I can’t really remember how we got on the subject. I stopped by Springwater Trail High School last week and dropped in on a few classes, including Paul Kramer’s. I was there around lunch, and Paul took a little time to give me a sense a what’s going on in his English classes. That’s when we talked about the change he’s made to his approach to teaching conventions.
Paul explained he first took his conventions frustrations to colleague Aaron Ramsey to brainstorm. Kramer described how he hated teaching conventions and his students hated learning about them in the traditional “skill and drill” format. More importantly, he wasn’t seeing student growth; transfer from worksheets and quizzes to student writing wasn’t happening. He was looking for something different; so, he and Aaron collaborated on another way to focus on conventions that could better mimic real-world writing. What they came up with was Conventions Dictation.
Conventions Dictation is a more authentic way to learn these important skills through differentiation, as well as a way for students to take responsibility for their learning. Paul started recording himself using the app Audacity, already installed on his MAC. (Garage Band and even Quicktime will do the trick, if like me, you’re not finding this app already available). What did he choose to record? Engaging book jackets! Student buy-in? You bet! Recordings are less than a minute in length. He reads articulately yet fluently, so students can hear the pauses that often indicate the need for some kind of punctuation. There are differentiated levels of recordings, depending on the length and complexity of sentences: basic, intermediate, and advanced.
Paul uses district late-start Wednesdays, when classes are a bit shorter than normal, to focus on writing. Conventions work has become a cornerstone of these class periods. Here’s how it works for the first opportunity of the semester:
- Students pick up a laptop from the mobile cart and login to Google Drive. (Can be done in a computer lab or, if allowed in your building, through BYO student-owned devices).
- Kramer shares a .wav file of the recording (m4a files work, too).
- Students don earbuds, listen, and transcribe the recording by hand. Transcriptions are done in writing, not on the computer because Kramer wants students to be purposeful in their decisions.
- Students can take as much time as needed to transcribe, working at their own pace. Most generally complete the task in one class period (about 40 minutes on late-start days).
- Students are encouraged to take the time to edit after they “unplug” and before they turn the transcription in.
- During the editing process, students are allowed several resources: use of a dictionary (print or online), the classroom Writer’s Guide (a print resource compiled by Kramer with targeted conventions rules and examples); or a host of online resources he’s culled onto a Google Doc, also shared with students.
- Students submit their attempt for a grade.
- Kramer scores student work on a rubric he’s designed tied to CCSS Speaking & Listening and Language Standards to assess skill proficiency.
- Students who pass the proficiency can move on to other transcriptions to improve their grade or move on to other writing options.
- Students who don’t pass, need to make corrections (again accessing the resources available to them), and confer with Kramer for targeted instruction. In addition, other options are available for students to demonstrate their proficiency in conventions once they’ve attempted at least one dictation.
The proof of this method’s benefits is in the pudding, as they say–in this case, in the students’ writing. I had an opportunity to informally interview students in one of Kramer’s Junior Language Arts classes. Individually, students reported they felt their own writing had improved because of this approach to conventions, as evidenced by higher scores on that trait. Kramer is the first to admit this is still a work in progress, but providing a meaningful way to engage students in the technical aspects of writing is a most excellent first step!