Thanks to twowritingteachers team for providing this space to write and share and grow!
How should we think about grammar and mechanics across the day and in writing workshop? Our ultimate goal is to help our students also view grammar as something to appreciate, enjoy, and even admire. Joan Didion views the orchestration of composing sentences as an art form: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. . . .” (Friedman 1984, 7).
I don’t remember much about writing experiences in elementary school, but I do remember that the writing we did always rewarded effort in perfect manuscript or cursive handwriting as well as correct spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. In sixth grade, Mrs. Steinberg gave us opportunities to write often and looked at other qualities of writing such as content and style—and I loved that year! I remember particular projects such as writing about an unforgettable character in our lives. Mrs. Steinberg said we would mail our piece to the person we were writing about or we could personally deliver it and actually read the piece aloud. I wrote about my riding instructor, Mick Warmington. I will always remember reading my piece to him – a gift of writing – and pausing to glance at his face as often as possible as I read my words.
By the time I entered high school, writing mainly involved research—writing reports. The “red pen” was used to mark grammatical mistakes. The two areas my teachers often emphasized with their grading were conventions and grammar—up to 50 percent of each grade. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any conferences along the way—just a final grade with few comments on how to move forward as a writer. Lessons were taught from a standard grammar book and practiced in isolation. My most vivid memory of seventh-grade writing emerged from lessons in sentence structures, especially diagramming sentences with direct and indirect objects. The exercises in the books were never connected with the writing we did in class – reports, essays, character studies, and so on.
When I reached the university, I realized there were many things I didn’t know about writing and struggled with freshman year, even though every previous year I had obtained an A in English class as well as most other subject areas. How did this happen? I could diagram any sentence and knew my parts of speech. I certainly knew the difference between a fragment and a run-on sentence.
By the time I started teaching, we used a grammar book four days of the week and had “creative writing” every Friday. My third- and fourth-grade students entered every year insisting they didn’t know what a noun or verb was, even though I knew my colleagues had taught these concepts. Every teacher complained that students lacked skills in grammar and conventions. There was no transfer of skills to their written work, even though the students had workbook pages of practice and even unit tests around each part of speech.
My work with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project sent me in a new direction. I learned to address all the qualities of good writing in workshop and to teach lessons in grammar through modeling and shared and guided practice. Then came mentor sentences, paragraphs, and texts. Students tried new constructions by “walking around in the syntax” of mentor authors. I was onto something new and exciting—and it was working for my students! I realized that students could greatly improve their writing abilities by imitating the craft, organizational patterns, sentence structures, and punctuation in the model texts we used in class. These texts became mentors for my students and me and provided the gentle nudges they needed to try out new things—to take risks in their writing.
I became fascinated, too, with writers who “broke the rules.” Sometimes when I found a fragment or run-on sentence, I paused to rewrite it in my head for correctness and found that the fragment or run-on was very purposeful.
I questioned why authors would begin a sentence with the word and or string a list of items together repeatedly using and instead of just a comma. Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words (1999) and Edgar Schuster’s Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Though Innovative Grammar Instruction (2003) became mentor texts for me. I began to delight in reading almost anything like a writer as well as a reader. Suddenly, my writing started to improve and my writing workshops took on a new meaning.