While students whizzed through fill-in-the-blanks worksheets and circled the correct number of nouns in a sentence, when the opportunity came for students to apply what they learned to their drafts and freewrites in writing workshop, we saw little evidence that they had internalized what we taught.
Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonana (in Catching Up on Conventions)
I just watched the movie Freedom Writers with my teenage children. My mind was playing this line over delivered by Eva, one of the students in Erin Gruwell’s freshman English class (explicit language removed):
“You got us in here, teaching us this grammar, and then we got to go out there again. And what are you telling me about that, huh? What are you doing in here that makes a difference to my life?"
For as many reasons as we have children in our classrooms, not all students have the same access to power. Home environment, level of family education, interrupted education, lack of basic needs, you name it. This is the reason many of us went into education — to make sure that all kids get an education that makes it possible for us to evolve decade-by-decade from inequality to equity for all.
As Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonana write in their book Catching Up on Conventions, “After all, if we do not provide tools for our students to access the culture of power, then they can neither think critically of it nor reform it.”
Speakers and writers use conventions to enhance and clarify their meaning. Without them, writing and speaking is at best misunderstood and at worse rejected. To give our students tools of access, they must have conventions. But it’s not enough to read and write wonderful texts. In the precious short time we have our students, they don’t absorb all they need to know. They must be taught — not by rejecting their dialect or teenspeak — but by teaching students to code-switch. We teach them to write for real audiences and purposes using the tools, not the just the rules, of conventions.
Conventions are about power, but power as we all know is not with problems.
Problems of Practice
When I read through the first drafts of the Common Core State Standards I noticed a difference between statements like “Develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details” in the writing standards and the explicitness of language standards like “Form and use the simple (e.g., I walked; I walk; I will walk) verb tenses.”
“It’s the old Christmas list dilemma,” I said to a colleague. “The gifts with the most detail are the most likely to be purchased.”
She looked at me, confused.
“Imagine you have a list from your mother-in-law and the first item on the list says shirts in pinks and blues and the second item on the list is a Macy’s bathrobe with the exact size, color and price. What are you going to get and why?”
“The bathrobe because I know I’m getting her exactly what she wants.”
Precisely. It’s been my experience that some teachers cling to drill-and-practice convention worksheets because they want to teach the “right thing.” The writing process and working with content is messy and complex. Consider part of that standard — “develop the topic with facts, definitions and details.” What does it mean to develop? Over how long? Are the facts provided or do students research them? What kinds of definitions? Paraphrased? Quoted? How detailed should writers be? But “form and use simple verb tenses” — that’s much clearer. Conventions are seen as much more set — they are the multiplication facts of literacy.
It wasn’t just the way the standards were worded either — look at quantity. Take third grade for example. When I count up the bullets underneath the first three writing standards there are twelve. In the first three language standards? Eighteen. Time and thought leads us to the conclusion that all “bullets” are not equal, but on a rubric listed side by side, the scale would appear in quantity alone to tip instruction toward conventions.
I’d been anticipating the emails and conversations around the focus on conventions in our writing program from the teachers with whom I work when they began to explore the standards. My first came late last spring: My team is wondering if we are supposed to be increasing the amount of time and focus on conventions because they are stated so explicitly in the standards. Does convention instruction fit into a writing workshop structure?
Three members make up this team: a veteran teacher who uses a workshop approach and has a degree in journalism, a brand-new teacher who wants to do a better job of teaching writing but isn’t sure where to start and a middle-career teacher who uses a worksheet shop approach. This means he says he’s teaching workshop because that’s his principal’s expectation. He writes “writing workshop” on the schedule and plans with his teammates, but minilessons find him explaining the worksheets, independent time really is kids filling in worksheets and reflection time is when some of the kids read aloud what was on their worksheet. In other words, it's a worksheet shop.
My experience working with this diverse team helped me articulate my own “Yes/So/And” struggles with conventions. Yes, I believe conventions need to be taught to all children to give them access to a literate life. So, conventions need a place in our writing instruction. And, conventions should not take precedence over the instruction on writing content, organization and style.
Does convention instruction fit into a writing workshop structure? Right away I start unpacking the question. I don’t make the assumption that a colleague and I mean the same thing even when we use the same words unless we take a moment to define it. So when I use the word convention, I’m using it as all-inclusive to include capitalization, grammar, usage, punctuation and sentence formation. Think of it this way: there is a “conventional” way of writing and speaking that is generally accepted as correct and students need to know and understand how to use it.
And then we have the word: instruction. What kind of instruction are we talking about in relationship to conventions?
“The most consistent finding in writing research is that teaching grammar does not improve student writing. In fact, of all the different kinds of writing instruction that have been investigated, grammar is far and away the least effective.” So write Patricia M. and James W. Cunningham in their book What Really Matters in Writing: Research-Based Practices Across the Curriculum.
The word “instruction” then does not refer to teaching isolated parts of speech, parts of sentences or types of sentences, it refers to teaching the rules as tools for students to use in their speech and writing — not through worksheets and not isolated from process writing.
Finding a Fit
With three growing kids, my house is like a subway for incoming new clothes that fit and are somewhat fashionable, and outgoing wardrobes that don’t fit anymore or were rarely worn. There are two questions that help us navigate this unending cycle. When we are at the store considering something new I ask, “Do you love it?” My children’s answers help make the decision if we get it or not. If they don’t love it, they probably aren’t going to wear it. Then when we get home we take a look at the closet or drawers and I say, “What can you let go of now that you have this?”
Many of us take a similar approach with our teaching. If we are bringing something new into the curriculum or increasing time spent on something that is already part of instruction, the change needs to be purposeful and we need to adjust what’s already there. Otherwise our closets (or our schedules) get so full we get overwhelmed.
This was the case when I was working with this team on conventions. Greta (the veteran teacher) was using a workshop approach and spending (according to her) about half her writing time on conventions. The new teacher, Meg, wasn’t teaching any conventions at all. Kenneth (who had been teaching ten years) was doing three or more grammar worksheets a week. Each teacher had a unique challenge in finding room for conventions instruction.
All three teachers had 45 minutes a day on the schedule for writing (225 minutes a week). Of that time, they agreed they wanted students writing for at least 30 minutes a day (150 minutes a week). We’ve used the rule of thumb in our district to spend one-third or less of our time on explicitly teaching conventions and two-thirds or more focused on content, organization, and style. That gave us about 50 minutes to work with conventions. When we found the recommendation in Catching Up on Conventions by Francois and Zonana for “fifteen-minute chunks of time three days a week,” it was a good fit.
Greta would be decreasing the amount of time she was spending on conventions. She was willing to do that for two reasons: her writing scores in conventions were much higher (almost 30% higher) than her students’ scores in writing content, and she wasn’t seeing the transfer to kids’ writing. Meg, on the opposite end, was going to need to add conventions into her schedule. Kenneth had the time for conventions work scheduled, but was going to need to increase his time for planning since he’d previously let the worksheets do the work.
They came up with this schedule for Tuesday-Thursday:
9:10-9:20 Read aloud (shorter by 5 minutes)
9:20-10:25 Reading workshop (shorter by 5 minutes)
10:25-10:40 Conventions lesson
10:40- 11:20 Writing workshop (shorter by 5 minutes)
Monday and Friday they’d skip conventions, and that met their need to start and end the week focused on connection and reflection. Now this is the way this team found a way in to creating space for convention instruction. I also worked with a teacher who introduced a single convention focus into the class morning message each week, and then revisited it at workshop time. Just down the hall, another teacher did a punctuation study inspired by Katie Wood Ray’s work, and then continued in a similar fashion for other conventions. There are many ways into this work.
We established what we would NOT be using this time for: worksheets from our aging reading series or Daily Oral Language and that we would be integrating the explicit teaching of conventions based on our standards and our students’ needs. The shift was clear and we had carved out the time.
“Now what are we doing with that time?” Kenneth asked. “Is this going to be whole-group time or small-group time or conferring, what?”
“Yes. At times, yes. And yes, that will be appropriate too,” I said. “Let’s start off by using what works and establish what matters to begin to design our plan.” We came up with these inquiry questions to guide our work:
- Does convention instruction fit into a writing workshop structure? We answered this question with the revised schedule I’ve share in this article.
- What works and what really matters in convention instruction?
- How and when do we look at students’ conventions in order to make instructional decisions?
- What are the “must-haves” vs. the “nice to haves” when it comes to conventions?
- What do the Common Core State Standards say? What’s different?
We finally had a good starting point for our work in reconceiving convention instruction.