The playful title of today’s post, contributed by an eighth grade student, is so true. The comma can change everything, not only in a sentence, but in our lives. When he handed me the piece of paper with this statement written on it, he didn’t know that I’m on a year-long comma. And one of the things I love about my comma is the opportunity to work part-time with children just like him.
This school year, I’m working on a wonderful and timely project called Write For Texas. Part of that job is to go into schools and work with teachers and students to improve both the quality and quantity of student writing. To that end, I try writing activities with students that may not have been tried before.
Last week, I modeled an activity I called Sentence of the Week, sentence imitation work adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This. Gallagher contends that students learn more about how sentences are constructed when they engage in both simulated and integrated practice. When I designed the SOW model to use with Middle School students, the sequence of events was as follows: 1. Students simulated by copying three example sentences taken from a mentor text. 2. Students noticed what the three sentences had in common, discussing these similarities with a classmate and then with the whole class. 3. After a brief mini-lesson describing the type of sentences they were looking at (Compound sentences for the 6th graders, Complex for the 7th and 8th graders), they practiced writing these sentence types, first with a partner, and then alone. I then encouraged them to use these sentence types in their future writings. If these were the students in my classroom, I would require that they use compound or complex sentences in their writing for the next week, thus integrating their learning into their own writing. I’m hopeful that their teachers will incorporate Sentence of the Week type activities into their lessons, because I feel that it’s a much more effective way to teach grammar than asking students (who know very little about how good sentences are constructed) to correct sentences that are written incorrectly.
I always try to get feedback from the students before I leave, asking what they liked about the activity, what questions they have, and what they learned. Students made some interesting connections and observations about this activity that I’d like to share.
Nuts and Bolts
Some of the student feedback referred to the nuts and bolts of sentence construction. They talked about putting commas before conjunctions, and that there were commas in the middle of sentences that started with subordinating conjunctions. While their ideas were not fully developed, the ability to make the connection between a 20 minute lesson and a concrete action on their own part is encouraging.
Thinking about Thinking
Students told about their own thinking, with one student referring to the fact that this activity had made his brain work. Even though these comments may seem unrelated to the activity, it’s clear that the students who responded like this were thinking about their own learning rather than someone’s teaching. That’s what they should be thinking about.
The students didn’t ask too many questions, but the questions they did ask indicated a real curiosity about how sentences worked. They wanted to know why the conjunction and comma were used in a compound sentence, whether or not there were other ways to formulate complex sentences than the examples I showed, and other techniques for writing sentences. I have twenty-one years of teaching experience. I’ve never done a grammar worksheet, grammar correction exercise, or sentence diagramming activity that generated questions like this.
If you believe you can do something, you can do it. That’s why I cherish the type of feedback that indicates increased self-belief. Students indicated that the model was easy to understand and that the sentence types were easy to write.
Part of the personal comma is to take a close look at what’s working and what isn’t. When I do this activity again, I will make several changes based on the student feedback. However, I could clearly tell by looking at the comments the students made that they found the activity valuable and worthy of their time. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m getting a paycheck to try new writing activities with students. I’m trying to help, but their teachers are the ones who have to live with the intense pressures of testing and the overwhelming demands of teaching. Teachers need the comma too, to stop and think about what’s working for their students. And they need the freedom to respond to what their students are telling them. That’s the comma that can change everything.