Note from Dave: Below, my colleague and friend Doug Stark introduces his brand new, triple-leveled Mechanics Instruction that Sticks series of warm-ups for English teachers. For my secondary English teacher readers, you’ll probably be interested in this whole post; for my non-ELA teacher readers, let me suggest the section of the post titled “Principles Underlying the Warm-Ups.” In this section, I think Doug lets us into the thought processes that lead to him being a perennial favorite teacher in our high school, not to mention a very high-achieving one (his open-enrollment AP Language course draws about a quarter of our high school’s upperclassmen (over 100 kids), and his students exceed the national pass rate by more than 20%.
Whenever I hear about a teacher like that — one who both connects with kids and helps them achieve abnormal levels of success — I’m curious. I want into that teacher’s head.
Without further ado, here’s Doug.
A Preface to the Second Edition of Mechanics Instruction that Sticks
About a year and a half ago, Dave Stuart talked me into putting together a workbook featuring some practical warm-up exercises for English teachers to use as a supplement to writing instruction. Dave had been trying to convince me to take on this project for some time, but I was hesitant to give up my downtime, especially considering that I had recently been sent to AP training and was preparing to take on four sections of AP Language and Composition.
Anyway, using his well-developed powers of persuasion, Dave broke me down, and I gave in. I spent several weeks of my summer trying to put together an organized, practical book of warm-up exercises that teachers could use and adapt as they saw fit. The result was the first edition of Mechanics Instruction That Sticks (fantastic title—Dave’s idea).
Since the release of that first edition in August of 2015, my teaching assignment has changed. I’m currently teaching 11th and 12th graders instead of 9th graders. Moving from 9th graders to upperclassmen has forced me to streamline and deal with some of the very specific problems I am noticing with these older students. Accordingly, I’ve been trying to adapt some of the activities that I did with freshmen to match the needs of older students.
I’ve also received useful feedback from teachers across the country who purchased the original version. I’ve taken this feedback and used it to help me develop three new editions of Mechanics Instruction That Sticks.
LEVEL A: These exercises were designed with middle school students in mind. Before creating this edition, I examined grade level standards for 6th-8th grade and identified essential background information needed to help students understand how to correct sentence level errors. For instance, it’s pretty difficult for a kid to differentiate between a complete sentence and a fragment if he/she doesn’t understand the function of a subject and a verb within a sentence.
Level A tends to focus on very concrete concepts and includes more “grammar” instruction than the Level B and Level C editions. When you look over the unit map that Dave has included (see the Appendix file), you’ll notice the difference.
LEVEL B: This is a revised version of the original, single-volume Mechanics Instruction That Sticks. I kept the basic format of the exercises, but I tried to make it more teacher friendly. I split all of the activities into A and B sides. This gives the instructor the option of printing out the A & B sides together or using A on one day and B on the next. The A sides focus on the unit topic while the B sides tend to be review activities.
This version includes more units (17) and exercises than the A or C version and is highly adaptable as you can choose mini-units based on your students’ needs.
LEVEL C: This edition is designed for high school students, specifically in grades 10-12. I suggest an overlap in the grade levels because of the way high school classes work (with honors classes and various tracks). I plan on using these Level C units with my English 11 students, but they could easily be used in a 10th or 12th grade classroom. Most of the students I have in my English 11 course will already have been exposed to some of the warm-ups in the Level B edition.
For what it’s worth, I designed Level C to align more closely with the standards required by the SAT Writing Test/ACT English Test. The review activities focus on errors in sentence structure, conventions of usage, and conventions of punctuation expressly stated by the SAT in The Official SAT Study Guide published by the College Board.
(To read the full introduction to Mechanics Instruction that Sticks, for free, click here.)
Principles Underlying the Warm-Ups
I should point out the key principles that I believe make these warm-ups as effective as they can be in supporting student achievement.
1. Repetition leads to mastery.
Most kids don’t master a concept because the teacher “touched on it.” Instead, they learn the concept by repeatedly engaging with it at various points throughout the school year. This is why I space out and review the sentence structures throughout the entire year. It is also why I incorporate a review element in the warm-ups.
2. Knowledge comes before mastery.
Many of our students need to develop a base of knowledge or a vocabulary that helps them identify problems within their writing and the writing of others. I want my students to be able to explain to me WHY one sentence is better than another. They can’t do that unless they can understand some basic concepts and define certain errors or problems.
This doesn’t mean that they need to know anything and everything about grammar. I’m a high school teacher, and, quite frankly, I do not have time to go back and re-teach every grammatical concept that students should have mastered during their time in elementary school. For this reason, the notes I use with my warm-ups tend to be fairly simple and concise. For instance, I don’t break down phrases into various categories because I don’t believe that doing so is an efficient use of my time. If I can get my students to understand the difference between an independent clause, a dependent clause, and a phrase, I’m doing pretty well. I approach each mini-unit thinking, “What information do the kids really need to know in order to master this concept?” Then I try to hammer that information into their heads (gently and lovingly, of course).
3. Kids learn best when they receive feedback and are able to talk through their learning.
I “teach” these warm-ups. When I say that, I mean that I actively lead the students through them. I read through instructions and complete certain problems with them if I think they need the help. While they’re working on the warm-ups independently, I walk around the classroom, targeting students who I know need added support.
Most importantly, we correct every warm-up in class. I call on students randomly as we go over the correct answers. Students learn to quickly and concisely explain their edits or revisions.
I also call on at least three students to read the sentences they’ve created (following the models provided). When they read their sentences aloud, I have them read the punctuation aloud so the entire class can hear where they’ve placed it. If a student makes a mistake, I gently explain why the sentence was wrong.
This may sound like it takes a long time, but it doesn’t. As I will lay out further in the Introduction, the entire process should take between 8 and 15 minutes, with the longer end of that happening if you have to stop and really explain a concept that kids aren’t getting.
At this point in my practice, my basic procedures are as follows:
- My students get a three-ring binder at the start of the year. In this binder is a notebook and a copy of our school’s Academic Writing Guide (school property—I can’t sell it to you). I add in a section that includes all of the unit notes (not the warm-ups, just the introductory notes) from Mechanics Instruction That Sticks. You have those introductory notes for each unit in your copy of the book.
- We begin each mechanics/grammar unit by turning to the introductory notes in our binder. We take 10-15 minutes to read through and fill in these notes together. That is our “warm-up” for the day.
- After we’ve gone through the introductory notes, we move on to the warm-ups. I will begin class with a warm-up 3-4 days a week. If we don’t have time for a warm-up on a particular day, we don’t do one.
- We apply what we’re currently learning (or have learned) to any and all writing assignments that we’re doing in class. Sometimes I’ll require students to include a particular sentence structure in their writing. When we are editing or revising, we place special emphasis on whatever focus area we’re currently studying.
- Most importantly, my students write a LOT. I don’t grade all of it for mechanics and grammar because I’m not Superman (I guess those people in the documentary will have to keep waiting…), but I do make sure that we engage in some type of intentional editing or revising activity with every writing assignment—even if I’m only going to give kids a quick homework grade for completing it.
I think good teachers are able to set their egos aside in order to better serve their students. Good teachers are able to detach themselves emotionally and examine their teaching practices rationally so that they can make adjustments and improve their instructional methods on a year-by-year basis.
Because I firmly believe in setting aside the ego, I won’t be offended in the least if you play around with these warm-ups and use them as you see fit. If you want to teach the units in a different order, go for it. If you want to add or subtract from particular activities, feel free. If you want to print these out and hand them out to students as they walk through the door, go ahead. If you want to put a copy on the data projector and have kids work on them in their notebooks, no problem.
My hope is that you can find a way to use these activities productively within your classroom and that they make your life a little easier. Like Dave always says: more learning, less stress. Best of luck.
 When I taught ninth graders, we wrote six major essays (typed, 3-5 pages), along with at least 1-2 shorter compositions per week (1 or 2 paragraphs in length). My AP Language and Composition students write 18-20 full-length essays/papers, along with at least 20-30 shorter compositions (1 or 2 paragraphs). (Note from Dave: Doug is an animal.)