Slice of Life: Playing With Grammar


“The purpose of grammar is to enhance writing. Writing is ALWAYS the goal,” Jeff Anderson told a packed conference room last Saturday. Spending an hour and half with Anderson at the New England Reading Association Conference gave me new insights into how engaging grammar instruction can be.

Photo by Aaron Burden via
Photo by Aaron Burden via

Anderson began the session by reading a section of his book, Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth. He correctly pointed out that there are often times when kids (and adults) need to be “juiced up” for writing. Reading a snippet of a book, poem, or article can “inspire great writing.”

After hearing about Zack and his school’s anti-bullying assembly, we had at least four topics to choose from for a free write:

  • assemblies
  • being/feeling different
  • picked on/bullied
  • teachers

I wrote a stream-of-consciousness riff on watching middle school kids at my school, which took me back to my own middle and high school days.

Anderson then explained that grammar “rules aren’t hard; it’s applying them that’s hard.”

So how can we make our grammar instruction effective? By focusing on function and practical application.

Why does this matter? Because grammar “helps writing come alive.”

Anderson urged us to abandon our practice of putting up sentences with errors, a la Daily Oral Language, for correction. Rather, we should display correct sentences, then study these mentor sentences to figure out why they’re effective. In this way, we “merge craft and grammar” instruction.

“Every choice a writer makes has an effect,” Anderson pointed out. By studying models, we can begin to “view grammar with a sense of possibility.” We can begin to imagine how we can use grammar to “help our writing come alive.”

“All grammar decisions add elaboration,” Jeff explained. This seems so obvious, but I had never thought about it that way. He went on to say that “commas act like a zoom lens—going from the big picture to close details.”

Using the first line of Ali Benjamin’s book, The Thing About Jellyfish, Jeff modeled exactly what he meant by this, and how to design a cycle of instruction to “immerse kids in the power of grammar and editing.”

The first step is to display a sentence, then invite kids to NOTICE what the comma is doing when they read it out loud. Then have them read it again and think about what the comma does when they read with their eyes.

Once kids have noticed something and thought about how a comma is used, they begin to see it everywhere, thanks to our reticular activating system. (Thank you, Jeff, for naming this phenomenon.) Once they’re aware of this pattern, the “more likely they are to try it in their own writing.”

Now invite students to COMPARE & CONTRAST the mentor sentence with a teacher-written model. Discuss how the construction of the two sentences is similar and/or different. Then talk about the impact of the two sentences. Is one more intriguing? Why? What grammar decisions (which are really CRAFT decisions) did the author make to create a powerful sentence?

Then collaborate to write a similar sentence together. (We didn’t have time for this in our session, but it’s the logical next step in a gradual-release model. You can view Anderson’s presentation slides here).

Invite students to IMITATE the mentor sentences. By trying it on their own, students will be able to see and understand the “possibilities of grammar acrobatics.” Inviting kids to imitate also gives them choice. Choice of what to write about, but also choices about how to imitate the mentor sentence.

Finally, invite students to REVISE. Have them revisit a piece of writing and “find a place where you can sharpen an image.” Have them imitate the model again, whatever it was. On Saturday we were using “the right-branching closer.”

Here is my revision from the free write we did at the beginning of the session:


What an act of bravery it is, though, to come to school in middle school with the new shoes or new pants that you think are like everyone else’s, but something isn’t quite right. Now, instead of feeling cool and fitting in, you feel like even more of an outsider. The Levi’s tab isn’t red.


I strode into school, feeling cool in my brand new Levis with the red tab waving from the back pocket.

I know I never would have written this sentence without Anderson’s “invitation to play” with my writing. By inviting our students to do this work, not worksheets, we invite them to see what’s possible, and in so doing, invite them do their best work.

Functional application at its finest!

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Intent: The Teacher I Want to Be…


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is INTENT

“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”
Alfred Mercier

Photo by Tina Floersch, via
Photo by Tina Floersch, via


These words echoed throughout the rooms at the Sable Oaks Marriott in Portland on Saturday. Teachers from around New England and beyond gathered to learn from superstar educators Ralph Fletcher, Tom Newkirk, Vicki Vinton, Kathy Collins, Matt Glover, Jeff Anderson, and Katie Wood Ray, among others.

At the end of a panel discussion about a trip to the Italian school Reggio Emilia and the book which grew out of that trip, The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching, Kathy Collins invited us to complete this statement: The teacher I want to be…

Here is my response to Kathy’s appeal:

I want to be a teacher who grows passionate, joyful, independent learners. A teacher who, in the words of Thomas Dewey, gives students “something to do, not something to learn; and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results…”

I want to my students to be curious and observant.

I want them to be thoughtful readers who understand that reading is about more than answering questions about the main character and his problem. I want them to understand that when we read, we learn about ourselves, our lives, the lives of others, and the world around us.

I want to be a teacher who gives my students time to think and write about what they want to think and write about. I want to give them the time and tools they need to follow their thinking wherever it leads them.

I want my classroom to be a greenhouse where students thrive and see possibilities in themselves they hadn’t ever imagined.

I also want to be a teacher who can rise above the day-to-day frustrations that could distract me from this goal.

I want to be a teacher who doesn’t let demands and pressures of the inevitable changes in standards, assessments, etc., deter or sway me from this vision. In the words of Katie Wood Ray, I want to make myself  “as smart as I can be about my work so that I can articulate” my beliefs.

This vision is one I’ve strived to fulfill through all my years of teaching. Thank you to all the wise, passionate educators at NERA whose words helped me express these ideas. Thanks to them for also showing me how this vision can become a reality.