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  • Writer's pictureBiz Kechejian

Off the Beaten Path of Least Resistance

It appears to be a map, a watercolor illustration that you might find at the front of a fantasy book. Pastel pathways whimsically sprawl across the page. Each path leads to writing— a few journal prompts, poems in unconventional forms, invitations to imitate these poems, interpretive questions, an activity for playing with language, permission to brainstorm lines of “nonsense.” You can roam around and end up where you need to be that day.

Last February, having lost several school days to bad weather, like many teachers, I felt pressure to make up that time. What a pickle trying to squeeze in more practice AP Lang Essays and having freshmen parse more scenes from Romeo and Juliet on their own. But missing two Advanced Creating Writing classes didn’t fluster me in the same way. It disappointed me. This is, obviously, an elective course. The students have a very fortunate amount of natural talent, genuine enthusiasm, and investment to improve; they happily do the work because they love it. Since writers need designated time to write and a supportive structure to produce meaningful work, this course is the opportunity to relish those things. So, despite losing nearly three hours of time together in the revision stage of our poetry unit, I refused to cut the lessons that I believed would serve them.

The Creative Writing Pathway

Then it occurred to me that maybe these creative writers should determine what was useful to themselves at the time. Standard revision practices are still useful to know about of course, such as taking time from your work and returning with fresh eyes to read it as a reader, not a writer; however, you can’t force someone to make this mental shift or to find this strategy intriguing. After a week apart, when I felt compelled to smother them with instructional “wisdom,” they really needed independence. I realized that a synchronous lesson plan – where every student does the same thing at the same time – could actually hinder them.

With the intention of getting out of their way, I organized the students’ freedom with a Personalized Learning approach. I designed six distinct “pathways” for the students to explore on their own during our first class post-storm. They were to choose one path and commit to trying the activity that it led to. If it wasn’t jolting the writer in them while sharpening their taste and motivating revision, they should wander down a different path. Together these pathways formed a visual network of potential inspiration.

In 2003 when Dianne Tavenner conceptualized Personalized Learning, I think she envisioned metaphorical “pathways,” but I was intrigued by the image of physical pathways. The map’s messaging is that there is no superior trail that leads to learning or progress, especially in very personal endeavors such as revising creative writing, which heavily depends on taking risks by following gut instincts. Any of the pathways could lead someone to a breakthrough, depending on who they are. By breakthrough, I just mean the moment when a writer realizes what is possible. (I once had a poetry professor who maintained that the reason writers need to read when they are stuck is that they are motivated by envy; they are envious of what the author had written and deep down believe that they too are capable of producing such good work. Morally, I wonder if I should question this theory, but I can’t because it’s a tiny bit true.) The point of these optional pathways is that it does not matter how a writer discovers what she really wants to say. What matters is that you honor the road she takes herself. You would not want her to reach middle age and write a sad yet widely misunderstood poem about a road not taken.

In an entirely different context, Personalized Learning helped solve a wider problem this semester: leveling freshmen grammar. When evaluating the English skillsets of incoming freshmen, their grammar backgrounds are notably variable. And with a broad dip in reading for fun, they’re less exposed to proper grammar, so I suspect that they are not developing as strong an ear for when a written construction sounds off. I’m afraid of these students growing up and depending on Grammarly. To me, it’s like relying on your phone to calculate how much tip to leave at a restaurant. How great to have the resource, but how amazing to not have to use it. Despite the clear impetus for grammar instruction, it is a tricky topic to weave into the curriculum. In my experience and talking with English teacher friends, there is not enough class time or wide enough need for collectively reviewing every concept. And it’s not exciting. Compared to the vibrant world of literary analysis, grammar is the shade of concrete.

The point of these optional pathways is that it does not matter how a writer discovers what she really wants to say. What matters is that you honor the road she takes herself. You would not want her to reach middle age and write a sad yet widely misunderstood poem about a road not taken.

So, my English colleagues and I brainstormed what digital grammar pathways could look like. Eating lunch outside, as a ribbon of spring breeze swirled through winter air, we agreed that freshmen must all develop a confident grasp on parts of speech. Our two competencies were for students to 1) identify the seven parts of speech 2) recognize when one part of speech was acting like a different part of speech in a sentence. There would be three pathways for practicing each skill. To optimize student choice, we needed to design pathways for different modalities of learning. It was also important that the activities wouldn’t require too much time or one sitting to complete.

Pathways for the first skill included writing a job description for each part of speech, going on a scavenger hunt through a piece of their own writing to highlight parts of speech in different colors, and scanning an excerpt from House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros to pick out parts of speech in a descriptive vignette. Pathways for the second skill included creating a “Parts of Speech” themed Uno deck using index cards and then playing with their peers; a “match” was two words that can act like the same part of speech (this deck could also be used to play the Memory game). Another pathway for the second skill asked students to fill a toolbox with different parts of speech that could shapeshift (‘versatile tools’) and then use the words to renovate pre-written boring, ugly sentences. The final pathway involved drawing leaves on a “Parts of Speech” family tree, where each branch was a different part of speech. Additionally, each branch had to sprout two special leaves, which were words that could grow on multiple branches (words that can act like different parts of speech).

Before I introduced these pathways to the freshmen, they read the first chapter of Mignon Faherty’s Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. The chapter broke down each part of speech so the students had a written resource to which they could refer back over the course of this mini-grammar unit. For each part of speech, I designed some exercises so the students could read a section of the chapter and then immediately try to apply the knowledge. This familiar format of reviewing or acquiring knowledge + testing it didn’t illicit much interest from the students, unsurprisingly. It sort of primed them for confusion when I showed them the next phase of the unit, the pathways: Wait, do we do all of them? Not necessarily, I explained, start with one pathway for each skill. If it’s challenging, they should do another pathway too. They had to master these two skills, so here were some ways they could practice.

Many eyebrows raised, then chatter broke out around the room. “Hey, do you guys want to make the Uno deck?” “I’m going to start with the job descriptions.” “Omg I’m so bad with adverbs” – the respective sounds of initiative, buy-in, and self-awareness. The grammar pathways were stimulating. Observing their reactions, and overtaken by wishful thinking, I wondered if we had possibly cracked the grammar problem. In that moment, Personalized Learning seemed like a magic potion. Weeks later after I graded the quizzes, which unfortunately reflected a normal distribution of scores, I peeked into their digital notebooks to check their progress on the pathways. I searched for any correlation between quiz performance and pathway completion. To be fair, it’s hard to draw a legitimate connection because each student started freshman year with a different grammar background. Yet, I can confirm that those who did poorly on the quiz had not actually tried any of the pathways; once the initial intrigue had faded, this handful of students did not follow through. Alas, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it write job descriptions for parts of speech.

Reflecting on our grammar pathway “pilot program,” I wish I had made the pathway work a graded formative assignment rather than a study tool for the freshmen to try. I presented the pathways as a means to help them, and some interpreted that like a suggestion to get the flu shot. But as I prepare to design the next set of pathways, covering phrases and clauses, I keep in mind the students who not only did the parts of speech pathways, but also took pride in their grammar practice. Their work displays the beauty of Personalized Learning, which may not be a magic potion, yet there is something magical about sketching a barren tree, then seeing it bloom with the thoughtful efforts of a student who took ownership of her education.

An example of a grammar pathway: a parts of speech family tree

Biz Kechejian is currently reading into signs.

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