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Stray from the Conventional Wisdom

by Rhonda Gearhart and Carol Van Zalingen

"Writing is about learning how writers create text we want to read, about understanding how to create clear messages—and maybe while we're at it, about creating beauty." (Anderson, 2007)

  Goals
 

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  Materials
  • One copy per person of Jeff Anderson's article, "Stray from the Conventional Wisdom: Show Writers How to Shape Writing with Grammar and Mechanics," Adolescent Literacy In Perspective (May/June 2007)
  • Overhead projector
  • One copy per person of the following:
    Teacher Survey—Appendix A
    Epistemology of Teachers—Appendix B
    Syntax Practice Sheet—Appendix C
    Imitation Writing Practice—Appendix D
    Prepositions—Appendix E
    Participial Phrases—Appendix F
    Adjectives Out of Usual Order—Appendix G
    Absolute Phrases—Appendix H
    (Note: Depending on the audience, you might choose to omit the "absolute phrase" examples or to make them optional. Although high school English teachers might be comfortable working with the varied types of absolute phrases, teachers of other content areas or grade levels may experience some frustration with the concept.)
  • One overhead color transparency of a beach scene (you can find images on the web)
  • One overhead color transparency of a mountain/lake scene (check the web for images)
  • Paper and writing utensils—ask participants to bring them
 

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  Introduce the Module and Its Purpose
Share with participants the following: Constance Weaver (2007), in her book The Grammar Plan Book, defines grammar as "the elements of the language and the structural 'rules' for combining them—whether or not anybody understands those rules consciously. The term grammar is also used for descriptions of its structure—whether reasonably accurate or not. The best known but least helpful descriptions are those of traditional school grammar" (p. 3). Although over a hundred years' worth of research and NCTE all suggest that grammar should not be taught in isolation, teachers persist in using traditional methods of teaching grammar, usually from a grammar textbook. In her book Teaching Grammar in Context, Constance Weaver (1996) reviews the wealth of research on grammar: "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that teaching formal, isolated grammar to average or heterogeneous classes, perhaps even to highly motivated students in elective classes, makes no appreciable difference in their ability to write, to edit, or to score better on standardized tests" (p. 26). As professionals, teachers need to examine other ways to improve the quality of student writing and the surface correctness of that writing.
 
 

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  Before Reading
  1. Pass out the teacher survey, and have participants complete it independently. Participants should write the number of their response in the blank before each statement. Once finished, participants should add up the numbers to arrive at a total score for the survey.
  2. Now pass out the handout titled the Epistemology of Teachers. Explain to participants that the epistemology of a teacher is the set of beliefs about learners and learning that each teacher holds, whether consciously or unconsciously. These epistemological beliefs inform the decisions teachers make each day about what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach it. Read aloud each bullet under both points of view, or ask volunteers to read aloud.
  3. Ask teachers to consider the two questions at the bottom of the page and discuss them in small groups. Help the participants realize that they learned more when they were given the opportunity to construct their own understanding of content, not only when they were students, but even when they became teachers. This workshop is a time to reflect upon whether these teachers are allowing their own students the opportunity to construct their own understanding of language arts content.
  4. Ask the small groups to share the main points of their conversations with the whole group. The goal is to realize that explaining things to students and having students practice rules is an ineffective approach to creating enduring understandings.
  5. Ask participants to check their score totals on the original teacher survey. Explain that those with scores over 10 lean more toward an objectivist belief system and those with scores under 10 lean more toward a constructivist belief system.
 
 

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  During Reading
Hand out the article "Stray from the Conventional Wisdom: Show Writers How to Shape Writing with Grammar and Mechanics" by Jeff Anderson. Ask participants to divide into pairs and read the article. After reading, partners will write a friendly letter (a dialogue journal) to each other, sharing their thoughts about the article. They will exchange letters and write a short response before discussing the article. Ask the participants to discuss the article as a whole group. Many participants may have concerns about alternative approaches to teaching grammar and mechanics. The following after-reading activity is one possibility of teaching grammar and mechanics from a more constructivist point of view.
 
 

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  After Reading
Pass out the syntax practice sheet, and set up the sunset transparency on the overhead projector. The goal of this part of the workshop is to make writing more interesting by using complex phrases that allow writers to vary their sentence patterns and create style in their writing while using grammatical terms such as adjective, participle, and preposition. By following the syntactical patterns, students can transform these grammatical ideas into concrete examples of good writing. Please note: Appendixes E-H are provided for additional explanation if needed.

To begin, read the example sentence for a prepositional phrase about a sunset picture, and ask participants to create their own sentence that begins with a prepositional phrase, following the model. Refer to Appendix E if more explanation is needed or if a list of prepositions is needed. Ask participants to share their sentences with the whole group. Then put the mountain/lake transparency on the overhead, and ask participants to create a prepositional phrase about it, again following the model sentence's pattern. Repeat this process for each of the syntactical patterns—prepositional phrases, participial phrases (see Appendix F), adjectives out of usual order (see Appendix G), and absolute phrases (see Appendix H; as noted in the Materials section above, you might want to skip the absolute phrase examples). Be sure to share sentences after each stage of this process.

Sample sentences for a mountain/lake scene are:

Prepositional phrase: Beneath snow-capped mountains, wind rippled across a deep blue lake.
Participial phrase: Sunlight ricocheted off the gentle waves, turning the small white caps silver.
Adjectives out of order: The leaves, orange, yellow, and red, rustled softly in the autumn breeze.
Absolute phrase: A hiker paused to survey his surroundings, his lungs inhaling the crisp mountain air.


Next pass out the imitation writing practice handout. Ask participants to imitate the syntactical pattern of this paragraph, using their own experience from a place they have seen or visited. Let them create their own paragraphs, following the syntax of the model paragraph. Point out that the Caribbean example in the handout is one possible way of imitating the original model. Allow 10 to 15 minutes at the end so participants can share what they have written and to discuss implications for their own classrooms.

You might consider the following questions for closure, which teachers might also use with their own students:

  • How did following the models help you with your own writing?
  • How did your writing change during this lesson?
  • What did you learn about your writing?
  • How important was a knowledge of grammar to improving the quality of your writing?
 
 

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  Suggested Follow-Up Reading
Hillocks, George, Jr. (2007). Narrative writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hillocks, George, Jr. (1999). Ways of thinking: Ways of teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Noden, Harry R. (1999). Image grammar. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Schuster, Edgar H. (2003). Breaking the rules. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Weaver, Constance. (2007). The grammar plan book. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Weaver, Constance. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

 
 

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References

Anderson, Jeff. (2007). "Stray from the Conventional Wisdom: Show Writers How to Shape Writing with Grammar and Mechanics." Adolescent Literacy In Perspective.
 
Weaver, Constance. (2007). The grammar plan book. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
 
Weaver, Constance. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
 
 
Rhonda Gearhart is a seventh grade language arts teacher at Hilliard Memorial Middle School. She has a master's degree in elementary education and has presented workshops at OCTELA and NCTE.
 
Carol Van Zalingen is a National Board Certified teacher in early adolescent English language arts. She has a master's degree in education and has presented workshops for Hilliard City Schools, OCTELA, and NCTE.
 

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