Learning the Passive Voice

September 25, 2019

In English 7 this week, students took an exam to assess their grasp on the new vocabulary words they learned reading Virginia Woolf’s Legacy. The students read the questions on a hard copy, but were expected to fill their answers out online. The school provides each student with a computer for free, like all other aspects of their education, but many students were having technical difficulties and had to fill the exam out on the hard copy. The question format was similar to that of the reading SAT where students had to choose the correct word that fit into a sentence and select the correct main idea. 

The overall testing environment seemed to be pretty relaxed. Students were expected to work silently and by themselves but there was not the sense of anxiety among students that was a constant in my own high school classrooms during testing periods. I am not exactly sure how the grading system works at Norra Real nor how important grades on small assessments like this small check-in are but students seemed to have a much more relaxed and healthy relationship with tests and exams. 

In English 6 students are learning formal writing, which includes learning the passive voice. I was shocked to hear that this was such a big part of the English 6 curriculum, because once I entered high school, the passive voice was one of the largest faux pas that a student could commit. Of course, other aspects of formal writing were highlighted, such as more elevated word choices and the past perfect. Last week, students were given a short paragraph of a police(ish) report that they were supposed to alter to make more formal. Today, the teacher projected these on the board and students read them out loud to the class and students had to point out what made these samples formal.

After this, the students began working on editing their own writing samples that they had to write on the article about masculinity. During this, I walked around to help students with their edits and help them understand the feedback they were given. Most of the feedback was centered around word choice and word order. It was really interesting to see what students in English 6 frequently find challenging and where most of the mistakes come up. I had a 15 minute conversation with one student about whether or not “sacrificer” was a real word. After a while I started questioning everything I knew about the English language but we settled on the fact that “sacrificer” is not a real word and he had to take the roundabout way of making his point by phrasing it as “an individual who sacrifices.” 

I had another conversation with a student who was struggling to make a sentence passive. It took all of my mental energy to override my aversion to passive voice to help him. He was surprised to hear that American students are taught so explicitly not to use the passive voice and had the classic high school reaction of then questioning why he was learning something that is not directly beneficial to his life.