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.

Postscript

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!

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The Power of Freedom

I knew from the moment I applied for summer school that my primary focus in class would be on writing. As a Writing Project teacher, I believe in the power of writing to open new doors for kids and to give them a voice. I wanted them to be able to think creatively and independently and to actually see themselves as writers. As I think kids’ writing identities all emerge at different times and in different ways, I didn’t exactly know what this would look like, but I felt like I might know it when I saw it.

With the ideas of independence, voice, and identity in mind, I was so looking forward to beginning our mini unit on argument with my kids last week. I thought for sure this would get them going. I mean, it’s teenagers’ job to argue, isn’t it?

I thought we might be onto something when my kids began spouting all the topics they could argue about–everything from social networking sites to sports teams to social issues. I told them that the topic from their argument paper was completely their choice, and they flourished.

Of course, generating ideas is only one small part of the writing process, and as I reflected on the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, I realized that students really needed to know how to build a coherent and cohesive argument, as they learned how to develop reasons, include valid evidence, and acknowledge and address counterarguments. Honestly, though, those particular expectations aren’t too different from the standards that we currently have in California. What makes the Common Core different, though, is that students are expected to be able to independently make strategic decisions about how they use the writing process, conduct research, and display the information they have gathered. And with limited resources in summer school, I wasn’t sure how this would go.

But what I love about teenagers is that they’re always wondering what’s possible.

My first reminder of this was when a student, Jack, who has been building a definitive argument to settle, once and for all, the debate of the best player in the NBA, asked if he could use a chart in his paper. When he showed it to me later, I saw a data-nerd’s dream come true: three columns comparing the stats of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James (Jack’s pick for best in the NBA). He had organized information regarding average points, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, blocks, and other relevant bits of information. He was determined to prove that James was superior to both Bryant and Durant, especially given the fact that Bryant has four more championship rings than James and is widely recognized by basketball fans as the best player in the NBA.

On his chart he had determined that James had outperformed both Bryant and Durant in all categories but two, and in those two categories, James had lost by tiny margins. The paragraph surrounding the data he had gathered outlined his analysis of these players’ successes.

While he was sharing this research with me, another student was working the room, interviewing all of the students about which shoe brand–Converse or Vans–was superior. He was tallying his results and determining the categories for his comparison–styling, cost, and durability. Of course, he had already looked up the price ranges for both brands and found that, by far, Converse were much more expensive than Vans. When I talked to him about his survey later, he talked about his frustration that, while Converse was the preferred brand by his peers, it was definitely the pricier option. He was trying to determine how to handle that pressing issue in his paper.

When I was talking to these boys and witnessing their enthusiasm as they were working through what evidence was truly going to convince their audience that their opinion was the one and only correct one, I realized that these boys had found their voice. I never told them to integrate charts or to do surveys. They discovered these ideas all on their own as we discussed all the different types of evidence writers can use. These boys had a purpose, and they were on a mission. All of a sudden they realized that their purpose was not to force their points into a predetermined structure; it was to determine how best to communicate their information in order to persuade their audience that their opinion was the correct one. And they did this because they owned their argument. They did this because they found their voice.

So even though I never predicted this level of engagement with these particular students, I realized that, plain and simple, these kids had become writers.

Small Victories

Before I started teaching summer school this year, I had a vision of my class coming together as this perfect community of writers sent by angels. We would be sharing and celebrating our writing, tears streaming down our faces as we connected at the deepest of spiritual levels. Okay…maybe my fantasies didn’t go quite so far, but I really had imagined a nearly-spiritual experience.

Unfortunately, my reality hasn’t yet shaped up to be quite what I imagined.

Today, my students finished writing their narratives, so I reserved the last 50 minutes of class for us to have a writing celebration. When I told the students at the beginning of this process that they would need to share some of their writing with the class (because we are a community of writers, I explained), you’d thought I’d asked them to drown kittens in the American River. They were aghast. Share their writing??? “Mrs. Kukral,” they said, “you’re crazy.”

I have to admit…I was a little deflated at their less-than-enthusiastic response, but it certainly wasn’t altogether unexpected. After all, sharing our writing with anyone but the teacher simply hasn’t been a norm in our schools, especially our high schools (though that is thankfully changing).

I continued to promise that it would be okay, but I also assured them that it was an expectation. One student said to me, “What if I refuse?” I explained that I wouldn’t cut his arm off or anything, but I did expect for him to choose something from his narrative to share. Refusing just wasn’t an option. I didn’t threaten to take away points. I didn’t threaten to fail him. I didn’t threaten to send him to the office. I just said, “I hope and expect that you will do it. That’s all.” He scowled at me in the endearing way that teenage boys do (I’m actually serious here), we moved on, and didn’t say another word about it.

Of course, this interaction made me think about the Common Core (these days, even a gusty wind will have that effect on me). One feature that I so appreciate about the writing standards is that there is an expectation that students publish their work. Granted, the specific standard (6) says that this should be done via technology in grades 9-10, but we need to start somewhere.

My students’ reactions made me realize just how uncomfortable it is for them to share their writing with anyone, much less the whole world through the Internet. It brought back my memories of last summer when, as a fellow in the Area 3 Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, I had to share my writing with my colleagues. I’m relatively certain I had a couple of anxiety attacks over that too.

And if students are terrified and uncomfortable with sharing even a small segment of their writing with a small group of classmates, then how will they adjust to sharing their writing with everyone who has Internet access? Perhaps it will be easier. Maybe there’s something to be said for not being able to actually see your audience while you’re sharing your work. However, I can imagine that, for some students, this type of publicity will send them over the edge.

This makes me realize that, as with anything, we must create communities where it is safe to be in such a vulnerable position and scaffold this experience for our students. Our students shouldn’t be appalled–or really even surprised–when we expect them to share their writing with others. That’s what writing is about.

The good news, though, is that, today, each one of my students shared at least a small part of their narrative. One of my students shared his entire story, and when he was done, his friend spontaneously shared his own version of the same tale.

And the kid who asked me what I would do if he refused to share?

He was the first one to volunteer.

It’s about the Writing

I am passionate about the teaching of writing. But I have to admit. I wasn’t always. I guess it’s because I didn’t really understand how to do it very well. I thought if I did a two-day PowerPoint about the features of a particular genre (“Here’s how you write a personal narrative, kids.”), guided them through the writing process (in a very linear way), and then showed them a couple of student-written examples, I’d be good to go. The kids would produce amazing writing, and all would be right with the world.

Not surprisingly, it never quite worked out how I imagined it in my mind.

Over the past few years as I’ve started learning more about the teaching of writing, however, I’ve learned how much better I could have been at the beginning of my career. And when I became a part of an amazing community of writers and writing teachers–the Area 3 Writing Project–my understanding of the teaching of writing deepened as much as my passion did. This is mostly because, as part of the Area 3 Writing Project (or any Writing Project site, really), I had to actually become a writer myself.

Why is this important? Obviously, for lots of reasons.

However, as I realize how the expectations for writing change with the shift to Common Core, this idea of teacher-as-writer seems to take on new meaning.

Here’s why:

Let’s start by talking about Writing Standards #5: The revision standard. The anchor standard states the following expectation for students: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.”What is most striking to me is this new view of the writing process as, well, an actual process. In the current standard (I live in California), the stages of the writing process are presented as isolated events. For example, Writing Strategies 1.9 in the California ELA 9/10 Content Standards states this: “Revise writing to improve the logic and coherence of the organization and controlling perspective, the precision of word choice, and the tone by taking into consideration the audience, purpose, and formality of the context.”

This, by the way, is the only time that the actual writing process is mentioned in the ELA standards for grades 9 and 10.

The way that the standard is written seems to make the following assumptions:

  • Revision can be isolated from the rest of the writing process
  • Revision is the most important part of the writing process (since it’s the only part mentioned)
  • When we revise, we revise only for certain finite things (like organization or word choice)

In contrast, the Common Core State Standards presents the process for what it is–a connected, non-linear cycle that students should be able to manage independently.

Take the phrase as needed, for example. This implies that students use elements of the writing process in the ways that best serve the needs of their writing. The writing process, then, is not a series of steps to follow in a certain order.

The Common Core also values the idea of independence, so not only should students be able to use the elements of the writing process in a non-linear way, they eventually need to be able to do so independently.

Finally, the Common Core Standards also expect that students are able to try “a new approach.” In order to do this, they need to have a deep understanding of task, purpose, and audience (so that they know when to try a new approach), and they will need to have a deep understanding of the writing process (so that they will know how to try a new approach). And again, they should be independent.

With me so far?

So what does this mean for my summer school class? And where does my involvement with the Writing Project factor in here?

First of all, my summer school students struggle with the very act of writing. Most of them (approximately 80%) have told me they “hate” it. Many of them tell me they think it is a “waste of time” and do not see how it relates to their lives. Of course, when the majority of the writing they do in school is writing that does not speak to them, can we blame them?

Second, my summer school students, for the most part, do not see writing as a process. They think revision means that they should add a couple of words here and there, add two or three sentences, fix the spelling, or even make their piece shorter. I know this because I watched them revise some writing yesterday. These students are not yet using the writing process “as needed” or “trying a new approach.”

Therefore, one thing I’m learning about the Common Core is that we must immerse our students in the process of writing. They need to see all the different ways they can engage in it and use the process the way that real writers do. And when teachers see themselves as writers and are able to to model for students how they use the writing process in authentic ways, it makes a huge difference.

This is where my work with the Writing Project comes in. A few years ago, I would never have been able to tell when a student was or wasn’t authentically using the writing process. As long as they went through the motions of completing the graphic organizers I spent hours creating, I was satisfied. As long as they turned in a rough draft with their final copy, I was convinced I had done my job teaching revision.

Now I know there’s much more to it. Students need to spend time collecting ideas–and they need to be shown how by a teacher who writes. Students need to gather details for their piece, draft, revise, edit, and share their writing with others, and who is a better coach and guide in this process than the teacher who writes?

As I’ve been teaching my summer school class, I have shown my students entries in my writer’s notebook and talked with them about my process as a writer. I am talking with one student about his interest in writing graphic novels and another about his voice as a writer. I would not have been able to have these conversations had I not known what it was like to feel the power of writing in my bones.

And though my day wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, today my students told me that they liked it.