From Cloned Thoughts to Passionate Voices

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How to engage young writers, to penetrate these developing minds. The thoughts in the boxes are my own (though not necessarily original). They came back to me as I read Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8, from which I took all the quotes.

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Assessing Students’ Writing

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“I think anytime we assess writing, we are assessing not only out students’ progress but our own teaching.”

Mark Overmeyer, What Student Writing Teaches Us

I’ve reached a point where I can point out some flaws in an adolescent’s baseball swing. I’m a good enough golfer that I can usually tell what I’ve done wrong when (not if) a shot turns out poorly. But help with someone’s jump shot? Critique a painting? No, thank you. These things require a certain level of expertise: those who can’t, teach, is an overstatement.

Judging other people’s writing is intimidating. Even for a skilled writer the task has to be approached with a great deal of humility. Add then the responsibility of having taught the writer and the experience can wind up sounding something like this:

          Paraphrasing Descartes (I think):

I helped you. You sucked. Ergo, I must suck.

This is, of course, not what we tell students or put on progress reports. This is that internal voice, that mousy-haired raven with the voice of someone named Mr. Bobledyk or Mrs. Tebos who still scolds our adult selves for not being good enough or smart enough and intimates that we are, indeed, nothing more than a sham.

But judge, er, assess we must. The question is how do I it meaningfully and manageably? The next question is how does it inform my teaching so I can do better so they can do better?

Who knows what sort of pedagogical mandates I will face come fall. But here are two I might: the use of John Collins and some type of rubric, probably the six-point holistic variety. I’m not one for diatribes and I don’t have any fundamental issues with either of these. But I do prefer good practice, so I’m thinking of meshing the two, adapting a rubric that Overmeyer helped create: take the form of a rubric and the focus of Collins’ Focus Correction Areas to guide the assessing.

It would look something like this:

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One of the nice touches (from the book) is the area for “Above and Beyond” where students are able to, if not encouraged to, step out of these norms and take risks.

Now the question is, to assess this common core standard…

W.8.1a Introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

…what exactly would the FCA’s be?

Semicolon Blow

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colon blowAh, the semicolon. I am not sure there is anything more mishandled by teachers than the teaching of the semicolon. I base this on two opinions. First, it is easy to teach the basic rule of semicolons. Second, students will never use them, and probably shouldn’t. The second opinion is a result of the first.

The problem is not a how problem; it’s a why problem. Here’s a typical sentence a student would write that follows rule number one of semicolons, followed by the semicolon formula:

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This is correct. Yay for the student. However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Writers don’t focus on writing correct sentences (in fact, sometimes, we write incorrect ones). Writers focus on writing good sentences. Is the example above a good sentence? Eh.

That, of course, depends. This sentence represents a specific situation, with a setting and characters, each of which has some sort of motivation. Different sentence constructions with different ways of combining these two ideas will take on different meanings. I’ve borrowed from Jeff Anderson and Constance Weaver to come up with the following analysis to help people understand the simple semicolon.

First, look at these examples, combining the two sentences a different way. How are these different from the first version, and how then are they similar and different?

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Obviously both follow the same pattern. In A, most likely it is two facts with little connecting the two, although it is possible we are celebrating the fact that Tom and Joe both brought something or that they together brought two things (as in, they’re roommates and were only expected to bring one thing). But that’s not what happened at all.

So let’s look at another way of expressing the same sentence. How is this different rhetorically from the previous?

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Again, the pattern has changed from the first two, and there is a different structural order. But the significant change is that we now see the relationship between these two facts. What we now see is that Joe’s bringing pop somehow influenced Tom’s bringing pizza.

So then, how is this next example any different?

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Rhetorically, the semicolon creates more of a pause or highlights the connection between the two ideas more forcefully. So in this last example, I would argue that it most clearly represents what I had in mind: Joe and Tom had a rather heated argument about who could take pop and who would have to get the pizza, so when Joe rushed out and got the pop, this caused Tom to get the pizza, reluctantly. That semicolon and conjunctive adverb best underscore Tom’s plight.

I’m still, though, wondering about that first sentence and when it would be a good example, that simple semicolon formula. Well, semicolons can be good when sentences get really long but you don’t want to start a new one. For many students, this is dangerous territory, a large pair of scissors in the hands of a small child. Instead, a semicolon can be used to connect two sentences when the two ideas are so closely related that no “connector” is needed and a new, almost dramatic affect can be achieved. Consider this alternative scenario:

Tom and Joe agreed to arm wrestle. The winner could get the pop while the loser had to foot the bill for the pizza. They squared off, locking hands in preparation for battle. At first Tom had the upper hand, but then Joe found a hidden reserve of strength and battled back. The two went back and forth for some time until it seemed no one would be able to win.

Tom brought pizza; Joe brought pop.