Monday, September 24, 2012

Flying to Grammarland by Margo Sorenson

A Crazy-Fun Method for Teaching Grammar to 4th-7th graders


“Do you have clearance from the tower for take-off?” the teacher, Mrs. Miller, asks Jason.
Somewhere in the classroom a muffled, nasal voice is heard, sounding strangely like a flight controller. “Gulf-alpha-niner-five, cleared for take off,” a voice intones. Students smile at each other.
“Okay, I guess we’ve got it,” Mrs. Miller continues. “Engine number one, 100% RPMS.” Jason turns an imaginary key and mimics an engine’s roar. “Engine number two, 100%. Feel that power vibrate the aircraft!” the teacher exclaims. All the students grin and giggle a little as they wiggle back and forth in their desks, pretending to feel the engines’ power. “Release the brakes, and here we go! Oops, Jason, remember to bring up the landing gear—three up and locked!”
As the class “takes off” in the imaginary C-12, they lean way back in their seats, grinning, pretending to feel the plane lift off as the C-12 gains altitude.
“Nice take-off, Jason,” Mrs. Miller compliments Jason, who smiles proudly. “Everyone look out your windows. Look, down there—do you see it? The Rapids in Grammarland.” “Oooooh!” the class says in unison, smiling as they pretend to look out their imaginary windows.
“How many of you brought your life vests today?” Mrs. Miller asks. All the kids raise their hands. “Waterproof covers for your books?” she asks.
“Oh, no,” Cindy moans, pretending. “I forgot mine.” “You’ll just have to hold your grammar book up out of the spray,” Mrs. Miller answers, smiling. “We’re just about ready to land at the Rapids.”
And so they land smoothly at the Rapids, eager and ready to begin a classroom session doing grammar exercises on punctuation, which is what they study when they are at the Rapids in Grammarland....
Flying to Grammarland was designed out of one teacher’s desperation at having to teach the ultimate drudgery of grammar day after day and her worrying that her students were not writing with enough creativity, enthusiasm, and personal voice. From this despair, “imaginative grammar”—an oxymoron—developed into the Flying to Grammarland program. Flying to Grammarland is a flexible framework method that can wrap around any existing textbook or language arts program and is used to teach grammar from second grade to upper middle school. The philosophy of Flying to Grammarland is that grammar can be more easily taught and more easily understood if it is taught in a concrete, visible, and active way, rather than if it is taught as abstract concepts on a page.
Imagine students begging to do grammar and eagerly participating in classroom grammar activities, even bringing “props” from home to add to the atmosphere of the grammar lesson. Imagine students liberated from the abstract drudgery of grammar exercises and set free into a world of imagination and creativity in grammar that carries through into their writing with personal voice and into all their other classroom activities with enthusiasm. Flying to Grammarland is a method of teaching grammar that accomplishes all of these objectives.
The basic framework of Grammarland is an imaginary landscape where each type of landform or destination represents a different concept in English grammar. Students “fly” to each imaginary destination, taking turns as pilots and bringing up the air stair, using authentic flight instructions for the light aircraft, the C-12. At each different destination or location in Grammarland, they learn a different grammar concept through hands-on, concrete analogies, including their own “props” they bring from home, or imaginary props, to add to the atmosphere. Because they pretend they are in a real geographic locale, all their classroom activities and language while doing the lessons and exercises will reflect that location. The location itself is clearly tied in analogical form to the concept being studied, adding to reinforcement and retention.
Flying to Grammarland is “teacher-friendly,” because teachers can use any component of the Flying to Grammarland concept that they feel is appropriate for the age group and level of their own students, from instructing the class in actual flight procedures to each destination and bringing appropriate props, to simply using the geographic locations as analogical, hands-on examples of the grammar concept under study. Teachers can modify, change, and add to Grammarland themselves; it becomes their own program.
For an example of how Grammarland actually works, look in on a class that has flown to “the Jungle,” which is complements (predicate adjectives and predicate nominatives). The students imagine they are in a real jungle. They bring in stuffed animals appropriate for a jungle: flashlights, imaginary mosquito netting and mosquito repellent, and anything else they imagine would add to the setting of the Jungle. A sixth grade boy once brought in baked bananas! The abstract idea of complements is compared to the concrete, vivid, imaginary location of the Jungle for the whole grammar unit on complements. When they are “in the Jungle,” they learn about the two paths in the Jungle: the action verb path and the linking verb path. They can never be on both paths at the same time, and the two paths never cross, so they don’t dare get off whichever path they’re on, because they’ll get lost in the dark, creepy jungle! (“Watch out for that boa constrictor! Yikes!” The kids giggle and pretend to unwrap giant snakes from around their necks.) On the action verb path, the only plants that students will find growing are direct and indirect objects. Conversely, they will find only predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives growing along the linking verb path. Students draw little maps of the paths in the jungle and they are ready to do the exercises in the grammar book in pairs.
To add to the atmosphere and to encourage creativity and imagination, when students need help, they ask the teacher, using terminology that would fit the geographic location. In the Jungle, they raise their hands, saying, “Help, we’re tangled in the vines!” or “Help, we’re being attacked by a boa constrictor,” accompanied by appropriate choking sounds and giggles. Creativity in thinking of imaginary little events that might “happen” while they are doing their exercises is encouraged. For example, students might say, “Hey! This little monkey is bothering me—get away! It’s trying to untie my shoelaces!” Students are also especially encouraged to make their own connections between the grammar concept and the geographic location. All their comments and contributions can be added to the “Flight Manual” for Grammarland for inclusion in the remainder of the unit and for next year’s format and class. This also validates their creativity and rewards them for trying to find ways that the grammar concept ties into the location, thus increasing their understanding of the concept..
Grammar exercises are completed and awarded a simple reward such as a rubber stamp (with a pun attached—for example, the cow stamp is “Moo—raculous”, or “I moo you cud do it,” and the students themselves vie with each other to guess what the meaning of each stamp is) or a gold star or a sticker on a recording page in their notebooks that sets up the desire in the students to earn as many of the rewards as possible.
Flying to Grammarland is a flexible framework that almost teaches itself, because the students become so involved in each location that they eagerly try to find connections between where they are and the grammar concept they are studying so they can share their ideas with the class. Grammarland also encourages students’ creativity, increasing their awareness of the power of their own imaginations and thus freeing them to write with a stronger sense of personal voice in their papers. In addition, teachers feel liberated, and the rewards they feel when the students enjoy and learn the grammar will energize them and free them to be even more creative in other areas in the classroom. When even the English grammar lesson can be a liberating, unique experience in the power of the imagination, students feel empowered in their other academic areas as well. It’s time to take off with Grammarland!

Students learn about subjects and predicates and the different types of sentences while climbing up grassy knolls. Climbing up the grassy knoll is the predicate (always find the action first that gets you up the slope) and the subject is the other side of the knoll, the way you get down. Incomplete sentences are the ones that make you say “—and so?” or “—then what?” because you’re stuck on top of the grassy knoll with no way down. Watch out for those pesky little squirrels nibbling on their shoelaces—not to mention the gophers that keep wanting to grab the students’grammar books and papers and pull them down underground! A good thump on a gopher’s head usually does the trick.
Students visit the Wild Animal Park and meet the large furry critters—the Nouns—and the little snuggly ones—the Pronouns. Adjectives appear and disappear next to the other animals., the nouns and pronouns. Grab one when you see one! When students have a problem, they can growl for help, but they’d better be sure they don’t get grabbed and pulled inside a cage! Students have been known to do their grammar exercises with stuffed gorillas draped around their necks!
Students meet Mr. Trail Boss (Verb) at the Waterfall, who is the boss of the sentence, telling the other words what to do. His driver for his Jeep is the Adverb; his recreational tennis balls are Prepositions; ropes for tying everyone together while climbing are the Conjunctions, and everyone says Interjections when he or she gets splashed by the Waterfall, or begins to slip into the falls. Students must bring waterproof covers for their books and towels on this trip!
Students will enjoy scooping up the snow (all the words in a phrase) at the glacier and forming little snowballs with them, making either an Adjective or an Adverb phrase. Students can have a snowball fight and throw their snowballs at Nouns and Pronouns to make Adjective phrases, or they can throw their snowball phrases at Verbs, Adverbs, and Adjecives to make Adverb phrases. They can diagram their way out of a crevasse by going into Grammarland through “the back door.” Hot cocoa and marshmallows are a favorite of your mittened and capped students on this trip.
Students will need flashlights and mosquito netting for this location so they can see which path in the Jungle they are on—the Action Verb path or the Linking Verb path. Direct and Indirect Object plants grow along only the Action Verb path. On the Linking Verb path, students find Predicate Adjectives and Predicate Nominatives. “Manglish” (Math plus English) helps to find a linking verb by saying, “The fish = bad” instead of “The fish smelled bad”—then they’ll know it’s a linking verb, if the equals sign works as well as the verb for meaning. “The bell sounded loud,” “The bell = loud.” They’ll learn to look out for those boa constrictors!
Just when students thought it was safe to go back to Grammarland again, they put on their hip boots for the Swamp. Students must be careful when picking out a the correct verb form for their subject—it may look like solid ground, but they may end up sinking down in quicksand. “Gurgle, gurgle,” they’ll choke out! You can throw them a rope to pull them out. They need to look out for the little red flag in the ground that says, “Prepositional Phrase,” because no subject is ever in one! Students will have to help clean the slime off the C-12 windshield after these trips.
Students learn about the roots of the tree (Infinitive), the trunk (Present Participle), the branches (Past Tense), and the leaves (Past Participle) and study the trees, not the forest when it comes to lie-lay, sit-set, and raise-rise. They’d better watch out for those pine cones dropping on their heads! The ants have been known to march off with papers left on the forest floor, too.
Students learn which cooler to use for their Pronouns (him or he?) when they find out which wave it is that is rolling into the beach. Here comes a new set—is it a Predicate Nominative wave? An Indirect Object wave? A Direct Object wave? They’ll have their Nominative Pronoun coolers and their Objective Pronoun coolers for help. Sunglasses, sunscreen, and towels are a must; swimfins are optional for the Wedge! Wipe out!
Students quickly find out there are not enough “wells” in the desert when they discover how to modify words. They’ll learn the three degrees of comparison—how thirsty are they? Water bottles and stuffed desert animals are appropriate for this trip. Watch out for heatstroke!
As they climb up higher and higher, students find out that the Cliff capital letters are always more important than the little, lower-case letters. They’ll use special climbing tricks to remember how important some Cliffs really are, so they’ll be sure to capitalize them. Students must shake the pebbles out of their shoes before getting back into the C-12! Be sure they coil up their climbing ropes neatly and stow them under their seats.
Students get into kayaks and whitewater rafts to paddle their way through the sentence streams, avoiding Comma rocks and Semicolons and seeing what is around the next bend in the river: is it a complete stream or an incomplete stream? Class V sentences are the worst and students will have to call out, “Help! I’m being windowshaded!” when they’re stuck. Be sure to remind them to shake the water droplets off their lifevests before re-boarding the C-12!

A basic, suggested flight “script” follows. First, choose two students: one will be the pilot and one will bring up the air stair (the hydraulic set of six steps with which everyone boards the aircraft.
Teacher: “Does everyone have his or her grammar books?
Spirals?” (or whatever you want them to do their exercises in) Students: “Yes!” They need to answer enthusiastically— encourage them to do so!
Teacher: Today, we are going to fly to Grammarland—and to a special place in Grammarland. I’d like you all to look at the C-12 (pretend to look out the window or at the back wall) Doesn’t it look shiny? The ground crew just washed it. Everyone say, ‘Oooooh!’” Your attitude here is key, because they need to know that you are having fun with something imaginary, and they will take the cue from your behavior.
Students: “Ooooh!”
Teacher: “Okay, pilot, here are the keys!” Toss an imaginary set of keys to the student chosen as pilot. The student should reach up in the air and grab them.
Teacher: “All right, everyone, duck under the wing, please.”
You duck your head.
Students: Duck heads!
Teacher: You could say, to help set the atmosphere, “Susie (pick a student with a good sense of humor) -- good grief—I said duck! What will I tell your mother about the big bandaid on your forehead?”
By now, the students should begin grinning a little, wondering what in the world is going on.
Teacher; “Okay, pilot, open the fuselage, please, and bring down the air stair. Let’s hear a good hydraulic sound of the stairs descending.”
Student: mimics your hand motion of turning the keys, and he/she will pretend to bring down the air stair.
Teacher: “All right, everyone, let’s climb into the C-12. Up the steps, everyone. Hold on to the guy wires so you don’t slip.” You make stepping motions with your feet and pull yourself up with your hands as if you were holding on to guy wires strung on each side of the air stair for railings. Students: do the same, while they are still sitting at their desks.
Teacher: “Let me hear those seat belts click, please!”
Students: make a clicking noise or say “Click.”
Teacher: “Oops, Trevor (or the student who is bringing up the air stair), unfasten your seatbelt and please bring up the air stair. Here’s how you do it. Let’s hear a good hydraulic sound, here.” Pull up an imaginary stair and crank the large handle down. (It is similar to commercial aircraft). Student: (air-stair person ) mimics you.
Teacher: “It’s important to close it firmly—we don’t want to lose (say a student’s name) -- during the flight, as we almost did last time.”
At this point, you will ask students if they brought the special equipment or props needed for the day’s lesson, depending on the location to which you are flying. Refer to the specific chapter on the concept you are teaching for ideas.
For example, when flying to the Waterfall (Verb, Adverb, Preposition, Conjunction, and Interjection), you would ask, “How many of you brought waterproof covers for your books today? Hold them up please, if you did. Okay, not bad. The rest of you will have to hold your books out of the spray and use your towels you brought to dry them off.” Pause here. “You did bring towels, didn’t you? Hold them up if you did.” By now most of the students will be in the groove and many will nod yes and hold up imaginary (or real—if you told them the day before to bring towels from home) towels. “Very good, class. This is going to be a great flight, I can tell.”
Teacher: “All right, pilot, have you done the pre-flight check?
Student: (pilot for the day) “Yes, pre-flight check, Roger.”
Teacher: “Okay, engine number one, 50%
Student: turns an imaginary key
Teacher: “Engine number two, 50%.”
Student: turns a second imaginary key.
Teacher: “Okay, pre-taxi clearance? Fine, release the brakes and let’s taxi over to the engine run-up area. Let’s taxi, everyone—bump up and down gently in your seats.” Students: all follow your lead here and bump up and down in their seats.
Teacher: “Put on the brakes, please, and we’ll wait for clearance for take-off.” (Sometimes you can have fun with this such as, “I said put on the brakes! We almost ran right through the terminal!” or “Good grief, gently, please, you almost gave Robby whiplash!” Sometimes you can run over a speedbump, and the whole class bumps up in their desks, much to their delight. The speedbump idea was contributed by my students—they love it! Teacher: “Do you have clearance for take off?” At this point, you can hold your nose and mimic a control tower, or ask a student to mimic unintelligible noises sounding like a flight controller—there will be many volunteers.
Student(s): (holding noses) “Flight four-niner (or your classroom number), you have clearance for take-off!” Teacher: (while turning the imaginary keys and encouraging the pilot to follow you,) “Okay, engine number one, 100% RPMS, engine two, 100%. Feel that vibration from those powerful engines! Vibrate, everyone.” Vibrate a little.
Students: follow your lead and wiggle back and forth in their desks.
Teacher: “Pilot, here we go—release the brakes—and don’t forget to bring up the landing gear—three in the green— heeeeere we go!” Then you lean way back.
Students: follow your lead, leaning back in their desks, mimicking the feeling of taking off in a plane.
During the flight, sometimes you and the class can experience some “turbulence,” and they can all jiggle around in their desks. Larger classes may want to include a few flight attendants who can distribute magazines or imaginary drinks to the “passengers.” Your only limitation is your and your students’ imagination!
While you’re flying, you may also include humorous or descriptive comments about the destination where you are about to land. This helps set the tone and the atmosphere and helps to break the pattern of the typical grammar lesson routine. Refer to the specific chapter you are using for ideas.
For example, when flying to The Waterfall, you would say, “Nice job, especially for an inexperienced pilot! We’re going to circle Grammarland today and look down at the places we’re going to visit. Everyone lean over and look out your window.” You lean and look out an imaginary window, and everyone else should do the same. “Look—look down there—there’s where we’re going—The Waterfall! Everyone say ‘Oooooh’! Look at the falls—that spray must be twenty feet high! Hope everyone brought ropes today in case someone slips in!”
Once you have landed, you need to make comments regarding the location where you have arrived. Refer to the specific chapter for ideas. For example, at The Waterfall, you could say, “Okay, what a great landing—here we are, everyone. Climb out of the C-12 and find a nice rock to sit on. Yikes, Jason, not so close to the Waterfall! What would I tell your parents if you never returned from Grammarland?”
Congratulate the pilot and the class on a great flight. You can probably already sense the excitement and surprise resonating in the classroom. Your students know they are about to embark on an adventure—and you will not disappoint them! They’re ready for anything!

Creating the Grammarland Atmosphere:
You and your class have landed at The Waterfall after undertaking the basic flight. You are ready to begin a lesson on introduction of the verb. The day before, you may have encouraged your students to bring any or all of the following props from home, which you will store in your classroom as long as you are studying this concept. Students who don’t bring real props will, of course, have imaginary props, which work just as well! Make reference to the props during the flight and the lesson, as well as during the exercises for developing more atmosphere and creativity. You’ll find that your students catch on quickly, and their enthusiasm will help to fuel yours!
List of Real and Imaginary Props with Appropriate Phrases:
· ropes (be sure they are coiled correctly!)
· hiking boots (be sure students have them laced up securely)
· life vests (be sure students have them fastened!)
· waterproof covers for textbooks or workbooks
· canteens (keep those caps on tightly!)
· towels (to dry off books and themselves if they get wet)
Suggestions for Introducing and Teaching the Lesson:
1. Teacher: “Here we are at the waterfall—we’ll all have to speak a little louder to be heard over the spray and roar of the falls. First, let me introduce you to our Trail Boss—Mr.Verb. Look at those muscles, everyone. Say, ‘Oooooh!’ class. (Students love to “ham it up” during this part) Everyone flex your muscles, just like the Trail Boss.” (Students usually do this eagerly!)
“Mr. Verb is the Trail Boss for our hike up next to the waterfall and he’s the Boss of the sentence.Yes, the verb is the most important word in the whole sentence, because he tells the rest of the words what to do. He’ll tell you what to do, too. You don’t want to make him mad, Kevin! You’ll be doing wind sprints up the rocks! Mr.Verb, our Trail Boss, is usually full of action, like climb, run, hike, swim, throw, jog, and race. How can you tell if a word is a verb? If the Trail Boss can do the action at the waterfall or on the way to the waterfall, it is a verb. Here’s an example. ‘The Trail Boss studied his climbing manual.’ What is the verb? You can certainly say, ‘He studied at the waterfall or on the way to the waterfall,’ right?” Then you know that ‘studied’ is a verb.”
(NOTE: When teaching the linking verb lesson, you tell the students that it is a quiet verb—the Trail Boss just stands there and flexes his muscles; he doesn’t even have to do anything.)
2. Ask several students to come up and be the Trail Boss and mimic an action appropriate for The Waterfall (hike, climb, swim, etc.), asking the class to identify the action. Reinforce by having the students say that the action can be done at the waterfall or on the way to the waterfall. Using the verb form with different pronouns also reinforces the concept of the action verb. Then have students suggest other verbs, those not necessarily done at The Waterfall (such as study, sew, etc.) and use them by filling in the blanks in the sentence “He ________ at The Waterfall.”
Students Work Together on Grammar Exercises:
3. Tell students to get into small groups (pairs and apples) to do an introductory grammar exercise that makes them identify action verbs. Have them pick out a good rock to sit on, one not too close to the spray from The Waterfall. Use an exercise from your language arts textbook or use the exercise provided below.
4. Teacher: “When you’re in trouble and you have a question, say, ‘Help! Splash! Splash!’ and raise your hand and I’ll throw you a rope and come help you!” Students may spread their real towels, if they have brought them, on their seats, (or on the floor), and pull their desks into little clusters. When they do call for help, say, “Here’s a rope,” tossing them an imaginary rope and reel yourself into them. They’ll get the idea and tug on the other end of the rope to bring you closer! Reinforce the concept by answering questions using the Grammarland idea; for example, “Okay, Randy, which word is telling the other words in the sentence what to do? Which one is the Trail Boss? Which word can you do on the way to The Waterfall or at The Waterfall?”
5. While they are doing the exercises, remember to refer to their props as listed earlier. During the exercise, sprinkle students with water droplets from cups of water you have strategically placed about the room. Also, you can make comments to individual students such as:
“Watch out—you’re about to slip in!”
“You’d better get that one right, or Mr. Trail Boss will have you doing laps!”
“Feel the spray—doesn’t it feel refreshing?”
“Tighten your life vest—it looks as if it’s about to slip off, and we don’t want to lose you!”
“Oops! Your hiking boots have come untied—you don’t want to trip and fall in, do you?”
“You’re huffing and puffing! Are you out of shape for this hike?”
Kids will respond and grin—and come up with their own comments as well. Be sure to write them down in your manual so that you can use them the next time you fly to The Waterfall! Remember to write down your own inspirations, too!
Write the numbers 1-20 on your paper. After each number, write the action verb from the sentence.
1. For a math project, Carol made a cube.
2. Mrs. Smith carefully explained the problem.
3. For her fall sport, Jill chose soccer.
4. This waterfall drops two hundred feet.
5. Ginny’s bicycle skidded on the street.
6. In Cedar City, you transfer to another bus.
7. Mix the cookies well.
8. Loren ran down the field
9. Gina smiled at her little brother.
10. The police chased two suspects.
11. The team scored two runs in the first inning.
12. The C-12 made a good landing.
13. Susie read a good book yesterday.
14. My mother listened to my report.
15. Clyde’s parrot screeches all day.
16. Donna kicked the soccer ball.
17. Robby lost his backpack.
18. Diana waited for Christmas.
19. All the students ran out to recess.
20. My uncle planted the trees
Concluding the Standard Lesson:
6. You have just successfully introduced the verb and can continue to do more grammar exercises from your textbook or workbook that will reinforce the concept for your students. You know your students’ needs best. You will correct each exercise, following the method you read in Chapter 3 on teaching the standard lesson. You can test the students, using the tests provided by your textbook publisher— and you will be surprised and pleased at the results! Your students are actually learning the grammar—and it’s relatively painless.

Integrating Grammarland Lessons with Writing in Follow-Up:
7. When your students turn to writing their next writing assignment, you will discover that the idea of Mr. Trail Boss’s being the most important word in the sentence has a powerful effect on the strength of their verbs in their writing. It is much easier to reinforce the idea of the importance of the verb in their writing using the “Trail Boss” from Grammarland. They will begin to write with stronger, more concrete detail, more “showing not telling,” and more personal voice. Students can be reminded to choose strong action verbs for more voice and vividness in their writing. They “need Mr. Trail Boss” in their sentences, not a weak little puny verb, you can tell them. After all, the verb is not just a colorless part of speech any more— he is the all-powerful Trail Boss at The Waterfall. You and your students are ready to learn another grammar concept!

Margo Sorenson is the author of twenty-eight books for young readers and has won recognition and awards for her work, including being honored by ALA nominations and being named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in YA Fiction. A National Her latest tween/middle grade mystery is ISLAND DANGER, MuseItUp Publishing, 2012. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter as @ipapaverison.