We started Advanced Grammar with nouns and verbs. A homework video and activity reviewed inflectional endings for nouns; the definitions of determiners, modifiers, and noun phrases; infinitive and participle forms of verbs; and the basic NP +VP = S equation. Students were surprised, as always, to learn that Schoolhouse Rock’s “person, place or thing,” while memorable and true, is not a rhetorical, structural definition for a noun.

Because NCTE recommends looking at grammar in context and our English program stresses knowledge of majors authors and literary periods, everyone received a copy of the first two stanzas of “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats with instructions to underline, highlight, or otherwise mark all noun phrases: determiner + modifier + noun. This allows practice of the concept as well as consideration of poetic language. Our textbook claims verbs are the central, pivotal members of a sentence, but is the same true of all poems? Once noun phrases are removed from this classic of British Modernism, there’s not much left!

When asked why Yeats might have made these choices and selected so many noun phrases in a poem with an action, “sailing,” directly in the title, students were taken aback. Didn’t he just write without thinking too hard about the words? Maybe he just wanted to be descriptive? I pushed a little and pointed out that one theme of the poem could be the inevitability of death: nothing will stop it. Could Yeats have avoided verbs and words of action on purpose? The class remained dubious.

Our second activity involved words that function both as nouns and intransitive verbs. With the assistance of my six year old, I came up with 22 of these words and wrote them on index cards. I asked students to raise their hands if they had a noun and then to raise their hands if they had a verb — confusion commenced, which is just what you want when the words go both ways!

Next it was time to work. Above their word, they wrote a noun phrase. Below, they wrote its infinitive and present participle forms as a verb. Directions were projected on the whiteboard.

noun phrase is an ebony curl. verbs are curl and curling.

On the reverse side, they wrote two 2-word sentences, one with their word-as-noun and one with the word-as-verb. Since we were running ahead of schedule, they paired up to exchange cards, and partners wrote an additional noun phrase and labeled the two-word sentences as noun usage or verb usage.

two word sentences include curls tangle and kittens curl

After they traded and added and got their cards back, I asked if anyone had two word-as-verb sentences. Several students, having created imperative sentences in which the word comes first in the noun position, raised their hands ex. “drive carefully” and “parents drive” or “look first” and “tourists look.” An additional suggestions, using the plural form of their word-as-noun, might help some students in this regard.

We discussed the power and importance of sentences at their core essence, subject + verb. I gave examples of 2-word sentences in a fictional prosecutor’s opening argument (He fired. She died.) and a short story that I wrote about a couple’s break-up (She cheated. He yelled. She apologized. He left. etc.). Yes, I know. Not very uplifting topics. Finally, I shared observations from The Stenhouse Blog about continued uses of the 2-word sentence in a classroom.

About half of the students found the exercise with Yeats’s poem useful for understanding noun phrases. The notecard activity left most of them confused.

Onward and upward!


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