Sunday, May 11, 2014

My spin on the Day at Judson with Jeff Anderson - how grammar instruction and literacy intertwine

Many words come to mind when I think of Jeff Anderson, but when I speak to a group of English teachers about him, the word genius comes out of my mouth at least three or four times.  Jeff Anderson, author of Mechanically Inclined and Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know spoke at Judson University's Day at Judson last week.  I was sad to have missed Kelly Gallagher the year before, so when I learned Anderson was planning a visit to Judson, I was thrilled!  Jeff Anderson spoke at the IRC Conference in Springfield in 2013, and I had the privilege of attending his (highly entertaining and informative one hour session (click the link for an overview of that session).  I couldn't imagine what I could bring back to our staff after spending an entire day with him!

Anderson introduced his audience to his approach to grammar instruction after the figurative burning of DOL to the ground.  His audience giggled as he described the all-too-familiar scene of students "yelling" at a sentence that needs editing instead of looking at model text that is correct.  And then he went into his grammar instruction approach, which, for the first time in my teaching career, I felt really made total sense.

One point that I brought up early on in the session is that many of our kiddos lack the background knowledge and vocabulary to complete the grade level DOL sentences (or daily edit paragraphs).  The lack of correct grammar and/or punctuation plus the high-level vocabulary makes creating meaning from the sentences virtually impossible for some of our students, and therefore they copy down answers rather than practice using correct grammar and punctuation.  So . . . pretty much they learn nothing from this exercise.

I, personally, am a sentence diagrammer, which is ironic considering I am not a visual learner at ALL.  I think it is my mathematical/logical self that I try to hide that makes me love diagramming so much.  With diagramming there is a place for everything and a right or wrong answer, but the kids hate it, and when all is said and done, they can't apply it - therefore, making the same mistakes they did before they diagrammed that stupid sentence.

Anderson's much more applicable approach has six steps, three of which he outlined in his IRC session of 2013.  I won't go into too much detail on them, but check them out here.  His last three steps I will spend a bit more time detailing.

  1. Invitation to notice: Choose a sentence that properly demonstrates your desired grammar element and ask students to report what they notice.  Honor everything (this could take some creativity on your part). Name everything.  Ask students to explain functions of what they're noticing.  I can see this being done with a lot of Think-Pair-Share discussion.
  2. Invitation to compare/contrast: Write an imitation sentence and ask students to compare it to the model text.  Again, Pair-Share discussion seems appropriate here, as our intent is to get all students to participate.  Asking students to share with a partner takes away the pressure of being wrong in front of twenty-eight of your peers.
  3. Invitation to imitate: And now it becomes your kiddos' turn to create a sentence that takes on the same form as the original.

    I'm envisioning Anderson's Invitation to Imitate as a perfect time for a teacher to practice that individual feedback Rick Wormeli thinks is so important, so that the "celebration" in the next step becomes more of a collective activity rather than individualized.  Students who come from collectivist cultures (click to read up on that bit of research) might participate more readily if individual attention is not the focus of this next part of the process.
  4. Invitation to celebrate: As a teacher of students who struggle, one of the big problems our students with little to no academic self esteem have is that they rarely feel successful.  This is a perfect opportunity to give them that feeling of success (possibly using the pair-share approach before sharing out).  Anderson suggests sharing student-written imitations with the entire class.  The student who offers to share reads twice and the class applauds in celebration.

    Now, Rick Wormeli may disagree with this practice, as he encourages teachers to give feedback that feeds intrinsic motivation rather than outward praise.  In his February presentation at the Kane County Institute he spoke about praise and how it can actually have adverse effect on students if it is too general and used to motivate them.  

    As I stated in step three, however, if steps three and four can be meshed together with Wormeli's strategy for supplying feedback, the adolescent's intrinsic motivation is tapped before the extrinsic hits, and hopefully she will see step four as more of a class-wide celebration rather than an individual pat-on-the-back.
  5. Invitation to Apply Pattern:  Initially, this might look similar to the invitation to imitate, but the difference with this step and step two is that students are now going to be asked to apply their knowledge to real writing.  The way that Anderson demonstrated this practice was so beautiful that my co-department chair and I ran the exact same activity with our department a few days later and are hoping to include the practice in our new writing curriculum this summer.  Here's one way it can work.

    Read students a text selection with an easily-recognizable form- something students could easily imitate if they chose.  Ask them to think about it, talk about it, and then use what they heard to free-write.  The idea here is to get students to write something so that they can go back and revise it with their new knowledge.

    At the bottom of the page, have students create a T-Chart  like the one pictured below.  Label the left column Shopping List and the right column Receipt.  In the Shopping List students should write down what it is that they plan to "shop for" while rereading their own writing.  This becomes their purpose for the reread, then.  They read their piece of writing, highlighting where they used the targeted skill.  Once they finish, they need to "check out" and get a receipt. This is where they will write an explanation for what they did.  If they couldn't find evidence of the skill in their own writing, they need to go back and find a place where they can revise to make it fit.  
    There are dozens of reasons this practice is beneficial for your kiddos.  First and foremost, they have to reread and make meaning out of their own writing, which may, in itself, be eye opening.  Second, they're putting into practice the skill that they've been learning all week.  Finally, practical application!  They have to put into writing why they did it, which means they have to not only use it, but they have to explain why.  Genius, right?  With all of the practice, these kiddos should be able to handle this activity, right?  And they're using their own writing, which means that the reading level isn't going to trip them up like so many of our grammar books.
  6. Invitation to Edit:  The last step Anderson introduced I could take or leave.  His idea actually makes sense - this idea that we need to prepare our students to identify when other writers use grammar or punctuation incorrectly (mainly for the purpose of standardized testing).  Instead of using the traditional DOL, Anderson suggests going back to the mentor sentence, the one he used to introduce the concept, and writing it three other ways, each rewrite having a different error.  Use the mentor sentence to remind students what they learned from the writer before uncovering the other three.  Each time you uncover a new sentence, ask students what effect the error has on the sentence.  Think-Pair-Share is an ideal discussion strategy to use here.  What I love about this step is that we never point out "incorrectness".  We simply discuss what effect the change has and go back to the correct grammar of the first mentor sentence.  What the kiddos may take from this is that the way we use grammar and punctuation can change the mood or tone of a piece, and there may be times when we want to break rules to create that mood or tone.  
To me, making meaning of text in both reading and writing is the difference between one who can and one who cannot function independently in life.  Without acquiring skills to communicate and comprehend, a person cripples himself.  Grammar and punctuation are, so often, treated as separate skills from reading and writing, but they're just one more piece to the big picture of literacy.  

Even though grammar instruction was the main topic of Jeff Anderson's program at Judson University last week, he had some other great ideas as well, but I may just save those for another blog, as this one seems to have grown three heads and a tail and has started walking on its own.  As I am writing I am now wondering if this same principle could be used to teach other subjects like music or art - the idea of creating something based from a model.  I think I need to process this a little more before I go too far with it, but the premise seems the same.  

See?  Genius.  That's what Jeff Anderson is.  He's got me thinking in three or four different directions now, where even this morning I wasn't that far along in my thinking!  How grateful I am that I was able to see him at Judson, and I do hope to see him present again sometime in the near future.

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