The Power of Reading and Writing

CARMICHAEL, CA (MPG)  |  By Elise Spleiss
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School teacher and grammar enthusiast Elaine Swanson has touched the lives of many of her students through her kind efforts to keep the English language alive. Photo by Sue Anne Foster
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More than 20 of Swanson’s former students gathered at her home in April to honor and thank her for all that she has done over the course of several decades. Photo by Sue Anne Foster

CARMICHAEL, CA (MPG) - “You will be judged by the language you use and how well you use language.” This conviction has been the driving force for over 50 years behind the work of retired English teacher Elaine Swanson of Carmichael.

Swanson’s goal is to complete her book, “Color Coded Grammar,” to be used as a companion for English textbooks in order to bring the subject of English back to its rightful place of honor in the education system. Swanson turned 90 years young on June 30 and is still actively working on her notes for the book.    

Swanson has been developing this new system of teaching grammar to students since the 1970s when she and her friend, fellow teacher Juna Roy, developed the method while team teaching English to ninth graders at Albert Einstein Junior High in the Rosemont area.

The teachers had noticed at the beginning of the year that many of their ninth graders lacked the ability to read or write well and were at risk of failing or not attending college and missing out at successful lives simply because they had never learned the basic rules of grammar.

She had believed the eighth grade exit exam would weed out those not ready for high school and students would be forced to repeat classes, giving them time to get better prepared for college. Instead, when many students could not pass the test, standards were simply lowered. Those not ready for high school would continue to fall behind. According to Swanson, students were sold out, no longer expected to achieve excellence.

Swanson knew that previous teachers had been giving them writing assignments without teaching them to write, often resulting in cheating and low self-esteem.

Reading is power in every country and language – sometimes too much power. In an interview, Swanson pointed out the length many governments and church bodies in history have gone to in order to keep the ‘common’ people from learning to read, even today.

At the same time, other forward-thinking countries such as India and Japan, which recognize the place of English in world commerce, take teaching English in their own country much more seriously than we do.

For two years the teachers combined two full English classes of ninth graders - one person teaching and the other helping students who were confused about what was being taught but did not know how to ask for help. The system worked well and parents were pleased with the outcome, considering what tools the team had to work with. 

Understanding the importance of the English language, Swanson and Roy knew something had to be done in the future.  Their students needed to learn the rules in order to be understand how to write and speak correctly and to get the most out of what they read.               

Seeing their success with the combined classes, in 1974 the school asked the team to teach social studies and English to a class of students entering the seventh grade. Swanson and Roy needed to prove that lowering the standards so students would pass tests was not the answer.

“If kids are held at held to a higher standard, they will meet it,” said Swanson. “They will do more than they think they want to if it is expected of them.”  Swanson did not make it easy. If you earned an A you got an A. If you earned a C you got a C. If you cheated you got an F on that assignment. She believed that any student was capable of earning a C.

Students would remember much more than their grades in her class. Besides the basics of color coding each part of speech to help remember its function, such as nouns being red, and verbs being green, Swanson replaced the sentence diagram with eight sentence patterns to help students analyze their own writing.

Learning English and social studies together gave students the opportunity to be immersed in these subjects by writing and putting on plays and skits, and going on field trips. They were able to learn from real world examples in the news about the importance of English on the world stage.

Going into eighth grade as friends added to the trust and success of these 50 students in the 1970s.  Now in their fifties, many still stay in touch with Swanson.

On April 28, 2018, more than 20 of these students gathered at Swanson’s home in Carmichael to honor her and thank her personally for changing their lives. One student, Austin McAdam, arranged for the reunion party to show Swanson how her teaching and care for them had affected them on many levels. Three of the students who attended had become English teachers.

“Back then I felt like a nobody, but with the class interactions and her insistence on our doing our best, I came out feeling like a somebody,” said one former student.

“When I told my parents all the different ways we approached learning in class, they said, ‘If all children had this kind of educational experience, all children could be bright.’” Many remarks echoed the common theme of comfort and confidence. “Her class was the only place I felt safe at school,” said one former student in attendance. “She changed the direction in my life.”          

Swanson said of the gathering, “It was the most wonderful day for me.”