Teaching Conventions in Context: Author's Craft Study
New photo added 4/13
I distinctly remember teaching myself conventions through personal literature as a child. I even remember having trouble grasping a grammar lesson taught during the day, only to have an author teach me, through their writing, later that evening. I still believe the best way to learn grammar conventions is through observation- or what we call author's craft. What better resources do we have than professional authors to learn from? Plus, research clearly does not support teaching conventions in isolation. Here are a few things we do in the classroom to teach and apply conventions.
Photo: Learning through observing
Finding Mentor Texts
Many of the professional authors I endorse recommend having mentor texts for your classroom. If you are not familiar with this concept, think of adopting an author or a few well-written pieces this year with your class to help guide your writers on various skills and strategies. We have adopted a few authors which we refer and look to time and time again. The short piece "Eleven" posted in a Ralph Fletcher book and Lucy Calkin's 3-5 Units of Study, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester Laminack, and several books by Cynthia Rylant. When I first adopted this approach of talking about and discussing certain elements of language I worried that students would begin to say, "Ah, not Lester again," but I can honestly say that it has had the opposite result. Instead of hearing murmurs of, "Not again," I often hear with various read-alouds, "Oh, like Lester does in his book." Unprompted or questioned. They just seem to get it and understand the benefits of going back to familiar, well-written books. I think one of the strongest benefits to adopting mentor texts for your classroom is that students deeply understand what it means to read like a writer. They can't help but to look at books differently. They notice what the author is doing-and more importantly- they are understanding why they are doing it. With this concept under their belt, they are one short hop away from trying it out in their writing.
The process I use to address conventions in context is usually three-fold.
~First, I introduce the concept through a mini-lesson using an author (or mentor text). We look at this together and discuss our noticings. I often organize this by creating a chart that says- "What is the author doing? Why are they doing this? Other examples we have read include."
~Next, I invite my students to try this out with their own reading. I pass out a blank chart like the one we created together and ask students to take some time to record what they are noticing in their books. What I like about this activity is that it is natural differentiated. Each student is reading a different book with varying degrees of complexity.I find it true that students can only write as well as they can read.
~Finally, I encourage students to incorporate this new knowledge into their writing. I follow this with looking to see if students are "using but confusing" this skill or strategy and support them through individual conferences. The anchor charts are really helpful and can really help reinforce what we have learned and noticed. I enjoy pulling books out to help support attempted skills and strategies. It seems less threatening to rely on a picture book to teach us something during an individual conference.
Here are a few anchor charts that demonstrate how we addressed specific skills through context this year:
To Teach Dashes
(The students came up with the definitions. I thought the P.S. of a letter was just pure brilliance).
To Teach Proper Nouns
Although not shown in the photo, the "why" behind using proper nouns was well received by our class. There is a big difference between teaching a skill then assessing it through a worksheet verses discussing why authors use proper nouns in their writing and observing and supporting students who begin to try this in their writing.
To Teach Transitional Words
We used Katie Wood Ray's book, Study Driven, during our essay unit to look at high interest essays. Our goal was to see how real writers used transitional words. We started a collection of words we found. We also noticed headings were used to go from supporting detail to supporting detail to help organize thoughts.
We also noticed that the traditional hamburger model of 5 paragraphs with five sentences in each paragraph is non-existent outside of a school setting.
Applying Figurative Language
Could you imagine Jane Yolen being told to incorporate "X" amount of similes and metaphors into her Owl Moon story? That idea just sounds insane to me, yet many teachers assign students to incorporate a certain amount of similes or metaphors into student writing. I kept my focus on observation and had students post examples found in books they were reading. This included similes, metaphors, and rich examples of alliteration. As a result, my students do a solid job of balancing in figurative language.
Looking at Beginnings
Move your students away from scripted beginning stories. We went straight to the sources and read many, many books in one sitting. Okay, we read the first paragraph...for author's craft purposes. How do authors start their stories? Are there some patterns? Certain techniques? Can we try it in our writing?
Photo: The chart on the left came from our mini-lesson together.
Photo: This is a close-up of the chart on the right above. Here students began to add strong beginnings found during reader's workshop. These examples were then shared in class.
Photo: After looking at beginnings, we attempted to try out rich beginnings in our own writing. Here are a few. Although I don't have my second mini-lesson chart to show you, we discussed using fragments to start a story. As you can see, two of these story beginnings attempt this strategy. I think it had the right effect and turned out nicely.
General Author's Craft
And it all comes back to what I remember doing when I was younger. What is the author doing? On any given page this could be very many things. That is why I like to conduct mini-lessons that allow us to look at all the various elements an author may be using in their writing, rather than restrict our talk to just "fragment sentences" or examples of "similes." Here is an example from last week:
Photo: A student uses a chart similar to the one shown above to observe and record her noticings in another Polacco book. The only modification was a chart box that asked if the student was considering trying this in their writing. Many did go on to incorporate this newly claimed strategy or skill.
A Word on Assessment
Undoubtedly, a teacher will want to know the bottom line. Where's the assessment for the grade-book? How do we communicate this with parents? You may want to visit my other blog post on Assessment under the workshop model. In short, I just don't worry about it anymore. Especially when we use the multi-literacy block approach where 20 mini-lessons each week give an abundance of opportunities to formally assess a skill or strategy.
Tornadoes Hit Murfreesboro
Photo: One of 4 tornadoes that touched down in Murfreesboro. It was graded an F4, with 1/2 mile width and a 15 mile path.
Maybe you heard about us on the national news or noticed a link on various pages (including the Yahoo homepage). Several tornadoes touched down and damaged many parts of our city Friday, April 11. The damage was far spread, including one house lifting up and landing on another house. Fortunately, we were out of the state when this occurred; one of the larger tornadoes was very close to our home. As a family member tried to get to our house to see if everything was okay, a tornado crossed in front of their truck. Our house was not damaged, but unfortunately some student homes at my son's school were totally destroyed. Two residents, including a nine week old baby were found dead and over 40 residents were badly injured. Please keep Murfreesboro in your prayers.http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090411/ap_on_re_us/severe_weather