This is actually really cool!
So my previous post unintentionally prefaced this one.
The textbook we’re using for the class I have been blogging for is called Inside Out, and talks about the importance of writing in the classroom, and helps to break down just what those important reasons and skills are that students will learn. In Chapter 1, the authors talk about the importance of grammar in students’ writings. Grammar, though important, is most definitely not the most fun to teach, and especially not to learn. The authors mention how easy it would be to just be able to teach writing as one “whole”, meaning everything would just come at once. But if we teach everything all at once, emphasis is lost on important elements of writing: fluency, grammar, structure, vocabulary, etc. By breaking it down one bit at a time, the students can then master one element at a time. Obviously this has been the practice since the beginning of written-language curricula, so I’m not saying anything new. As someone, though, who really respects and appreciates correct grammar (which in my definition includes spelling, too) I still see severe mistakes in students’ writing–not just grade school students, either, but university students who are in my age group–and it makes me worry a bit about what will happen to those students who don’t quite grasp the importance of the precise placement of a semi-colon or a comma; a capital letter or a dash. What about the differences between a dash and a hyphen?? (The latter question is one that I can tell is definitely going amiss in the classroom. I don’t think that it’s being taught, really, at all!)
Having this question in mind over the last couple weeks while sitting in my field placement at a local high school (we’ll call it…Rydell High…y’know, like from Grease),
which is an English classroom of 10th honors and regular American Literature and 11th grade World Literature, I started to pay more attention to their writing. My teacher
(let’s call her…Miss Lynch . Yup, another Grease reference.)
gives her students lots of writing assignments–the school just, in fact, switched to a writing-based instruction–and I was able to look at their writings. Keep in mind, these are Honors students, so their grammar was pretty phenomenal, but of course not perfect (few of ours is, though). However, last week I was able to read through some free writing they did and turned in for an administrator’s research about teacher qualities and I noticed a lot more students struggling with their grammar when the assignment wasn’t laid out for them in steps like their last assignment I had read.
The first assignment I read of theirs was a short piece about what it means to be American. This was a finely tuned, typed-up piece and from it, they were to choose their favorite line to include in a class-collaborative poem about what “American” means. The activity/project was phenomenal and eye-opening to both the students and to myself. I think ‘Miss Lynch’ knew generally what to expect from it. However, in the process of choosing these first lines, I was asked to help students narrow down their decisions. It was at this point I was able to read some of their work, and I noticed some over-excessive comma-usage and a few tense disagreements, but other than some small errors in mechanics, what stood out to me more was misspellings. By 10th grade, there are certain things that students, I would think, are almost masters at. Spelling pluralities of singular words definitely should be expected. (For example: tragedy –> tragedies)
So I saw a few of those from a few students…not a huge deal, but something that as a grammar enthusiast and an English teacher, I catch quickly and hang on to it until it’s fixed. However, when I pointed it out to Miss Lynch, especially after this student attempted to correct his classmate’s use of the wrong form of “there, their, or they’re” (and even though his correction was, in fact, correct), she simply shrugged and told me
This kind of threw me off-guard until the following Tuesday in another of my Education classes when my professor, Jodi, said something that tied it all together for me. She talked about her 9 year-old daughter coming home with misspellings in her work from school. She explained to us (specifically the English majors in the room who cringed at hearing that she spelled words like “grandma” like “Grnma” for a while because she just wasn’t hearing the “a” there) that this was a method of using phonics. I’ve had a Reading Specialist class before, and knew what learning phonics does for students (in fact, I learned phonics in elementary school), but I still didn’t understand until she said “for some teachers it’s more important for the student to hear the sounds of the word and learn the spelling, than memorize and never know why they sound like that.”
I guess the same goes for grammar. If a student over-uses a comma…well…at least we know he/she knows that there is a short pause where the unnecessary comma is placed. If there are tense disagreements…well…at least the correct word is there, and that gives us, as the teachers, something to point out to them. It took me a LONG time to rid my writing of tense differences. It took a teacher pointing it out to me and working with me to understand what I was doing wrong. That’s where we come in.
As long as the students have the basics down, all we can do is tweak and constructively critique until they understand on their own.
This critiquing and individual attention not only helps students’ understand grammar, mechanics, and spelling, but it improves their fluency a little at a time, and it’s the fluency of writing that I think seems most important.
“19 Jokes Only Grammar Nerds Will Understand:
Knowing the difference between your and you’re.
1. What do you say when you are comforting a grammar nazi?
There, their, they’re.
2. What’s another name for Santa’s elves?
I watched the TED Talk “Amy Tan: Where does creativity hide?”, and holy cow! I knew that she was an amazing writer with quite a complicated background, but I didn’t realize just how much she had been through. In her short story “Two Kinds”, Amy explores the relationship between her mother and herself, and how she reacted to her mom as a child. (The story is called “Two Kinds” because her mother, while young Amy butts heads with her, left Amy some wisdom about children: there are two kinds of children, the kind that obey their parents and the ones who rebel. As a child, Amy was forced to take piano lessons, and after a horrifying and scarring performance, Amy decided to forever give up on the piano, forcing her mother to give up her dream of having a famous and successful child. With her dream, Amy’s mother also seemed to give up any hope and apparent love for her daughter. The two did not talk much the whole rest of Amy’s life, right up until the day Daisy, her mother, died and left Amy the piano on which she took lessons as a young girl.) However, it was not until this TED Talk that I realized both her brother and father died relatively young! A death of such close family members is a struggle, to say the least.
She is funny, charismatic, witty, and so intelligent. “Creative” is a word that should not even need to be mentioned when referring to Amy Tan because her writing says enough of that itself. However, in her lecture she helps us define what it means to be creative. She says specifically that it’s asking questions; questions about life events (“why does it happen?”, “how does it happen?”, “what did I do to make this happen?”) are what Amy says to keep in mind when writing because those questions will help drive a story’s events and reactions.
She doesn’t give the word “creativity” a definition because it is more of a concept than anything, I think we can all agree. What she does give is a process with which one can work and better their creativity. She says not to “tell the audience about it because then all you’d be doing is saying what it is.” Amy is definitely an advocate for the “show, not tell” philosophy of writing (as am I). She also seems to work best with metaphors. She says her worst habit is constantly finding associations between things in life (“And I find a lot of them”, she says.). This is to take the initial object or idea and find is meaning–why is it there?–and thus, eventually, finding the meaning of your story.
Amy mentions some theories of where creativity comes from, and where the writing process takes you that included beliefs such as:
Creativity comes from a part of the brain that not everyone has
“The Uncertainty Principle”–always asking if what you’re writing or thinking is correct or the right way of thinking.
“The Cosmological Constant”–That moment when your focus becomes clear and you begin, as the writer, to notice little “hints” but realize that those little “hints” have been there, obvious, the whole time. I interpret this idea as a moment of epiphany; that moment when as you’re writing and worried that you’re not going to direction you’re meant to go in, you look back and you realize just what it was you were to be focused on, and at that point, it all makes sense.
Her final bit of information was that you, as the writer, need to put yourself in the setting, in your writing. She literally goes to the village multiple times of which she was writing, but I don’t think that it needs to be interpreted so literally, especially when many writers create settings from their imaginations.
So, with all of that in mind, I would like to connect Amy’s advice and breakdown of the creative process to teaching. How can we as teachers (and future teachers) cultivate and support such creativity in our own students? I know my classroom will more than likely just SCREAM creativity, as an English classroom. However, I know that not every student I get in my desks will be of the same “I LOVE TO WRITE, AND I LOVE ENGLISH” mindset that I am in every moment of my life. To remedy this, and try to nurture creativity from those students a good place to start is always going to be with exploration of individual interests.
In high schools all over, students are no longer required to only read one book with the rest of the class, but they are given an opportunity to choose among three books or so, allowing them to decide to read a book that will (hopefully) hold their interest. The same can be done with writing assignments! Allowing students to choose for themselves shows that we, as the teachers, care about what they want. I sincerely believe that creativity is within every human being, it just needs to be brought out and the best way to do that is to allow them to individually explore their interests. When anyone is more interested in one topic other the other, they’re going to be excited to do almost anything surrounding it.
If a writing assignment isn’t one that cannot really stray from the point of the assignment at all (for example, maybe the assignment is to demonstrate some themes in The Great Gatsby), use your own creativity first and give the students different modes of demonstration. For instance, (sticking with the idea of demonstrating themes found in The Great Gatsby) allow the students to choose among writing a responsive essay, or creating a visual representation (when I first read Gatsby, we created a timeline of themes, motifs, and symbols, for example) of their choice and write an explanation of their project; you could even try to give a creative writing-based assignment to allow students to show their understandings–re-write the novel in a present-day setting, for example.
Giving the students options and the opportunity to take the assignment however they see fit allows those students to be as comfortable as they want to be with the assignments. We can’t force students to be “creative”, but we can support them and be welcoming to their level of comfort in the creative realm.