As a seventh grade writing teacher, I adored conferencing with student writers but I struggled with the lack of impact that those conferences had on my students’ understanding (and application) of grammar concepts. I modeled; I provided mentor sentences; I corrected (with non-red Flair pens); I even… assigned a few grammar workbook pages that came with our textbook. (Yes, I was that desperate.) I knew that I needed to teach grammar and conventions within their writing, but I also knew that the things I was doing weren’t working for the majority of my seventh graders (especially my students who were not avid readers.)
Fate intervened and my own daughter transferred to my campus and landed in my English class. Having the benefit of knowing this particular seventh grade learner since birth, I was privy to a depth of understanding about how she learned best which equipped me to design learning tailored for her. A dancer since an early age, she communicated and learned through movement. Though exposed to many books and rich text experiences, reading did not involve enough physical activity to be one of her passions and she had not “absorbed” grammar through prolific reading. Knowing all this, I was presented with the challenge of designing grammar experiences that would actually “reach” this learner because if I was only going to get this one year to be her teacher, I wanted to make the most of it.
The Action Research aka. trial & error
So, I threw out everything I had done previously with grammar and approached it from a different perspective: how can I make the nitty-gritty and fascinating tools of grammar something that students can physically touch, move, and manipulate? This led to me nailing down a process to identify what my students needed to understand, through our writing conferences and formative writing tasks in our journals, and then creating “tangible grammar” tasks that I could use with students during small group instruction based on their specific needs. The lesson components I found most effective with my students were manipulative, cooperative, personal, and memorable.
The process that evolved was centered around answering four core questions related to those components. 1) How can I make this concept touchable and moveable? 2) How can I get students to discuss and work together on this concept? 3) How can I help students connect the concept to their own writing and usage? 4) How can I design an experience that students will remember as they learn this concept?
One successful mini-lesson that came out of this process was “Punctuation Clothespins Dialogue“. Hearing students repeatedly say that they didn’t “see” the punctuation in sentences and that they felt that punctuating was largely an arbitrary process, I wanted to create a lesson that made the tiny pieces of punctuation BIG while providing opportunities for discussions and revisions to punctuating choices.
HOW: I took colored card-stock and printed out the different pieces of punctuation, with end punctuation printed on one color, and all other punctuation printed on another color. Then, I hot glued (okay…my family members hot glued) the punctuation to inexpensive full-size wooden clothespins. In class, I provided my small group with a mentor sentence from a read aloud text that included punctuated dialogue. (The inclusion of the comma in relation to the quotation marks was baffling my students.) They created their own imitation sentences on paper and then re-wrote them, without punctuation, on large sentence strips. Next, they exchanged with one another and used the punctuation clothespins to punctuate each other’s sentences. The author of the sentence would then check the punctuating and discuss any differences in how their peer punctuated and how they punctuated the sentence. Because the clothespins were moveable, they would just clip and unclip to move them around during these discussions. The whole thing took only 15 minutes, but they engaged with a mentor text, wrote their own imitation sentence, punctuated multiple imitation sentences, and discussed punctuation choices with multiple peers. One of my favorite overheard comments was, “these are top punctuation and these are bottom punctuation” when one student explained where the quotation marks and commas went in a sentence. In all my years of teaching grammar and punctuation, I had never thought of the physical position of these things in relation to a sentence, but that was important to these learners and the clothespins helped facilitate that discussion in a way that my proofreading marks and writing conferences never had.
The “Hot Messes”
I’ll admit, not all all of my “tangible grammar” ideas were a hit. My brutally honest daughter would get in the minivan after school and pointedly ask, “How do you think that went?” Ouch. One particularly spectacular miss was “Punctuation Pasta”. Though having the many shapes of pasta for students to sort, choose, discuss, and use to punctuate their own imitation sentences seemed like a creative idea, it devolved into a crunchy pasta-on-the-floor debacle with seventh graders eating raw pasta (that other classes had touched) and few students (if any) leaving with a better handle on the nuances (and beauty) of correct hyphen use.
But, my daughter’s incisive and reflective feedback did push me to take more risks that year, and I kept trying new things to reach those learners that I came to realize I had not been designing for: my kinesthetic students and my students who did not read for pleasure. It also pushed me to research the science of constructivism and concept building in order to tap into the pathways of learning that I had previously ignored. (Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, & Frey was particularly helpful.) Moving away from “covering” grammar rules in my mini-lessons to truly “teaching” the tools of grammar with chunked, explicit, and very tangible tasks helped my students build understanding in multiple ways, which showed in their writing and improved the quality of our writing conferences.