Learning in Times of Corona

Kids are back in school, virtually. I am amazed at the great resources available to them. Smurf’s 3rd-grade class is organized; he gets a clear list of daily to-dos on Google Classroom, clicks on each task and does it, turns it in, then proceeds to the next one. He has a videoconference with his class three mornings a week and he’s had some playdates with a good buddy the same way. He’s enjoying his piano lessons over video. I’ve started some light kickboxing tutoring with him, because he’s been really into it ever since I deigned to set up the heavy bag I’d bought for Xmas. He’s super cute in oversize gloves, punching!

Middle Boy’s school situation is much more chaotic. He’s in middle school, so different teachers for different subjects and different kids. Some teachers are comfortable assigning work online, others not so much; the amount across the board is far less than what the kids would do in regular school.

Middle Boy is now learning Spanish through something called Blended Spanish software, which (to me) looks gorgeous. I don’t speak Spanish, but speak (with various levels of proficiency) several other languages; I’ve been meaning to brush up on my rusty German for years now, but hey, no time like the quarantine to take up learning a new language, so maybe I will make it Spanish alongside MB.

It bothers me how little general knowledge the kids have (or maybe it’s just the perpetually blase MB). He was supposed to find verbs ending in -es and -is in a sentence in Spanish, but it turned out he didn’t know what a verb was or what verb conjugations were. These were quick to explain, but why doesn’t he know this from school? (Why don’t many of my undergrads alongside some domestic grad students know what parts of speech are? When I mention things like a compound adjective, so many of them give me a deer-in-headlights look.) I have no idea when these concepts are covered in K-12 English; I’m thinking in elementary school, but I hope it is before the start of foreign-language instruction.

Husband always tells me not to compare people against myself, but I’ve always wanted to know EVERYTHING. Scratch that; I wanted to learn everything where I  could appreciate an underlying logic, and the logic made memorization a breeze. I hated teachers who made me cram without rhyme or reason (I’m looking at you, all history teachers and most biology and geography teachers I’ve ever had). At some point I fell in love with grammar, and that love and fascination with the underlying structures stayed with me as I studied foreign languages. Seeing the conjugations of the present tense of a couple of Spanish verbs, and how natural the rules were, made me giddy.

Anyway, virtual learning. On the upside, at least I now know what the kids are learning and can help out and explain what was missed. And I get to learn a few things along the way! 😉


Likely taking a break from posting tomorrow, as I have a story deadline and some award nominations to finish.

Re some stuff on Twitter. I know it’s a privilege to be home at this time and not outside, doing essential work and risking my life every day. But the likes of me who are fortunate to work from home can’t be expected to self-flagellate over it 24/7.


  1. Traditionally, Americans don’t learn much formal grammar until they start studying a foreign language.

    I think we usually learn what the basic parts of speech are, but not much more than that.

  2. What Jay said. Our English classes are about coloring, making crafts, plot, character development, and symbolism. Learning Spanish helped me understand so much about English.

  3. I was the Chair of Foreign Languages Kent State University over a decade ago. We had to institute a “remedial” course called (as I recall) something like “Structural Concepts of Grammar” to help students succeed in our regular foreign language courses. I do remember during my own school days learning something called “diagramming” — where we graphically represented sentence structure. It seemed a useful tool for learning syntax. That seems to have disappeared from the curriculum, alas.

  4. Agreed. I learned a lot of grammar when I took Spanish. I

    There is a lot of emphasis on making sure kids can read and comprehend what they read, rather than analysis… Charitably, the idea might be to instill a love of learning then the natural grammar will follow if they start to read spontaneously. Or more likely US ed system is just scrambling to make sure the population literacy rates are high enough not to be too embarassing.

  5. I second Jay’s comment. I didn’t know anything about grammar until I start studying Latin in 7th grade. I was totally fascinated after that, though! I’ve been telling people pretty much since middle school that I learned as much about English as I did about Latin from studying Latin. (I went to a school with 40ish kids in each class, so we didn’t have much choice in language; I did finally take a couple years of Spanish in college so that I’d be able to have at least one other language in which I could communicate with other humans.)

  6. I’m Spanish and we had a ton of grammar in middle school: a course every year. It was hard. I hated it!!! Maybe because I disliked the teacher. Since then I’ve completely forgotten it.
    Loved history, it’s like a massive story and gossip. Loved all science courses too. I am now studying French, they love their grammar too, and sometimes I don’t understand what the grammatical question even means…ups for forgetting grammar.

  7. I use grammar to explain math to my students. They’ll add quantities with different units, or mix scalars and vectors, and I compare these mistakes with somebody mixing singular, plural, masculine, and feminine in Spanish grammar (e.g. “el chicos alta”).

    Also, in physics the symbol r on its own usually means either a radius or the distance from the origin, while r with a vector arrow over it is a position vector, and r with a little “hat” over it is a unit vector. I compare with “to”, “too”, and “two” in English.

  8. @Alex. Using grammar to explain math would not work well for my students—they are as likely to subject/verb number agreement problems as they are to mix units. I’ve not noticed any better subject/verb agreement among those for whom Spanish is a first language than for those for whom English is the first language.

    I try to avoid nomenclature where the spoken versions of different symbols is the same, which is a little difficult in electronics, since so many of the variables are traditional (I imagine the problem is even harder in physics, which has a lot more traditional symbols that can’t be changed without confusing students).

  9. Some students will never get any sort of analogy, because they are under-prepared in so many ways that nothing will work. I’m not making my Spanish grammar analogies for their benefit, because they’ll never derive any benefit from anything. They’ve never developed their skills for reasoning with symbolic expressions and abstract concepts, and yet they’re in a major that, by administrative fiat, has to be done in 120 semester units. And it has to end up at a point roughly consistent with the expectations of graduate programs. (The end point is not specified by the administration, but for the sake of our own self-respect, and the grant renewal prospects of people with funds to run “PhD Pipeline Programs”, we like to sort of kind of get to a certain level of material.) All of this means that we don’t have time to go over what it really means to write down and manipulate algebraic expressions, so they are screwed.

    I make my Spanish grammar analogies for the benefit of those students who are open to thinking more carefully about math as a language. Some of them will be able to appreciate this notion, and I want to stimulate their thought processes. It’s fun to think about math from that perspective, and the ways that different choices of symbols, different conventions for what is implicit vs explicit in an expression, are almost like dialects!

    Also, if I make connections with Spanish grammar, I have a ready-to-go defense if anyone ever accuses me of not taking into account the unique needs and backgrounds of our under-represented students.

  10. I remember learning about direct and indirect objects in Latin in the 9th grade. I remember having a discussion with my English teacher about how you can think of swimming as a gerundive or a gerund (I am swimming – swimming is adjective modifying “I”, I like swimming — swimming is noun) as well as a verb, with him telling me how stupid that was, and this was at a good school (albeit with the worst English teacher in the department). Anyway. Yeah, Americans don’t know grammar. Has been this way for at least a generation. I find it fascinating.

  11. Wow, the bit about history, geography and biology deeply resonated with me (in that order of subjects). To me it felt that in these areas, teachers did not manage to come up with concepts, but rather made us remember a random jumble of factoids. Good times.

    On the other hand, I always had a knack for things embodying a certain symbolism (grammar, literature, chemistry, maths, physics) that work on two levels – on a purely rule-based hierarchical approach, but also allow one to develop intuition and gut feelings for new things over time.

  12. I very much disliked history in high school (dates! facts! wars! presidents! empires!) and I loved English. At my college, though, the American Studies department was housed in the history department, and the interesting “cultural context of literature” courses were American Studies or History courses; English was more New Criticism and I didn’t find that interesting. Also, the US History courses I took were all rooted in cultural/intellectual history, which was MUCH more conceptual and turned out to be MUCH more my jam than my original major (economics) where I couldn’t pass a course to save my life.

    So, while I went on to get a PhD in US (cultural/intellectual) history, I have always been more sold on interdisciplinary work and more conceptual emphases, and I worked hard to teach history more conceptually when I was teaching. So, ironically perhaps, I still hate the kind of history I had as a kid!?

  13. Ugh, I remember grammar lessons in middle school. I flunked quizzes because I could’t identify past participles, gerunds, conjunctions, etc.. Yet I always used proper grammar when writing essays.

    I finally started understanding grammar rules and terms when I studied French in high school.

  14. I remember diagramming sentences in sixth grade. That has gone the way of the dodo. I taught high school for twenty-five years and most kids had puny knowledge of grammar, parts of speech — except for the kids studying Latin, who were amazing!

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