During the last professional development session that I did with the middle school teachers language arts teachers, we dove head first into a book titled, Mechanically Inclined, by Jeff Anderson. One word: AMAZING. For a language arts teacher who has struggled her entire career with not knowing how to incorporate grammar and mechanics into instruction, this book knocked it out of the park for me. I have always known that grammar and mechanics instruction is essential, and that it should be taught in a way that students can apply to their own writing versus the "drill and kill" worksheet and direct instruction method. What I have not encountered is if you're not using worksheets and direct instruction, what DOES solid grammar and mechanics instruction look like? This book, for me, finally put tangible ideas in my head that I knew I could transfer into my 8th grade classroom.
I have chosen to start the year off with my 8th grade students by doing an Interactive Read Aloud titled, Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper. For those of you who read my blog, you know that I am slightly obsessed with this story. I have gotten into the practice of reading a chapter per day out loud with my students. During this time, I model my thinking around the text, ask them to turn and talk with a partner about key issues in the story, discuss important terminology such as symbols and theme as a whole class, and am developing a common text that we can refer to as a whole class during Reading and Writing Workshop minilessons. Interactive Read Alouds hold many purposes. I can see some asking the question: How could you possibly take the time to read aloud to your 8th grade students? I would argue: How can you NOT take the time to read aloud to your students? By taking ten minutes of class per day to read a chapter out loud to my students, I am laying the groundwork for talking about text throughout the entire year and having a common text to refer to in minilessons in Reading Workshop, I am establishing a mentor text and author to be able to refer to in Writing Workshop, and I now have a drawing board for mentor sentences in Word Study. For today, I'm going to discuss how I've incorporated our first Interactive Read Aloud into Word Study, but I had to throw in the sheer importance of Interactive Read Aloud to the entire literacy framework while I was at it :).
Each day when my students enter my classroom, there is a dry erase board posted in the hallway with the materials needed for the day's class and what they should begin doing as they enter the classroom. Most days the board reads, "Begin Interactive Edit in Word Study notebook." Students know that as they walk in, they should take their language arts materials for the day from their mailboxes, open their Word Study notebook, and begin copying down the day's mentor sentence into their Word Study notebook.
Each day, I select a mentor sentence from our IRA, Out of My Mind, from the chapter that we will be reading in class for that day. Jeff Anderson also mentions using mentor sentences from the writing of students in your class, which I can't wait to try out as well. After they copy down the sentence exactly as it appears on the Smartboard, I ask them to consider the questions: "What do you notice about this sentence?" and "What sticks with you about this sentence?" Many students as they're copying down the sentence will also blurt out a prediction about what they think will happen in today's chapter based off of the sentence. Guess what? For once I don't mind the blurting. It's also so cute when I'm reading the chapter out loud to them, and I get to the mentor sentence from the day, and several of them begin pointing at me and nodding their heads to indicate, "That was our sentence for today!" It's awesome. I found it very humorous that the first few times I did this with students this year they would raise their hands with confused looks on their faces and try to suggest to add in a comma, capitalize something, change the spelling of a word, etc. They could not grasp the concept that there was NOTHING wrong with the sentence on the Smartboard. In fact, the sentence came directly from our IRA, a published book.
Students had it so engrained in them since an early age with the dreaded "DOL" type of editing activities that we've used in the past to teach grammar and mechanics to always look for what was "wrong" with a sentence. Many of the sentences in DOL contain so many errors that it makes the process such an unrealistic experience to students, and they become numb. They see DOL as a drill, and many students become great at doing DOL. However, I would argue that many students who are great at DOL and always fixing the same predictable errors in a sentence do not transfer that skill into their own writing. We have taken the time in DOL to always look for what is wrong in sentences, but we've never taken the time to step back and pick out rich mentor sentences to notice what is right. We never explored the possibilities of, "What conventions does this author use to make this sentence work?" In my mind, this question will encourage students to engrain the conventions of proper mechanics and grammar into their brains. We would never ask students to learn how to spell words they do not know how to spell by staring at the words spelled incorrectly and having them write down the words incorrectly, that's just silly. If we stare at something long enough incorrectly, there's a chance that our brain may take that as the truth whether we like it or not.
So what happens once students have copied down the mentor sentence from our IRA and written down underneath the sentence what they notice/what sticks with them about the sentence? At this point, I usually ask students to turn and talk with a neighbor about the things they have noticed about the sentence. This gives everyone a chance to voice their opinion and more likely to share their opinion when we join together as a whole class to discuss. So after the turn and talk, we move into a whole-class discussion about what was noticed. Today, I actually had two students disagree (in a respectful way) during the turn and talk about why commas were placed in today's mentor sentence, and they both were able to state their opinion as to why they thought the commas were there. After both had stated their opinion, other members of the class were able to join in, and we came to a consensus as a group. When I have my students engaging in conversation surrounding the purpose of commas in a sentence with passion in their voices, I can't help but let my inner dorky English teacher jump up and down with excitement (on the inside only of course).
As we're having the whole-class discussion, I take notes on the Smartboard of items that the students notice about the sentence, and students are expected to write down anything about the sentence that a classmate noticed that they do not have written down. Below I have a few examples of screen shots from after we discussed the mentor sentence of what the Smartboard looked like.
All of a sudden, I discovered that my students were learning about coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS), comma principles, apostrophes, adjectives, capitalization rules, punctuation, types of sentences, etc. Questions such as, "What would happen if we removed this comma?" and "What if the author would have done ____ instead?" started to come out. As the teacher, I simply went with it and threw it back to the students to ask, "Let's try it! What do you think?" and "How would that change the sentence?" This wasn't coming from me giving a lecture followed by a canned worksheet on these concepts. This was coming from my students examining and noticing from mentor sentences in our Interactive Read Aloud on a daily basis. Students are learning from each other. I am still teaching and naming some things that they're noticing for them to help develop that common language surrounding grammar and mechanics, but it is their noticing of the mentor sentences that is driving what we're learning.
To take this to the next step, once we establish certain rules governing the way writing works from the mentor sentences, I create anchor charts throughout the room to display our learning, along with the mentor sentences that we used as a reminder. As you can see by the anchor chart on dashes, students are welcome to add mentor sentences from their independent reading or writing by the anchor charts at any time. It is also essential during minilessons to reference anchor charts so that students learn to use them as a resource throughout the literacy block.
Probably my favorite piece that I incorporated from Jeff Anderson's book, Mechanically Inclined, is the idea of an "Editor's Checklist" that I continually add to as more concepts come up during Interactive Edits. I stress that as writers, we are constantly experimenting with grammar and conventions in our writing. I like the word experimenting because it implies that students are trying to use the grammar and mechanics that we discuss, it also implies that students are taking chances as writers (which could mean that there will be mistakes), but I'd rather have my student take risks as writers than write boring sentences with perfect conventions. With the Editor's Checklist, I've also done what Jeff Anderson refers to as an "Express Edit" where after students have written in their Writer's Notebooks for the day, I will select one-two items on our Editor's Checklist and ask them to examine their entry for the day by editing only for those select one to two items. Our Editor's Checklist up to this point of the school year is pictured below. There is space to keep adding to it as the year goes on!
Now that we have the routine down, this takes us 5-7 minutes at the beginning of class each day. I have consistently had students do this for the past three weeks, and I can honestly say that this is the only time in my Language Arts teaching where I have had students taking on these concepts as writers. Students are not only more aware of their grammar and mechanics, but they're also trying out new things that we talk about that writers do. For instance, I had several students use dashes to add additional information, and use compound and complex sentences over choppy, simple sentences. In the past, it seems like I defaulted to ignoring grammar and mechanics or teaching random "sit and get" lessons that I felt obligated to throw in and guilty for teaching because I knew the way I was teaching didn't align with my beliefs about teaching. What I didn't know was how I could change it to make it better. Until now...