As someone who focuses on writing instruction, the question I am asked most often is probably What are the most important things I can do to improve student writing? I used to give a far more complex answer, full of discussion of thoughtful models and carefully targeted reflection, providing lots of autonomy, building relationships through writing and our responses to it, and directly teaching both writing skills and the writing process in careful ways. I stand by all of this guidance–it is good practice and helps to speed student growth–but I now give a far simpler answer:
In my first discussion of grammar on this blog, I mentioned that one of my favorite words is shibboleth, which comes from the biblical Book of Judges. Here is what Dr. S. Kemmer of Rice University says about it:
A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group…The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. [It comes from the Biblical Book of Judges where] two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, have a great battle. The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no shsound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered.-Dr. S. Kemmer
What I love about this rather grotesque word is that it so exactly captures why we focus so much energy on things like punctuation. We know that our world is full of shibboleths–hidden passwords and tests that our students will face that will lead to either their inclusion or exclusion from certain groups.
And I would argue few shibboleths are as dangerous as punctuation and specifically commas. Part of what makes commas such a tempting shibboleth is that they are instantly recognizable on a page. While a reader could easily overlook a moment of dull word choice or muddy phrasing, even one comma error stands out automatically to the seasoned reader. Further, commas are one of the few areas in writing where clear right-and-wrong rules exist (except the Oxford Comma, but that is the story for another post).Continue reading “Getting Rid of Comma Errors for Good”
Spring in Michigan means many things. Piles of snow get traded for buckets of rain, the sound of birds suddenly comes from every window, the sun leaves the horizon it has barely perched on all winter to reclaim its space high in the sky, and, if one teaches mainly juniors (as I do), there is one other harbinger of the season that happens with as much regularity as dandelions poking their heads out of the warming soil: standardized test stress.
While for many, April might mean showers and tulips, for me it largely means the SAT, ACT, and M-STEP (Michigan’s on-again-off-again state standardized test).
I’ve found that in these tense weeks spent in the shadow of tests and their high-stakes, a quiet danger exists to my teaching. If I’m not careful, my classes could easily leave the realm of meaningful writing, authentic audiences, deep discussion, and creativity and end up instead in the realm of test prep followed by more test prep.Continue reading “Why We Should Engage in Less Kill-And-Drill and More Play Around Standardized Testing Time”
Whether it is the Nerdy Book Club, whose book lists and reviews are essential resources for the busy teacher to keep up with the newest books; Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, which funds class libraries across the country (you should seriously consider this if you want to expand your library); or Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer herself, choice reading is having a long overdue moment in the spotlight.
This is a wonderful development, as there is a large body a research that shows that the single most important factor in reading achievement is reading volume, and nothing promotes volume like choice reading.
It should also be mentioned since this is a blog focused on writing instruction, that the benefits of choice reading don’t stop with reading skills either. Whether it is William Faulkner (see below), Stephen King, or researchers at the University of Hong Kong, the evidence from practitioners and researchers alike makes a fairly overwhelming case that robust reading is one of the most important (or even the most important) prerequisites for writers to fully develop their writing voices.
I’ve seen this magic of student choice reading firsthand; it is why every single one of my classes–composition or literature–reads choice books for 30 minutes in each 95 minute block. It is also why a few years ago I started to experiment with choice writing as well. The concept behind it was simple: If choice reading increases reading and writing skills, helps to turn reluctant readers into readers for life, and reframes what it means to read in a classroom, could choice writing do the same for the written word?Continue reading “Why You Should Probably Be Doing More Choice Writing (And How to Make It Happen)”