Yesterday two phenomenal events occurred. First, as many know, the book I co-authored with Troy Hicks with a foreword written by Liz Kolb was released yesterday. The out-pouring of support has been great. It feels awesome to finally have it out there where the world will be able to read our work.
Just when I thought I couldn’t have a better day yesterday, I had the most amazing conversation with my 8th graders about formal -vs- informal writing and texting. Our conversation started with the grammar template that is mentioned in our book. Below is a screenshot of that template with a link.
The students had a solid grasp on compound sentences as we reviewed them. When we talked about the texting portion of the template the conversation heated up! The class decided texting would be an informal space due to the simple fact that an abundance of their text messages are to their friends. As we broke down our mentor sentence from The Giver, students worked with partners to determine what the sentence would look like as a text message to a friend. That is when the nerdy teacher in me became fascinated. The students talked specifically about “Digital Talk” such as “Lol” -vs- “LeL” and “okay” -vs- “ok” or just “k”. I was super excited to hear them debate their language through texting.
I learned that students actually feel they know the tone of a text message that is being sent to them. For example, if someone just sends the letter “k” for “okay”, students automatically assume the person who sent them the text is upset with them. Now, I have had several conversations with students, teachers, parents, and other adults about how tone is hard to determine through writing a text message unless an emoji is attached or there are certain colorful words that are added. However, my students wholeheartedly believe that by not making the effort to type even one more letter for “Ok”, the person on the other end of the message is not happy.
As my 8th graders continued to talk and discuss their language, my smile became bigger as one of my students raised their hand and stated, “There are rules for how we text message back and forth with each other. It’s like we have our own language.” At this point I wanted shout out and say YES!
I contained my excitement and asked, “Does everyone know the rules?” It was agreed by most, if not all, that not everyone knows the rules that must be followed for texting. I found this rather interesting, so I probed deeper by asking, “Are all of the rules already established or are there more made up as time goes on?” I received many responses, but the ultimate conclusion I came to was there are new rules added as certain situations render new ones to be created.
Students continued to express their thoughts and opinions as we plunged forward with creating an effective text message for our mentor sentence but the fact remains ladies and gentleman; students have their own language and we can not take this away from them. Instead, we need to dive deeper into their world and figure out how our students function in all of their writing spaces. It was a magical day to hear my 8th graders talk about the way they write with tone, audience, language, etc. I am still processing our conversation and I am positive there is more to learn. It is such an interesting topic to keep thinking about. More soon!
All summer I have been writing in some capacity. I will be the first to admit, I struggle with grammar from time to time, but who doesn’t? Grammar has been a perplexing issue for language arts/English teachers for year and years. Some teachers may argue for a constant drill and kill approach, thinking the more that students do it, the better they will get at grammar. Other educators let their student’s writing do the talking and examine where their weakness lie in their writing, then they plan and teach accordingly. A balance of both approaches is also used in classrooms. Despite how you or your district take on the daunting task of hoping your students “get it”, I am here to tell you I don’t believe there is a magic spell out there for the proverbial lightbulb to click on instantly.
My lightbulb burns, at best, about as bright as lamp. Experts are argue time and time again that we as the writing teachers aren’t doing our job and students are falling further and further behind. Of course, these “experts” are examining standardized test scores as part of their conclusion, and I am not even going to go down that road. In addition, others believe the use of cell phone and social media is causing students to fall further and further behind because of their “text talk”. Read this post in Education Week and let me know and others what you think. I was outraged when I finished reading the post as were others that I have professional relationships with. It is one more way to blame technology for shortcomings on standardized testing. Articles such as this gives educators and districts more reason not to embrace technology. It is bad enough students aren’t getting more of a 21st century education and aren’t connected the way they should be. I am not saying technology is going to fix the grammar issues that seem to plaque our students.
What I want to say is I can remember all the way back to 8th grade when I had my orange grammar handbook. As a middle schooler, I was clueless from time to time when it came to things such as misplaced modifiers or using a semi-colon correctly. There were concepts I understood and there were some I did not fully grasp. I can also remember there were classmates that were way better at grammar than I was. Sound familiar? Yeah, the same thing we see with our students today. Are there better approaches to teaching grammar? My goodness gracious, yes! I encourage everyone to check out Jeff Anderson’s approach to grammar in his book Mechanically Inclined. I particularly like his express lane checkout approach to the writing his students do in Journals. There are other methods available too. Needless to say, our students aren’t going to be grammar experts by a long shot. Yes, they should be achieving at a certain level, but grammar takes years and years to master in my opinion. It isn’t going to happen over night and we need to stop whipping a horse that really hasn’t changed much over the years. Every year I am looking for new ways to engage my students with grammar as should anyone else. Some ideas work better than others, you just need to find what works for you and your class. Furthermore, being a writing teacher, means we need to write with our students and only then will our students start taking more of a vested interest in their writing and then maybe they will start listening to those grammar lessons we give.
So it has been a few days since any real thoughts came across my brain concerning my teaching or my classroom. Besides being really bummed about not attending NCTE this year, I have been critically thinking about grammar and how to teach it with meaning in the classroom. Grammar and how it should be taught has been an ongoing discussion in our monthly department meetings. Last Spring we took action and ordered Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined. Over the summer we met and had our own book club with our department. Anderson’s book is written really well and if you haven’t heard him speak, you need to make it your first choice the next conference you attend where he is speaking. I love his sentence strip activity, the idea of bringing mentor text into the classroom to show students how writers use appropriate grammar in their writing, and how he has students set up their writers notebook. My favorite idea is AAAWWUBBIS. The idea behind this bizarre but adequate saying is to help students remember subordinating conjunctions and for students to have a way to remember different ways a complex sentence can be formed. There are many other ways Anderson explains how grammar can be taught efficiently in the classroom. I really liked the fact he said that students will show you what they need to work on. I agree with this and I also think that students need a certain amount of practice too. With the Common Core being implemented this year into my district it is pretty well spelled out what needs to be taught at each grade level when it comes to grammar. It isn’t set in stone, but it is much more definitive than what our State curriculum presented to us in the past.
However an English teacher looks at it, there probably isn’t a magic method to teach grammar. I use some methods introduced in Anderson’s book and I try other strategies that I have picked up in the past. Regardless of what I do, or what anyone does, I think it truly does depend on the group of students you have from year to year. I love my students this year; both my 7th and 8th graders. They have made it easy to try new teaching methods in my classroom. One of my 8th graders today said, “Mr.Hyler, this is the first time this year you have given us a worksheet!” I smiled and replied, “Yes, and I am sorry.” Believe it or not, it was a grammar exercise. Though I don’t pride myself on delivering worksheets to my students and I never will, it was necessary for them to have some practice today to make sure they were brushed up in their skills.
I believe grammar will continue to perplex even the most brilliant language arts teacher and I also believe we will continue to not only develop new ways to teach grammars in our classrooms, but we also revisit some old methods as well. After all, I taught my students to diagram sentences last year and I know one our high school teachers did the same earlier this year.