Take your age and subtract five. That’s approximately the number of years you’ve been working with conventions in your writing. For me that number is 35. For 35 years I’ve been learning which letters get capitalized and which ones do not, and how I can use capital letters to get ATTENTION. I’ve also been learning about how commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks change our pacing and the pitch of our voices when we read. I’ve learned to tuck my punctuation inside my quotation marks, and that “a man-eating shark” is different from “a man eating shark” because of one little hyphen.
When I step back to think how I’ve built my toolbox of conventions, it’s based on trial and error in these three areas:
- The absence of a convention
- The misuse of a convention
- The overuse of a convention
I’ve journeyed from errors to something that looks more like published text through paying close attention, looking at mentor texts, and feedback from my teachers, friends, readers, and now editors. Because of this, I don’t get fed up with students’ conventions. I’ve just been through a grueling week of reading and scoring everything from first graders’ opinion papers on favorite book characters to fifth graders’ informational papers on kids’ rights. Averaging more than 100 papers a day, I am able to make meaning out of 99 percent of them. When I see a child’s writing that includes a 157-word sentence, I think, That’s the absence of punctuation and sentence breaks. In the next paper when I encounter the phrase “bat’s have babie’s,” I recognize the misuse of a convention. I chuckle when I read, “That’s it! There will be no more oceans if we keep polluting! We have to do something about it!” Overusing exclamation marks is something I see in many papers (and some emails from my friends).
Demonstrating Conferring with Conventions
Fourth-grade teachers Kenneth and Meg were released from their teaching for 90 minutes to come observe in Greta’s classroom during the literacy block. The team had asked me to demonstrate conferences during writing time so they could listen in. Each teacher selected a different "watch-for." Kenneth was going to write down the questions I asked. Meg was planning to record how much of the talking the student did. Greta wanted to attend to both the duration of the conference and the parts of the conference.
We selected students for conferences. I asked everyone specifically to choose students that puzzled them and/or represented trends of other students around the room. They asked me to work with Chyla, who had two pages of text and only two periods, and Eli, who had density, variety, and severity with all his written conventions, as well as other students.
Right before demonstrating these conferences, I’d read John Hattie’s piece “Know Thy Impact” from Educational Leadership. He wrote, “Simply put, students welcome feedback that is just in time, just for them, just for where they are in their learning process and just what they need to move forward.”
I wrote as a reminder to myself at the top of my notes: just in time, just for them, just for where they are, just what they need to move forward.
Chyla: Absence of Sentence Conventions
Heather (teacher): Why don’t we start off by having you read just a page of a recent piece in your writing workshop folder?
Chyla read: What I liked most about my weekend was making pies with my grandma we had so many apples in the yard so we decided to make pies and my grandma has a recipe that has lots of butter and lots of cinnamon too it smelled so good while it was baking we even put butter in little slits that we cut in the top of the pie . . .
Heather: I’ll stop you there. Your piece makes me hungry just thinking about it, and you’ve got strong writing here. Today we are going to talk specifically about conventions. Two of the items on your conventions checklist are to “capitalize at the start of sentences” and “use periods, exclamation points, and question marks at the end of the sentences.”
Chyla: [rolls her eyes] I know! I can do it when I’m supposed to.
Heather: Tell me about that.
Chyla: I just don’t like to stop and do it while I’m writing.
Heather: Oh, okay. Why don’t you go ahead and put them in now?
At this point Chyla looked down at her writing and was able to recognize and punctuate the first sentence, “What I liked most about my weekend was making pies with my grandma.” It was clear she didn't know what to do with the rest of her writing.
Heather: You did find the first sentence, but the rest of it might be more difficult. I noticed that most of your sentences start with subjects: words like we and my grandma and it. Do you want to try to find those words and see?
We worked our way through her passage with her finding the starts of her sentences.
Heather: Most sentences have a "who" or a subject and a "what’s happening." If you can learn to mark your sentences the first time, you won’t have to go back. So what do you need to do next with your conventions?
Chyla: I need to mark where a sentence starts with a capital and where it ends.
Heather: And how will you find those?
Chyla: Sometimes I can find it easily by looking for the "who" part of my sentence. I can’t believe there were five sentences and not just one.
Eli: Missing Words
Heather: Hi, Eli. I’m going to start off by reading one of your recent pieces from your writing workshop folder. When I’m finished, I want you to tell me what you notice.
I read, My uncle has jet ski its a kawasaki it goes probably 50 miles an hour but he has a friend who fixed throttle he went 67 last weekend even rough water. I can’t wait to try it with him.
Heather: I’ll stop there. What did you hear?
Eli: It doesn’t make sense.
Eli: Like “who fixed throttle.” It sounds funny.
Heather: This piece about Jet Skiing is a great topic for you because I can tell how much you like Jet Skis, so I’d like us to help it make sense so everyone can enjoy it. I know your teacher asks you to whisper read while you revise. Did you do that?
Heather: I thought so. I’m going to have you whisper read in a really weird way and see if it makes a difference. I want you to read the first line like a robot, and any time it sounds weird, I want you to stop.
Eli reads: My uncle has Jet Ski—okay, that sounds weird.
Heather: What should it say?
Eli: My uncle has a Jet Ski.
We continued to work through his piece in a robot voice and found more missing words: the, and, miles an hour. I shared with Eli that his brain was doing something very smart when he was whisper reading. It was filling in the blanks. The robot voice was different enough to slow him down and trick his brain to not fill in the blanks.
Heather: So what do you need to start doing with your conventions?
Eli: I need to slow down and read it in a funny voice so I can find the words I’m missing.
Heather: Just knowing that you are a writer who skips words can help you remember to check.
Eli: I know I go kinda fast when I write.
Debriefing with the Team
When the students left for lunch, we sat at the back table. Each teacher shared what they had watched for. We kept a running list of what they noticed:
- There was a positive statement about the writing in the beginning (a “wow”).
- There was only one specific issue for the student to look for (a “wonder”).
- When they couldn’t do it alone, there was a strategy to help them.
- They did most of the talking.
- They had to say at the end what they needed to do next with conventions.
The teachers also asked me questions about my instructional decisions. Kenneth wanted to know, “Why, out of all the problems with Eli’s writing, did you choose to focus first on missing words?”
I replied, “Before I could help him form sentences like I did with Chyla, all the text needed to be there for us to work with. It seemed like a small step he could do successfully and we could build on it.”
Meg asked, “How do you keep it short?”
I smiled and responded, “Lots and lots of practice. I think about what the issue is and the simplest way I can say it. I love to use metaphors when I teach, but not in conferring. Here I want to be very, very clear. It’s as if I’m saying, ’You are doing this; it’s correct to do this; try this strategy to see if it helps.’”
Greta did much of the talking because these were her students. When I asked each teacher what they would take away from the experience, Greta said, “It seemed like your feedback was really helping each writer learn about themselves and their issues with conventions.”
Referring to Hattie’s quote I’d shared with them, I said, “Just like I want to know my impact, I also want to help writers know themselves.”