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From Abstract to Tangible: Bringing Grammar to Life with Grammaropolis

From Abstract to Tangible: Bringing Grammar to Life with Grammaropolis

“Kids hated it,” Coert Voorhees said when we met in Salento on Rice Village, on a clear, sunny Friday morning.

Voorhees, a tall, friendly man who used to translate plays for a Chilean playwright , taught 7th Grade Writing at Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, California for six years.

“The kids that I was teaching – half of them had come from the K-6 of this school, and were spectacular [at grammar],” Voorhees said. “The other half of the kids came from schools outside and around the community, and didn’t know grammar at all. I showed up, and had to try to reach both sets at the same time.”

Kids hate learning grammar, and teachers, in turn, hate teaching grammar, Voorhees said.

“Nobody wants to be there, even though it’s essential to communication,” Voorhees said. “To be able to communicate effectively, you need a nice, firm foundation, and solid grammar is where it starts.”

For Voorhees, there were two options.

“The first option was to figure out how to make kids not hate it,” Voorhees said. “And the second one was to realize the reason they hate it is that it’s really kind of abstract – you have these terms that we’re expecting kids to retain – so an adverb modifies a verb – that’s great, but what does that mean in the abstract?”

Voorhees found his answer in storytelling.

“I think as people we tend to retain more information if we have an emotional connection to it, and the way to have an emotional connection to it is to experience it through a story,” Voorhees said.

Grammaroplis was eventually born, turning the abstract into the tangible.

Welcome to Grammaropolis. Photo source.

Welcome to Grammaropolis. Photo source.

“If I show you a verb driving down the street in his convertible, and his cape is blowing in the breeze, and the adverb policeman pulls him over and gives him a ticket, and says drive slowly, all of a sudden then we know that the adverb made the verb go slowly. By giving these abstract parts of speech human characteristics, I can say that adverbs are bossy – they tell other parts of speech when to go and how to leave and how to get there. That’s much easier for a second grader or a fourth grader or an eight grader or an adult to grasp than ‘adverbs’ modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. All of this that you find in a textbook is so dry.”

Also a published and award-winning young adult novelist, Voorhees said he is comfortable on a narrative level and had his students work with his concept for an assignment.

“The assignment that worked is if you have a main character, you have to figure out what the character wants, who her friends, are who he’s afraid of, what his job is, who she hangs out with, etc. And if you know that, then you know the character. So if you make that character a part of speech, and you personify that, then you have to fill in the world – ok, so now nouns, their jobs are to name things. Who are they afraid of? Well, probably the pronoun, because the pronoun is trying to take their job. Who do they hang out with? Well, they hang out with adjectives and verbs. They don’t really with adverbs a lot, because an adverb can’t modify a noun. You start building the world.”

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Some Grammaropolis characters. Photo courtesy.

From there, Voorhees said, it was not just about children’s books.

“Imagine if we could do anything – what would we do,” Voorhees said. “I’m hugely influenced by Schoolhouse Rock. I loved it, and everyone in my generation, if you say, ‘conjunction juntion’, everyone sings, ‘what’s your function’. But if Schoolhouse Rock were released today, there would be apps, there would be books, there would be all sorts of stuff to take advantage of the delivery mechanism, so not just broadcasted on public television, as it was in the early 70s. So we decided to flesh out as much as we could.”

After getting an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, Voorhees spent a year at Rice University as a visiting writer in residence.

“After I graduated from [the University of Houston], I said ‘Ok, well what am I going to do now?’” Voorhees said. “And the whole Grammaropolis thing had been in my mind. I raised a little bit of money from friends and family to do a demo. So I did a demo website, we recorded one song, we did two short 20 second videos, and then I did an app. I didn’t call it a demo website – I just said, here’s Grammaropolis, meet these characters, and here’s a video.”

Coert Voorhees, founder of Grammaropolis. Photo courtesy: Coert Voorhees.

Coert Voorhees, mayor of Grammaropolis. Photo courtesy: Coert Voorhees.

All of the sudden, Voorhees said he started seeing great traffic, even getting named “English website of the month” from Englishclub.com, which describes itself as the “world’s premier free website for learners and teachers of English” on its website.

“I thought, well ok, maybe I’m not crazy after all, maybe this animated grammar could work,” Voorhees said.

Voorhees then raised more money to build out all of the content, including the album and animation. The website version includes a home school version and a school site-license version, and the complete Grammaropolis app includes Neighboorhood for Every Part of Speech.

Since being released, Grammaropolis has had recognition. Grammaropolis – Complete Edition was one of 15 apps for writing included in last year’s Kickstart Your School Year curated collection. Currently, both Grammaropolis and the game Word Sort by Grammaropolis are featured in the Literacy section of the Apps for Elementary School collection. The apps have also been featured in New & Noteworthy and What’s Hot on the App Store.

Voorhees said Apple has continued to be very supportive in terms of features and featuring Grammaropolis on lists.

An adverb policeman. Photo source.

An adverb policeman. Photo source.

“For the first three years of the company, it was just me. I had a musician who I’d worked with at the school where I had work, Dr. Noise. He’s a children’s musician now, he was the choir director and music theory teacher at the middle school where I taught grammar. I knew him, he’s in Denver. I worked with him on the album. I worked with Powerhouse Animation on the animation and the illustration. A local company here, Bouncing Pixel, is who I went with for web design, and eventually app design. I was working on a demo app with a guy in Chicago.”

An idea inspired in the classroom is now a tool classrooms can use so students better grasp and understand grammar.

“I remember when [the Grammaropolis app] came out, I got an email from Apple that said, ‘Hey, there may be a promotional opportunity, would you send us some art with these specifications?” And I said , “hell yes I will.”

The promotion came out two days later, featuring Grammaropolis with a main banner – the artwork Voorhees had sent – for a full month at the top of the Education App Store, in rotation with apps from Nickelodean, National Geographic and Disney.

“Seeing those names, I was like, one of these companies only has one person working for them,” Voorhees said.