The Re-Write Blog

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How to Get Students Interested in Grammar

If you want to understand why so many students hate grammar, find a student and ask them the following questions:

  • What is grammar?
  • Who made it?
  • Why did they make it?

I start my discussion of grammar every year with these three questions, and the responses I get tend to go like this:

  • “Grammar is writing rules.”
  • “I don’t really know who made it. Maybe English teachers or professors.”
  • “Why was it made?? [confused shrug]

Responses like these tell us all we need to know about why so many students loathe grammar. While humans tend to have a nearly bottomless well of curiosity for things that they see as connecting to their lives, they generally have a profound indifference towards things that don’t apply to them. The problem with grammar is that if students don’t know what grammar is, who made it, and why it exists, then the chances of them feeling like it truly applies to them are low. Sure, English teachers can and do make the argument that a firm grasp of certain grammar rules will help students get better scores on things like standardized tests, but that argument rarely persuades students to learn more than the bare minimum needed to get the scores they want. Continue reading “How to Get Students Interested in Grammar”

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The Problems and Power of Peer Response: How to Get Students Deeply Engaging With Each Other’s Writing

For the first five years of my career, nothing frustrated me more than peer response. On the surface, peer response seemed like the likely answer to what I believe is writing instruction’s hardest question: we know that direct personal feedback is essential in the writing instruction process, but how is one teacher supposed to offer regular and substantial feedback to 150, 160, or 170 students? Continue reading “The Problems and Power of Peer Response: How to Get Students Deeply Engaging With Each Other’s Writing”

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The Re-Write Blog

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 11.06.42 AMThe Re-Write Blog is a collection of thoughts from an active writing classroom. It examines what works for writing instruction and what causes it to fall flat, the ways modern research is changing our understanding of writers and writing, and best practices from across the teaching world. 

The Importance of Wonder

We in Michigan are right at the point in November where the fall takes a sharp turn from crisp mornings, beautiful red and yellow trees stretching as far as the eye can see, and apples so sweet that you question why you eat anything else to a barren, cold, and fruitless landscape that suddenly seems cloaked in darkness most of the time.

It is during these next cold, dark months, when the grind of school can cultivate a malaise in even the most bubbly students, that I make a conscious effort to regularly infuse my writing classes with what I think is one of the most important tools in a teacher’s pedagogical toolbox: wonder.  Continue reading “The Importance of Wonder”

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Dan Pink, and Cranes: How to Use Student Choice to Improve Instruction and Assessments

aligator-hill-pano

I spent last weekend camping with my advisory at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, and while Northern Michigan painted with fall colors left an impact on me (see above), what struck me even more was seeing my students outside of the classroom setting. Even though we do a trip like this every year, I always forget how different students can be once removed from the four walls of a classroom. I saw numerous students who are relatively passive during class sprint up and down the sand dunes, giving off intermittent yelps of joy, while other students who never speak during discussions captivated audiences in the bright glow of a campfire.

The lesson these kinds of trips always remind me of when it comes to my practice is that context matters. Different situations can cause the same person to behave in strikingly different ways, which is something we as writing teachers need to take note of when creating our assignments. While there are no perfect assignments, some prompts are better than others at inspiring our students to write well. And while there is no magic formula for what makes a strong assignment, there is one element that makes it far more likely that students will have the context needed to embark on papers that they are actually inspired about: choice. Continue reading “Sleeping Bear Dunes, Dan Pink, and Cranes: How to Use Student Choice to Improve Instruction and Assessments”

How College Essays Taught Me the Importance of an Authentic Audience

It is the heart of college application season in my school, which means one thing: college essay after college essay after college essay walking through my door. It would not be hyperbolic to say that I have looked at well over 100 different college essays in the last three weeks, many of them two, three, or four times.

Further, I have seen many seniors pour themselves into these essays–often revising them more than ten times–in ways that I’ve never seen them approach work in class.

And when I ask them why they work so hard on these, they almost always give me the same answer: because this actually matters. Or put another way, while I understand how this will change my life, I don’t really see how most of the writing I do in class will significantly impact my life. Continue reading “How College Essays Taught Me the Importance of an Authentic Audience”

Getting Those Silly Squiggles to Stick: How I Teach Commas, Colons, Semicolons, and Dashes

Note from Matt: Sorry for the brief post hiatus. College letter of recommendation season hit me particularly hard over the last few weeks, and while the storm of letters is still somewhat upon me, I caught some clearer skies this weekend, so I thought I would share a quick post. As I said when I wrote about how I get students to like grammar, October is a grammar focused month in my classes, and here is one of my favorites concerning how I teach those highly forgettable, silly little squiggles that students always seem to mess up: the comma, colon, semicolon, and dash. 


Continue reading “Getting Those Silly Squiggles to Stick: How I Teach Commas, Colons, Semicolons, and Dashes”

To Rubric or Not to Rubric?

After nearly fifteen years in classrooms, I have a good sense for where I stand in most of the major English academic/pedagogical arguments. I know if I use the Oxford Comma (look to the end of this sentence to find out), whether I fall in the prescriptivist or descriptivist camp (descriptivist), and how I feel about the five paragraph essay (it’s too complex to get into here, but a post is definitely coming). But the one debate that I still grapple with on a daily basis is how I feel about rubrics. Continue reading “To Rubric or Not to Rubric?”

Writing Should be Taught and Caught

“In too many classrooms, we assign and assess writing without teaching the craft of it.” –Penny Kittle

The first time I heard about parallel structure, limiting one’s use of linking verbs, and different sentence types, I was only a couple months from earning an English B.A. from the University of Michigan. If not for one class with a graduate student named David West Brown (who went on to write the wonderfully practical In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-Switching, and Academic Writing), it is likely that I would have started my career as an English teacher without even basic knowledge of these three foundational writing concepts.

I share this fact not to disparage my schooling, as I got lucky in so many ways with the lessons I learned and the teachers I had. But it is remarkable that someone who took dozens of English classes from quality teachers had such gaps, and I think it illustrates a major issue with how we teach writing in this country. The fact of the matter is that we simply don’t teach much of what Penny Kittle calls the craft of writing. We talk about spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and, in the later grades, the essay form ad nauseam, but almost no one directly discusses what makes writing work. Rarely do teachers explain and explore what makes a transition jarring, why some words sound good and others don’t, how to cultivate a powerful voice, common reasons why sentences sound choppy, and what makes the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. sound like liquid silk. Continue reading “Writing Should be Taught and Caught”