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Help Your Students Master Proper Language Usage

Being able to communicate well is important.  Fair or not, we all are judged by our command of language whether it be spoken or written — print or digital.  When you read comments on blogs and they are full of spelling and/or grammatical errors, do you take them less seriously?  If you see a glaring error splashed across a ten foot screen in a PowerPoint presentation, do you get a bit judgmental? Someone says, “Him and me brung it the store.”  Do you cringe?

Many of our students do not come to school speaking and writing well.  We must help them develop that internal ear for proper usage.  Teams can work together on this process. “Whoa!” some of you are saying. “I’m a math teacher, not a grammar teacher.”  Fair enough.  However, what if there were a short list of usage errors that really labeled a person as stupid or uneducated or ignorant?  Wouldn’t everyone on the team be willing to look for ways to help their students learn to correct these errors?

There is such a list. Constance Weaver in her book Teaching Grammar in Context sites a study that identified the 30 most grating usage errors. That’s too many for a team to take on, but 4 of them are labeled as “status marking”.  Here they are:

  • Nonstandard verb forms in the past tense or past participle   brung instead of brought or had went instead of had gone
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement:  We was instead of we were or Freddy don’t live there instead of Freddy doesn’t…
  • Double negatives: I don’t have no…   There never has been no reason to…
  • Objective pronoun (me, him, her, them) as the subject of the sentence.  Him and I are going to camp.

Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.p. 112.

A team could take on one type of error per month.  The Month of Duplicitous Double Negatives! Make that Subject and Verb Agree! The Case Against Bad Verb Form! Will the Correct Pronoun Please Stand Up! Have some fun with this exercise.  However, it’s very important to be up front with the kids and explain what the purpose of the various activities are and invite them to be active participants. Make it clear that there is a specific goal of stamping out a particular grammatical error over the next month. Things you might do as a  team…

  • Put posters up in every room. Remind students to refer to them when speaking and writing.
  • Have contests:
  1. Catch the teacher in a grammar error! (Teachers purposefully misspeak and students win points for their homeroom when they catch the teacher making a mistake; homerooms receive recognition for having the best grammar detectives.)
  2. Write raps or poems or song lyrics that explain the right and wrong way to say something.  Have a whole team meeting and let the students perform for one another.
  • Have student make podcasts on the proper usage and post to the school webpage. Check out the Princeton Review Vocab Minute for samples of quick podcasts. These are not grammar related, but they are a great model for a very focused podcast.
  • Declare a “No Double Negatives Zone” in the team area.  Have the students create big, bold images to delineate the area.  A strong, visual message will be seen by one and all.
  • Remind students when they are writing journal entries or open-ended responses in every class of the usage rule(s) the team is focused on that month and all previous months.
  • Celebrate growth in proper usage among your students.  Show them you are noticing small improvement.  Today we’re celebrating that I didn’t hear one double negative all week!  High fives everyone!

Make sure that you don’t inadvertently embarrass a child when s/he makes an error, especially if it’s in front of the class.  Find ways to gently correct, perhaps by asking them to restate what they just said as you stand under the poster with the grammar rule on it. Some standard English usage errors are deeply ingrained in communities, and any public correction may cause problems. Knowing your students well will help deflect any possible negative reactions.  These types of situations are good opportunities to talk about the importance of audience and purpose when speaking and writing.

Fair is fair and after the team has taken on grammar usage for a couple of months, take on another skill from another subject area–Algebra is all around us! Applying the scientific method to all of our critical thinking! How are we making history here and now?

Life’s Decisions and the Middle School Student

Making good decisions about attitudes, behavior, relationships, and health starts to become more complex in the middle grades.  Advisory programs were developed, in part, to help students learn strategies to rely on when they are faced with perplexing challenges.  In some schools there is no advisory, but the teams build strong relationships with students and find ways to integrate social-emotional and decision making topics into the curriculum.

Middle schoolers want to see the relevance between what they do in school with what they perceive as the real world outside the school house walls. Sometimes resources designed for advisory programs can seem to be contrived and lack the authenticity students crave. There’s a new web resource that focuses on the stories of  teenagers and young adults who are learning to “navigate” the real world.  The current target audience is high school students, but there are elements of the website and its accompanying mini newspaper that middle school teams might adapt to use with their own students.

The website is http://navigatingtherealworld.org/.  There you will find many video interviews with young adults who discuss challenges they faced and decisions they’ve made. Some of the decisions have not worked out well.  However they demonstrate that more often than not there are alternative opportunities. You need to listen to any you might choose to use to make sure there is a hook that a young adolescent can grab on to.  Many of them will stimulate good conversations in advisory on topics that relate directly to the students’ future success–attitudes about effort in school, the affects of bullying, making the wrong decision, feelings of isolation, etc.

Below is a sample video where Whitney, the interviewee, encourages the viewer to find the one person who wants to see you succeed and will support you.  Very poignantly she points out that the one person may just be yourself.

The newspaper has sections devoted to high school, jobs and careers, college, and the finances associated with college.  The information is delivered with lots of graphics and just enough text to pique students’ interest.  These pieces would be a high-interest supplement for a career exploration unit.  The information on financing college would add authenticity to a unit on economics.  The newspaper might also make an interesting focus for student-parent nights, especially for eighth graders planning their high school program.

Tom Tracy, the Executive Director, reports that the group is exploring the possibility of developing middle school materials.  However, that’s in the future.  In the meanwhile, check out the website with your students and begin the conversations about their futures.


Be a Tech Savvy Teaching Team

Digital devices — laptops, iPads and other tablets, iPodTouches–are appearing in schools all over the world.  Sometimes they just arrive and you are not provided the time nor the training to learn how to integrate them effectively into your teaching.  A savvy team will collaborate to devise its own professional development in technology integration.  Fortunately there are an endless number of resources on the web you can easily access.  Some of these resources are pretty technical and may seem intimidating to folks who are just beginning the process of integrating digital learning.  However, technology integration blogs and websites are being written that neophytes will find useful!  You don’t have to be a techno-expert to integrate digital learning–you just have to be willing to try something new.  Remember, your team is surrounded by experts!  If you can’t get something to work, your students will figure it out and save the day.

Here are five terrific sites related to digital learning.  Check them often–there is something new on them every day.  Better yet–sign up for a RSS feed or email alert.  What’s an RSS feed you ask?  In the least technical language, it allows you to receive updates whenever anything new is posted to the site.  Don’t know how to set one up?  Ask a student or go to http://www.ehow.com/how_5861345_set-up-rss-feed.html.

  1. Wes Fryer’s blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativityhttp://www.speedofcreativity.org/ Wes is an award-winning blogger, and his site is great fun to explore.  One recent posting describes Story Patch an app for the iPad which allows a writer to use both text and graphics to create stories.  The team might spend 20 minutes looking through his blog and find an app or a website or a training that you all want to try.  Working together with teammates for support makes trying something new a lot less daunting.
  2. Larry Ferlazzo is a ELL teacher from Sacramento, California, and his blog Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day (http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/) has multiple postings each day.  He’s a teacher so he is on the lookout for sites that have a practical application in the classroom.  Recent topics include (1) crafting interactive lessons using YouTube,(2) digital maps resources, and (3) resources on Egypt.
  3. Maine121 is the website of Maine’s technology initiative.  Going into its ninth year, MLTI is the longest running 1:1 technology integration project in the world.  Maine Learning Technology Initiative Professional Development (http://maine121.org/) provides free access to webcasts (archived and live), blogs, and resources on digital learning. Recent topics include RTI Tier 1 resources, technical writing, and copyright considerations.
  4. Maine Arts blog (not really just for Fine Arts teachers): http://meartsed.wordpress.com/. Ideas and happenings related to the Arts are cataloged here.  Many of the ideas described can be adapted in other subject areas.
  5. iTunesU (http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/) is a free resource that works on any platform–PC or Apple.  There are podcasts and videos that can be used in your classes or for your own edification.  It is an unbelievable resource. If you don’t have iTunes on your computer, download it–now—-it’s free.

Don’t wait for your school system to provide training.  Be a proactive and tech savvy team and create your own professional development related to digital learning.  Don’t know where to begin? Ask your students how they would like to learn and what resources they would recommend–they will have great advice!  Take it.

Focus on the Positive in Advisory!

Neil Pashricha’s blog 1000 Awesome Things (http://1000awesomethings.com/) is a great source of discussion topics or ideas for things to do during advisory time:

  • Decorating lockers (building a sense of community on the team)
  • Showing an elderly friend something new on the computer (being involved in the community)
  • Numerating things that make you laugh (creating a positive team climate)
  • Watching out for friends (growing up safe)

Neil was a recent TED Talk guest.  Watching the video as a team or in individual advisory groups might just stimulate good conversations about the impact of one’s attitude on life, emotional health, and behavior.  Too often young adolescents feel powerless.  Neil, a young professional that most kids could identify with, describes choices he made to empower himself during a time of sadness and loss.

His talk is entitled “The 3 A’s of Awesome” is is quite inspiring as we learn how a simple blog he started has grown into an award-winning world-wide phenomenon. You can view the video at http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_pasricha_the_3_a_s_of_awesome.html.

Prompts  based on the video might include (these might not make sense without watching the video):

  • What are some ways you embrace your inner 3 year old so that you notice the world around you?
  • What are the most challenging situations that make it difficult for you to maintain a positive attitude?
  • Create a collage that represents your authentic self.
  • Attitude, Awareness, or Authenticity–which are your strengths and which challenge you?
  • What 3 ideas drive your life?

Other activities based on Neil’s blog and video might include:

  • Students create a team area bulletin board on awesome things about their team or school or town.
  • Students develop their own blogs focusing on awesome aspects of their lives. (Check out security precautions your school wants you to take so students don’t give out personal information.)
  • Students and teachers create and post a team word cloud about awesome things using Wordle.com
  • Team uses the video and blog as an inspiration for a service learning project.
  • The advisory or teams problem solves a significant school issue and acts on their ideas.

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