Moving Writers’ Top Ten: Genius Hour & Individualized Grammar Practice

Moving Writers' Top Ten

As is our habit, we are taking the summer away from the blog to read, write, and recharge. We’ll be back in late August with new content, but for the summer, let’s take a journey down memory lane as we visit our ten most-read posts from the previous school year! 


 

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This semester I’m bringing readers into my latest classroom experiment: a Genius Hour project that keeps writing workshop at its heart.  Previously in this series, I have given a bit of introduction and context for the project, shared how we find, develop, and pitch ideas, and talked about the role blogging plays in our projects. 

Genius Hour does not comprise our entire writing workshop this semester. While we dedicate one class period per week and 30 minutes of blogging to Genius Hour (and students are asked to work on their projects for two hours per week — it’s their only homework), we are still moving along with the rest of our curriculum: reading Macbeth, writing screenplays, writing authentic analysis of literature, and more.  I am teaching mini-lessons on reading strategies and writing structure and, yes, grammar. Genius Hour is one little piece of our big classroom pie.

But you know how unspoken themes emerge each school year? The recurrent issues you have with students? The constant faculty-meeting conversation? The chat you have with parents again and again?  This year, for me, it has been grammar. Grammar, grammar, grammar. Specifically, inquiring minds (parents, colleagues) want to know why I don’t use grammar worksheets.

And for a million reasons I won’t detail here today, I won’t. For me, it’s simple; it’s a non-negotiable.

I’ve continued to teach grammar in context of student writing — through our punctuation study and regular sentence studies.  But when we started this Genius Hour project and I started reading students’ weekly blog posts, what I intuitively knew about my writers proved true in black-and-white: some writers are still struggling to writing complete sentences. Others do not have a firm grip on comma usage. Some need reinforcement with subject-verb agreement. And others have technically perfect grammar and usage … but no style. They are ready for something more.

I started wondering, “How could I use this weekly writing feedback – writing practice loop to reinforce what writers already know and should be able to do?” Immediately, grammar practice floated to the top.

Our individualized grammar routine

So, we developed an individualized grammar practice rhythm. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Students write a weekly blog post.

  • I read it and give feedback. (More on this in subsequent weeks!)

  • While reading, I think to myself, “Is any grammatical problem jumping out at me?”

Y’all, I do NOT hunt for minute grammar issues. Not on this writing. I have to read too many blogs each week, so if the problem doesn’t pop out at me and start to annoy me, it’s not a problem in my book. There will be many other writing assignments on which I can scrutinize ever word and every comma.

  • If the answer is YES, I ask, “Is it recurrent or is it a blip?”

We all make errors. I bet you can find some in this post! So I’m not concerned with penalizing every error, I’m concerned with correcting errors that form a pattern. So, blip — I let it go. Recurrent — that’s a problem.

  • If the answer is recurrent, I ask, “Is this a grammar skill I have already taught?”Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 5.51.32 PM

Since this isn’t my grammar instruction — this is grammar practice — I don’t address skills that I have not yet taught unless a student’s work is already grammatically perfect.

In that case, as you can see in the example at right, I do push students to try things that we have not yet learned together in class. This is important because it means that every student is receiving grammar practice that meets their own writing needs.

  • I put the grammar problem on a Google Doc that I have made for each student (Image left) and recommend an online grammar activity to help them practice over the course of the next week.

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 6.00.20 PM
The spreadsheet I created for blog addresses and editing checklists for each student. It makes all the clicking SO much faster.

I created a personal editing checklist in Google Docs and made a copy for each student. Each week, I open their blog post (I have a Google sheets list of each student and their blog URL and personal editing checklist link to make this quick).

If, indeed, the student has a recurrent grammatical problem that I have already taught and students should have (theoretically) already mastered, I make a note on the checklist.

Note: I only recommend a maximum of three activities. We can’t fix every problem at once, so I focus on the most egregious problems first and triage other problems from there.

Our school subscribes to an online grammar and math skills practice site, so I recommend the corresponding activity. (I keep a list of the most common skills and activities in Google Keep so that I don’t have to constantly look them up!)

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 5.58.29 PM
My list of most-common grammar problems with their activity code that students can copy and paste into our online grammar practice program.

But if you do not have a similar service, keep reading — I share some ideas for making this work for you at the end of this post!

  • If in the next post I don’t notice that problem again, hooray! We can move on to other issues! Or “reach” skills! If the problem still exists, I recommend another activity and ask the student to meet with me!

I never dream that this will erase every grammar issue for all time, but it does heighten students’ awareness and gives them practice they need. If the error disappears — even for the time being — then I consider it a success. That student can tackle another issue or move on to more advanced, style-focused “reach” skills that I haven’t yet taught. Here’s an example of a students’ checklist when the skill wasn’t mastered:

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 5.47.59 PM

How to make it work for you

“Okay. That’s a lot of work,” you’re thinking.  And you’re not wrong.  But it’s been worth it for me. While we do this during Genius Hour, this can work with any writing your students do!

Here are some tips and ideas for making this work in your context:

  • Create systems to streamline workflow

Putting a few systems in place (a list of recommended activities to copy and paste from, a spreadsheet of all the documents I will need to open for each student) streamline the process and make it go much more quickly.

  • Get rid of perfection — for you and for your students!

I also let myself off the perfection hook. Kids might make mistakes I just don’t notice. Okay. This isn’t the alpha and omega of grammar instruction in my class. I wouldn’t want it to be! This is simply an added bonus layer of practice that yields some good results and also gives other stakeholders something to hold onto that is more like a grammar worksheet.

  • Use free, online programs for grammar practice

If you don’t have an online program like the one my school subscribes to, you could create a hyperdoc of free, interactive online grammar exercises like the ones you can find at Grammar Bytes or Quill.  Find the most common, most predictable problems you know your students will have, grab a couple of “reach” skills, and stick with that.

Then, on each student’s checklist, you can simply link to the hyperdoc once, and mention the activity they need to go to.

  • Head to the copier

If computer access isn’t easy in your school or for your students, go old school. Pull out those grammar books everyone wants you to use and head to the copier. Make a packet of exercises for each of those predictable problem spots. Give each skill a number. Put the packets somewhere students can access, and then, on the editing checklist simply list the packet number the student needs to grab!

This would be a great project for a grade level team to take on together!

Sometimes a personalized approach — a “YOU need to learn this” instead of an “Everybody needs to learn this” — makes all the difference in a student honing in on an important skill. We’ve done this for a few months now, and I’ve seen some errors erased permanently (for now, at least). In other cases, I have caught students who were genuinely struggling with a particular skill and I didn’t realize it. I’ve been able to meet with them and have an individual lesson or refresher. Next year, I plan to make this a mainstay of our entire writing year in every piece of writing we complete!

How do you individualize grammar instruction to make sure that learning sticks and kids are getting what they need? What online grammar tools have helped your students become stronger and more “correct” writers? Please share in the comments below! 

4 Comments

  1. Hi Rebekah- I know this isn’t the focus of this post, but I saw you mentioned Macbeth and reading workshop in the beginning. I’m struggling with keeping my routines and structure of writing workshop when moving into units like Shakespeare or another core text. Any suggestions or posts you’ve written on balancing this would be greatly appreciated!

    1. So, Genius Hour is an add-on for me. We spend one class period (45 minutes) per week on it in class and then it constitutes ALL Of students’ out-of-class homework. I’m still doing “regular” reading/ writing workshop in the meantime.

      Because it’s hard for ME (much less the kids) to switch gears so frequently, I alternate literature study and writing study units. So, we preceeded Macbeth with a writing study of screenwriting. Now we’re in Macbeth. We’ll follow Macbeth with a writing unit.

      I hope this helps!

  2. Hi Rebekah – This is so awesome! What blogging platform do your students use? We have strict safety protocols in our district so we are fairly limited…Thanks for taking the time!
    Lisa

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