I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun. They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.
I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class. Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this. Then we began comparing.
It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.” The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns. Really?
I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”
“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.” (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)
I discovered several things during this class.
1. Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.
2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things. They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants. Beautiful.
3. I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns? And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.
They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is. They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page. Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”
How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write? Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.