Category Archives: Strategies and Structures

Grammar Instruction Made Easier

Want to start a fist fight among middle and high school teachers? Ask them how you should teach grammar. Don’t believe me? That was the topic of a recent conversation at the English Companion Ning. It runs for over five pages! Even after reading what so many experienced and intelligent educators had to say, I have to admit, I’m still confused.

But I did chime in. The first paragraph of my response read as follows:

Most recently I’ve taught grammar in context of real literature, but then I began to realize that not only was I missing some key concepts, but some students by their learning natures were not seeing connections. I really needed a program that was more systematic, recursive, and explicit. Wow. I didn’t realize that was what I needed until I just typed it. (Lesson to be learned: writing can create thinking, as well as vice versa).

A colleague warned me that I should be careful what I wished for, since I probably didn’t want a program that was systematic, recursive, and explicit. But, oddly enough, that’s what I do want, and that’s what I feel is needed.

Unlike reading, which is open to many interpretations, grammar actually functions by certain rules. Some of those rules must be understood before others (hence my emphasis upon systematic). I also know from years when I looped (from third to fourth), and more recently when I taught my former fourth graders as sixth graders, grammar rules are often forgotten, or need to be retaught in context of more difficult literary contexts (hence the recursiveness). And yes, I feel that grammar needs to be explicit. In the same way that mathematicians share a universally understood vocabulary, so should readers and writers. When discussing a piece of writing, for example, even a third grader should know what is meant by “the writer’s use of specific adverbs.”

So how can we teach grammar in a way that is not only systematic, recursive, and explicit, but also creative and engaging? Jane Bell Kiester seems to offer one solution in her Giggles in the Middle: Caught Ya! Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School. Using daily correction exercises, middle school students can dramatically improve their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and writing structure.

But how are these daily exercises different from other types of daily corrections? First of all, Giggles in the Middle is one continuous story, which helps to increase student engagement while providing meaningful context. Secondly, the exercises focus not only on grammar but also vocabulary development. A third difference is that this program integrates creative, original writing, with a new Writing Idea offered every three to four days.

In the Caught Ya approach Kiester offers a lot of teaching tips, having used and tweaked this program in her own class for many years. She also discusses a number of variations to the approach which teachers might want to adopt, depending upon their individual preferences and student populations. In all cases, however, emphasis is upon students understanding not only what is wrong, but why (see this sample student Caught Ya).

The book includes enough Caught Yas for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. Each day’s passage is presented with errors, corrections, and explanations of those corrections. Teachers with limited knowledge of grammar will find all the information they need to teach the lesson with confidence. The books also includes “almost midterm” and final exam tests, should a teacher choose to conduct summative assessments.

What I like best of all is that all exercises are included on an enclosed CD. For teachers who routinely use interactive whiteboards, or for those who need to print out exercises for absent or special needs students, the CD is a real timesaver.

If you’re looking for a grammar solution that delivers results, I suggest you check out Giggles in the Middle: Caught Ya! Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School or, for the high school crowd, Chortling Bard: Caught’ya! Grammar with a Giggle for High School. Need more convincing? Read more about the Caught Yas and also see what students and teachers have to say over at Maupin House.

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There’s a Word for That

One thing students don’t realize (until you point it out to them) is that language isn’t static. Like any other discipline, it continues to evolve. One case in point is the July 2009 announcement from Merriam-Webster regarding the addition of new words to its dictionary:

Hardworking word-lovers everywhere can now learn the meaning of the word staycation (“a vacation spent at home or nearby”) along with nearly 100 other new words and senses added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. America’s best-selling dictionary offers its new 2009 entries in its updated print edition and online at Merriam-Webster.com.”Our language evolves in many ways,” said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc. “As we’ve seen from our Open Dictionary feature on Merriam-Webster.com, people enjoy blending existing words, like combining ‘stay’ and ‘vacation’ to make staycation. Staycation is a good example of a word meeting a need and establishing itself in the language very quickly. Our earliest record of use is from 2005, but it seems to have exploded into popular use in 2007.”

“Another example of this kind of creative wordplay from this year’s list,” said Morse, “is frenemy: one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy. But, in addition to these ‘portmanteau words,’ we have added new words from more predictable categories, like science, health, technology, and popular culture, which have also seen widespread use across a variety of publications.”

Many of the new words reflect the importance of the environment (carbon footprint, green-collar), government activities (earmark, waterboarding), health and medicine (cardioprotective, locavore, naproxen, neuroprotective), pop culture (docusoap, fan fiction, flash mob, reggaeton), and online activities (sock puppet, vlog, webisode). Other words added include haram, memory foam, missalette, and zip line.

What Merriam-Webster fails to admit is that our language changes daily, and new words don’t wait to be officially recognized. So rather than accessing the Merriam-Webster online dictionary for new terms, word-lovers are better served by sites such as Wordspy and Urban Dictionary.

Wordspy takes on a recent word such as vegangelical and not only defines and parses it (n. An extremely zealous vegan who is eager to make other people believe in and convert to veganism; blend of vegan and evangelical) but also traces it to its earliest citation (in this case, to the blog The Smoking Vegans in 2005).

Wordspy is a fun site to browse, and readers are welcome to comment on entries and suggest new words as well. Its biggest strength is that it offers citations for all the words it lists. But the question must be asked, “Just because someone uses a word, does it become a word?” To put it another way, “Are all neologisms created equal?” Sure, Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, and Lewis Carroll coined words all the time, but do the rest of us carry enough clout to do the same?

Enter Urban Dictionary. Users enter words they’ve created or recently heard, and readers vote the words up or down. Rather than attempting to ajudicate, Urban Dictionary simply allows other users to enter their competing definitions for those same terms or phrases. Often you’ll find that multiple readers submit similar definitions, and even provide the sources for you to confirm the facts. “The time,” for example, is submitted by two readers who cite its origin in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both agree that “the time” is a euphemism for intercourse.

Urban Dictionary is fun to read for its spirited arguments. I also discovered that the tags attached to each word keep me reading from one word to another. While teachers will appreciate that some readers actually try to spread knowledge about our language (see the posts about Catch-22), you should be warned that some submitters use language that is inappropriate for children, and for this reason Urban Dictionary is likely blocked in your school.

A third site for neologisms is Buzz Whack. While the words listed here are clever and even familiar, this site lacks the interaction and attempt at scholarship found in the previous two. But it’s worth a look, and you might even find a resaon to like it.

How can teachers make use of these sites? Certainly as add-on dictionaries. But I’d say just alerting students to neologisms will make them more aware of the fact that these words are springing up all around them in an attempt to name new phenomena (sexting is one such unfortunate term which needed to be coined). Students can collect and share these, and even be challenged to create their own (an easy task if they choose to create portmanteaus, ala Lewis Carroll).

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Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing

From the Dartmouth Writing Program at Dartmouth College, some great thoughts on Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing.

By no means is this is a stylish, high tech site, but if you look further into some of the links at the top, you’ll find even more great advice on assessing student writing.

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Under What Rock Have I Been Living?

Under what rock have I been living?

That’s a question I really need to ask myself if I’m just now discovering Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. Yes, she’s an author, and I do recognize a couple of her titles (and the others look promising!). But somehow I missed that she has created this awesome site (absolutely no hyperbole intended) containing hundreds of original teaching guides for picture books, middle grade and YA books, and poetry. And yes, my fellow frugal teachers, they’re all there for free. All Tracie asks in return, if you like what you see, is that you buy a copy of her book. Trust me, even if you buy all of her books, you’re getting the better end of the deal! Free resources and her critically acclaimed titles for your own library.

So in an atypical move for me, I’ll shut up now. I’ll let Tracie’s web site speak for itself (and you can check out her blog as well). Thanks, Tracie, for your terrific resources!

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What Makes a Good Children’s Book?

What makes a good children’s book? I’d suppose that’s a tough question to answer, otherwise Microsoft would have already written Newbery Notebook 1.0 and Caldecott Creator for Windows. A good children’s book is far from formulaic.

It seems, however, that Little, Brown Books has done a pretty good job of nailing some of the more prominently recurring traits of good children’s books (both novels and picture books). See the whole list at the Upstart Crow Literary blog (a cool place to peek behind the curtain of the writing and publishing biz).

What use is this list to the average classroom teacher?

  • It may help you understand why some books win with children while others fail. The list explains, for example, why a common literary motif of many children’s novels (Harry Potter, Lord of the Flies, Narnia, Holes) is the removal of the protagonist (and other main characters) from adult supervision and control.
  • The individual attributes may help you create some connections between otherwise unrelated texts. One successful exercise with every novel, for example, is looking at how a character grows or changes over time. I’ve used this approach with Number the Stars, Because of Winn Dixie, Crash, Flipped, and Island of the Blue Dolphins to name just a few. Check out this sample recording sheet.
  • The list can be used a fairly accurate indicator of a book’s overall value when teachers must choose just two or three titles for study. Many teachers, for example, complain that their boys just don’t “get into” books which feature strong female protagonists. A book like Poppy, however, which features a female animal protagonist, is somehow more readily embraced.
  • Teachers can use the list as a reference for writing minilessons. If these are the traits that make good children’s books work, and if these are the attributes with which children have the most first-hand experience, then perhaps many of them could inform student writing as well.

How else do you see putting this list to work for you? Email me or leave a comment below!

(This same post also appears at my Teach with Picture Books site).

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Book Report Tracking Sheet

I mentioned this at a workshop, and I’ve had a few emails regarding it, so there may be some general interest. The Book Project Tracking Sheet allows for various “checkpoints” along the way in order to prevent students from procrastinating. Parents love it, and students have also told me they liked seeing their progress; it divided a really big “meatloaf of a report” into easily digestible chunks (my words, not theirs).

Email me if you’d like a Word format for tweaking.

Book Report Tracking Sheet

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Teaching Metaphorically

In response to my prior post about Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject, I received an email from Adriana who asked, “Can you give an example of a metaphorical lesson? Not a lesson that teaches about metaphors, but a lesson that uses the idea.”

While I had a few ideas, I thought the best way might be to show a lesson in action. Check out this clip from Mr. Langhorst’s 8th grade in Liberty, Missouri. It’s a perfect example of an extended metaphor.

I love this approach! In my third and fourth grades, where I’ve taught the Revolutionary War as well, I’ve taken a slightly different approach. Students were presented with a letter from the school board, announcing that due to last year’s low test scores several drastic measures would be put into place: extended school hours, summer school for all students below a 3.5 average, school on Saturdays, and no more Physical Education. Students became quite upset that neither they not their parents were in attendance at this meeting, and that they were being punished for last year’s bad scores (purely fictitious as well). Seeing how distraught my students were, I graciously allowed them to draft letters to the testing coordinator (Mr. Itzal LaSham) expressing their feelings. Without fail, students created the most articulate, persuasive writing of their lives! When read aloud, the letters of protest were impassioned and convincing.

But then I wondered aloud, “I’m not sure if we should have done this. Perhaps Mr. LaSham will get upset, and call your parents. Are you guys really willing to take that risk?” Out come the erasers, but not for all. Most students are so adamant in their beliefs that they refuse to erase their names, no matter what the consequences!

It’s usually at this point, although sometimes much earlier, that some student will exclaim, “This is exactly what happened to the colonists! We’re being forced to live by rules that we didn’t help to make.” And eventually, of course, I do let students in on the secret: The letter is fictitious, and so is the testing director (Mr. It’s All a Sham). We then discuss the similarity between their letters and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents express extreme dissatisfaction, but the latter is further expressing outright rebellion. Should the colonists lose this war, the bold Declaration will serve as King George’s hanging list.

In nearly twenty years of implementing this lesson, students have been faithful to not share it with their siblings or friends, and each year’s new class faithfully falls for the trick: hook, line, and sinker. But the real payoff is that years later, when students return from high school and college to visit, they’ll ask, “Did you do the letter yet?” and they’ll vividly recall every aspect of the lesson, including (here’s the clincher!) its point.

Now that’s a lesson that sticks.

If you’re a social studies teacher, check out Eric Langhorst’s blog for more great resources and insights. You may also want to check out the six elements of “stickiness” found in Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

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