Ann Ellsworth, a Montana State University education professor, has received the 2019 Grammar Teacher of the Year Award, a national award presented by the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar and GrammarFlip. The assembly is a branch of the National Council of Teachers of English, and GrammarFlip is an interactive grammar and writing program designed to individualize student learning while saving time for English teachers.
Although she is employed as a professor at Montana State University, Ellsworth lives in Stevensville. She has worked with many teachers and administrators in Stevensville, Florence, Corvallis and Hamilton school districts. One of her former students, Tracey Rogstad, is now the principal at Stevensville Middle School.
“I’m incredibly humbled,” Ellsworth said of the honor. “There are so many amazing teachers who have committed their life work to advancing students’ understanding of how our English language works. I’ve always believed that knowledge is power. … Once you understand how something works, you’re able to use it as a tool.”
Ellsworth, who began teaching at MSU in 1990, is a professor of English language arts in the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development’s Department of Education.
According to a student letter written in support of the award, Ellsworth is known as a caring, encouraging teacher who has high expectations for herself and who makes it her goal to present difficult grammar concepts in ways that are accessible but also fun.
For Ellsworth, teaching grammar is a blend of art and science. Her innovative course on teaching English grammar – informally dubbed “Grammarland” – seeks to transform a subject
that many people might consider dull into energizing and inspiring lessons.
Ellsworth’s class “was striking, resembling nothing like the grammar instruction I had had in the past,” wrote Hannah Christofferson in her a letter of support. She went on to say that, for many teaching candidates, grammar instruction is correlated with tedious worksheets but not Ellsworth’s class, she wrote.
“This class put grammar into a whole new perspective with the focus on grammar as a tool to improve writing,” she said. “(Ellsworth) incorporated a multitude of refreshing teaching methods that surpassed the traditional ways of teaching grammar.”
In an article published by the MSU News Service, Anne Cantrell describes an example of a lesson in which Ellsworth encourages her students to become what she calls “prepositional phrase detectives.” The class begins with a quick explanation of prepositions – often short words such as in, of, at, to or with that link nouns, pronouns or phrases to other words in a sentence – and then the entire class works together to find examples of prepositional phrases in newspaper captions and magazine ads. Next, students pair up and again search for prepositional phrases while Ellsworth times them. They collect their phrases on paper, and the teams that find at least 15 phrases in time receive simple prizes.
“This activity is powerfully motivating,” Ellsworth said. “Students learn that prepositional phrases are ubiquitous. The follow-up lesson then builds on this initial experience; we talk about how to use them effectively as introductory elements to make ordinary subject-verb-object sentences a bit more interesting.”
In that lesson and in others, Ellsworth said she works to make the abstractions of language understandable through guided learning activities that maximize student engagement and learning.
“The outcome is mastery,” Ellsworth said. “Given that language learning is abstract, in-class experiential learning must make nuances explicit to help students succeed. Students love that choice is embedded in all assignments. They also express relief when they know our class centers on hands-on learning, not quizzes and tests.”
Ellsworth began her career as a public school teacher in her home state of Wisconsin. As she worked with kids at a bilingual school, she began to truly learn the importance of language.
“I taught the curriculum in Spanish and English,” she said. “It helped me learn the importance of language and become more groomed in my own skills so I could better help a child understand why a word is pronounced the way it is.”
After eight years as a public school teacher in Wisconsin, Ellsworth earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, before going to Bozeman and MSU.
Since then, she has received a number of honors for her work, including MSU’s Excellence in Online Teaching Award; MSU’s President’s Excellence in Teaching Award; MSU’s Anna K. Fridley Distinguished Teaching Award; the Department of Education’s Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award; the Dorothy Aasheim Memorial Award for Outstanding Service to the University, which was given by the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce and the MSU Alumni Association; and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year/Pam Atchison Memorial Award, given by the Montana State Reading Council.
According to Cantrell, Ellsworth’s colleagues in Bozeman believe her recognition as Grammar Teacher of the Year is well deserved.
“This award could not be going to a more deserving member of the teacher education profession,” said Nicholas Lux, associate professor in the MSU Department of Education. “Ann puts forth astonishing effort to create an engaging and safe learning space entirely focused on preparing preservice teachers with the necessary skills to be highly effective teachers.”
“Ann Ellsworth has dedicated her entire career to ensuring that educators are well prepared to teach literacy at all levels,” said Ann Ewbank, associate education professor. “Students who complete her courses understand the fundamental importance of grammar as part of the process of learning how to read and write.”
Because Ellsworth – who is also regarded as an expert on childhood literacy and reading – believes that teaching is far more than merely transmitting knowledge, her goal for her students in each class centers on transformation.
“Change occurs when students critically engage with the material and are invested in the activity,” said Ellsworth. “Students enter class expecting the unexpected. They are invited to discover, and I am rewarded as their familiarity with grammar evolves, graced by growing confidence and credibility. Smiling, empowered and energized students leave Grammarland. They have learned that grammar is fun!”