Black History and Sentence Fragments

Cartoon drawing of a man beside a train.
Source: Canadian Encyclopedia

This week, as part of my commitment to ensuring Black history is integrated into my grades 7 and 8 Language/History classes, we have been learning about Stanley G. Grizzle. We are able to do this thanks to Channon Oyeniran’s wonderful series of articles about Black Canadians in the Canadian Encyclopedia.. As I planned our work for this month, I also spent time engaged in professional reading about writing. There are common errors and weaknesses across both classes that need to be addressed. The perennial challenge is how to balance the content with explicit instruction on in ‘the basics’, particularly as students head into higher grades with their vast curriculum documents. How does one engage in rich, deep discussions about powerful experiences, events, and ideas, build content knowledge, and ensure that students are able to recognize sentence fragments, or use conjunctions and subordinate clauses? Judith C. Hochman’s and Natalie Wexler’s “The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades” has proven to be a treasure trove of research-based practices and ideas that have already begun to transform how my students think, build, and express complex thoughts. I can’t state enough how pleased I am to have stumbled across this book and how much it has prompted me to consider the power of writing just one sentence.

Our learning during Black History Month began online due to the pandemic. We began with a discussion, “What do we know about Black History in Canada?” There were a few contributions, but not many students ventured forth with their knowledge – that may be because of lack of knowledge, or the nature of online learning. We then watched the video from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights about Viola Desmond. This prompted a lot of discussion, particularly as one student had presented a speech in an earlier grade about Viola Desmond that many students remembered.

The next day, I selected a video from the Canadian Encylcopedia about Africville, Nova Scotia. One student said they were familiar with the story of Africville; the rest of the classes expressed surprise that they had not heard about Africville before. They shared their thoughts and reactions.

Students have also begun selecting areas to focus on for their History Inquiries. I have made sure that topic provocations include those related to Black History in Cananda.

This week we are back in class.

We started with 4 black and white photographs. What do you notice? What do you wonder? Students’ noticings were very general: a train, African American men; uniforms, soldiers, all the workers seem to be African Americans, a White family is getting on the train, the photos are black and white and seem old.

The questions included:

Where is the girl going? Why is it all men? Are they soldiers? Is it a hospital train because the man looks like he is putting sheets on a hospital bed? Could it be from when tuberculous happened? Where is the train going? Is the train Canadian? Are the people getting on the train wealthy – the train seems very luxurious. Why aren’t there any women? Are they going to war? When were these taken?

I then handed out the article on Stanley G. Grizzle. In the past I would have asked students to have a pencil and highlighter ready, but have learned that the act of switching from pencil to highlighter, and then underlining, can cause students to lose their train of thought and place in the text. Instead, I asked students to follow closely as I read, and to put a quick checkmark beside points they find interesting. I let them know they would have the opportunity to highlight at the end of the article as some really wanted to use those highlighters! Once I read the entire article, I asked them to look at what they had checked, and to underline 5 sentences. Some wanted to underline more, but for the purpose of this process, all they needed was five.

Our next step was discussion. I drew upon a process which I now call ‘Listening Rounds’ that I’d learned several years ago at a Summer Institute at my board. The purpose of this format is to ensure that every person has the opportunity to share an idea, be heard, and not be interrupted. We first discussed our previous experiences during discussions. Students, just like adults, are well aware of the problems with group discussions – people who dominate, everyone talking at once, people who never say anything …. . I placed students in groups of 4, handed out recording sheets, and then modeled the process.

Listening Rounds

Person 1 shares one of their five sentences and explains why they picked it. The other 3 group members are not allowed to say anything. This is hard! Instead each silently writes down using jot notes what the person said. Person 2 goes next. They may not use the same sentence as person 1. Again, they read their sentence and explain why they picked it. Again everyone else silently writes down what is said. The group follows the same process until all have shared.

The step step is to recount back. Person 1 listens while each group member shares what they noted about Person 1’s explanation. This continues until all have shared what they noticed about each person’s explanation. During the process only 1 person is allowed to speak at a time. This really requires self-control. Finally, groups are allowed to have a freer discussion about the article.

Listening Rounds are rich learning opportunities with no direct content instruction. By the end of the rounds, students will have discussed most of the article, used relevant vocabulary, heard different ideas about the content, and clarified their understanding. In debriefing the process, students noted:

  • less chaotic
  • it’s good to have a structure for discussions
  • everyone got to share
  • everyone was heard
  • it was interesting to hear different people’s ideas
  • they developed common understanding
  • it was nice not to be interrupted

When we returned from break, it -was time to focus on the writing. I wanted to focus on 3 things: sentence fragments, conjunctions, and constructing extended sentences that embed new content and express complex thinking. This required pre-planning. I created the fragments so students would be compelled to draw upon what they had just learned.

We first discussed the word ‘Fragment’. What exactly is a fragment. Students then understood that a Sentence Fragment is a piece of a sentence. It doesn’t feel complete. I wrote 3 fragments on the board.

fought for rights of Black Canadians 

donated his personal papers

the delegation 

The class discussed why they were fragments and what would need to be added to make them feel complete. This allowed me to reintroduce the terms subject and predicate, as well as the merits of a precise noun vs a pronoun. Why is it better to say Stanley Grizzle rather than he? Completing the sentences prompted students to return to the text and continue to discuss independently what else could be added.

Stanley Grizzle donated his personal papers.

To what? We could add the place? Students tried to name the place – museum …. Canada library, until someone dove into the text and found Library and Archives Canada.

What’s still missing? We could add why he donated them! Students grappled with how to express the why until we landed on “so that the public could learn about Black History in Canada.

We need the when! When did he donate them?

One student called out the 1950s … another skimmed through the text to find the exact date.

Finally we had: In 2007, Stanley G. Grizzle donated his personal papers to Library and Archives Canada so that the public could learn about Black History. By this time students had figured out that answering the Who? What? When? Where Why? questions would turn the fragment into a complete sentence that expresses more complex thinking.

We then turned to how to use conjunctions to extend a sentence. We first discussed meaning. What exactly do ‘but’, ‘because’ and ‘so’ mean? Those three are anchor words for every subject in Hochman’s and Wexman’s book. There some excellent examples from math and science on how to quickly integrate them into those subjects.

  • Because explains why something is true
  • But indicates a change in direction – U-turn
  • So tells us what happens as a result of something else – a cause and its effect

I spent time thinking about what the independent clause should be so that students would have to draw upon a wide range of information from the text.

Stanley Grizzle was employed as a porter because

Stanley Grizzle was employed as a porter, but

Stanley Grizzle was employed as a porter so

This short activity is more challenging than it appears and required a great deal of rereading of the text and thinking. More than one struggled with ‘but’ and ‘so’. By the end, many students had not only completed the sentences, but transferred what we had just learned about sentence fragments.

They wrote sentences like: “In the 1940s, Stanley Grizzle was employed as a porter, but what he really wanted was to get an education and have a better job.” “Stanley Grizzle was employed as a porter so he knew how badly Black workers were treated which made him want to change the rules.”

Students completed exist tickets to share 2 things they had learned. There were a variety of answer, but my favourite was, “I now know what a sentence is,” which brings us back to Hochman’s and Wexler’s main argument. The sentence is the foundation of all writing. Student are rushed to write longer texts without really having mastered the sentence. By focusing deeply on how to craft sentences in our various subject areas, we can foster better thinking, deeper content knowledge, and better writing.

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