That One Student…

Let’s call her “Dotty.”

She looks like a pretty average, stereotypical even, high school sophomore. But she’s not. She’s probably one of the most incredible young women I’ve met yet.

By age 15, this girl has seen more in her life than many can say they’ve seen in a lifetime. Especially looking at where she’s grown up, her life has been quite atypical than those of her peers.


AGE: 15
RACE: white
HAIR COLOR: dark blonde
BODY TYPE: average to thin
OTHER FEATURES: braces, pierced nosed, many other piercings in her ears including gauges.

Sounds pretty stereotypical for a suburban school in this area.

What makes Dotty atypical is her background and her personality…in addition to some other quirks and amazing characteristics.


Dotty is a remarkable writer. She has room to grow, of course, but who doesn’t? She writes from her soul. The words on the page are beyond her 15/16 years. She writes about things that her peers and colleagues have only seen on television (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Weeds’, ‘Law & Order: SVU’, and the like). She writes about her life, her past, her parents’ struggles, and her own. The level of self-awareness she achieves through her exceptional work is advanced past the point I think I could ever be.

She is able to articulate things in such a artful way that she says it without flat-out saying it. 
She wrote about her emotional struggles, but never once said she was battling depression. The only reason I know is because she’s told me.
She wrote about her eating disorder, but wrote from the perspective of her friend to convey the fact that she just wanted to be listened to, not lectured. I would have never known if she didn’t preface my reading it with her explanations.
She wrote about growing up with her dad whose residence was described as if right out of a film. ‘Cocaine’ in her words was ‘snow’, ‘entangled in the carpet of the hallway.’ 
She wrote about her insecurities, the reason for wanting to control her weight, of all things, in a life where just about everything else is out of her control. It’s not because she’s fat, it’s because she’s scared. She, like most other teenage girls, is fearful of her own self-loathing. Something she made clear through personification of the fear, itself.

She smiles–everyday.
She laughs and chats with her peers and friends around her while in class.
She is very open to Frenchie and me when she wants us to read something. Usually that something is an extra piece of writing in which she expresses her deepest emotions and worries.
She is incredibly intelligent, incredible with words, and outrageously insightful. 

Everything Dotty does is purposeful. It’s all very logically though-out, even the illogical.
She always has a reason.


Dotty is beyond her years.
She knows what she’s doing, and she sees ways out no matter how deep she gets.


Why am I writing about Dotty?

Because she’s amazing. And in an odd way, I look up her. I aspire to be as strong as she is–not just for a 15 year old, but as a person–as a young woman in today’s world. 
Dotty’s going places. Despite her upbringing and the trouble her early life has shown her.
Dotty’s gonna make something of herself.
I can see it in her eyes. I see her determination to succeed and be amazing when she smiles.
She’s excitable and it gives me hope for her, for myself, and for the future of the country.
There are so many amazing young men and women out there like Dotty.
It just takes one compliment to spark that light behind their eyes.


Grammar and Writing-based Instruction

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

“Yeah…that happens…”

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.

1. Who I am…

My name is Heather Shalita.

I am an English major with a minor in Secondary Education in Pennsylvania. 

I am passionate.

I am articulate.

I am excited (and exciting).

I am creative.

I am always learning.

I am curious.

I am open.

I am interested (as well as interesting, if I do say so myself).

I am a traveler.

I am a writer. 
I have been a writer since I knew how to string words together on a page. I’ve always loved to write stories, both about myself and of the fantastical. I was asked on the first day of class: “If you could write a memoir about your life, what would it be titled?” Though I still don’t quite know the answer, the title does not matter. It’s the content, the style, the voice used that matter more. 

Everyone is a writer. It’s just a matter of honing those skills to draw out one’s ability. It is then our job, as teachers, mentors, and role models to help students find their greatest abilities. Through the course “Writing to Improve Literacy” I hope to learn some of the best ways to help myself and my students find their inner-writers.