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Interview with Lisa VanDamme

Private School Founder, Director, & Teacher

Lisa VanDamme is the founder and director of VanDamme Academy, a private school that graduates thoughtful, articulate, and independent students.

One thing I love about VanDamme Academy is that rather than lumping all language instruction into one class, they have specific classes designated for literature, writing, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.

You probably guessed this, but they teach sentence diagramming in the grammar classes. In fact, Miss VanDamme wrote the introduction to my favorite grammar textbook, Rex Barks: Diagramming Sentences Made Easy.

The school is in the process of recording and selling their curriculum. They currently offer a physics course titled, "Fundamentals of Physical Science."

1. At the beginning of the year, you typically tell your students why they are learning the subjects that they are learning.

What do you tell your students about the importance of learning grammar?

I start the year by disabusing them of a commonly held and patently false view: “You don’t need grammar; you just need to make yourself understood.” I tell them that in order to make yourself understood—clearly, unambiguously, and succinctly—you absolutely must know the rules of grammar.

Illustrating this point is simple and fun. I have, for example, started the class by writing on the board the sentence, “You like Mr. Lewis better than me.” Then I ask them, “Should Mr. Lewis be insulted by this sentence, or should I?” Until they know the rules for proper pronoun usage and the concept of elliptical clauses, they are uncertain as to whether I am saying that they prefer Mr. Lewis to me or that they like Mr. Lewis better than I do.

I show them that this ambiguity can be avoided with knowledge of grammar.

2. Why do you use diagramming to teach grammar at your school?

The art of diagramming provides the students with a systematic, step-by-step process for parsing a sentence. A sentence is a complex, interrelated whole, with many parts working in concert to express a complete thought. Diagramming gives the student a method for discovering the parts and how they work together.

The diagram then makes perceptual the relationship among the words and phrases in the sentence. The student can see at a glance that the subject and verb constitute the sentence’s core, that subordinate clauses are dependent on the main clause, that prepositional phrases serve as modifiers of other words in the sentence, etc. It allows them to see the internal structure of the sentence.

This skill is not an end-in-itself: it is highly practical. Inevitably, at some point in the school year a student will ask me a question like, “Should I use the nominative or objective form of the pronoun here?” and I will respond, “Picture the diagram.” They will do a quick mental sketch and discover, for example, that the pronoun is the object of a preposition. After their brief grammatical reverie, they look at me again and say, with a grin and a tone of having resolved their own problem, “Oh.”

3. Some people believe that students will learn grammar without any formal grammatical training. They think if students are exposed to proper grammar, they will have an intuitive sense of it. What do you say to that?

I say it is difficult for me to respond to that view without sarcasm. Countless books, articles, and blogs (such as this one) have been written recently in a valiant effort to restore an ever-fading respect for the principles of grammar. Perhaps for a while writers and educators could get away with the claim that children would learn grammar inductively from exposure. However, the more the schools have shirked the responsibility of teaching grammar, the worse the spoken and written language of the general population has become. Now, children have no role models from whom to learn the principles of grammar even if that were an effective means for them to learn.

A study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) several years ago conveyed how harrowing the situation has become. The problem is not that students are unable to explain that you use the objective form of a pronoun as the subject of an infinitive (which I contend is a problem—they should be able). The problem is that few teenagers can speak and write intelligibly. To evaluate their writing ability, testers asked high school juniors to write a paragraph based on notes they were given about a haunted house. The performance of half the students was judged to be either unsatisfactory or minimal. The following is a “minimal” response:

"The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts."

This reflects the writing competency of half of American teenagers. Have they learned grammar intuitively, from exposure?

4. At what age do your students begin learning grammar? At what age do they begin diagramming sentences?

At VanDamme Academy, a study of grammar begins in kindergarten, with an introduction to the parts of speech, simple rules of usage (singular and plural forms, verb ending, etc.), and rudimentary mechanics (quotations, commas in a series, apostrophes, etc.). Each year they review and build on these basic skills, until they reach junior high and are given an intensive course in diagramming. At the conclusion of that course, they are masters of grammar, able to explain concepts like verbals, relative pronouns, and adverbial nouns.

We are also consistent about enforcing rules of good grammar in speech. It is not uncommon to overhear an exchange like, “Mrs. Beach, can I go to the bathroom?” and the benevolently teasing response, “I don’t know, can you?” This consistency helps the students over time to habituate proper grammar.

5. Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share from your grammar classes?

I love being witness to my students’ feelings of competency and pride when it comes to grammar. Recently, when she overheard an adult violate a rule of pronoun usage, my own 9-year-old daughter leaned over to me and whispered, “Mom, it’s really hard not to correct his grammar.” Similarly, parents often tell me they will not write emails to me without first having them edited by their children.

I recently played a game called “Tell Me Everything You Know” with my 11- and 12-year-old students. I wrote a sentence on the board, and they wrote down everything they knew about the grammar of the sentence, from simple observations like the identification of a proper noun in the sentence, to more esoteric observations, like the fact that an infinitive was used as an adverb. To show them how many observations were possible, I played too. As it turns out, I am the one who was shown what was possible—when I was beaten at my own game.

A few years ago, my graduates gave me a bracelet with a charm that said “Grammar Rules.” I cherish both the message, and the fact that they could explain that it is an amphiboly!

6. Your school never has multiple choice or fill in the blank tests. How do you test students' grammar knowledge?

I want my students to understand the rules of grammar conceptually; that is, I want them to be able to explain the rules in words. In subjects like math and grammar, it is easy for students to pick up on certain sequences and patterns, and to memorize and imitate them. This method falls apart as soon as a sentence diverges from the pattern. For example, a student may notice that the subject usually comes at the beginning of a sentence, and habitually identify the words at the beginning as the subject. It is only if they truly understand the concept of a subject that they can find it without fail.

We combat this pattern-seeking approach to grammar in several ways. Our grammar tests require that students answer questions in sentences, paragraphs, and even whole essays. A test might ask, for example, “What makes a group of words a phrase? Name a few different types of phrases.” We have them generate their own examples of grammatical concepts. For example, rather than asking whether a prepositional phrase in a given sentence is used as an adjective or an adverb, they might be required to give their own example of a sentence in which a prepositional phrase is used as an adverb. These methods help ensure that the students have a clear, thorough, independent understanding of the concepts they are learning in grammar.

7. You wrote the introduction to Rex Barks. Is this your preferred grammar textbook? Do your students enjoy using it?

I love Rex Barks. It provides thorough, easy-to-follow, incremental instruction in the diagramming of sentences, which has the students begin by diagramming the simplest of sentences, “Rex Barks,” and end by diagramming the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The process is made all the more enjoyable by the ever-present personality of the author, Phyllis Davenport, who is both a rigid and a charming advocate of proper grammar.

Interestingly, though parents sometimes recoil at the idea of diagramming, thinking it a skill demanded by strict, old-fashioned schoolmarms wielding rulers, my students always love it. It is, at once, grammar and a logic puzzle, and they take great satisfaction both from their ability to use their skills to solve the puzzles, and from the simultaneous acquisition of the knowledge they use to solve them.

8. Language and grammar change over time. How do you determine what is an acceptable change and what isn't?

I treat every change to grammar as guilty until proven innocent. Most rules of grammar exist with good cause: there is a reason in the nature of reality, man, and language for the rule, and the universality of the rule helps us to communicate unambiguously and effectively. Language does evolve over time, and if there is no inherent reason for a rule and its usage has changed consistently in practice, it makes sense to adapt to the change. At VanDamme Academy, we use the standards outlined in our textbooks from the early 80’s, after which companies adopted the wishy-washy idea of “standard vs. non-standard” English instead of plain old right and wrong.

This change in the textbooks reflects the modern, nonsensical idea that the traditional rules of grammar are arbitrary and that all “grammars” are equal. Many of these so-called “grammars” abound with contradictions and ambiguities and render clear communication impossible.

9. Random Question: If you could be transported into the world and events of any novel, what would it be and why?

If I could be transplanted into the universe of a novel, it would be a Victor Hugo novel--any Victor Hugo novel.

Victor Hugo has a deep and constant reverence for the human spirit. His characters exemplify man's greatest potential: they are intensely passionate, thoughtful, driven, uncompromising valuers. From a soldier who will face almost certain death in defense of his deeply-held political convictions, to a desperate mother who will sell her hair, her teeth, her virtue to provide for a beloved daughter, to a general who will walk into a raging fire to rescue the three helpless children of a mortal enemy. His stories, his characters, his view of man and life are grand.

It is this reverence for the human potential that I seek to inculcate in my own students, by exposing them to the epic achievements of history, the crucial advancements in science, and the classics of literature, and by providing them with the skills they need (clarity of thought foremost among them) to achieve their own ambitions. So, toward that end—here’s to a grammar revolution.

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