Scene 1: New teacher faced with a room full of ninth graders none too keen on a boring punctuation unit. Students look at her askance, suspicious. New teacher smells mutiny in the air.
Scene 2, later that night: New teacher toils into the wee hours, researching teaching techniques. Eureka! moment arrives at 3am.
Scene 3: Bleary-eyed new teacher introduces the Punctuation Olympics, a week-long team competition incorporating art, drama, creative writing, collaborative learning, lessons taught by students, and a flurry of handouts and instructions. Oh, and some punctuation. Students are at once stunned, delighted, and horrified.
And well they should have been. Horrified, that is. Although my intentions were good, I made more than a few rookie mistakes, and in the end, I learned more about teaching and how students learn than the students learned about punctuation.
Just so you know it wasn’t a total loss, the unit did result in a few wonderful creations, including:
- a perfectly metered ballad of the dastardly duel at dawn between a colon and a semi-colon
- an oil painting homage to the misunderstood comma and all its (mis)uses
- a dramatic performance, complete with props and costumes, of the sword fight scene from Romeo and Juliet in which Mercutio and Tybalt were replaced by double and single quotation marks, with the apostrophe playing the part of Paris. The genius of this one brought tears to my eyes.
And somewhere amid the chaos, the unit also gave students some other valuable multisensory learning experiences, including:
- creative writing
- artistic interpretation of concepts
- public speaking
- critical thinking
- group problem solving
The only thing the Punctuation Olympics didn’t teach well was punctuation. Though the unit was no doubt memorable, I’m pretty sure that the students retained little, if any, of the information about commas and semicolons.
But does that mean learning can’t be fun? Not at all! Let’s take a look at the three major mistakes I made and see how I could have modified them to ensure that students retained the information I wanted them to learn.
Rookie Mistake #1: Too much information in too short a time
- In six 40-minute lessons, I attempted to cover the rules and uses of six punctuation marks, including all the nuances of the comma.
- Students were bombarded each day with new rules for a new punctuation mark.
- Material was presented by student groups (each responsible for one concept) rather than by the authoritative voice of the teacher, resulting in noisy and disorganized lessons.
The Fix: Present one concept at a time in incremental lessons
- Since there was no pressing need to teach all punctuation marks at the same time, I could have easily spread the unit out over the semester, or even the entire year.
- Focusing on one concept at a time would allow students to absorb and practice the new rules before moving on to a new concept.
Rookie Mistake #2: Sensory overload
- At any given time, different groups of students were drawing, writing, performing, and teaching. While the activities themselves were useful, there were simply too many going on at one time, resulting in a chaotic learning environment.
- The unit, which was based on collaborative learning, did not take into consideration the learning style of students who work best alone.
The Fix: Chill out!
- I would keep all of the activities, but use them more judiciously and in a more organized way.
- Add a good helping of individual study and activities.
Rookie Mistake #3: No review!
- After a week of hard work, much of it enthusiastic if confused, we ended the Punctuation Olympics with a final “review” session in the form of a few high-spirited rounds of Punctuation Jeopardy. And then we never spoke of it again.
- What was I thinking?!
The Fix: Continual review of past concepts
- Spreading the lessons out over a longer period would have given me plenty of time to work in short review lessons and activities for each concept.
- Continual review would have ensured that the information entered the student’s long-term memory–instead of just going in one ear and out the other!
If, on that long ago night when I typed my fingers raw on the unit handouts, I had been able to speak to my future self and give her this advice, I’m sure my students would have ended the year remembering how to use commas instead of how to draw them.
Luckily, ninth graders are some of the sweetest people on the planet, and they willingly forgave me for the punctuation fiasco. I just hope their tenth-grade teachers did, too.