Grammar Police

*Disclaimer + Confession: I’m not a cool person.  I love Weird Al. 

The boy in me was on high alert for the past seven days.  It was Weird Al Week! Over the course of the week, one of my boyhood favourites released one video per day off of his new album Mandatory Fun.

There’s something special about Weird Al. His music isn’t especially good or cool.  In fact, his music is often annoying… but for some strange reason I love it.

I think nostalgia is largely to blame.  Weird Al was an artist that my brother and I had a shared love for as kids.  We would sing his songs at the top our lungs, and when a new album came out, it was always an event.  Everything he wrote was cleaver.  Everything he wrote was funny. As an adult, every time I listen to Weird Al a small part of me thinks of my brother and remembers jokes from our childhood.

A lot of my friends know I love Weird Al, so when his song Word Crimes came out this week, I had a ton of people sending me links to the song.  "Step, you’re a teacher AND you love Weird Al.  This song is for you".

The song lists common mistakes in people’s grammar: verb conjugation, naming parts of speech, subject verb agreement, homonym mistakes etc.  It’s the kind of song that any teacher (especially one that has to read a lot of student writing) should love.  It’s also the kind of song that “the grammar police” (as my brother calls me) should love.

… but I didn’t love it.

I could visualize a huge amount of media savvy teachers bringing this song to their classes at the beginning of the year to make a list of common infractions to avoid in writing… and for some reason that didn’t sit right with me.

Then I saw this: 

I watched and re-watched this Brooklyn 99 clip.  THIS was the anti-word crimes.  THIS is the way that I approach writing.

Writing is a way to share our thoughts.  Ideas are represented by groupings of text that we (as a society) have deemed to make sense.  Their sense depends on an agreement by users to follow certain rules so that we know what the writer is trying to express.

Our job as teachers should really be to try to understand the ideas that our students are trying to express, and help them to express those ideas.  Take their slang, emoji, spelling mistake, grammatically incorrect writing and explain to them what it means “as is”. Then show them how they can tweak their writing to make it mean what they want it to mean.

Essentially, we need to create and cultivate a culture around editing work in class that is not accusatory.  This takes time and effort.  I can’t count the hours that I spent doing this with my students last year in language, in math, in science, in art.  

Here’s a short version of the process:

1) Look at awesome work and identify what makes it great.  (Some people call these Success Criteria; we call them “Must Haves”.)

2) Play and practice… a lot.

3) Give each other tips to improve our work.  Use the “must haves” as a common editing language.  (In our class this was a huge responsibility that we shared.  When a students gave a tips, they would sign their names so that a student receiving the tip could ask them for clarification if/when necessary.)

4) Give students the freedom to use or not use tips.  Allow them to choose the advice that they think will improve their work.

5) Redo many, many times.

As this culture around editing grew, the need for the grammar police decreased.  My class began to self-govern.  Together, students caught word crimes and helped each other to express what they truly meant in their writing.

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