Methods Conclusion: Teaching Grammar in the Writer’s Workshop from Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson

Not desiring to be a member elitist group of English educators I have grown to affectionately refer to as, the Grammar Nazis, I was hesitant in selecting a professional development book about teaching grammar to help me with a subject that I struggled with, and will continue to struggle with for the rest of my life. I cringe at being that teacher that beats my students to a pulp with frequent common errors that many people, like myself, struggle with daily.

After reading the power packed initial sixty-two pages of the book where Anderson explains problems with many educational systems concerning grammar instruction, I was left with a sense of awe. Anderson argues, very effectively against the use of what he calls ‘Correct Alls,’ commonly known as packets, worksheets, and workbooks. Though I would argue that there is some valid gain to be made from the repetition of drill and practice, there is little evidence that supports memorization of rules are superior to practice and understanding on concept. Most students tend to make errors in exploration of the language through their own pseudo-concepts (budding theories) of how the language works.

We will save ourselves a lot of frustration if we shift our notion of punctuation and grammar to one of teaching principles instead of rules. Handbooks and English teachers often take a right-wrong stance. I’d rather my students take a thinking stance. Pseudo-concepts are stepping stones along the way to concept development (4).

In order for students to comprehend rules and guidelines they must be not be reprimanded for their lack of mastery in their development, rather the errors they make should be embraced and recognized in their efforts to grow as writers. The errors illuminate the thinking of the student point to areas where teachers need to support rather than penalize.

One way Anderson teaches grammar, that is too ‘simple’ to be less than a gold mine, is in the use of mentor text. His mentor text comes from a variety of short powerful writings. Some are poems, quotes from movies, and some mentor texts come directly from outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction.   In short, he uses published writing to teach different language concepts.

I know, Duh… right? Well it is undoubtedly a no brainer, but somehow I never once learned grammar by comparing my sentences to a model sentence written by Stephen King, yet I have completed literally thousands of worksheets that supposedly thought me grammar. Too simple indeed. Anderson includes a section in each lesson throughout the book called behind the error that explains why writers make the type of error covered in the lesson.

If I could glue one idea from this book firmly upon the forehead of all of my students it would be found in the section ‘Starting an Editor’s Checklist.’ I mean this in all earnestness, many of my students would gain back years of grammatical knowledge prior to attending my classroom were they to cut and paste this section into their brains. I fully intend on starting one this week because of the repeated errors my students make: forgetting to capitalize, using the wrong homophone, misusing apostrophes, run on sentences. Since I cannot tattoo this simple checklist on each of my students I must make a constant visual reminder for them.   Essentially, all the list is, is a reminder of common errors that they must be aware of and make an effort to avoid making themselves.

Again, simple right? However, my students (either through laziness, carelessness, or forgetfulness) make the same errors in simple punctuation and spelling that a year in Kindergarten taught them use correctly. No matter what I put on a rubric, state verbally in class or cover in a lesson they still make the same errors. I giant checklist seems the most logical next step. In fact, Anderson is adamant about the use of wall charts for students to refer to throughout the year to re-enforce and establish understanding and habit. Visual learning does account for the majority of learners after all. In fact, Anderson includes a visual activity for each lesson.

I will take several things with me away from the book Mechanically Inclined. First and foremost, no matter how much certain grammatical blunders may feel like the bane to my very existence, I must recognize that behind every error is a student that is trying to succeed. A student demonstrating the courage to face the plausible certainty that someone will tell them they are wrong. It is not as simple as that. Sure some kids are apathetic, but if they write, they are trying and we are the apathetic teacher if we do not help them.

Second, I learned a great deal of grammar myself. More than once while I was reading the several lesson plans included in this book, I paused saying, “light bulb!” much like Gru in my own mind. AAAWWUBBIS for example, is something new to me. Sure I am fairly familiar subordinating conjunctions, but I’ve never seen anyone make a mnemonic device to help students remember them before. I can see myself howling AAAWWUBBIS like a deranged Willy Wonka or an excited Chewbacca and waiting for my students to decide whether to push the button to call for the principal to collect the crazy teacher or to ask what the H E double hockey stick I was doing. Preferably after the later, I would explain what an AAAWWUBBIS was.

Third, there is not a single lesson that I don’t think would relate to my students needs, or help them on any level, to succeed.

I couldn’t have been more pleased with my selection of a grammar instruction book and look forward to sharing it with my peers and students.

Methods #16: In the Middle B.A.S.E. Jumping

While reading In the Middle I found myself inspired at times feeling that I had found the solution to all of my students’ writing needs, and I became flat out frustrated at other times wishing that I fully believed my own students could grow leaps and bounds via participation in a Writer’s Workshop. I very much feel like there are cliffs all around me with no concrete answers to be found. On the one hand, I learned that students are able to discover and demonstrate vast amounts of knowledge and understanding through the implementation of a Writer’s Workshop. On the other hand, when students are years behind in their writing skills is it fair to them to demand competent writing without their understanding of basic writing skills that must be understood at even the most vague level in order to create logical, coherent sentences?

I have no solid answer despite the praise and reviews of Atwell’s techniques or after reading them firsthand. I understand the power of one on one instruction that a Writer’s Workshop would provide my own students, and, I guess, therein lies the problem. There are so many intensive, tier 3 students that I wonder how I can possibly hope to meet standards, or make significant gains towards catching up to those standards.

I suppose it all boils down to my own abilities to manage various levels of ability simultaneously and my ability to connect with my students. I feel that doing whole class instruction will likely hinder the growth and development of my tier one and two students, therefore, I see tremendous value of the Writer’s Workshop approach, yet I worry tremendously about the amount of time it will take one on one to help my less successful students develop.

Am I whining? Perhaps, but I genuinely feel perplexed. Perhaps I should take a step back and run full speed jumping off of the cliff into the abyss. Courage is, after all, a prerequisite of teaching.

Bottom line: There are far too many benefits not to try and incorporate a Writer’s Workshop into teaching writing. I value my students and feel that the best way to help many of them is to engage them on a one on one basis and encourage them to set goals, produce writing, and place value in their own writing.

Over the next several months, I will be doing my best to transform my class into a Writer’s Workshop. Presently, I’m not sure what you would call my classroom. At times I feel like I’ve done great things for my students, and others I feel that I have done nothing but run around like a chicken with my head cut off, and that is terrifying to me. I will use lessons developed by Atwell in In the Middle, make up others, and borrow even more from other places until I find a mixture of units, lessons, and minilessons that help all of my students achieve my main goal for them: to become better writers and more critical thinkers for having taken my class. It is time to stop writing and to start B.A.S.E jumping.

Methods #15: Struggles Getting Behind the Writer’s Workshop

Though I agree with Nancie Atwell that students need to be provided time and that they must be expected to write daily I struggle with the concept in my own classroom where students are years behind in their writing abilities from what the standards demand of them.

There are undoubtedly lengthy lists that I could generate for why my students are completely behind in basic skill sets, but I feel I could make a generalization why many struggle: they are expert manipulators. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are great kids, but they know how to get away with doing less than the minimum. There is no reason why several eighth graders pout about needing to write two to three complete sentences in response to a question yet they fight tooth and nail about having to do such.

For example, I had my students select their favorite songs and respond to questions such as: What does this song mean to you? What do you think the song is about? Etc.… Over half of my eighth grade answered each question with a sentence or a sentence fragment. When I demanded more, they gave less. One student said, “That’s what it is about, I didn’t write the song. Don’t blame me!” in defense of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” being a song, “about a crazy person.”

Long story short I discovered many students were not able to demonstrate higher level thinking because they haven’t been forced to access their own brains. Don’t get me wrong, some students excel, but those that struggle have survived on the coattails of others and been spoon-fed the correct answers by frustrated teachers and aids attempting to cover the curriculum that demands more of students each year.

Because of the giant gap I find in my students’ ability levels, I cannot sacrifice instruction time to commit to a writer’s workshop. Many of my students need to be taught years of missed language skills that will not develop simply because I tell them to write. I have no doubt that they will also struggle even if I do my best to force-feed neglected education from the fundamentally necessary knowledge from topics ranging from parts of speech to grade level skills that they need to succeed at the high school level.

It is likely that Atwell, and other advocates of the Writer’s Workshop, would argue that the Writer’s Workshop is the perfect vehicle for developing these students because it forces them to set goals and provides them with the freedom of choice.

Methods #14: Grading/ Evaluation

As my first year of teaching progresses to its conclusion in this my second semester, I find myself asking what have my students learned? What have they done that holds value for them? What can they share with others? What grades have they earned?

Prior to reading the chapter titled “Valuing and Evaluating” I would have unquestionably replied that I should assign the students’ grades for the value of the work completed. Atwell suggests a different approach, “Whether I’m teaching in a system that requires letter grades, number grades, or doesn’t grade; whether I have 125 students or 25; whether there are standardized tests, local assessments, final exams, teacher narratives, or portfolios; if I’m teaching in a workshop, I have to figure out how to put students’ appraisals of their work at the heart of the evaluation process” (301).

Every student should be involved in the evaluation process by completing a self-evaluation and producing a portfolio of selected work for a final evaluation. Students complete a self-evaluation in response to a questionnaire created by Atwell. The questionnaire asks several essential questions that provide hard data such as: How many pieces of writing did you finish this trimester (her school runs in trimesters rather than quarters) (303)? She also asks several questions about reading and what genres her students have created and read.

After finding the base data, Atwell is able to evaluate the student based upon student and teacher generated goals that she creates with her students each trimester. Next, Atwell has the students share their own preferences of work compiled during the trimester.

To me, this looks like a very strong way to teach students accountability while teaching them the importance of setting and achieving goals. As I discussed earlier, several students struggle with writing because they cannot find the value or meaning behind their own writing. Atwell’s techniques seem to provide both a sense of purpose and meaning for every student.

Atwell says, “ Teacher evaluation in the workshop must focus on the big picture: who a student is becoming — and who he or she might become — as a writer and reader” (314). After taking the students goals and likes into consideration she acknowledges that evaluation must also be based upon the students abilities and evidence provided in both the journal and other everyday classwork.

Though Atwell’s system is simple it borders on brilliance. Having students write and read more by providing them choice in activities and goal setting will naturally progress them to be both stronger readers and writers, at the same time students will be more likely to push themselves in order to achieve a realistic goal that they themselves have set. Using students’ goals as a means for demonstration of quantitate accomplishment in combination with the compilation of students’ abilities easily translates into an effective means of student evaluation.

Methods #13: Meaning

Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching that I have learned from reading In the Middle by Nancie Atwell is that all students need to write, and that writing needs to be based in content in a medium that is important to the student with real life application. Students are reluctant to tackle writing projects that they struggle to connect with on an individual level. If a student does not find some meaning or value in the writing they will avoid writing and will not improve much due to lack of practice.

As a first year teacher, I have come to understand student resistance to writing first hand. My own students are very hesitant to write about any topic, especially those that offer them little choice.   I started the year having my students do an editing activity at the beginning of class followed by ten minutes of in class writing based on a writing prompt. At first, my students loved the activity and looked forward to sharing their editing corrections and writing with me. That love quickly faded and though my students were learning to identify and correct grammatical and spelling errors it became obvious that most simply waited for me to review the errors in class because they were receiving a grade on the work.   This was the first of many mistakes I have made so far this year. I realize now that I should have never graded a warm-up activity in any way. Also, I should not have relied upon my warm-up activity to try and teach my students how to proofread and edit.

I wish I had read In the Middle prior to the beginning of my teaching career so that I could understand the importance of students finding meaning in what they write. I surfed the Internet for hours upon hours carefully choosing what I decided were great writing activities. Some prompts were flat out awesome while others failed miserably. What I had hoped to give my students was a direction for their own writing while requiring them to write a certain amount each week. The eight paragraphs I required had several students turning in twelve paragraph to ten pages. My students loved the freedom of the writing prompts at first, but like the editing activity it quickly lost value for some, particularly students that were stronger writing informational text than they were able to communicate in a creative platform. Eventually, several students were barely turning in four paragraphs a week. And again, I had made another mistake Atwell warns against, I was writing on my students’ papers. In all honesty, I was flooding my students writing with comments, critiques and corrections trying to provide them with as much feedback as I could. Students that made several errors kept making the same mistakes. Eventually, I discovered they were not reading anything that I had written. My students were simply checking the box and doing what they had to do; they were not learning anything.

At the semester break, I came to the conclusion that while I had to make my students engage in the act of writing outside of class along with major papers that teach the conventions and format of formal writing. I learned that I could only assess them on their out of classes writing based on quantity versus quality. At the same time I would not accept writing chalked full of errors. In the second week of the semester, many students have done enough work to receive an A for quarter and most of my struggling students are keeping on pace to have enough quality work turned in by the end of the quarter.

When students find meaning in their own writing by being allowed choices they will produce more work and eventually become more proficient writers.

Methods #12: The Conference

Again, I find myself in agreement with a teaching great. There is very little I can even moderately shrug a shoulder at about what Nancie Atwell explains as the importance of the writing conference found in chapter 7 of In the Middle. Here she suggests that the teacher should make an effort to visit with every student daily to be help him or her to progress as a writer. This daily conference is why lessons must be kept as brief as possible in order to provide the time required to make the rounds.

There are several reasons for writing conferences discussed by Atwell throughout the chapter, but I would argue that the most important reason for the daily conference is that it creates a safe work environment for students to create original work.

Atwell suggests that you visit as many students as possible and to move around the room rather than moving down one row of students to the next. This allows the teacher to maintain classroom management while conferencing and eliminates showing favoritism through the order taken with the conferences.

While in the conference with the students there should be an established procedure in which both teacher and student maintain a low whisper. Whispering is important for several reasons. Primarily, whispering makes those in the conference more comfortable with sharing his or her writing, and conversations about that writing with the teacher. Secondly, whispering prevents other students from being distracted by the voice of the teacher or the student.

Perhaps my favorite lesson so far in my short career deals with sound in the classroom. The lesson was about being a successful student by being courteous to those around you. In this lesson, we discussed auditory learners and I informed my students that it is easier to be distracted by sound than it is to be distracted by sight. At the end of the lesson, I clapped my hands loudly saying you cannot ignore this, over and over.

Atwell outlines these and other guidelines on pages 224-226. During the conference, Atwell suggests that teachers should read students work to make comments and suggestions without marking on any student paper prior to the student turning in a final draft. The idea behind this is that students will edit along the process without feeling judged by others, thus improving their confidence and eventually their ability to write. Perhaps nothing else is as important for the development of our youth.

Methods #11: The Minilesson

One aspect of Atwell’s method writer’s workshop that I enjoy is the minilesson. My own teaching theories pair well with the minilesson because of the fact that I am free to help my students on a one to one basis very frequently. Also, the minilesson is able to capture student’s attention and keep them engaged more easily than longer lessons due to the brevity of the lesson itself.

Atwell suggests that the minilesson would last between 5-15 minutes in order for students to have time to play with the information shared in class in their own writing efforts. As students become more familiar with the information and techniques, while feeling safe in their writing environment they will demonstrate knowledge learned from minilessons in their own work.

Perhaps my favorite lesson from In the Middle that I have not yet shared with my own students is about the craft of writing – using description. In this lesson, Atwell uses a quote from Mark Twain to help her students understand descriptive writing, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and show it”(164). She goes on to explain the meaning of the quote in that good writers do not use adjectives and adverbs to convey detail, rather they use solid nouns and verbs (164-65).

I keep meaning to share this lesson with my own students since reading it a month ago, but it seems every time I hope to sneak it in, there is a snow day and I have to back peddle to try and allow work time for paper completion, to review for a test or to reteach material.

Atwell shares several more gems throughout the remainder of the chapter that I also look forward to sharing with my own students. My students continue to struggle with several things in their own writing such as subject verb agreement and homonyms. On page 200 of In the Middle Atwell shares a lesson on commonly misspelled homonyms, thank goodness. Hopefully this lesson will finally drive the difference home for some of my students.