Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sentence Annotations

I've long been aware of Jeff Anderson and have read and cited his excellent book, Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer's Workshop, many times. Despite the fact that his approach appealed to and resonated with me as soon as I read it, it has taken me a long time to process how to make it work in my classroom. I've tried pausing during a class reading period to examine an author's punctuation or grammar, and whenever possible I use actual novels when discussing specific concepts with students during 1:1 conferences about their writing.

Last week I tried using sentence annotations (a variation of his approach to teaching grammar and usage) in my English class. We are reading a few chapters in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I chose a several rich sentences from the novel to use for this activity. After retyping the sentences in a large font, I handed out a sheet with six unique sentences, and as a class we modeled how to annotate them for capitalization and punctuation. Once students began working in pairs to continue their annotations, they marked up parts of speech and figurative language, which (excitingly!) went beyond the scope of what I intended for the activity.

While they could easily annotate for simple things like using a capital letter at the start of a sentence or ending a sentence with a period, my students also noticed more complex punctuation. For example, in a single sentence they saw that some commas were used to indicate a pause while others were part of a list. They noticed that an apostrophe might indicate possession or a contraction. Some students even marked up my page citations at the end of each sentence, noting the parentheses and the abbreviation of 'page' to 'Pg.'

Just as Anderson promised, my students found greater meaning and learning in sentences that came from actual texts they have read and loved, as opposed to random ones in workbooks, which feel rote, repetitive, and devoid of personal meaning. Additionally, by examining individual sentences, the small grammar, capitalization, and punctuation issues which usually get lost were front and center. The activity was fun for my students and, I think, beneficial. I'm looking forward to seeing if I notice an improvement in the quality of their writing (specifically editing and proofreading) in the next few weeks.

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