EVENT: Teaching Writing to Reluctant Writers
What would entice students in the English Education Department to hang out at Teachers College until 9pm on a Wednesday night? No, not free food (although there was a dinner involved). The real star of the night at the English Education Department’s October 23rd event was the magnetic guest speaker Jeff Anderson.
While working as a middle school English teacher for twenty years in San Antonio, Texas, Anderson gained fame and recognition for his successful approach to teaching writing to students of various cultural and economic backgrounds. His students’ writing was known for reflecting the individuality of their different voices and personalities while also showing strong observance of standard English language conventions. After publishing several books including his incredibly successful Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop, Anderson now works full-time as a writer and presenter of workshops on his pedagogical approaches to teaching English.
On October 23rd, the theme of the night was “Teaching Writing to Reluctant Writers.” In a conference room filled with graduate students and professors, Anderson illustrated his invitational process of teaching grammar and directly engaged attendees in the exercises that he used in his classroom. Traditionally, grammar has been the area in which English students have tended to have the most difficulty. Anderson’s approach involves inviting his students to notice grammatical conventions, compare and contrast models, imitate good sentences, and then share and celebrate their writing.
The key verb in this process is “invite.” Rather than teach grammar by fixing what’s wrong or finding errors, Anderson has a more positive and empowering approach. Just as bankers train to identify counterfeit bills by studying authentic ones, Anderson believes that English students can learn good grammar by having teachers who flood their classrooms with positive examples of grammar in action. Through inviting students to notice, understand, and generate good sentences, the invitational approach presents grammar as a possible and powerful tool for writers of all backgrounds, as opposed to something that is full of restrictive rules and too difficult for some students to grasp.
“Whatever writing your students end up doing, grammar will give them power,” Anderson told the workshop attendees.
With this invitational approach, an Anderson English classroom feels more like a writer’s workshop than a traditional secondary English classroom. There is conversation because the teacher recognizes how discussions increase students’ understanding of what they are learning. There are opportunities for students to create meaning from the lesson because the teacher values students’ ownership of the material. There is space to share and celebrate good student work because the teacher knows that what gets celebrated gets repeated. When students make errors, it is more an opportunity for clarification than it is for correction.
“Think of grammar as a creational facility, rather than a correctional one,” Anderson said.
At this particular workshop, Anderson took attendees through a serial comma lesson in which students study a sentence from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and then create sentences that borrow Angelou’s pattern (e.g. “Hector’s room smelled of Hot Cheetos, gym socks, and lies.”). Anderson modeled his own pedagogical approach in how he presented this workshop. He invited the graduate students to analyze examples of good grammar, produce and share their own writing, and draw their own conclusions about his teaching process. As the workshop unfolded, it was clear that Anderson was not alone in his desire to teach in a way that empowers his students. The room was full of passionate English educators who cared deeply about making grammar accessible to and engaging for their students.
“Grammar is the area in which students face the most barriers,” Anderson said in his final remarks. “It’s our job and our duty to do what’s right for kids.”
And with that, the event ended with a resounding round of applause.
Contributed by Michele Kumi Baer, Arts & Humanities Writer