Everything We Teach About Writing Is Wrong

My name is Mark, and I’m a spelling and grammar Nazi.

If you write there when you mean they’re, let’s be honest: I’m judging you. On the other hand, if you use a semicolon correctly, I instantly figure you’re probably a person I’d like to get to know better.

This personality trait of mine frequently comes to the forefront as I teach third-graders to write.  I try to appreciate students’ written work, but I find myself blinded by their run-ons, fragments, spelling errors, forgotten capital letters, extra capital letters, and various punctuation problems.

“Start sentences with a capital letter!” I preach. “Don’t start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘because!’  Proper nouns get capitalized!  Did you remember to indent your topic sentence?”

Sometimes it gets a little desperate: “If I see the word I  written with a lowercase letter one more time, I’m going to cry!  Do you really want to make me cry?”

The students work hard to make improvements — they gradually get better at editing their work, they learn to use various tools (both online and offline) to improve their spelling, and they generally do start punctuating and capitalizing things more correctly as the year goes on.  Some of them even use a semicolon correctly at some point during the school year, and I smile.

But then I started thinking about the things that I love to read, as well as the things that resonate with others.  I just finished Choose Yourself by James Altucher, and it read like a schizophrenic joyride, trampling the rules of grammar with nearly every sentence (or, rather, fragment).  Yet I couldn’t put it down.  Jen Hatmaker got featured on the Today show for this end-of-school-year blog post, a fragment-filled, random-capital barrage that is so hilarious that over a third of a million people have shared it on Facebook.

My students have noticed this as well: “Mr. Pullen, look!  This author started a sentence with the word ‘and’!” and “Why does this best-selling novel have lots of sentence fragments in it?”

I think it’s time for me to admit the truth: what really makes writing great isn’t perfect adherence to the laws of grammar.  It isn’t perfect punctuation, flawless spelling, or correct capitalization.  It’s voice.  Great writers write with a voice that draws you in and keeps you hooked.

It’s time for me to shift my attention to the actual content of what my students are writing about.  Can I feel their passion in their writing?  Do they write something in a way that builds suspense or makes me laugh?  Do they keep me wanting to read more?

I’m not promising to quit worrying about spelling, punctuation, or capitalization entirely.  After all, grammar Nazi-ism doesn’t go away overnight.  But I am going to focus more of my energy on teaching my students to write with voice.

I’ll let them know that although good writers follow all of the “proper” rules, great writers know the rules and then purposely break them to create a certain effect.  I’ll make sure that they know that even though computers will be grading their writing on our standardized tests (which, of course, kills me a little inside), real writing is meant to have an impact on people.

And so we’ll focus on what kind of impact their writing can make… not on whether or not they started any sentences with and.

Create Something!

“Even the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. And I’d still take the most inane collaborative website over someone watching yet another half hour of TV.” -Clay Shirky

I have three life lessons that I try to pass along to my students, and the first two are fairly universal: be kind, and always put forth your best effort.

The third lesson is one that I really just started pushing this year.  I want my students to view themselves as people who create things that matter.  I want them to be authors, programmers, artists, poets, photographers, and inventors.  Toward that end, the phrase “Create something!” and its interrogative form, “What are you creating?” have become lines I say all the time in my classroom.

Our final day of school was last Friday.  Since then, I’ve received emails from students with links to videos they have filmed, photos they’ve taken, suggestions for state laws that they’ve sent to our town’s delegate in the Michigan House of Representatives, games and animations they’ve programmed themselves through Scratch, digital art they’ve created over at Art Pad, and documents and presentations they’ve created through Google Docs.  The students’ creative endeavors have obviously continued outside the school year and outside the walls of our classroom.

I’m doubling down on this next year.  Despite switching to Common Core (or not — Michigan can’t make up its mind), despite pressures to do well on MAP testing and MEAP testing and Fountas/Pinnell reading assessments, despite everything — I am going to make time for my students to be creators.

Smarter Balanced Assessment: Practice Tests Released

Amid all of the furor about Common Core lately (at least here in Michigan), the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium today publicly released their first practice tests designed to show the world what their vision of a Common-Core-Aligned assessment will look like.  These tests were already administered by pilot classrooms earlier this spring, but will not be used officially as high-stakes assessments until the spring of 2015.

You can sample the various language arts and math tests at different grade levels for yourself through this link, or you can read more about these practice tests here.

Common Core’s PR Problem

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as of late, have been suffering a bit of a public relations problem.

The Republican National Committee is now opposed to the CCSS, saying that these standards are “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived ‘normal’.”  Many Democrats are now against the CCSS as well, saying that “the Common Core is not based on research and… parts of it ignore what is known about how students learn, especially in the area of early childhood education.”

At a state level, Indiana has halted its implementation of the Common Core.  Here in my home state of Michigan, which was one of 45 states to have fully adopted both the math and language arts portions of the CCSS, lawmakers today took a major step toward preventing the Michigan Department of Education from spending any money adopting the CCSS, essentially halting the use of the CCSS here as well.  The Michigan Department of Education fired back, emailing principals and superintendents throughout the state to tell them that if Michigan fails to switch to the CCSS, “the state’s waiver from federal No Child Left Behind standards [is] at risk and all Michigan schools [are] in danger of failing to make acceptable yearly progress.”

If anyone in Michigan still harbored doubts that education has become a political football, I think we can safely put those doubts to rest.

Look, I neither love nor hate the Common Core Standards.  We can debate their emphasis on non-fiction reading and getting students to focus more on the why than the how when it comes to math.  But no matter whether you support or oppose the CCSS, know this: Here in Michigan, we’ve been preparing to make the switch to Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessment for several years now.  Huge amounts of time and money have already been spent on everything from technology upgrades (to be able to handle the online, adaptive Smarter Balanced testing requirements) to county-wide CCSS alignment meetings.

If our Michigan government wanted to take action to not adopt the CCSS, they should have done so at least a year ago.  Adopting the Common Core State Standards, then pulling back from them at the last possible moment for such obviously political reasons, is incredibly destructive.  The email sent from the Department of Education, trying to essentially panic superintendents and principals into vocally supporting the CCSS (one can only assume that was the intent of the email?) is also horrid.

Our schools, our teachers, and our students deserve better than this.

Resource: The Busy Educator Newsletter

As summer approaches, I always start thinking about what parts of my teaching practice I could improve for the coming school year.  I ask my students to complete surveys giving me feedback as to how this year went from their perspective.  I look for new blogs to follow, new people to connect with on Twitter, and new websites to explore.

This year, one new way in which I plan to discover lots of new resources is… by letting someone else do it for me!  Marjan Glavac, a retired elementary and middle school teacher from Ontario, Canada, compiles a collection of great blog posts, videos, and articles each week in The Busy Educator Newsletter (news.thebusyeducator.com).  He pulls from a wide variety of sources, often introducing his readers to excellent blogs and useful websites they’d likely never find on their own.

What about you?  In the comments section, let me know: What is the best education blog, newsletter, or website you’ve recently found (or created)?  Also, if you’re an educator who posts useful links on Twitter (as opposed to posting about what you ate for breakfast), please leave your Twitter username in the comments so I (@mpullen) can follow you as well!

Resource: FreeRice.com

This winter, when my third-grade students needed some practice on their basic multiplication facts, I took them over to FreeRice.com.  FreeRice.com is a basic quiz site with a twist: for each problem a student answers correctly, 10 grains of rice are donated a non-profit dedicated to fighting world hunger.  My class enjoyed competitive, timed multiplication fact games from other websites as well (such as Multiflyer and Math Mayhem, for example), but I found that many of my students were motivated more by being able to help others than by those other, more competitive options.

Multiplication facts aren’t the only type of quiz questions available on FreeRice.com.  About 20 different categories of questions are offered, from English vocabulary to world capitals.  Although the site’s interface is very basic — your kids won’t be hooked by any snazzy graphics or levels to conquer — the altruism involved seems to interest many students, making them feel extra-good about their own generosity while they work on the skill of their choosing.

Free Rice

The Merit Pay Mistake

“We live simultaneously in two different worlds — one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules… When we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life hums along pretty well… When social and market norms collide, trouble sets in.” -Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

I strongly oppose merit pay and other “pay for performance” plans that tie teacher pay to student test scores.  In fact, when I see bills like this one requiring teacher pay to be determined by student performance getting passed in my home state of Michigan, it feels like a swift kick to the gut.

But why?  I track my students’ data closely, and I know that each year my students’ make, on average, far more than one year’s worth of progress — no matter what test you use to measure that progress.  So merit pay could actually serve to increase my pay.  Shouldn’t I be pleased?  Why do I feel this powerfully negative reaction to something from which I could benefit?

Dan Ariely’s quote above, combined with the images we’ve all seen from Moore, Oklahoma, finally helped me to put words to my seemingly irrational feelings toward merit pay.

I teach with my heart.  I teach because I care deeply about the students and community I serve.  I go the extra mile to challenge my most advanced students and assist my struggling students because I love those students and I want to help them love to learn.  Without any hesitation, I would do just what the teachers in Moore did: protect students from a tornado by shielding them from it with my own body, carry them to safety even while I was bloodied myself, and so on.

As soon as you try to put a price tag on this, you cheapen it.

You can’t put a price tag on that sort of sacrifice and dedication.  Yet that’s exactly what merit pay schemes try to do.  They work to shift the act of teaching from an act of the heart (what Ariely would call “social norms”) to a financial act (“market norms”).

There could be no bigger mistake.  If we wanted to ruin the teaching profession in one swift blow, merit pay would be the single most effective way to do it.  You see, the things that we most want to see from our nation’s teachers — dedication to students, compassion, love, collegiality, and sacrifice  — are not things that operate under market norms.  They exist only because teachers view their profession as a calling; as a result, turning teaching into a market-normed job will have the effect of making teachers far less dedicated, compassionate, loving, collegial, and sacrificial.

So what’s the best pay structure for teachers?  What would help teachers to continue to view their work as a calling?

I believe that we should give teachers a secure paycheck in which they get paid enough to not have to worry about money all the time.  A fixed salary scale that increases with experience and possibly education level is ideal for helping teachers to mentally separate their pay from their work — exactly what is needed to help teachers to continue teaching with heart rather than for money.

The sad truth is, of course, that this is precisely the type of pay structure we had in place before the advent of merit pay.