Grammar is often overlooked in lesson planning. It gets the back seat because it’s difficult, complex, learned intuitively, and..well, boring. However, making the rules of grammar explicit- at least in its fundamental building blocks- is important.
With my 8th graders, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of our grammar unit breaking down sentences into their parts of speech. After students re-learn those fundamental parts like nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, etc, we shift our focus back to putting these pieces together in a meaningful way. I move into making those nouns into subjects, and those verbs into predicates. I used this Prezi this year to help students remember the difference. Then we move into talking about how commas are key to building onto sentences. This moves in support of the standards as I teach them to:
Use parallel structure.*
Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.
Steps We must Take:
Step 1: Introduce to students, the goal of the activity: to make connections with sentence parts (clauses).
Step 2: Give students only the essential Little Bits, and ask them to tinker in groups of 2-3. What do the “bits” do? How do they work? Why do they work? What are the essential components in order to make something happen. Inevitably, students will end up with the battery attached to the blue bit, and a green bit of their choice. Instructions are optional since the tinkering phase can lead to a measure of student self satisfaction when they figure it out on their own. The toys magnetize to one another, so success is confirmed right away.
Step 3: Name the components. Once students have the basic components, ask students to connect their learning from grammar. What does the battery represent? What does the blue bit represent? What does the green represent? Class discussion should be fueling into the decision that the blue is the subject, and the green is the predicate. Allow students to remain confused about what the battery represents.
Step 4: Give students more pink and green pieces. Allow time to tinker and play with the connections before asking: what could these extra pieces represent? Possible answers could include commas, dependent clauses, appositives, absolutes, etc, based on the preceding lessons taught to this point. Ask students to represent a sample sentence using the Little Bits. Make this their exit ticket, drawing the components (or tweeting, if tech is available) as they make sense of the connections. Or ask them to create a similar sentence to the model, and represent it with the Little Bits.
Final Step: Ask students what the battery represents. It is the fuel, the source of energy that lights and animates the Little Bits. What similar concept does this for our sentences? Possible answers include sentence sophistication, topic consistency, Independent clause, Complete sentence etc. (depending on student need).
Extension: Ask students to blog/journal about their exploration as a warm-up the next day. What “clicked”?
The initial response to my Maker Lesson was very positive. They were delighted that the lesson would be powerful for our often forgotten kinesthetic and visual learners, and also that it was so approachable for all ages. The teachers working with me were from all across the grades, and each of them could see themselves using this in their classroom. They especially liked that even missing Little Bits could drive home the point of assembling the correct sentence parts to create meaningful sentences. In effect, this made sentence expansion inevitable with expanding circuits.
They also had some questions, and eagerly gave me suggestions to make the lesson stronger. They asked:
Could I make it social? Can students seek each other out to get pieces and add onto their sentences? (If they’re missing something)
Which kids won’t make the connection? How will I make the connections for those kids?
They worried about logistics and management. They suggested working in groups or pairs and putting strong norms in place to maintain focus on grammar instead of circuitry.
They suggested a model, and asked what will students take away with them?
Are there layers built in so that they aren’t done early?
They wondered if they could up the challenge; how powerful of a sentence can you make with these named pieces?
What mentor text will we work from?
Will there be an exhibition?
Can I give them a gap– mad libs style- and ask them to fill in the blanks of their circuits with meaningful words?
As I consider their suggestions I see a concern for the manageability of the lesson. The theory and application seemed solid, but when it came to the logistics, they were concerned about pulling it off. I found myself nodding along with them.
I think that having a guiding handout of some kind will be essential- something with layers that will extend their thinking. Perhaps a Thinglink, or some kind of questionnaire for them to record their thinking as they move through the lesson will also be helpful. I’m also thinking that some kind of an exhibition or display will be key- like a quick tweet out, or perhaps a quick explanatory video posted to a blog that shows the representation in action. Perhaps within student groups there could be roles to assist with management- a recorder for video taping, someone to diagram findings, and maybe another to present findings to the class. Last, I’m thinking about some kind of a quickfire wrap-up that will ask students to create a sentence with given parts in only so much time. This might offer an extension that will also indicate an assessment of skills as students demonstrate their knowledge of clauses.
Either way, I have much to brew on as I refine my prototype into a functional finished piece.