A Case for More Grammar Instruction in Schools (And Less Standardized Testing)

“It really don’t matter how i put my words together, as long as you know what I am sayin’. If it can be read allowed in the same way that i would say it. No big deal. Its sorta like talking on a piece of paper right? Too think I should be graded on how I put my real thoughts on paper shouldnt matter to you and I.”

It’s a big deal.

Grammar matters. So do mechanics, punctuation, and usage. Yes, those are all different things.

Grammar encompasses the use of clauses and phrases and how the parts of speech should interact.

Mechanics involves the rules of capitalization, numerals, spelling, and other “rule-related” items.

Punctuation involves all of those marks we use to denote sound, pace, pauses, etc.

Usage refers to obeying the current rules for all of the aforementioned because rules change. Think about using an apostrophe + “s” after a singular noun that ended with “s” already in the old days. We do not really do that anymore.

Imagine you are writing a college admission essay for your top choice and when the admissions board reads your application the errors stand out more than your character.

It matters.

Imagine how many human resource managers look at resumes and automatically trash the ones submitted by candidates who commit too many errors.

It matters.

Imagine sending out wedding invitations and something is misspelled.

It matters, and it costs money.

Please do not misunderstand that I truly believe the written word and the spoken word are actually two different mediums that use similar vocabulary. However, communicating effectively on paper and through verbiage requires a firm understanding of audience and voice. Both of those are rooted in knowing the basic rules of the language we know as American English.

To be honest, it is hard to place blame on a student’s lack of control over the conventions of standard American English when it is not emphasized as much as it used to be. I still have thoughts of diagramming sentences in middle school for hours on end through exhaustive repetition. I loathed every minute of it then.

I am grateful for it every minute now.


When I talk to my students (who will be writing those college admission essays within the next calendar year), I tell them that learning grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation (GUMP) is like learning what’s “under the hood of the car.” If you are going to drive a car, it might help to know how the car actually runs in case something happens.

Yet something has happened when it pertains to teaching GUMP in schools, and it has become an uncomfortable situation. When students graduate from high school and enter college or the workforce, their use of language both verbally and on paper becomes an instant gauge by which others measure them.

If I asked my students “What are the parts of speech?” most would not know them. There are eight. I could ask them, “How many tenses of verbs are there?” They might be surprised that there are more than three – many more.

It becomes easy to pass judgement on schools based on those observations, and I am going to make a claim that it is not the fault of teachers and schools. Rather it is the fault of too much standardized testing that measures how many circles were correctly filled.

When the current age of standardized testing started with the No Child Left Behind mandate from President George W. Bush, the amount of tests that students faced in schools increased dramatically. The school year was not extended. Students did not take fewer classes, but the amount of “assessments” given to amass quantifiable data began to take more of teachers and students’ time.

The result was more of “teaching to the test” and preparing for evaluations. What is not on the test, therefore, should not be taught because how a student or teacher is measured came from test results.

When I taught exclusively freshmen in high school, I went through a period of time where I would be aghast that my students had such little control over grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation in their very short essays.

I then learned that it was not the fault of their middle school teachers; it was the fault of the system they were forced to teach under, one that was stipulated by standardized tests. Try dealing with the End-of-Course testing that encompass grades 6-8 and you will get a quick understanding.

Since my time in the days of less standardized testing, exercises like those long, repetitive adventures in sentence diagramming have become a thing of the past. Writing longer compositions have become less frequent because standardized writing tests really are simple short answer questions that tend to be assessed by formulaic analysis and simplistic rubrics. In some cases, those “essays” are actually graded by computers.

Not humans. (That is an effective fragment -at least I hope so).

A student’s experiences in how others use language have become a series of short quick interactions that take shallow roots in students’ minds as more and more schools play with the idea of reading select passages from novels rather than exploring entire texts.

All to save time to allow for test preparations and make sure boxes are checked when “covering” the curriculum.

Too many tests in a little amount of time creates the culture where we focus only on bits and pieces of language rather than letting students explore it from the inside out.

One learns to swim by being in the water. One learns to play a sport by practicing. One learns a craft by immersing himself in it.

Language is the same. We as a standardized-test crazed culture do not allow students to have those deep, time-consuming experiences in the fundamentals of language. If they did, then they would have more confidence in not only what they said, but how they said it.

They would understand how to manipulate diction, imagery, details, and syntax for specific audiences. They would know how to differentiate the spoken word from the written word.

They would have more voice.

Human resource managers pick up on voice as do college admissions counselors.

Even people like you and me. Not you and I.

“Steps to Help Make Our Schools Safer” And Mark Johnson’s Steps to Make It All About Him

There is not a sane person in the state of North Carolina who would not want to make our schools as safe as possible for our students. Taxpayer money is helping to fund a $35 million-dollar initiative to provide grants in the state to help launch School Safety Month.

According to the Center for Safer Schools website, the programs that are being enabled by DPI and tax payer money include what is on this web page: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/cfss/.


However, schools are starting to receive the following brochures and handouts that promote the school safety initiative that seems to be more of a campaign flyer for Mark Johnson. Take a look.


On both sides of this release is a reference to http://www.ncsuperintendent.com – Mark Johnson’s personal website. Not the “.org” of DPI’s site, but the “.com” of a commercial site that was traced back to GoDaddy.com.


The front and the back of the brochure has staged pictures of Johnson, and a personal note about his wanting schools to be safe – just like every other stakeholder in public education would want school to be.

But if one wants to get more information, one can go to a personal website – not DPI’s official site.

And if one wants some email updates, then they can put their name on a list.


That collection of names and holding of state information gathered specifically by a government entity on someone’s personal site seems unethical.

It’s also campaigning. This brochure is deliberately taking a DPI initiative and driving people to a personal site because someone is making it “all about him.”

Seems like someone should look into that.


#JustAskMe Actually Creates #GotAHellofALotMoreQuestions – About the WSFCS Teacher Supplement

By now many teachers in the WSFCS system have seen that video from May 10th concerning the superintendent presenting the school system budget request to the county Board of Commissioners where the issue of teacher supplements was brought up.

That original nine-minute video can be seen here:  https://youtu.be/M8HZuerdTE0.

Today, the Winston-Salem Journal ran a report about that video along with news of a video response by the superintendent to try and explain what actually may have happened.

After a video of a meeting between Superintendent Beverly Emory and the Forsyth County commissioners circulated on social media over the weekend, several educators expressed concern that the school district isn’t being aggressive enough in asking for more money for teachers supplements.
WS/FCS is one of the largest public school districts in North Carolina, but ranks 26th in supplements, according to data on the Department of Public Instruction’s website. With a budget vote expected at Tuesday’s school-board meeting, that gap is likely to be one of the most talked-about issues.
On Sunday, several postings of the video from the commissioners’ May 10 meeting included the hashtag #JustAsk, imploring the superintendent and school board to ask the county for money for supplements.
The video, running a little more than nine minutes, features comments from commissioners Everette Witherspoon and Don Martin, himself a former Forsyth superintendent.
“I hope that the school board actually asks for more money to deal with the teacher-supplement issue because we are behind,” Witherspoon says in the video.
“We’re not going to be asking you about it; you need to do the asking of us with a proposal or an idea or whatever,” Martin says.
Emory responded Tuesday with her own video, saying work has been ongoing behind the scenes between her, other district staff and the school board to find ways to improve the teacher-supplement formula and find a sustainable source of revenue for ongoing supplement improvements (https://www.journalnow.com/news/local/justask-to-justaskme-conversations-around-teacher-supplements-in-winston-salem/article_2c977317-f782-5edf-90a8-83ebaba4c8aa.html). 


The superintendent’s video seems to make the assertion that the original video is an edited and doctored piece of video. She states that it is “an edited piece of video that does not tell the whole story.” Actually, it is a shortened version of the whole. One could watch the entirety of that meeting here: https://www.co.forsyth.nc.us/Commissioners/AlternateAgenda.aspx?AgendaID=317&MeetingDateTime=May%2010,%202018. But it doesn’t change anything about the nine-minute version or take away from its presentation. In other words, nothing gets diluted from what happens in the shorter version with the added context.

That original video is not doctored. It’s a good abstract of a longer piece. And it’s hard to take the commissioners words out of context in this situation.

But since the gist of the video was to answer the #JustAsk initiative with the #JustAskMe, then it would be good to get those questions out there.

The superintendent said that more was going on behind the scenes than meets the eye, but the questions about who made the video or when it was released are rather odd because it is public record.


May 10th. Just click. The website is owned by the government and is public: https://www.co.forsyth.nc.us/Commissioners/meeting_agendas.aspx.

The comment that “we have been looking at it (increasing supplements) since February” does not seem odd in and of itself, but that means there were nearly four months time in which the school board committee and the commissioners could have been talking about possible ways to work together to make this a line item budget request. It also begs the question about whether the entire school board was aware of what was happening in that committee.

Nearly four months. That’s almost half a school year.

Listening to the commissioners was like hearing someone who was amazed that the budget request did not have a request for the teacher supplements that were supposedly researched since February. The comments by the commissioners certainly do not lend themselves to be evidence that open communication was going on between the BOC and the BOE.

If increasing the teacher supplement was such a ‘huge priority,” then why did two people on the board of commissioners in the video linked above for the entire meeting have to bring it up during the budget presentation? Why was it not included in the budget request in the first place?

One of obstacles that was claimed by the superintendent was that the state budget had not been finalized by that May 10th meeting. But there are two things that need to be questioned there.

  1. The state budget is a biannual budget. It is laid out in two-year increments. Not that the state budget can’t be amended (unless you have a NCGA that goes nuclear with its budget approval), but one can get a sense of what the state is thinking about giving. This was the second year in that current cycle.

2. Also, in the time that out current superintendent has been in office, WSFCS has gone from 18th in the state teacher supplement rankings to 25th. In fact, we moved down many spaces just in the past year with counties going by the same information that WSFCS had and went ahead and increased teacher supplements and made them sustainable.



In an attempt to refer to the entire video, the superintendent stated she told the board that she may have to come back to them and ask for more help in reference to a possible change in the state budget. The obvious question then would be “Did she?”

The talk about the proposed sales tax increase helping to become a sustainable source of revenue to possibly fund higher teacher supplements is important. However, a budget request is exactly that – a request. While the board of commissioners cannot see all that a school board may need to fully fund a large school system, the converse seems to have truth as well: the school board cannot ascertain how a board of commissioners will be able to fund all initiatives. That’s why requests are made and open communication is involved.

The fact that raising teacher supplements was a big concern of the superintendent and the school board should automatically preclude that a request should be made. It should be asked for.

It wasn’t.

The fact that we as teachers will get a $300 NET bonus was interesting. Considering that the superintendent spent time in her video talking about how the system makes sure to spread the resources for all system employees throughout WSFSC, will that bonus be made to all teacher assistants and other staff members in our schools?

Also, if it can be determined to find out exactly how much to pay to make sure all people get exactly a $300 NET bonus, it would make sense that four months’ time would be ample to make a specific line item request to begin raising the teacher supplements.

As a veteran teacher who has followed county politics and local education issue, I do not believe that the original video was doctored or spliced or edited to present one person as a “villain” or expose any “friction.”

But I want tough questions to always be asked. And I want requests to always be made if it helps our system.  Even if it means that the answer is “no.”

Because if you are afraid to hear “No,” then you should not be in education. One of the biggest unwritten jobs of a public school educator is to turn “no’s” into “possibilities” and “I can’t” into ” I can.”





Find a Teacher in Eastern NC and…

…ask what you can do to help. If anyone knows what is needed in a community that has been hit hard by natural disasters or other catastrophic events, then it is a public school teacher.

See if a school needs cleaning supplies or any other essentials that they may need to continue serving students and communities.

See if a teacher has set up an Amazon Wish List and gift them something with it.

See if you can send any pre-paid Visa cards to them so they can purchase items most needed now.

See if there is an organization that a teacher can recommend efor donating money or services that directly helps those communities.

See if the service clubs and organizations in your own schools can do fundraising efforts for those schools hit hard.

Ask school systems spared by the storm if they would consider sending extra textbooks or extra instructional materials to schools that may need them.

Call up a school in an effected area and see if you can donate lunch money for students who will have to spend weeks if not months to get settled.

Think of something. Then do it.

And share the idea with another and encourage them to help as well.


District 30 – Mangrum Vs. Berger: Maybe the Most Important General Assembly Race in the State Concerning Public Education

If you braved the cold temps last January and attended the Class Size Chaos Rally in Raleigh, you probably ran into Jen Mangrum. She was there to lend support.

If you came to the May 16th Rally and March, then you probably came within feet of her. She was there.

Mangrum is an educator. In fact, she is an educator of educators and is the daughter of … yes … educators. In the times that I have been in her company, I have found her accessible, compassionate, and straightforward.

She is the candidate whom Phil Berger will not debate. Even when his current district map was not declared gerrymandered, it was redrawn to exclude the part with Guilford County to include three red-leaning counties.

This past summer, a judicial board ruled her ineligible to run in District 30. Supposedly a challenge was issued on her residency by a rather eager “resident.” Reading about what happened in the initial judicial board hearing seemed more like a script from a movie. She appealed that decision and won.

A recent News & Observer  article entitled “Much feared Sen. Berger faces a fearless newcomer” by Ned Barnett gives a glimpse into what might be the most important state election this year.

It surely shows that Berger is not as untouchable as he appeared to be at one time.

When 20,000 public school teachers and advocates showed up in Raleigh on May 16th, Berger and Tim Moore pushed the budget into a “nuclear” option to keep any debate and amendments from entering the process. Many speculate that it was because Berger and Moore wanted to avoid having to talk about public education openly.

Now a teacher is after his seat in the NC General Assembly.

Per Barnett:

Berger’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but aspects of this race make him look like the skittish one. Mangrum announced her intention to challenge him more than a year ago, but when a new court-ordered map of legislative districts was unveiled in August of 2017, the Guilford County portion of Berger’s district – the portion where Mangrum lived – was gone.

Mangrum, the daughter of a Marine who served in three wars, decided to take the fight to Berger. She rented a home in Reidsville inside the newly-drawn District 30 and, having recently separated from her husband, declared Reidsville her new home a month before the Feb. 28 filing deadline (http://amp.newsobserver.com/opinion/article213216689.html).

To say that Phil Berger is the most powerful politician in North Carolina is not an overstatement to many people. But he seems to want to avoid Mangrum. She has openly invited him to debate. He has not responded.


If you can in any way, please support Jen Mangrum and all of the other pro-public education candidates like Terri LeGrand, Natasha Marcus, and many others.

And vote!

JUST ASK! – The Nine-Minute, Ten-Second Video From May, 2018 About WSFCS Teacher Supplements That Needs to be Discussed

Much has been said about a video that has been circulating online this past week concerning a May 10th, 2018 meeting of the Forsyth County, NC Board of Commissioners in which the school system superintendent made a ceremonial presentation of the the school system budget request to the board and the issue of teacher supplement was brought up.


When I first started in this school system out of grad school, WSFCS had the fourth best teacher supplement in the state. It is now 18th. WSFCS remains the fourth largest school system in the state.

This meeting also took place on May 10th six days before the March and Rally for Public Education in Raleigh that brought over 20,000 teachers from around the state and many more advocates to join them. Over 40 school systems closed down that day as so many teachers had taken legally allowed personal days to attend.

Literally a handful of days after the superintendent made this presentation, she announced that WSFCS would be one of those school systems.

Before you can pass judgement, look at this video, a nine-minute excerpted portion that highlights the discussion about the state of teacher supplements in the WSFCS system.

That video can be seen here:  https://youtu.be/M8HZuerdTE0.

One could watch the entirety of that meeting here: https://www.co.forsyth.nc.us/Commissioners/AlternateAgenda.aspx?AgendaID=317&MeetingDateTime=May%2010,%202018. But it doesn’t change anything about the nine-minute version or take away from its presentation. In other words, nothing gets diluted from what happens in the shorter version with the added context.

One could also consider what has happened in school board finance committee meetings before and after May 10th. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the board of commissioners’ invitation to simply ask for funds to cover a teacher supplement raise has never been brought to the entire school board for consideration.

With the large demonstration on May 16th (exactly four months ago today) already ramping up, the concerns of teachers about conditions in schools (including salaries), was in the forefront of any many school officials on May 10th. Every superintendent in the state and every school board must have already been keenly aware of the issues that teachers had with the NCGA’s treatment of the state public school system.

And what you see in this video is the county commissioners literally begging the superintendent to “ask” for funds to increase the teacher supplement in the WSFCS system. It’s as if they were begging the superintendent and the board chair (also in attendance) to ask for the funds to move the teacher supplement level in the system back into the higher rungs of the state.

They never asked.

They never asked.

In the four months that have passed, they have not asked.

In fact, if what many are saying is true, many of the school board members who were not in attendance at this May 10th meeting were never made aware of the county commissioners offering to help with teacher supplemental pay.

Watch that video again if you can.

Did it not seem that the two people on the board of commissioners who are prominently shown knew as much if not more about where teacher supplemental pay in the system ranked in comparison to the rest of the state than school officials who were present. Those commissioners saw the immediate importance of doing something about that in May of 2018 rather than waiting until the next budget cycle to start talking.

Did it not seem that the superintendent was erring on the side of being “polite” with the county commissioners rather than going in and asking for the funds that she and the school board would need to fulfill all of their endeavors? Teacher supplemental pay has been a topic of discussion for quite a while.

For all of the talk about economic recovery in this state from Raleigh and from the current POTUS, how come public education in this state (and other states) still has to fight for funds to adequately fund our schools?

Because public education usually is one of the last public goods to recover from an economic downturn.

That’s why any superintendent and school board in this state have to be willing to fight for anything to help public schools, especially financial resources. And in this video, it seemed that the county commissioners were asking the superintendent to “fight” for more funds to help with teacher supplement levels.

And they were going to allow the superintendent and the school board to “win” that fight.

That board of commissioners has a former teacher and a former system superintendent that sits on its bench. The other members have a vested interest in how our school system is able to recruit and maintain great teachers.

It has been reported that the system will be giving WSFCS teachers a $300 bonus at the end of this year and then try and “ask” for the funds to raise teacher supplements next year.

But it was right there ready to be done in May. Four months ago.

And even a taxable bonus does not take away from the fact that there was an incredible breech in communication and the obvious withholding of information that occurred. How could teachers not be disturbed by a school board chair and a super who did not follow through with asking for more supplement for teachers when it was handed to them on a silver platter? And why does this feel like a trend?

A bonus is a reward; a raise in supplement that could have happened so soon and has been a sticking point for many in this system is respect. Most teachers want respect not a reward that feels like it should help soothe rough edges in an election year when a one-time payment is meant to cover the fact that an overall investment in teachers was not given.

Now again consider that there are school board members who did not know about this “offering” until the past couple of weeks as this video has begun circulating. What does that say about the cohesiveness of the school board and the superintendent?

But what is probably the most shocking aspect about this whole situation (besides the fact that every school board seat is up for election) is that this directly involves teachers. Not a school building. Not a new curriculum. Not moving students from one school to another. Just teachers in a profession that seems to be more and more under the microscope. A profession that is seeing fewer candidates in the teacher preparation programs in the state.

What would a highly capable teacher candidate who is thinking about coming to the WSFCS system think of this?

All of these questions are not of the rhetorical kind. They deserve answers.

Specifically from a small number of people.

That and school board meetings are about to become rather well attended.












Happy Birthday to Malcolm – Another Year of Awesome

Malcolm turned 11 today.

So a “Happy Birthday” to a kid who:

teaches everyone how to live in the present,
honestly tells you how he feels,
reminds me that special needs actually applies to everyone,
changes clothes three times a day because, well, because,
perfected the art of the smile,
calls me by my first name,
dances even when he is sick,
laughs infectiously,
eats ice cream with the respect good ice cream deserves,

and who takes every stereotype, crushes them in his hands, and throws them away because he does not believe that anyone is standard or average.

There’s a cake coming your way today, buddy.

After a game of basketball in the wind and the rain.


When the State Superintendent Turns a “.ORG” Into a “.COM.”

When you do a search for the official website for the North Carolina General Assembly (even on a day like today when a lethal hurricane is tormenting the eastern part of our state), then you get this.

ncdpi outage3

It is still up and going for those who need it.

But when one tries to find the official site for the Department of Public Instruction…

ncdpi outage2

and click on it, then this comes up:

ncdpi outage

In fact, look at the address bar on top.

ncdpi outage4

That’s what happens when an egotistical public servant turns a “.org” that is supposed to be maintained by a “.gov” into a “.com.”



Literally Using Hurricane Florence to Launch a Personal Campaign Website – Mark Johnson’s www.ncsuperintendent.com

When State Superintendent Mark Johnson launched a new “personal” website (www.ncsuperintendent.com) this week that takes advantage of his title and position and negates all other personnel in DPI what he actually did was to create an unethically built campaign website using public resources.

Even if it was done with no taxpayer money (it was set up in GoDaddy.com) , branding it with a publicly held state department and using DPI’s actual site to advertise it is still using taxpayer resources to maintain the new website’s profile and reach.

And it is using the emergency that is Hurricane Florence to manipulate people looking at it and using it for information that the already existent DPI website provides without a bias to it.

This was sent out to DPI employess this week.


It says,

Due to the potential impact of Hurricane Florence, DPI Technology Services will be following the guidance of the N.C. Department of Information Technology and shutting down the DPI data center at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 13.

The following services will be affected by the shutdown:

    • The DPI building wired network and wireless network
    • The DPI website ncpublicschools.org (NCsuperintendent.com and parts of stateboard.ncpublicschools.gov will not be affected)
    • HRMS – Human Resource Management System
    • NcWise Owl – Learning resources for the suite of HomeBase applications
    • NC-SIS – Learning resources for the suite of HomeBase applications
    • Financial and business applications hosted here at DPI such as Salary Compliance, Cash Management, Host on Demand and XNet would be unavailable within the building.

Ironic that the Raleigh area still has power and that every other state agency’s websites are still up and functional. And now people will have to go to a website that masquerades as a service but actually is a campaign site that only serves one person: Mark Johnson.

How can one tell if it is a campaign website? Every element of it is something that most campaign websites would have.

  1. It has links to social media outlets.

social media

2. It collects names and information from people to build a database for the upcoming 2020 election cycle.


3. It highlights a priority list of issues that sound like campaign talking points.


4, There is a “get to know me” section to introduce himself to voters.

meet me


5. It offers press releases that are highly favorable to one person: Mark Johnson.

press releases

6. It offers plenty of “PR” pictures and running video for the one person that the website serves: Mark Johnson.


7. One can request a “campaign” visit from the site.


8. It’s a .com and not a .org. 


The only two specific things that are missing that might make it the most blatant campaign website ever are that it there is not a “donations” page or a place to sign up to be a volunteer. And one cannot have those two things unless one has already declared to be running for an office which Johnson has not.

But that rumor mill has been running for a while and http://www.ncsuperintendent.com is not really hiding any intentions here.

And it’s launching literally without any other “DPI’ related site available because of the hurricane.

It smells like those hog waste pits that are being overrun by rising waters.