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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