I hate teaching grammar. It’s really just the worst. Doling out worksheets, watching them complete each line robotically, it all sends shivers down my spine.
It’s surprising, too, as my rule-following, Type-A personality might suggest otherwise. I find solace in an appropriately placed comma, and I am in constant debate about whether or not I should start my sentences with a conjunction. Because it just feels so right sometimes.
So you can imagine my mix of emotions yesterday when one of my children asked, “Paul, how do you know where to put a period?”
I was modeling our plant observation journal. I drew a picture of a bottle filled with water, a bunch of seeds sunken to the bottom. Together, we’d wondered how much water might be too much for a seed to actually grow, and I responded by tossing six bean seeds in the bottle, wondering myself if, in fact, they’d sprout.
After my picture was complete, I began writing down what I noticed while looking at the experiment. I ended up with four sentences, all punctuated by a perfectly placed period, and a question, followed just as appropriately by a question mark, whereupon my curious kindergartener so astutely asked how I knew where to place my periods.
“Such a great question,” I replied. “I’m so glad you asked.”
Truth be told, I knew I needed to do a lesson on this, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start. After all, the concept of a complete sentence is actually very complex, especially for young minds that are still learning how to love writing, nonetheless string together letters to form words and sentences.
Since he asked, I hosted an impromptu mini-lesson using a piece of writing from our latest on-demand writing task about day and night. I then referred back to my current plant journal entry, citing the standard “complete thought” rule of thumb, certain that any mention of nouns, verbs, subjects, or predicates would be overwhelmingly complex for them. I read my plant journal entry without periods, and then I read it with periods.
The point here, though, is not my pedagogy, for I’m sure there are far superior ways than this to teach this skill. The point, instead, is the power of this one child’s curiosity.
Too often, writing conventions, grammar, and sentence structure are taught through rote means. Educators mass produce worksheets and follow a pre-determined scope and sequence. Children watch the teacher model the lesson, while the children reproduce it in their workbooks or on identical pieces of paper. In many cases, they reach a level of perceived mastery, one that allows them to recall the rule before its exponentially decaying half-life wastes to nothing, hopefully after the test.
But in this case, the context changed. The child’s curiosity about period placement, coupled with a high-interest, authentic project about plants, cultivated an intrinsic motivation that could only come through natural means. Suddenly, the idea of learning to put periods in writing was no longer determined by an arbitrary curriculum map stating that all children must learn this skill by January; instead, it lied within the child’s locus of control, where he was the determining individual, the maker of meaning in the experience.
I turned my children loose, allowing them to work on their observation journals, recording what they noticed and applying their observation and writing skills in this high-interest, authentic activity of observing bean sprouts in wet paper towels.
I circulated around the room, asking them questions about their writing, when I made it back to the child who originally asked the question about periods. His writing was adorned with three periods, placed remarkably accurately for just having learned about the skill, especially when compared to his recent work, which was absent of the marks.
“Look at you!” I said. “I’m so glad you asked about periods today. It’s really helping me understand your writing better. I know exactly where to pause when I’m reading it.”
I stopped and looked around the room, noticing other children, were, in fact, punctuating with periods, as well. It reminded me that children are constantly looking for patterns; they’re constantly looking to make meaning of the world, whether it’s through adding periods to their writing like their teach does or finding patterns in numbers so they can count higher and higher.
As their teacher, I don’t always have to be in the driver’s seat, telling them what to learn next. Sometimes, it’s not only appropriate, but it’s better if I wait for them to be curious, to look for inconsistencies in the world around them and then ask about them. It allows me to respond and engage in a conversation, as opposed to hosting a lecture from atop my teacher pedestal.
And what if we lived in a world where this was always the case? What if we lived in a world where we simply waited for our children to be curious? Would it suddenly make the arbitrary feel relevant? Would it change the way kids felt about school? Would it change the way they feel about seemingly “boring” topics like reading, writing, and math?
I think it just might.