Nerds Rule! Creating 8 Page ‘Zines with 5th Grade Students

As anyones who grew up in the 90’s knows, ‘zines (handmade mini-magazines) are the epitome of cool. And thanks to Boston Public Schools teacher Christine Beggan, an incredibly cool group of Gardner Pilot Academy nerds is digging the ‘zine genre.

I first caught wind of the 5th grade ‘zine project when checking my teacher mailbox. Along with the usual school mailings I routinely receive, there was something very unusual and surprising – photocopied fluorescent booklets with hand-written and hand-drawn pages. Even more thrilling, the books were about a sub-culture very near and dear to my heart – NERDS!

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While the three ‘zines I received all focusthe subject of nerds, the three youngsters that created them took different approaches.

In Cool Nerds in HistoryCaricaturist Eva M. profiles six different nerds
with a portrait of each as well of an explanation of why each subject qualifies as a nerd.

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Expert portrait artist Alex A. zeroes in on two Steves – Urkel and Jobs – in his brief work Cool Nerds. Alex informs the reader that Urkel is categorized as a “funny” nerd.

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And finally, researcher and historian Dorlie wrote Nerd Wars in History in chapters. She provides a detailed etymology of the word “nerd” as well as the transition of the “nerd” from an outcast figure to one who commands respect. Consider the following tidbits:

  • Excerpt from Chapter 1: The word “nerd” first appeared in 1950 in a Dr. Seuss book called “If I Ran the Zoo”. It was about a creature named Nertile “Nerd”.
  • From Chapter 2: People usually think about how some kids “become” nerds. Was it the way they were born or was it their development in society?
  • From Chapter 4: The percentages of approval on nerds were low until the early and mid 2000s. Now approval has reached 100% for the first time in nerd history.

The woman behind the nerd ‘zines, Ms. Beggan, could very well be considered a “nerd” herself due to her accomplishments in vinyl record collecting, filmmaking, and German language scholarship. When her 5th grade class chose”nerds” as their homeroom theme for School Spirit Week, Ms. Beggan dreamed up the nerd ‘zine project as a way for students to research and write about the nerd world, a topic not accessed often enough by children in urban schools.

“I wanted every student to realize that it’s cool to be obsessed with learning. That’s why it’s so important for the students to learn about the achievements of nerds – it’s another way to connect them with school,” explains Ms. Beggan, “My students love science, and they were able to learn more about computer geeks, inventors, and the power of problem solving. A ‘zine was non-intimidating, quick, and immediately accessible to all of my students.”

If you want to take on ‘zine-making for yourself or your classroom, here is a helpful article from one of my favorite online creativity magazines (written by and for teenagers of any age): Rookie!

Top left: Cool Teacher Nerd Ms. Beggan with nerd colleague Ms. Mustonen; Bottom left: A handful of cool nerds; Right: Alex A. and Eva M.

Spelling as Social Justice at the Boston Teachers Union Professional Learning Conference

This year I took a course that challenged both my writing and thinking abilities – the Boston Teachers Union Inquiry Project class. Once on month on Fridays throughout the school year, a group of five other teachers and myself met to pursue our own individual teacher inquiries under the guidance of three master teachers  – Steve Gordon, Crystal Haynes, and Bob Comeau.

The course had me undertake a process that I found difficult yet incredibly worthwhile and engaging – it demanded that I find a question, gather data and research, analyze, reflect, and then find a more specific question, in order to come to deeper and deeper levels of understanding. The course resulted in my production of a final paper that synthesized both research and pedagogy along with deep reflection about my teaching practice: Spelling As Social Justice: Empowering Students Learning English as a New Language Through Explicit Spelling Instruction (pdf).

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Jennifer Dines with Inquiry Master Teachers Steve Gordon and Crystal Haynes

I am very proud to be presenting a workshop on my inquiry work at the Boston Teachers Union 3rd Annual Professional Learning Conference on Saturday, June 4th, 2016. Here is a description of the presentation:

Spelling as Social Justice: Empowering Students Learning English as a New Language Through Explicit Spelling Instruction

How does spelling support development of language control and linguistic complexity? What is an effective approach to teaching spelling to middle school ELLs? Participants in this workshop will understand spelling as a gatekeeper to proficient academic writing, as well as gain insights into the practice of systematic spelling instruction connected to culturally responsive YA literature.

Additionally, teachers who underwent the inquiry process this year will be participating in a panel about the course. Here is a link to my colleague Colleen Mason’s fascinating paper Does the Project Approach Work?: A Case Study Exploring Emergent Curriculum in an Inclusive Pre-K Setting (pdf).

Life Under a Dictatorship – UDL in Action

Over April Vacation, I taught English Language Arts to 7th grade students for four days at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury as part of the Acceleration Academy program. The Acceleration Academy is an additional week of academic instruction and enrichment activities provided for students at selected schools

While I have taught in the Acceleration Academies for several years, in both Boston and Lawrence, this year was quite different in terms of curriculum. In the past, the Academies have focused on preparation for the MCAS exams, and each teacher planned his or her own sequence of instruction. This year, however, a group of teachers (including myself) participated in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) training provided by Goalbook and created a set curriculum for the academies based on pre-selected texts .

This UDL-based curriculum proved wildly successful for my 7th grader scholars. Every scholar, within the span of the four day program, completed a final project that expressed understanding of Life Under a Dictatorship. They garnered their knowledge of this topic from selections from Julia Alvarez’s YA novel Before We Were Free and non-fiction articles on the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I particularly enjoyed teaching with the curriculum because it allowed for inclusive classes in which all students, including students who are in substantially separate special education and SEI classes, could complete a cognitively demanding independent project without any teacher hand-holding. The students’ pride in their work was evident as we did a gallery walk-final circle in which each student presented his or her project to the group. One student announced over and over,”This class is LIT!”, which he explained to me meant that it was an exciting experience.

Curriculum Planning Resources

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Curriculum Resource Document

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Final Project Lesson Plan

Final Project Gallery

Life Under a Dictatorship Podcast

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Book Review: Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, Johanna Stirling, Lulu: Raleigh, 2011, 279 pgs.

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Johanna Stirling’s Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners advocates for explicit spelling instruction as a tenet of writing instruction for students learning English as a Second Language. Stirling views poor spelling as an obstacle to language development, but also sees it  as a hindrance to future educational and career opportunities.

Stirling sets out to present a new look at an old and infamous problem – the spelling conventions of the English Language. She examines the complex orthography of the language, and she offers educators with instructional strategies that address English spelling.

Additionally, Stirling indicates the importance of spelling skills to producing quality writing plainly stating: “…if you are too busy concentrating on spelling letter by letter, your brain is unlikely to be at its creative or intellectual best.”

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is divided into three main sections. Part A provides an overview of the challenges of teaching and understanding spelling. Part B presents an approach for instruction in spelling. Part C offers more than 50 instructional strategies for teaching spelling, most of which are interactive, engaging, and multi-sensory. The intended audience for this book is teachers of adolescent and adult English Language Learners as well as teachers of struggling readers and writers who are native speakers of the language.

I chose this book because it appears to be the only comprehensive text on the subject of spelling for English Language Learners. There are only a limited number of scholarly articles that address this topic specifically, so it did not surprise me that there were only two books available through amazon.com on the subject.

Analysis

Personally, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners provided me with a deeper perspective on the emotionality that poor spellers experience with writing. Chapter 15,  titled “Tackling Psychological Barriers to Writing”, provided me with a better insight and empathy towards the frustrated learner of English spelling. I myself have always been a good speller and reader, but I know that in my practice it is important to be able to view literacy tasks through the eyes of my students.

Indeed, this year especially, working with a group of middle school students whose struggles with literacy have previously been ignored, I have personally witnessed their reactions to their low self-esteem around language learning. My students absolutely employ all of the “face-saving strategies” detailed in the chapter: “avoiding writing altogether (so they can’t fail), blaming others for their weaknesses, denying that there’s a problem, or just making out that they don’t care”.

This descriptor helped me contextualize my students’ behaviors and I have been deliberate and strategic about addressing the emotionality by using the strategies Stirling lays out in my lesson planning and instruction: assessing students’ spelling abilities, conveying enthusiasm and providing positive encouragement, connecting spelling to authentic texts, and explicit teaching about English spelling patterns.

I very much enjoyed Chapter 3, “A Brief History of English Spelling”. Although I have read bits and pieces about this subject, Stirling provides a very clear and concise overview of English’s evolution from Old English to Modern English, which includes information on how pronunciation and handwriting over time has affected our spelling system. Stirling clearly demonstrates that there are “historical explanations for many of the apparently irrational and complex forms of English spelling”, and, indeed, it is empowering to know how English evolved and came to its complex orthography.

A very clear pie chart at the end of the chapter shows the origins of current English words: 26% Germanic, 29% French, 29% Latin, 6% Greek, and 10% Other. Reading this chapter and viewing this data prompted me to not only check out Wheelock’s Latin from the local library but also to revisit the Duolingo app’s French language program in an effort to increase my understanding of English.

Language is a tool that we use so much, we do not often analyze it or think of it as simply another, albeit highly complex, technology. In a historical context, however, one realizes that language is indeed a human invention, and is therefore ever-evolving and subject to political and sociological influences. This is a powerful realization as a language teacher because it makes it clear that what we should truly focus on are the mechanisms of the language system and engaging our students in analyzing and manipulating them. Regarding language as a tool with a history and sense of flexibility makes it far less daunting than simply accepting and memorizing abstract rules and facts without understanding their origins.

Professionally, I appreciated Stirling’s “polysystemic” framework of English Orthography. She organizes her discussions of language and spelling around 5 separate systems: phonological, graphemic, etymological, lexical, and morphological. Stirling dedicates one chapter to each system, and she provides concrete examples of spelling patterns based in each.

Stirling also provides clear insights about the interconnections of these systems, and she is definitive about how these systems interact with one another. For example, she states: “Etymological factors often take precedence over all the other systems of English orthography”. She then goes on to detail orthographic patterns from Old English (wh-, kn-, -gh, aw, ow), Latin, and French. Stirling also challenges the ever-popular yet non-sensical “sound it out” strategy by evidencing that only about 50% of English words are phonetically spelled.

I especially appreciated Stirling’s attention to the lexical or “purely visual” system of English, which emphasizes “similar spellings of words with related meanings”. This system is frequently and shamefully overlooked, even in post-graduate courses for reading specialists and speech language therapists.  Yet, the lexical system provides a bounty of connections among words in our language. For example, the word “sign”, which comes from the Latin signum (mark, token, indication, signal), forms lexical connections to at least twenty words, including signature, design, signify, resign, and assign.

One weakness I found in the text was Stirling’s lack of knowledge around assessment of existing developmental spelling tools. Although Stirling offers some self-created assessments, I was disappointed and surprised that she failed to mention the widely-used Words Their Way Spelling Inventories as an assessment of developmental spelling (note: For FREE access, simply register with the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project).

Additionally, while Stirling does indicate short vowels, vowel digraphs, and silent-e syllables as common trouble spots for ELLs, she makes no mention of the six syllable types: closed, open, silent-e, r-controlled, vowel team, consonant-le. Since Stirling advocates that we maximize awareness of the language systems of English, not mentioning the six syllable types feels like a glaring omission.

Conclusions and Evaluation

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is an essential read for anyone who teaches writing to struggling learners in grades 3 and up. It is clear, concise, and well-organized, and the strategies in the book can be easily implemented without any special materials or programmatic structures. I think that this book is impressive because it provides such a wide-ranging overview as well as very practical, multi-sensory, and engaging strategies that can be used right away in the classroom.

This book makes a wonderful pairing with the scope and sequence laid out in Marcia Henry’s Words. In my own classroom, I have been using Words as a resource for generating word lists from a class novel. I then use the instructional techniques from Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners to create my lesson plans. The pairing of these two books makes for a dynamic duo that allows my students to make progress with their spelling in an enjoyable way that is connected to the texts we are reading in class. Since the beginning of January, my students have demonstrated mastery of consonant blends and consonant digraphs and trigraphs, and I can see their confidence growing as they discuss and apply their metalinguistic knowledge.

I highly recommend this book to educators seeking to enhance word-level writing instruction in their classrooms. It is a quick read, and it will become a go-to reference for engaging spelling instruction. Stirling’s http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/ offers supplemental resources for the book, and her website English Language Garden provides additional articles and materials for ELL teachers.

 

Analysis of ELL Writing Calls for Spelling Intervention

The inquiry work described below is an Analytic Memo assignment that I completed for the Boston Teachers Union’s Inquiry Project course.  I am a member of the 2015/2016 cohort of this teacher-facilitated inquiry program. This memo provides an analysis of two student writing samples: sympathy cards to President Hollande following the November terrorist attack on Paris and essays that describe Sarah Hale, the  “Grandmother of Thanksgiving”.

My goal for this school year is to improve the written expression of my middle school ESL students. I aim for my students to develop writing skills that allow them to not only fully express their ideas but also to deepen their thinking through writing. As a 9th year teacher who has always worked with ELL students, in both ESL classes and content classes, I have noticed that writing is complex for these students at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.

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In the past, I have had success in developing students’ writing skills through reading response pieces with a variety of texts as well as process writing tasks with authentic audiences (i.e. a class book of personal essays titled “How I Make Boston Strong” for the Boston Police following the Boston Marathon Bombings; argument essays on the benefits of tap water over bottled water for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Writing Contest). My teaching strategies included setting a clear purpose and audience for writing with students, modeling using transparencies and an overhead projector, using a combination of handwriting and word process technologies for draft writing, teaching techniques for writing hooks and adding details to sentences, facilitating peer editing, using student-teacher writing conferences, and, most importantly, providing lots of time for writing in class.

Although these techniques have been effective, I am always searching to learn more about how to work with students on their writing because I view writing as an essential life skill. I know that my students will be judged on their ability to write in the future, whether in academic settings or in workplaces. From collaborating with the middle school English Language Arts teachers at my school, I know that my current ESL class is composed of students who have struggled significantly with written expression. Their ELA teachers report that these students produce poor writing during their English Language Arts classes, and many of the students are long-term ELLs, having attended monolingual “English-only” education programs since kindergarten.

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My First Inquiry Question

Before getting to know my current batch of students, my question for inquiry relied on my past experience of having shorter-term ELL students who constructed mostly simple sentences in their writing:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance the variety of grammatical structures they employ in their writing?

My students in previous years had been coded as ELLs for 3 to 5 years, and they often simply needed daily writing practice and more exposure to English in order to produce more complex sentences.

However, upon analysis of my current students’ work habits and abilities, I realize that my current students are quite different. They have more writing stamina; even when given permission to check in with a friend during writing practice, they do not even whisper to one another. They remain, for the most part, completely focused on the task at hand. Consequently, they are able to produce a sufficient volume of writing. So, what exactly is holding them back from meeting the successes I have seen with students in previous years?

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The WIDA MODEL Framework

Using the introductory materials from the WIDA MODEL writing assessment has helped to clarify and categorize the specific concerns most relevant to written expression for ELLs.The MODEL recognizes that it is acceptable for ELLs at the beginning and intermediate level to use copied sections of text as well as adapted (paraphrased) text in written expression as they are learning how to use the English language. However, the MODEL also maintains that the end goal is for students to produce written language that is original in both content and form, just as is expected of native English speakers.  The MODEL evaluates student writing based on three major components: linguistic complexity, vocabulary usage, and language control.

Linguistic complexity refers to the quantity of language produced. At the sentence level, are sentences simple subject+verb+object constructions, or are they expanded from this basic kernel? At the discourse level, are paragraphs organized with topic, body, and conclusion sentences? Is the presented sequence of information or order of events logical? How much does the student write in a given time frame?

Vocabulary usage refers to the variety and sophistication of words the writer uses. Are the words general high-frequency words or more specific “Tier 2” vocabulary? Are students capable of using content-specific technical vocabulary in their writing? Are the same vocabulary words repeated, or are there synonyms that add variety to the writing?

Language control includes not only grammar (morphology and syntax) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and capitalization), but also precision with word choice. Is the student using precisely the right word in precisely the right place in the language sequence?

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Close Reading of Student Writing

With the lens of the MODEL in mind, I took a close look at two writing assignments from my current students. The first writing assignment was a short essay on the life and accomplishments of a historical figure. Students had about half of a class period (30 minutes) to complete this assignment. The second assignment was a sympathy letter to French President Francois Hollande following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. This assignment was completed over two class periods, and it required students to write a rough draft as well as a final draft.

Link to Google Doc with Analysis Notes

On a positive note, I was impressed by the expanded sentences that many students employed in their writing. However, I was struck by the lack of conventions in spelling, particularly those related to morphology in areas such as pluralization (i.e. countrys – This student did not automatically know to “change the y to an i and add “es” or makeing – This student did not know to “drop the e and add -ing”.) I wonder how much their writing would improve with greater use of conventional spelling.
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It must be exhausting for the students to constantly have to guess at the spellings of words. Imagine how much this slows them down and interferes with their abilities to get their thoughts down on paper. For example, S. is working so hard to spell so many words through application of sound-symbol correspondence; however, this is typical of a 1st grade monolingual emergent writer, and S.is a 6th grade student who has been in the Boston Public Schools for 7 years. A., due to either spelling or vocabulary, gives up on producing original ideas and relies on copying chunks of text. I wonder if the students are even aware how much their spelling interferes with the meaning in their writing. Do they know that their spelling is irregular and would not make sense to a non-teacher reader?

Other points that struck me were lack of attention to capitalization and use of periods, as well as the erratic placement of commas. Can the students internally sense the phrasing of their writing – do they “hear their writing breathe”? When they read independently, are they able to sort of the rhythm and structures of phrases as they read? Do my students read aloud fluently? Can they mark or scoop a sentence for its breath?

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My conclusion is that my students need support with writing conventions in order to improve the decisions they make about the marks they are putting on the page. It is tempting to ignore their errors and move forward with the “fun” of teaching the content of reading and writing. However, I would be ashamed had my students gone through this year with me, a professional and experienced educator, recognizing this problem and doing nothing about it, especially since my training as a reading specialist did give me some background in multi-sensory strategies for teaching encoding. So, I must plan a course of action that supports my students in developing as writers.

My Second Inquiry Question and My Plan

First, I have revised my inquiry question:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance their use of conventional spelling and punctuation in their writing?

Second, I have a few resources I would like to use with my students, including the spelling and word study curriculas Words by Marcia Henry and Language! by Sopris Voyager, as well as the secondary grammar text Grammar Explorer by Cengage.  I also want to explore expanding the 1:1 encoding techniques I learned as a student at the MGH Communication Sciences & Disorders Clinic for use in whole class classroom context.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 12.40.50 PMI plan to conduct a better analysis of which syllable types they struggle to encode by assessing my students using the Moats Primary Spelling Inventory. Finally, for my research articles as well as my book review, I want to seek out resources on spelling and conventions instruction for ELLs.

Right now, the goal of teaching spelling and conventions to middle school ELLs seems tedious and daunting, but I know the students really need it. I am making a promise to myself to ensure that the work ahead is engaging, connected, and relevant to my students, as I know how much they need these spelling and conventions skills for their future. Readers of their job applications and college admissions letters will be extremely distracted by the form of their writing as it is now, and most will infer that incorrect conventions are a sign of weak ideas and arguments. If this problem is not fixed, it will have future consequences for the 15 children in my classroom.

 

Internalizing the Writing Process: Editing, Revising, and Rewriting (and Publishing Parties!)

You may have heard the writer’s motto before: “Never fall in love with your first draft.” Emerging writers, and even experienced writers, put so much energy into an initial draft that it can feel very final. While it is important to acknowledge that merely picking up a pen and applying it to paper is an act of courage, it is essential that writers engage in editing, revising, and rewriting in order to refine their pieces and take them to the next level. Additionally, when teachers facilitate well-planned tasks, the final stages of the writing process are an incredible opportunity for deepening relationships within a community of writers, as the efficacy of deep reading discussion around one another’s work builds trust, connection, and understanding.

Editing and Revision

I have found it very helpful for students to have a finite set of symbols or codes for editing and revision, as well as the freedom to comment aloud and in writing on one another’s papers. If a teacher creates too many rules and restrictions and symbols, students will not revise or edit because they will feel constrained and will second guess the changes that they have occurred to them.

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I teach students the mnemonics ARMS and CHOPS for editing and revision at the very beginning of the year, and, as the year progresses, students build their concepts of the editing and revision skills involved through skill and technique lessons and isolated practice, application of those lessons to process writing pieces, and through students engaging in conferences with themselves (self-editing and revision), their peers, and with teachers and school partner volunteers.

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An essential practice I have found for teaching editing and revision is modeling and thinking aloud in front of students. The best modeling with thinking alouds refers to prior writing techniques and skills that have been explicitly taught to and practiced by the students prior to or during the writing process.The video below demonstrates modeling and thinking aloud with a piece of student writing.

Video: Modeling and Think Aloud of Editing and Revision

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEAvAFL38oc

I follow three guidelines for this practice:

  1. Be natural: It is important not to script your editing and revision demonstration. You want for students to see an authentic example of the time and effort it takes to engage in editing and revision.
  2. Refer back to concepts you have taught to students: Don’t make every correction. For example, in the video, there are certain corrections that I deliberately avoid making. I focus only on concepts that my particular students know, such as using commas for items in a list of series. Teachers of writing must know their students and their prior knowledge well and think of ways to assess this early in the year and continue to monitor and track progress.
  3. Read the writing piece aloud: Students must close read one another’s work and understand how to really analyze; reading aloud aids this as you can really hear the writing and must pay attention to every word, space, and piece of punctuation.

Rewriting

As students rewrite their drafts in preparation for publication, I either have them type drafts in Google Drive or I provide lined paper with a decorative border or graphic relevant to the theme of the writing piece.

For rewrites, I require two or three of these per assignments with noticeable changes on each one. As a more novice teacher, I saw second drafts with minimal changes – maybe the addition of a word or two or a few sprinkles of punctuation. Since then, I have emphasized to students that rewriting is not simply copying or retyping your first draft. There must be significant changes based on feedback that you have received, and rewriting is a time to experiment with your piece. If students have used Google docs when rewriting, it is very easy to view their revisions through the “See Revision History” feature.

When students have completed their final draft, I require them to read it aloud using vocaroo.com and submit their recording to myself and a peer. The students catch a lot of “silly” mistakes this way, and it really helps to ensure that their published pieces are polished.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 9.08.11 AMOnce students have submitted their final draft, I do not correct it before putting it on display or placing it in a class book. It is essential that students trust themselves and the writing process, and if I were to go and “fix” their work, it would diminish the students’ writing as an authentic demonstration of their progress and growth.

Publishing Party

When a process writing piece is completed, I always acknowledge that hard work that our community of writers has undertaken.

Prior to the publishing party, we use class time to create invitations for guests that the students would like to invite to the party. Past guests have included school principals, members of the school board, teachers and students from other classes, coaches and after-school teachers, and, of course, parents and families. My classes have held potlucks, and I usually buy or make a cake as the centerpiece of the celebration.

I also print class books for the students as keepsakes, and, during the publishing party, students read their pieces aloud and autograph one another’s books. Additionally, I will put students’ published pieces online and e-mail them the link to share on social media. During the party, I display the e-publication on a projector.

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I so enjoy celebrating the students’ work with them, and I have so many wonderful memories of publishing parties and events throughout my nine years in public education – and I hope to have many, many more in the years to come!

This article is the last in a three part series on the topic of “Internalizing the Writing Process”.

Writing Is Thinking Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One serves as a guidebook for sentence writing as well as a model of analytical thinking for sentence reading. Full of appreciation for the English language and the craft of master authors who employ its nuances effectively, this short volume presents examples, analysis, and instruction in sentence writing using mentor sentences collected from English writers in the past half-millennium, including George Eliot, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell.

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Fish begins with the thesis that emerging writers who are learn the craft of sentence creation should begin with syntactic forms without regard to content, similar to the way that beginning pianists practice scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises. For the beginning sentence craftsperson, content can be a distraction; students first need to understand the tools of the trade.

Fish goes on to describe the three types of sentences, provide models from regarded writers, and give step by step instructions on how to write them. The two more formal structures are the subordinating sentence, which lends itself to ranking, ordering, and sequencing, and the additive sentence, which gives an impression of flow and flexibility. A third category is the less-formal, satiric sentence, which writers employ as a means of slyly critiquing individuals, groups, and social structures.

I really enjoyed the exercises suggested by Fish, and I found myself in a moment of flow and creative space as I worked within Fish’s expert guidelines to develop my sentence craft. The photo below shows my work with following Fish’s directives based on a model sentence by Ford Madox Ford to craft a non-contextualized sentence in the additive style, which resulted in the following sentence:

The bright dresses, patterned with tropical flowers, flowing and gliding from place to place on the parquet tiles, the conversation from each table vibrant and lithe, the children watching from the courtyard windows angling to hear the voices of their mothers, so ordinating in the daytime, punctuating the night with words, not about their children, but about their other non-mothering lives.

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In later chapters, Fish gives examples and analysis of effective first and last sentences, such as the succinct yet haunting ending of Orwell’s 1984: He loved Big Brother. He concludes by offering a simple equation that argues for the value of crafting sentences as a means to support reading comprehension and a love of language:

sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation

As I worked through this book, with my pen and notebook close at hand, I felt a sense of tremendous exploratory and creative freedom to write with content pushed aside. I felt like a true and authentic writer, allowed to polish my technique and encouraged by a masterful and analytical reader. This book would be a wonderful choice to explore during teacher professional development as it models how teachers, as readers and writers, must be able to talk about language with their students – with careful attention to its craft and structure, with passion and exuberance, with a wide knowledge of writers and writing.

As a middle school writing teacher, I can envision the writing classroom as a type of makerspace for sentence construction. Empowered with the tools of and process for sentence construction, the students become crafters of language. Having experienced deep analysis and discussion of effective sentences, middle schoolers will have the capacity and space to invent their own syntactic constructions.

Sentences are an essential link between vocabulary and discourse in reading and writing, and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One amplifies the importance of understanding sentence craft and structure in order to fully understand the aesthetics and craft of the English language.

Harper Collins Web Sampler: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish