Saturday, March 16, 2013

IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Jeff Anderson

Jeff Anderson
Grammar and Conventions: When Reading and Writing Collide

Truly the most dynamic, most entertaining presenter at the IRC Conference, in my opinion, was Jeff Anderson. His wit, use of music, visual presentation, and personal flair made what he had to say to his audience stick as we laughed our way through his ideas for writing instruction.

One of the first points Anderson made in his talk was the idea of breaking the rules - rarely, purposefully, and never. Always write purposefully, he says, and never say never (it was at this point that he played his own sing-along version of the Justin Bieber song). This made me think of a student that I had in my first few years at Herget. As a sixth grader he had already decided that the writing we were teaching was too systematic and didn't allow him the freedom to be creative. He was a smart kid, and I knew that the rules strangled him a little bit, but I wasn't convinced that he had mastered the organization of the writing that we were teaching. My response to him was that if he could show me that he could play by the rules, then he was allowed to break them and be more creative. He wasn't happy with that, but he did it.

Anderson's next segment spoke on the idea of editing. He touched on editing personal writing as well as grammar and punctuation instruction. As a writing teacher, one of the most difficult skills I have encountered is the idea of editing and revision.  My first five years of teaching, grammar instruction seemed easy - either that or I was completely oblivious to the fact that my instruction was not making much difference.  The last ten or so years, however, it seems as if grammar instruction is just not sticking, so I was all ears as Anderson went about his business enlightening me on a completely different approach.

One of his brilliant (and ridiculously easy) ideas is this idea of self editing.  More often than not, kids will come to us with a piece of writing that has a crazy amount of one problem (the use of the word "and", apostrophes in every word that ends with an s, sentences all begin with the same word).  How do we get students to edit their own work and come to their own conclusions?  For students like this one, the answer is so simple that I'm embarassed that I didn't think of it first!  Anderson suggests giving those students individual editing assignments.  For example, "Ok, now I want you to go back and find every time you use the word 'and' and circle it."  The idea is that the student will find them all and realize that he has too many.  Once this is established, Anderson goes on to make this a teachable moment.  Have the student (with your guidance) observe each use of the word and draw some conclusions.  If there are no punctuation marks, and the word "and" just seems to be joining a bunch of independent clauses, then use that moment to explain some ways a student can fix the mistakes.  Maybe even make a small list for him, and then send him off to his desk to make the corrections. 

Besides using editing as a tool for grammar instruction, Anderson addresses DOL (Daily Oral Language), Mug Shots, Daily Edits, etc.  Actually, he burned them.  Twice.  OK, he didn't really burn them, but he made it clear that he disagreed with their use.  For years I have used DOLs on and off as a way to use a fabricated "teachable moment" for a little grammar instruction.  Anderson's beef with this way of teaching is the idea that the first thing a student sees when she walks in the classroom door is a horribly fashioned, completely incorrectly written selection of text.  I never thought of it that way, but the man does have a point. 

Anderson then asked a pointed question:  What do writers do?  They read.  So his suggestion is a three step process that, ironically (or maybe not), seemed to be a common theme in the next few days: observation

Step 1: Invitation to Notice (observe)
  • Display a quotation from a book, song, poem, or a celebrity quote that exhibits the use of a specific (correctly written - even if you have to correct it before displaying it) grammar component.  ie.  "Lightning flashes may even have been detected on other planets, such as Jupiter and Venus." - Seymour Simon's Lightning
  • Ask students to notice the quotation and write down things that they notice about it - you'll have to prompt them until they get the hang of it.  Examples might be "capital L at the beginning of the sentence", a comma after the word planets, Jupiter and Venus are capitalized. If you're wanting to draw attention to verbs, point out the use of "may have been".  Whatever your focus is, be sure that they notice it.
  • Honor it.  Whatever they notice, honor it.  Even if it is bizarre -- honor that they did, indeed, notice whatever it is. You can even have them share with a partner before they share out to keep it engaging.
  • Give it a name. Tell them what it is if they can't tell you.  Ask them what it does when they read it aloud.  Ask them what it does when they read it to themselves.  Are there differences?  If so, what are the differences?
  • Extend. Explain it.  Maybe give some other examples of how it can be used.
Step 2: Invitation to Compare/Contrast
  • This can be the next day as a follow-up to yesterday.
  • Show the students an immitation quotation that is modeled directly from the previous day's quotation along with the quotation from the previous day.  For example - Hot lunches may even have been ingested by students, such as Alex and Omar.  (Sharon Draper said in a later session that using your own students' names boosts motivation to pay attention, and I tend to agree with her.)
  • Ask students to write down the similarities between the two sentences and explain them (some kids may use the vocabulary you introduced from the day before, which is the goal).
  • Share out.
Step 3: Invitation to Immitate (Isn't our goal to have students USE the grammar correctly?)
  • Display the two quotations again and tell the students it is now their turn to use what we have discussed in the last few days to write their own immitations.
  • Have them share and evaluate if they've done it correctly. 
Genius.  Truly genius. I actually found myself a little jealous of the fact that somebody else had come up with something this fantastic for something as dull as grammar instruction.  I envisioned my students so much more engaged with this activity than anything I could ever produce!  It also seemed like this approach left room for practical application and a way to show them through modeling, giving it a try, and then independently practicing. 

By this time it was 4 p.m., and I was exhausted.  My brain was full, my legs were achy from sitting all day, and my fingers were itching to blog.  Jeff Anderson was a good choice for a late session because he was entertaining, and his session's topic was so practical.  Going to see him was motivating and invigorating.

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