What matters, then?
Poetry matters, and the line
that will not break
under the weight of history.
What matters then?
A single gardenia broken
from the dark-leafed bush.
What matters then?
The dark-leafed bush. What matters then?
Those are a few lines from the book Red Creek: A Requiem by Margaret Robison. Although it’s a beautiful piece of poetry to appreciate in itself, Margaret has the right idea to keep asking the question “What matters, then? And what matters then?”
So what matters with conventions? What works?
As much as possible in my role as a coach, I do my “homework” on the subject at hand before meetings. For an upcoming meeting with a team of fourth-grade teachers, I’d reviewed my highlights and annotations in two old favorites: Jeff Anderson’s Everyday Editing and A Fresh Approach To Teaching Punctuation by Janet Angelillo. I added two other resources to my library: What Really Matters in Writing by Patricia M. and James W. Cunningham and Catching Up on Conventions by Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonana. I didn’t read these texts with “telling” in mind, though; I read them for the purpose of “navigating.” My job as a coach isn’t “This is how other people say to do it”; my job is to know how to support the direction to go when the team points the way.
We began with a simple list on effective conventions instruction. I titled the first column “What we think doesn’t work” and the second column “What we think does work.” Here is what we brainstormed:
What we think doesn’t work:
Worksheets of isolated practice
No connection to student writing
Conventions language that is too technical (or is never used in real life)
Teachers correcting writing in a different-color pen and then handing it back to the students
Teaching students conventions they don’t use
What we think does work:
Interesting and engaging lessons
Paying attention to correct conventions
Practice, practice, practice (and the ability to make lots of mistakes)
Fewer things to focus on
Kids see the purpose
“It’s not just about knowing the conventions; it’s about having strategies.”
We sat back and looked at the lists. “Based on what we have here, I think you three should be writing these resources for teachers on conventions, because you’ve hit just about everything I’ve read.” I flipped open to flags in What Really Matters to prompt our discussion:
“Recent meta-analyses of research have found that strategy instruction has large effects and is the most valuable means of helping students become better writers. Some of the key components of writing strategy instruction are modeling the strategy, supporting students’ use of the strategy in their own writing, and moving students to independent use of the strategy.”
Greta, Meg, and Kenneth were familiar with the idea of “teaching the strategy, not just the story” in relationship to reading. “Kids need to know the rules but only so that they can access the tools,” I said. “We don’t need them to regurgitate definitions; we need to see them using strategies in their writing.”
We talked about the research that showed that students in grades 3–5 revised and edited more when revising and editing came later in the writing process. “That makes sense,” Greta said, “because that’s true for me. When I’m too close to a piece, it’s hard for me to analyze it. But I’ve always had kids go through the steps of the writing process right away.”
Janet Angelillo’s words moved us forward. “In these days of high-stakes testing and accountability, we must be sure that we are looking at more than what we teach. We must also look at how we teach it. We must teach so children retain what we’ve taught them. The question, of course, is how will we do this?”
Finally, I illuminated my Kindle Fire and showed them the highlights from Catching Up on Conventions. I reminded the team that although these authors were middle school teachers, there was a lot in common on our lists. These were the components of Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonana’s successful lessons:
- Address only one aspect of grammar at a time
- Be designed so that each new lesson or unit built on the ones that came before
- Ensure transfer by providing opportunities to use what they learn in real academic contexts
- Provide ongoing practice and accountability of rules learned
- Be short so as not to lose or bore students, and fit easily into an already busy curriculum
- Be accessible in student-friendly language
- Directly address our students’ patterns of language
Meg noticed that we hadn’t included the last bullet on our list, but she thought it was an important one. “I mean, if they don’t have a problem with something in their speech or writing, we shouldn’t be teaching it. The things that cause the most problems should get more time.”
I added, “One other thing we haven’t addressed is the standards. They can also help us with navigating what was taught before and what is coming after. Some groups I work with like to start with the standards and then move to the student work; others prefer to start with student work and then reference the standards. Both are effective ways to plan for what matters.”
“Let’s start with student work,” said Kenneth. Greta and Meg nodded.
We agreed that at our next meeting, each teacher would bring two samples of writing. One would have convention issues that really prevented clarity on behalf of the reader, and the other would have fewer problems but show some convention issue that seemed to be a trend with their writers. I would also bring two pieces of writing from my files. Why have everyone bring only two pieces? In my experience, almost every teacher is willing to bring two pieces, and that builds accountability. Eight pieces on the table would provide more than enough to talk about and get started.
I summed up our learning thus far: “Based on what we’ve read and said today, we think that during those 15-minute chunks we should be modeling strategies, naming conventions and being explicit about the rules, inviting inquiry, giving time for practice and feedback, and then expecting to see that in their writing. So if that’s the ‘how,’ then our ‘what’ will revolve around looking at student work and getting comfortable with the standards.”