Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Synthesis with Sentences & Punctuation

             We’ve been working on our grammar game for YEARS as a Buckner staff. Many of us have read books, participated in studies, attended PD, and tried a multitude of instructional practices and strategies in our own classrooms. If I were to share the myriad of methods I’ve used over the years, you’d quickly become bored and I’d run out of space to share with you some of the methods that are working here at BES. So instead, I’ll share a most recent successful experience.

Recently, Richard invited me into his classroom to collaborate with Word Study. As is always the case with Richard, we started in one place and ended in another. The place we ended is actually where I’d like to start.  You see, while the concern was with students’ lack and/or inappropriate use of punctuation, the problem was actually so closely tied with sentence structure that we decided to tackle them together. What if, maybe, we taught writers how to craft complex sentences so that they would understand when to use the proper punctuation? This synthesis, this change in our thinking, was the beginning of match made in Heaven- sentence structure & proper punctuation.

                So, our journey began with the commas and complex sentences. Richard first determined which complex sentence structure he wanted to introduce first. The winner was the “Interrupter” –or as Jeff Anderson dubs it, “The Breadbasket Comma”. This complex sentence creator calls for the writer to insert extra details, offering specific information or richer mental image, for the reader. Did you see how that worked? He chose this to share first for its novelty and potentially powerful impact on the kids’ writing. We followed this study (see below) with the comma in a series, AAAWWUBBIS, FANBOY and Introductory commas. While most of these uses of a comma were supportive goals in Units 4 and 5 of the 5th grade ELA curriculum, writers’ needs dictated a need to add those that were not directly stated in the standards. It did not take rocket science schema to figure out that the way to support students’ in crafting complex sentences was to teach them to notice, name, and use the other commas. We had a simple research based protocol and set expectations for our student writers.

In designing a protocol, we wanted to ensure that our collective efforts would: build students’ awareness, develop their understanding, link reading, writing and communicating with others, and offer accountability on their part. Here’s the gist:

1.       Examine a mentor sentence from a familiar text.

2.       Determine the use of the comma in that sentence.

3.       Students seek and share similar uses in texts.

4.       Share our own experiments with a given comma. Always snowballing our learning and using the ones we’ve previously practiced.

Two other experiences happened each day, (1) Students worked to write using that kind of comma--even if it only for a few minutes. (2) Students shared their experimentation as they wrote in a new way. They offered one another feedback and worked to revise their writing so as to clarify their message and edit their work. Of course, with Richard, it never got dull- challenges were extended (ask a student in his room about “oral punctuation” A.K.A. “voice texting”), games were played, and authentic writing opportunities were offered. All the while…the children learned, sought an understanding, and tried to write in a way that showed both complexity in their sentence structure and proper punctuation.

While our efforts have not transferred into a classroom of distinguished writers, our efforts did show evidence of transfer in students’ writing-and not just “writing workshop” writing. The kids now know that writers craft complex sentences and use punctuation to clarify meaning for the reader. In addition, they also realized that writers work to write with a variety of sentences that include punctuation- regardless of the situation, form, audience, purpose or topic. Kenneyd Park, 5th grader, summed it up best when she wrote [excerpts], “I feel like I am a stronger and more detailed writer now that I’ve spent some time developing my writing.  …. In my writing, I tend to use breadbasket sentences because they aren’t run on sentences, but still add in extra detail. … I feel that I can use commas and a larger vocabulary (that’s we’re we originally started our journey) to improve my writing.“ This girl’s getting it!

Though your journey may not be the same, due to different standards, different units, different kids, and different methods, what everyone does have in common is a desire to support our kids in crafting complex sentences and using the right punctuation. For our Ks and 1s, this may mean spending time looking at how complete sentences start and how a writer uses “and“ as a connecting word, rather than a starting word (99% of the time). For our 2nd and 3rd graders, this may translate to time marinating in using transition words that call for writers to use commas, as well as complete and compound sentences that add support and further support to a topic sentence. For all of our grades, this may mean carving out specific time to introduce, inquire, and practice with students- all the while integrating in authentic opportunities and expecting it…All. The. Time.

Who knew that a simple collaboration could harvest so much synthesis with sentences?  


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