsters are chasing me.
This is a book.
These sentences are about as exciting as the study of lint. What they desperately need are some modifiers -- words or groups of words whose job is to describe other words, adding detail and style to the sentence:
Ravenous, six-foot hamsters are chasing me.
This is a thrilling book written by one of today's brightest young minds.
Pub Date: 2/05/97