Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

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Dissecting Trolls

Most readers of this blog probably know that in Internet parlance, a troll is a person, usually partly or completely anonymous, who posts off-topic and usually really vicious or mean comments. Karl Fisch tweeted yesterday about the depressing nature of the comments left on a recent Huffington Post article about his influential “Did You Know?” video. I responded that I created a writing assignment based on some poor argumentation I found in YouTube.

I was looking for videos to share with my Hero with a Thousand Faces course students, and the first video I came across was one in which Tolkien discusses how he began writing The Hobbit. Essentially, a poor argument (on both sides) has developed in the comments on that video that Star Wars is a ripoff of Tolkien’s work. I read through most of them, and while I don’t advocate actually responding to comments of this sort, I did find that the argument on both sides was essentially composed of a series of ad hominem attacks. Neither side offered any support for their argument, and I kept reading to see if someone—anyone—would mention that the similarities that exist can be attributed to the fact that both stories involve heroic journeys and can be analyzed using Joseph Campbell’s theories regarding the monomyth. No one said any such thing. My own students have already studied Star Wars. They are currently reading The Hobbit. I knew that any one of them could explain the similarities between the stories based on solid evidence, which is something the commenters on YouTube either can’t or won’t do.

I created a writing assignment based on this idea, and I have full confidence that my students will be able to argue their points better than Internet trolls, but I cautioned them not to actually try it. Real Internet trolls don’t listen to reason. Or much of anything really.

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Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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Unclear Pronoun Reference

I spent today at Barnes and Noble grading student essays, and by far the most common usage issue I noticed was unclear pronoun reference. I plan to do a minilesson on unclear pronoun reference when I hand back the papers. If your students have the same issue, you might find this lesson helpful.

First, students tend to have trouble with indefinite pronouns. If they use “someone” or “everybody,” they will often replace these indefinite pronouns with “their” later in the sentence. For example, “Someone forgot their pencil.” In spoken usage, it sounds OK to us because we use “their” to replace antecedents with an unknown gender. The person who left his/her pencil might be male or female, so to avoid saying the incorrect gender, we often say the incorrect number. Unfortunately, English has no gender-neutral pronoun we can use in these situations. We should say “Someone forgot his or her pencil,” even though it sounds formal, clunky, and awkward. I always suggest to students that they figure out a way to make the antecedent plural. It might not work in my previous example, but “Everyone forgot his or her lunch today” could easily become “All of them forgot their lunch today.”

Another more common issue in my set of papers was the unclear use of “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” to refer to an antecedent in a previous clause or sentence. Here’s an example: “Today girls are using abortions as a form of contraception, and this has become a lot more common.” Does the word this refer to abortions, contraception, or the use of abortions as contraception? It’s unclear. This sentence could be revised” “Today girls are more commonly using abortions as a form of contraception.” Of course, that’s provided the writer meant the third possible meaning of this. I’m sure the sentence could be tweaked even more to be even better, but at least in the correction, no unclear pronoun reference clouds the reader’s understanding. I tell students to avoid using words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” alone instead of near a noun. “This problem” or “that character” are more specific that simply “this” or “that,” and I have found that students are often trying to use these words when unclear pronoun reference troubles arise. Students simply put the demonstrative pronouns too far away from the antecedents those words are replacing.

I can demonstrate correcting this usage problem using the example above in about five minutes, and it might help some of my students avoid unclear pronoun reference issues. Feel free to use and adapt this lesson as you see fit.

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A Mishmash of Assorted Thoughts

When you update as seldom as I have lately, it seems posts are destined to become a mishmash of assorted thoughts as I catch everyone up.

First, as you can see from the sidebar, I am supporting NCTE’s National Day on Writing. I am not sure exactly what I and my students will do, but I would like to make a big deal out of it at my school and perhaps support our literary magazine in the process. Speaking of literary magazines, my daughter is in the literary magazine class at school, and it sounds like the coolest class ever. Her teacher lets them work on whatever writing they want, and they are guaranteed to have a submission published in the magazine. My daughter loves to write, and she starts lots of projects, but I hope a class like this will encourage her to finish one. Her teacher told us on Curriculum Night that students can write poetry, short stories, or even spend the time working on their novel. I was so impressed to hear a teacher talking about students writing novels. I didn’t ask if he’s going to encourage the kids to participate in NaNoWriMo. I can’t think of a year when I’ve wanted to participate more myself, but alas, grad school will most likely make that unfeasible. There’s always next year, by which time (cross your fingers) I plan to have graduated.

Speaking of grad school, this semester finds me in Graphic Design for Electronic Presentations, Telecommunications and Distance Learning, Software Evaluation, and Digital Video. I am finding it hard to get motivated to work. The degree at the end of my studies has become my carrot. One thing I have learned from my classes, and I believe it’s possibly an unintended lesson, is that students need the clearest possible instructions before they begin an assignment and that rubrics must be clear. I have turned in quite a few assignments over the course of last spring and beginning this fall in which instructions and rubrics were not clear, and I feel I lost points because of problems with instructors rather than my own work. If I do not follow directions, I expect to lose points, but it’s a shame when it’s because an instructor is not clear. I do think it’s helped my own teaching. Who wants to play the game of what does she want? How many points do you think she’ll take off for this arbitrary thing I didn’t even know I did?

Looping back to the National Day on Writing, I have a complaint to lodge about NCTE’s website. I followed a tweet by Kylene Beers to add a badge to my blog in support of the National Day on Writing. She sent her followers on Twitter to the main NCTE page. I had to hunt around for the National Day on Writing information, and even then, I couldn’t find the badges until I used the search feature (here it is, by the way, so you don’t have to hunt). Folks, we are working with teachers of all sorts of levels of technological ability, and it’s not the first time I have had to hunt all over the NCTE website for something they’re actively promoting, which to me means it should be screaming from every page. Am I alone in this, or does anyone else find their website a bear to navigate? I also have never had a response from either Traci Gardner or NCTE about the fact that the companion site for Designing Writing Assignments is missing.

In other news, I upgraded my Mac to Snow Leopard, and I like most of the improvements, though I haven’t had a chance to play with many of them. My favorite Twitter client, Nambu, is broken in Snow Leopard and those folks move about as fast as Christmas when addressing issues like that. I understand that it’s free software, and it’s in beta, so I don’t complain, but I do miss the software. Tweetdeck just doesn’t do it for me, but I find I can’t keep up at all unless I use a Twitter client.

Aside from all these thoughts, I’ve barely had time to talk about school. I have some great classes this year. My Hero with a Thousand Faces class is full, and a lot of students who requested it were not able to get in. Considering we had about half capacity last year, that tells me the word on the street is pretty good, and that makes me happy because I designed this class from the ground up. It’s a study of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and Jungian archetypes. So far we have learned about Campbell’s ideas. To get rolling, I had students split up the section with the three parts of the hero’s journey and present their findings in groups. Then, I used a wonderful SMARTBoard notebook file (I think you need to be a member of TeqSmart to download, but it’s free) I found by James Longwell-Stevens to review our presentations. We are currently in the midst of a study of The Iliad. I found a great portfolio with lesson plans shared by a student teacher, and the calendar has been extremely helpful to me in planning. I also used some of the student teacher’s ideas. I will let students select our next text to study. My British lit. classes are also off to a great start. We are in the middle of Beowulf. I am tweaking my performance task slightly. In the past, I’ve had students create Beowulf’s résumé as a culminating activity, but I think this year, they will write from Hrothgar’s point of view to some made up king (or queen—perhaps Queen Huffgar the Wise?) recommending Beowulf for the job of monster-killer. The premise is the same. They need to do the same close reading. The format will be different, but the audience is essentially the same, too. I can still require the annotation piece, as well. Of course, I have also totally stolen Joe Scotese’s wonderful Beowulf ideas as well. No one can put together a close-reading exercise like Joe. He’s a master. My ninth grade class is wrapping up a study of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. All in all, it’s been a good start, folks are engaged (or else they are good actors, which I don’t discount), and I am enjoying school very much.

My family and I enjoyed the Decatur Book Festival yesterday. It was exciting to be among so many book lovers. We really enjoyed the Georgia Shakespeare Festival‘s Will Power troupe, who did a production of Alice in Wonderland. It was a great day, even if I wasn’t able to see Diana Gabaldon after all. You can read more about it on my book blog.

Before I go, I will put in a plug for Plasq’s Comic Life software, which enables you to create handouts that look like comics (or, indeed, to create comics). They have some great layouts and fonts, and they have a great educational discount. I only paid $19.95 for the educators’ version of the software, which enables me to install it on Mac and Windows, or at least that’s my understanding. I downloaded it on my Mac, but I haven’t tried to put it on my desktop at work, yet. At any rate, it’s a fairly low price and a substantial discount, and if you like making funky handouts, it’s worth it.

Right. I’d better start my Telecommunications and Distance Learning homework, and I have an assignment from another class I need to resubmit now that I understand what I was supposed to have done the first time (but never mind, I’ve already complained about that).

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And the Winner Is…

Thank you all for your patience with my Back to School contest. I am pleased to announce that the winning entrant is…

Candace!

Candace submitted a lesson unit on Macbeth. You can read her blog Mrs. Follis’s Teacher Page for more.

Congratulations Candace, and thank you to all of you who submitted ideas. Candace has won a 1-GB flash drive with Word and PDF copies of handouts I have created and used in my own classes. If you would like to purchase one of these flash drives, they are available for $40, including shipping and the price of the flash drive itself. Note: the 1-GB flash drives are no longer available in my area, and I am now selling 2-GB drives.





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The Deadline Approaches!

If you want to enter the lesson plan contest, you have until midnight tonight. Over the next few days, I will read the entries and notify the winner via e-mail and announce the winner here. A reminder of what you get if you win: a flash drive packed with handouts in MS Word and PDF format that I have used in my classes, including quizzes!

What do you have to do? Submit a lesson plan for grades 9-12 English/language arts in comments of the original post.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me today. Quick! You’re running out of time!

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Back to School Contest

For the first time ever, I am having a contest. It is my hope to help one of the English teachers who reads this blog get a bit of a jump start on the school year.

What do you have to do? Share a lesson plan in the comments.

Rules:

  • Your lesson must be appropriate for grades 9-12 English or easily adaptable for that level.
  • Lesson ideas must be your own original ideas rather than ideas published elsewhere on the Web or in print UNLESS you have sufficiently remixed the idea so that is substantially different from the source material.
  • If you have a handout that’s important, you should upload it to an online filesharing host such as Slideshare, Drop.io, or Scribd, or you can upload it to your own website if you have one. You must share the link to the handout in your comment.
  • You can enter only once.
  • You must be willing to share your lesson with all my readers; therefore, access to any additional resources should not be password-protected and must be accessible at the time of judging.
  • The contest will run until August 10 midnight Eastern Daylight Time.
  • Lessons can be grammar, writing, or literature or combine all three. Lessons can incorporate technology. If Web 2.0 tools are needed, please link to them.
  • You must use a valid e-mail address when you post. It will not appear on this site.

Award:

I will select one winner from the entrants who will receive a flash drive with a ton of my personal handouts for the various English courses I teach including quizzes, assignment instructions, writing assignments, questions, and more. I will notify the winner via e-mail and update this post after the winner has been notified.

Your comment may go into moderation if it has several links or if you’ve not commented here before. Please be patient as I post it. Feel free to contact me with questions.

Good luck everyone!

“It’s a Major Award!” image credit: Cyndie@smilebig!

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Designing Writing Assignments: More Writing Assignment Resources

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsI should begin this post by saying I have not heard from NCTE regarding my complaint that since they have changed their website, they have dropped Traci Gardner’s companion page for this book somewhere. Also, the page for this book still incorrectly links to a page that doesn’t exist. I find this extremely frustrating as I feel that Traci Gardner took some time to gather helpful resources together to accompany her book, and NCTE seemingly is not concerned that they remain available. Gardner begins the final chapter of Designing Writing Assignments with a pointer toward this resource that is no longer accessible. I have sent Traci Gardner a message on Twitter. Perhaps NCTE will be concerned about the issue if the writer says something to them. I’ll update with any responses I receive from Gardner or from NCTE.

The remainder of the chapter outlines several writing prompts that you can adapt for use in your own classroom. The writing prompts are grouped according to type of writing: narrative, informative, analysis, persuasion and literary analysis. I have to say the book is almost worth the purchase and read for this chapter alone. Gardner has some excellent writing prompts. Considering how difficult it can be to come up with writing tasks and performance tasks, I would imagine this chapter reflects a lot of time and hard work on Gardner’s part.

My final assessment of this book is that it is a good addition to any writing instructor’s arsenal, but I think especially middle and high school teachers should read it. In fact, I don’t think just English teachers could benefit. Any teacher who uses writing in his/her curriculum would do well to read it. It’s a very quick read, chock full of practical advice and tips for teaching writing. Highly recommended.

What should I read next? Don’ forget to vote in the poll.

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Designing Writing Assignments: Preparing for Standardized Testing

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsTraci Gardner begins her fifth chapter of Designing Writing Assignments, “Preparing for Standardized Testing,” with a sentence that sums up my own feeling about standardized writing assessments: “The prompts that students face on standardized writing tests are the antithesis of effective writing assignments” (67). Seeing as how they haven’t contacted me about it in a few years, I suppose it’s safe to disclose that I graded for the SAT in the first year that the essay portion of the test was added. I did it because I wanted to know what the College Board was looking for. I can tell you that the prompts are almost universally broad and, in my opinion, bad. Students’ guidance on using examples instructs them to draw from their personal experience, studies, and history. The prompts were often a quote from a famous person, and the student needs to respond either agreeing or disagreeing. In addition, students have 25 minutes to craft a well-developed essay. I know more than once I have told my own students, sadly, that in order to do well on the SAT essay, they need to forget the most important thing I’ve taught them about good writing—that it’s a process that requires planning and revision and, most importantly, time.

Gardner quotes Gregory Shafer1, who describes the effects of such testing as causing “students [to] abandon certain ideas about writing and embrace more reductive and less active approaches” (67), which is certainly what I’ve noticed about these kinds of essays. After a while, there was a sameness that crept in that ultimately made it impossible for me to do the job. I was not grading fast enough, and my accuracy (my score compared with the score given on random graded essays that were included to improve score validity) dropped.

Now that I’ve read this chapter, I will have a different and much better approach to helping my students do well on the SAT. Gardner has students discuss their experiences with timed writings first. The next step is to discuss other types of writing and their processes so they can “identify writing strategies they can use in test situations” (69). In scaffolding the process for standardized test writing, Gardner guides students to see that they “always have a process to compose their texts” (69). Obviously much more helpful than telling them to forget what they’ve learned about good writing!

Gardner’s suggestion of taking class time to understand the prompts through exploring samples in class is excellent. I’ve done that before, and it was great for helping students unpack the prompt so they could figure out what they were being asked to do. Her process for unpacking the question is great:

  • asking students to identify the audience and purpose behind the prompts (going beyond the simplistic answer of the testing company, of course)
  • having students identify what readers will look for and how they can present themselves as experts on the issue
  • demonstrating how to search through each writing prompt for significant words—both those that give clues to the content expected in response and those that suggest the structure and genre required
  • showing students how to find clues to the content and scope required by each prompt as well as to the organization and development that will be necessary for the response (70)

Gardner also includes a great handout that she gives students to help with this process. I would also suggest a book I’ve used in the past that does a good job helping students in this area and also has lots of sample questions on the usage portion of the SAT as well: Sadlier-Oxford’s Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests.

Gardner also suggests exploring rubrics with students and reading models, discussing the ways in which the models successfully meet expectations set forth in the rubrics. The College Board Web site has sample papers for students to explore for these purposes, and it was a great exercise to discuss rubrics and read model papers when I did it with my class.

Gardner describes helping students construct their own “mental writing kits” for the test situation. They should include what they need, so each student’s writing kit will differ. She shares one student’s writing kit on p. 73. It contains items such as “Begin with attention-getter and end with ‘So what?'” and “A/an for count and the for noncount.” Gardner also suggests that if students are given space for prewriting or notes or are allowed to write in the test booklet, they should write their writing kits down in that space and circle key words in the prompt, which is a another suggestion the Sadlier-Oxford book I mentioned has students employ as part of an exercise. I really do love this idea of a sort of Swiss army knife or toolkit. I created a presentation as part of a Schools Attuned workshop I participated in that uses a similar strategy for helping students be successful in language arts.

In all, I think the processes Gardner describes for helping students prepare for standardized tests are sound and helpful, even if the writing tasks themselves are not. I don’t imagine that standardized tests are going anywhere, and students do need to prepare for them. I would hate to see writing instructors focus on formulaic writing so that students are prepared for standardized tests at the expense of really learning how to write well, and I feel Gardner explains how to avoid that pitfall well. I have one more chapter in this book, and I hope to be able to read it and reflect on it here tomorrow.

1Shafer, Gregory. “Standardized Testing and the College Composition Instructor.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. 32.3 (Mar. 2005): 238-46.

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