Rules Are Made to Be Broken

The other day, a few of my friends/people I stalk on Facebook and Twitter posted this article from College Humor about the “8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need”. It included such suggestions as the Sarcastises (“use when you want to be sarcastic but in a way that’s totally different and better than what you’re using now”) and the Morgan Freemark (when you want someone to read something you wrote using Morgan Freeman’s voice in their head). I mean, these are useful, right? So useful, in fact, that I might have downloaded the font. I might have. Maybe.

Other than finding my 8 new favorite punctuation marks (move over, em dash), this article planted a seed for my next blog post. Because here’s the deal. Joking aside, these punctuation marks are about creating meaning, which is really what all punctuation marks are about. Sometimes, though, I think we get so caught up in THE RULES that we might forget that rules are made to be broken.

This brings me to the teaching of punctuation (and grammar) in high school. It’s confession time. Early in my career, I busted out my grammar handbooks and grainy worksheets (duplicates of purple dittos–told you this would be a confession) and made my students do endless drills of correcting sentences and filling in blanks. Then I realized something. The kids could get all the answers right on these worksheets, but I kept seeing the same errors come up over and over and over again in their writing. To top it off, we all wanted to gouge our eyes out with spoons because we were so effing bored.

There had to be a different way. A way to actually teach students about punctuation and grammar AND get them to actually use what they were learning. There was. I started pulling examples of grammar and punctuation use from my kids’ writing and using that to have them find patterns of usage AND errors. Immediately afterward, I would ask my students to turn to their drafts and edit based on what they had learned.

Suddenly, they were transferring their new grammatical understanding to their writing.

A turning point for me was one day a couple of years ago when I was discussing with my freshmen what made the difference between a “proficient” use of grammar and punctuation and an “advanced” use of grammar and punctuation. To answer that question, we thought about what writers do. Through looking at examples of well-crafted writing, my students came to this conclusion: the most effective writing manipulated grammar and punctuation for effect and meaning, even if that meant breaking the rules.

To see what I’m talking about, consider this piece from truth-out: “Tip Your Server and Save the World.” The first paragraph, which is 10 lines, has one period in it. One. But if you read the article, you’ll see that this absolutely adds to the frenzied feeling of the piece, which echoes the frenzied and chaotic pace of a server’s work. I once met a teacher who would deduct a point for every grammatical error in a student’s paper. If this New York Times bestselling author were in her class, he’d probably get like a -47. But what he does in this article is smart. And effective. More effective than if he’d followed all the rules.

Of course, we know it’s important to know the rules of punctuation and grammar. If students don’t know them, then their “mistakes” are purely accidental, and we’re really striving to get kids to see themselves as authors who make intentional choices. Still, though, we can teach students the rules by asking them to look at real models of writing. This shows them that, again, punctuation helps create meaning and clarity in writing because they can see how comma rules work in the context of real-world examples.

With the Internet, we are so lucky to have access to so many quality sources of professional writing on websites like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Utne Reader, The Week, and Longform. Articles from any of these sites could be pulled into the classroom for students to study how writers use a variety of techniques in grammar and punctuation.

Thinking about helping our students develop independence as writers also makes me think about the Common Core. If you look at the Language standards, a couple of the high school ones really stand out.

For example, take Language Standard 2 for grades 9-10: “Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.” If students are going to master the second part of that standard–the part about conveying meanings and adding variety and interest to compositions–they HAVE to study how writers do this work. They aren’t going to learn how to make choices if they are completing out-of-context problems from our dusty class sets of Warriner’s (Not that any of you do this–I’m merely speaking from personal experience).

And to raise the bar even higher, look at Language Standard 1 for grades 11-12: “Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.” This standard screams usage rebel. I mean, it directly calls out the fact that we need to teach students that the rules of grammar and punctuation are fluid. Exciting stuff.

If we are going to initiate our students into communities of literacy and teach them to see themselves as writers, then they need to know how (and why) to use and manipulate grammatical rules to their advantage.

Now if only WordPress could add the Morgan Freemark to my font choices.


Stage of Writing Process: Editing and perhaps Revision, based on the type of work you want students to do. If you want them to try on some different grammatical elements, such as varying clauses and phrases to add interest to their writing, that might be more appropriate for revision. If you want to have them focus on refining their use of punctuation, that might be more appropriate during editing.

Teaching Ideas:

1. Choose a concept students need to learn or work on (semicolon usage, for example), and choose texts that use semicolons effectively. Have students read the texts and pay attention to what they notice about how writers use semicolons. Students can then create rules for semicolons. Ask students to try this on in their own writing.

2. Choose some texts that break rules of punctuation (for example, using intentional fragments). Ask students read the texts and talk about how and why those authors are breaking the rules. Then have them try it on in their own writing and reflect on the effect it creates.

3. Show students how you use conventions in your writing. Think aloud for them about how you made punctuation choices in your writing. You could do this in conjunction with #1 or #2 above.

Have more ideas? Share in the comments section!


Book Reviews: Not Just an Amazon Thing

It’s funny how, when you write, your mind takes you on unexpected paths. When I set out to write (or, rather, resurrect) this blog, I really had no intention of starting with genres that encourage students to write about literature. To be honest, though, after writing my previous post about literary analysis, I am still really inspired about this notion of initiating students into communities of literacy. And writing about literature is one way for students to get access to the club.

I’ve also been thinking about giving students opportunities to create communities of literacy in their own classrooms too, and in doing that, I’ve been exploring the question of ways students can enter their voice into the world of literary criticism but also gather their peers around authentic reading and writing. And that got me thinking about book reviews.

No, I don’t mean book reviews a la Amazon or Goodreads, though those might be effective entry points into this world. What I’m talking about are meaty, interesting book reviews published in places like Harper’s, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Kirkus Reviews, or even lesser known sites like BookPage.

First, let’s talk writing. You might think book reviews wouldn’t provide enough substance to really push kids to write seriously about literature. If that’s the case, think again. You only need to take a peek at a book review like “Love for Sale,” by Francine Prose about the book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Leanne Shapton) to change your mind. It is thoughtful and interesting, and most importantly, actually makes me want to read the book.

But if you think about what Prose did as a writer, then the intellectual demand and sophistication of writing something like this Harper’s review definitely puts this particular genre on my radar for “things that high school kids should write.”

Take the first paragraph, for example. She begins the review by mentioning a situation that has universal appeal: the fact that, as children, most of us probably wondered if our toys or possessions became animated when we slept at night. And if you question that as a universal assumption, then look no further than the Toy Story franchise.

Of course, this is the first sophisticated move she makes as a critic and writer, because as you read the rest of her twenty-three paragraphs (incidentally, much longer than 5), you realize that this opening paragraph connects seamlessly with her central observations about Shapton’s work. She moves into the second paragraph, which introduces the central tension: as we age, we tend to emotionally detach ourselves from these objects…sometimes. Then again, sometimes these objects are so sentimental that they take hold of us. Permanently and ruthlessly.

After two paragraphs of introductory material, Prose gets to the book. She first talks about the form–an “imitation of the auction catalogues that often accompany the sale of an estate or private collection,” and in this discussion, she describes how Shapton’s text is like other auction catalogues and even describes her favorite example of the genre: a volume from 1977 filled with skulls and other emblems of death. If you think about this work as a writer, Prose would have had to read other examples of the auction catalogue (and deeply understand the features of this genre) in order to compare Shapton’s work to them. And if we think about teaching our students to do this work (know what else to read in order to connect to books they are already reading), it helps us understand the various levels of rigor that writing a good book review–one that is like real book reviews–incorporates.

She takes a quick one-paragraph detour to discuss why it is the form–and not the content–that makes this text fresh, original, and engaging. This means that, as a reader, Prose needed to have read many examples of love-and-lost stories to make this assertion in the first place.

Once Prose begins to discuss both the content and the style of Shapton’s book, she organizes her review to follow Important Artifacts chronologically–through the text and, thus, through the relationship of the two main characters. As she does this work throughout 14 paragraphs, she carefully analyzes the artifacts (her evidence) and what they say about the relationship (her analysis).

Finally, we get to the central idea of the text in paragraph 20: “The seriousness beneath the joke is that these scraps of paper, used clothes, and borderline garbage were formerly objects of incalculable worth; indeed, they once meant everything to this fictional couple.” But the analysis doesn’t stop here. Prose not only discusses this important idea, but also talks about how the form of Shapton’s book allows her to explore multilayered ideas, not just the importance of these items to the couple, but also the importance of “modern love, city life, a time and a place, a social class, a milieu, and a relationship to objects that both reflects and transcends the specificities of all of the above.”

At the very end, Prose makes a connection to our lives, and we return to the universality of the opening paragraph. And that is exactly where Prose leaves us. Where we began.

Certainly, this is a masterful example by a true professional, but if we provide models like this for our students–and then teach them how to write reviews like this–imagine what would be possible for them. And there are examples of this type of writing all over the Internet. BookPage is actually a very accessible and interesting place to find these reviews, though none of them are quite as deep as the examples you’ll find in Harper’s.

Now let’s think about how these reviews might launch our kids into the community of literacy. Students can write to be a part of a larger conversation, but they can also write to share their deepest thoughts about books with their friends, and in high school, where social standing seems to be everything, this might even be the most important reason for teens to write reviews. Imagine asking students to write reviews and then publishing them in the classroom, on a class blog, or even, yes, on Amazon or Goodreads. Imagine participating in an authentic community of literacy not only outside of the classroom, but also in it, where students are thinking and writing about what they read and sharing it with others. Now there’s an authentic model of literacy.


Genre: Book reviews

Possible Essential Questions:

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

What is good writing?

Possible Units:

I could see book reviews being done anytime students have read independently. Imagine doing lit circles (or independent reading) and then teaching students how to do book reviews to analyze their books and persuade others to read them

I could also see doing a book review genre study–maybe after engaging in some deep reading work around novels

It seems that book reviews could become an ongoing ritual in the classroom, with students writing them after many books they read and then publishing them in a central location that all of the kids could access (classroom, school library, class website or blog…imagine the possibilities)

Ways You Might Use This Type of Text

As mentor texts for this genre

As another way of looking at literary criticism

Other Instructional Materials or Experiences That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author, time period, and/or book that students are reading (students could research this themselves once they know how to research effectively–or this research could be embedded into the instruction about book reviews)

Other examples of the genre that students are reviewing

Other examples of similar stories that students are reviewing

Other works by the same author


The Genre That Isn’t

I spent the better part of last week in high school English Language Arts classrooms, working and learning with teachers who want to refine their craft. It was really interesting for so many reasons, but mostly because in all of the classrooms, students were working on either writing a “literary response” essay or, in many cases, listening to the teacher’s interpretation about the literature students were reading (Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, the Odyssey…you know, the usual) in preparation to write a literary response essay.

These well-meaning and well-intentioned teachers who truly care about their kidsLit were primarily concerned that students would do this work so that they would be “ready for English [insert next grade level here].” I get that. I mean, as teachers, we always want to make sure that our students can be successful once they move into the next grade. We never want our students to be barely treading water when they go to Mr./Mrs. X’s class.

But is that all? If we follow that logic, then does that mean the only teacher preparing students for whatever lies beyond high school is the senior year English teacher? Uh oh.

I’m sure we can all agree that one year of college (or life) preparation doesn’t even seem to scratch the surface.

So anyway, all of that got me thinking. What is the purpose of this “literary response essay”? In the writing project community, there’s even some debate as to whether or not it’s a real genre (I’m starting to doubt its legitimacy as a stand-alone genre, to be honest). Certainly, the purpose is for the student to share his or her learning about a text. But is that all? Are we really asking students to write this type of essay, which seems to show up only in school for an audience of exactly one, simply so they can show how much they know about a book we’ve told them to read? I can’t imagine that any of us would be satisfied with that as an end goal. In the grand scheme of things, it seems a little pointless even.

Of course, as I think about Common Core, I think that we all need to start thinking about the idea of authentic tasks, purposes, and audiences. If we are truly going to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship, our students need to know how to enter into a larger writing community and to write real pieces that people want to read, real pieces that they want people to read. The literary response essay, while it can serve an important purpose for the assessment of a student’s reading skills, isn’t the only way students can (or probably should) write about literature.

As I was thinking about this “school-only” genre, I wanted to discover how this type of writing (about things we read) shows up in authentic writing communities. Apparently, there are all these critics running around, writing for publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and a few other intelligent magazines. In fact, there are even awards for these people. And kind of a cult following too. Weird, right?

Anyway, knowing that my vision for this blog is to share my thoughts about genres and mentor texts that could be embedded into high school classrooms, while I was searching for the “real” version of literary response essays, I was also reminded about some beautiful words in Appendix A of the Common Core. Yes, I did just say the words beautiful and Common Core in the same sentence. That actually happens a lot with me. I know. Weird. Again.

But I want to share a bit of this beauty with you. Just humor me.

“Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes. For example, The Longitude Prize…in Appendix B, embeds narrative elements within a largely expository structure. Effective student writing can also cross the boundaries of type, as does the grade 12 student sample “Fact vs. Fiction” and All the Grey Space In Between” found in Appendix C (Appendix A, p. 24).

Look at that what this says. Skilled writers actually blend the text types (narrative, informational/explanatory, and argument) to accomplish a purpose. Holy cow. Now that’s sophisticated. But isn’t it true? When I read that line, I think about a piece like George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” a piece which is clearly narrative but makes a very profound argument and social commentary. More about that genre in a future post.

Back to literary analysis.

So like I said, I was really curious about where I could find examples of ways that actual writers create this type of writing in an effort to understand why else our students might want to write in this way (and to maybe see how some of these text types blend together in order to make a literary power smoothie of sorts).

Enter “Page-Turner” in The New Yorker. The tagline on this regular blog reads, “Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter.”

When I read that tagline, it hit me. That’s exactly why we should teach students to write about text–so that they can enter into the conversation, so that they can be legitimate members of the literacy community. There are so many particularly rich examples of text in this segment of The New Yorker (even ones teachers could use as mentor texts in high school classrooms).

Take for example one piece called “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” In this article, the author, Dan Chiasson, writes about Plath’s well-known collection of poems, Ariel.

He begins the article by briefly sharing the story of Plath’s suicide (a strange beginning to an article that seems to be about her joy–and, of course, one that comes together at the end) and then draws a dark connection between her attention to detail in preparing her own death and preparing her final manuscript. We also learn from an embedded exclamation by Robert Lowell that this poetry was some good shit.

Chiasson continues to discuss this final manuscript–Ariel–as a revelation and provides his initial take on the work, that “it is the great book of earliest morning.” He then includes the text of its title poem and discusses how Plath revamped a popular take on dawn. In three short paragraphs (of the eight total paragraphs–not 5–in the piece), Chiasson relates a third-person narrative, presents an argument about her poetry, and explains some historical information about the circumstances surrounding the publication of Plath’s final volume. Later in the post, Chiasson even tells a brief personal anecdote that connects to another one of Plath’s poems.

All three text types. In one piece. Not to mention, it is a beautifully crafted piece of writing in its own right and could provide a powerful instructional tool for reading or writing (or both) in a high school classroom. As Chiasson continues, he does end the piece with his own original conclusion about Plath and her poetry. Now that’s literary analysis.

Of course, that’s not the only example of this type of writing. Other interesting pieces in this blog include “Call of the Wild: The Connection between Shakespeare and Sendak” and “John Donne’s Erotica” (ok, this last one probably isn’t the best for a high school class, but it’s an interesting read and will give you even more sense of this particular genre). At any rate, you can browse the “Page Turner” section of the New Yorker website and find a treasure trove of examples.

I feel like this post might pinch a little. As an English major myself (and former high school ELA teacher), I really did have minor heart palpitations when writing these words. But if we’re really going to teach our students how to be members of a larger writing community (which is, consequently, much bigger than preparing them for college and career), and if we are going to give them the tools to be part of this conversation, then we need to look beyond the five paragraphs of the literary analysis essay. I’m not saying don’t ever ask kids to write one. I’m just saying that our world is much bigger than that.


Genre: Literary Criticism (based in an author study)

Possible Essential Questions:

How does our work reflect our identity? How does our work create our identity?

Who is [name of person], and how do we know?

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

Possible Units: These texts could be part of an author study unit or a unit on literary criticism

Ways You Might Use These Texts:

Mentor texts for this type of writing

Texts to provide alternate viewpoints about popular authors/texts

Other Instructional Materials That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author (both primary and secondary sources)

An opportunity to read multiple examples of an author’s works

Opportunities to read other works that might connect to this author

Rescurrected from the Dead


Me again.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written here, and quite a bit has changed in my world since July when I wrote my last post. Truth be told, I think it’s changed because I’ve changed. I’ve been thinking (obsessing) about the teaching of writing all year, as I’ve continued working with secondary teachers. And I’ve been, as I told my teaching partner the other day, wanting to “start a blog.”

Then I realized, “Wait. I already have one.” Except my dilemma was this: I’m not teaching summer school anymore. But here’s the deal. When I really thought about it, I realized that everything I’ve done this year has been an outgrowth of many of the lessons I learned this summer. So while my back-to-the-classroom stint lasted a mere twelve days, it has impacted me much much more than you’d expect.

In the past six months or so, I’ve become even more fascinated with the teaching of writing in high school. I think this is why–

a) I really saw glimmers of possibility this summer as some of my reluctant writers found their voices.

b) After spending some time at Teachers College this fall (and getting stuck in Superstorm Sandy–with lots of time to think) and seeing the success of our district’s Writing Workshop Middle School Study Group, I am more than slightly obsessed with creating a similar feeling of community in high school around the teaching of writing.

I’ve also been listening to and learning from a lot of high school teachers this year. Here’s what they are saying–

“Nicole, I hear what you’re saying about writing instruction, but…”

1. Where do I find texts to use in my class as models?

2. How do I make writing instruction in my class different from and appropriately more rigorous than what is happening in middle school?

3. How will this help me with the transition to Common Core?

4. What about getting kids ready for college (or, rather, any sort of life beyond high school?)

5. What does it look like? Just show me!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim to have the answers.

My goal here is to share some of my thinking–based on many of the conversations I’ve been fortunate to have with my thoughtful colleagues this year. I’ll be offering some ideas to perhaps start addressing some of the big questions that are emerging in the teaching of writing in high school, especially with the transition to the Common Core State Standards gaining momentum and intensity. (Full disclosure: these thoughts often hit me when I’m either a) geeking out with fellow edu-nerds or b) in the shower.)

More importantly, though, I am also hoping to hear your thoughts about some of these ideas. We all get smarter when we explore issues together and work collaboratively to solve problems. And when we get smarter, so do our kids.

So, welcome. Again.