This year, I am teaching two new grades in a new classroom in a new school with new colleagues and a new schedule. And with all that comes the delightful insecurity that comes with every new school year to some degree — the feeling that I’ve never taught anyone anything before, the fear that I won’t know what to say, the general conviction that I have no idea what I’m doing.
And sometimes that isn’t a bad thing.
Teacher insecurity can breed productive reflection and experimentation and letting go. Often, not knowing what’s going to happen next leads us to something new.
This month, after a few weeks of getting-to-know-you-and-getting-to-know-mentor-texts, not knowing what was going to happen next lead me to a new writing study that I’ve long wanted to try but never before attempted: a whole study just about punctuation.
Here’s what I taught, what students did, how I assessed it, what students thought, and why this worked so well:
Day One: What Do We Know About Punctuation?
I began by telling students that our first writing workshop of the year would focus on one of the Jedi mind tricks writers use to manipulate their readers … punctuation! (Cue a mixed reaction of intrigue and groans.)
We started with a little diagnostic punctuation challenge (Punctuation Challenge what I put together — nothing fancy). With a partner, students tried to identify a variety of “interesting” punctuation marks and brainstorm reasons writers might use that mark. They were free to use books around the room or their independent reading to help them. But there was no grade, no stakes, just a casual look at the knowledge students were bringing to the table as we began.
Day Two: Studying Children’s Books
On day two, I brought stacks and stacks of pictures books from home — whatever my six and three year old had lying around. Truth to tell, I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about which books or why; I flipped through them quickly to see if I noticed any punctuation beyond commas and periods. If I did, I added it to the stack.
(If you want to be more intentional about this, there are great lists of picture books with interesting punctuation online and in Katie Wood Ray’s perfect book Study Driven. Still, I don’t think you need to be too picky about this; most well-crafted children’s books have punctuation worth noticing.)
Students paired up again to find at least five instances of interesting punctuation at work. When they found a spot, they put a Post It on it, named the punctuation they observed, and described what it was doing in the text.
I encouraged students that it was okay to be informal and “unofficial” about this — no grammar terms were necessary. If a colon was described as “two dots”, that was okay. The point was to notice, name, and describe its effect. (Of course, this is the central skill of reading like a writers.)
When they were done, I collected Post-Its and made a master chart of all the things students saw punctuation doing:
Days Three and Four: Grouping By Effect
This was great. We had done a lot of thinking and talking and observing of punctuation marks. But we weren’t yet at a point that would move writers forward in their craft. After all, no writer ever has sat around pondering, “Hmmm…today I’d like to use a semicolon. What are some ways I might use one?”
That’s ridiculous. Writers consider their intended effect, and then they figure out what punctuation can help them achieve it.
So, I passed out my chart above (arranged by punctuation mark) and asked students to work with their tables to regroup our collective findings by effect. Their three columned chart included: effect, punctuation marks that achieve this effect, and examples from mentor texts.
I initially only planned for one day, but it took groups one day to complete columns one and two, and then a second day to scour the room for examples from authentic, professionally-written texts. When they were finished, each student’s notebook contained a two, sometimes three) page Punctuation Guide.
Day Five: Revising for Interesting Punctuation
Using their punctuation guide, students set out to revise a piece of existing writing to include interesting punctuation that would enhance their intended meaning.
(We happened to have a piece of on-demand writing on hand that students had written as a diagnostic. Any piece of writing — including casual notebook writing or a piece of writing from last year or a piece of polished writing from earlier in the course — would do.)
After adding their punctuation, writers added a comment to explain their intention and how punctuation helped them achieve it. I think students’ reflection are always better when I give them class time to do them instead of sending them home. So, students had about 30 minutes to reflect on this writing study and add their annotations. Here are excerpts from Gordon (8th grade) and Faith (7th grade):
What the Kids Say
Students came to this study with many different backgrounds in punctuation. A few were actually already using semicolons correctly and peppering their writing with dramatic dashes. Other students learned the names of punctuation marks during this study. Thus, their impressions of the unit were wide-ranging, too. Here are a few excerpts from their reflective author’s notes.
How a Punctuation Study Helped Me Achieve My Goals
This study helped me accomplish a lot of things at once. First, it helped bridge students’ burgeoning understanding about mentor texts from pictures to written texts. Visual mentor texts provide such a wonderful way in for students, and so our first weeks of school had been spent working with Mari Andrew’s brilliant illustrations and Ideal Bookshelves and Introduction Art. (Writing With Mentors has four beginning-of-the-year mentor-text-centered writing studies for you to use!) I sensed, though, that my seventh and eighth graders weren’t ready to jump from visual mentor texts straight into paragraphs of written mentor texts. We needed an in-between study. Punctuation felt right because students could look at written texts without getting waylaid by the actual content of the words on the page.
Frontloading a punctuation study also let us tackle something big and important early on and all at once. We will talk about punctuation in our mentor texts and in our own writing all year long (this study by no means taught them all they needed to know). However, this study started a big conversation not just about punctuation but about the importance of every little choice a writer makes.
And studying punctuation as a big umbrella technique first — rather than as piecemeal mini-lessons sprinkled throughout our writing units — helped students build connections they might not have otherwise made. They could see that commas, parentheses, and dashes can sometimes to the very same thing to very different effect. And they can all be “right”.
Which brings me to my favorite thing about this writing study. Studying punctuation not as a set of rules but as a writing technique that enables writers to make choices about how their texts is read and understood destabilized what my students thought they knew about English class. Coming into a new school is always unnerving because of the natural comparisons and “Well, we have always…”-es that arise. Parents and students alike enter with expectations of how the year will unfold.
At my school, seventh and (especially) eighth grade English have been exceedingly traditional in their pedagogy — sentence diagramming and all. I wanted to demonstrate early on that we would do things differently and more authentically from now on. Spending time in our first month discussing punctuation (rather than doing punctuation worksheets) as a set of choices instead of a set of rules was worth a thousand words. Nothing could state my teaching philosophy more clearly.
What do you think? Could this work for your students — as a beginning of the year study? As an in-between study mid-year? How do you teach punctuation in a meaningful way within the writing workshop framework?
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, in the comments below, or on Facebook!