Unlocking The Magical Power Of Words Used Well

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

By Cathy Rainone

Believe it or not, Jane Tainow Feder makes learning grammar fun for associate degree students . Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, she’s been known to climb on the desk to demonstrate how prepositional phrases work, or break into rap lyrics to help students remember subject-verb agreement, correct usage of singular and plural, the possessive apostrophe and other grammar rules.

“I want to keep their attention. Grammar doesn’t have to be dry; grammar is accessible,” says Feder, who got the idea to turn the classroom into theater from her own college English professor years ago. “I just hope they remember why I was on top of the desk.”

Feder has been teaching English at City Tech for more than 40 years, but while grammar hasn’t changed, her approach to teaching it has.

She’s always coming up with new mnemonic devices like CVS, which helps one remember the components of a sentence: complete thought, verb and subject — not the pharmacy chain — or WABITS for frequently used subordinate conjunctions: when, although, because, if, that and since. She also makes up catchy phrases and lyrics to help students memorize various grammar rules. One February morning she had a whole class singing, “Third person singular present tense always has an ‘s.’

Jessica Couture, 27, a freshman who hopes to be a nurse, is a student in Feder’s class, Developmental Writing II. Couture had been out of school for 10 years, and having Feder as a teacher makes her want to learn again. “She talks to you. Some teachers just write on the board and don’t look at you.

She’s fun. She’s very passionate about what she does. She makes it interesting by singing and doing other things and that makes you want to be in the class and want to participate,” says Couture.

Advances in technology have also changed how Feder teaches. She uses Blackboard software to share reading and writing assignments with her students, and she always has a Smart Board in her classroom — a computer with a screen large enough for everyone to see. It allows her to quickly demonstrate material in writing, such as proper sentence structure, and easily move from one aspect of grammar to another without chalking them up on a blackboard.

Students also use Smart Board to present their research assignments in class.

“I first started with a computer when they first came into the classroom and loved what the possibilities were for individualizing a classroom experience,” says Feder.

“We then used a program called Peek, so the students sit in the lab and I could peek into their screens. I could sit at my desk and I could move into their screen and we could communicate about their work.”

Feder even Skypes with her students because many have full-time jobs and don’t have time outside of class to meet with her face to face.

Over the years, the student body at City Tech changed, says Feder. It became more diverse, and students have more responsibilities outside of school and they’re more sophisticated about technology.

“Everybody has a computer now,” says Feder, “which is astounding, and if they don’t, they have smartphones. They want to text me but I don’t want them to text me, I have to set boundaries.”

For many of Feder’s students, English is not their first language, and even those whose native language is English often have challenges in writing because “too often the home and the street reign in the struggle between standard English and the competing forces of English blended with other languages or street talk,” she says.

To help these struggling writers, Feder recently published The GPS for Writing, Grammar, Punctuation, and Sentence Structure, a book that’s easy to navigate and comes with tests and exercises. Feder and several professors at the college use The GPS in their classrooms.

“The book is completely original and it’s what I’ve developed over the years of teaching; it was almost like talking,” says Feder. “It’s concrete. With my students, I find a way that they can internalize the concepts. And I don’t want to take it all with me, I want to share it.” Vincent Shaw, 39, and an Iraq War veteran, likes using the mnemonic devices that Feder spells out in the book and in the classroom.

“She’s fabulous, she takes her time to make sure that you understand and she uses acronyms and songs which kind of make it easier to remember,” says Shaw, who is studying to become a dental hygienist. “It might seem silly but it helps me to remember.” Avis J. Smith, 60, was Feder’s student in 1969, and he credits her with improving his writing.

“There wasn’t much technology back then, but she relied on her skill of teaching which was very useful,” says Smith, who has been teaching in the department of restorative dentistry at City Tech for 14 years. “She was very energetic and she was just a fantastic teacher. What I learned from her then is helping me today to write articles in dental technology and academic journals.”

Feder has taught thousands of students over the course of her career, but her mission was always to help students gain confidence and joy in writing.

“The knowledge that they are using correct grammar gives writers the confidence to express their unique voice in their writing,” says Feder. “Grammar is a great tool, it gives people confidence. I just think that not a lot of people like it or know it or understand it or realize that it’s logical. But it is logical.”

Professor Feder invents unforgettable memory aids for language rules.