Having taught writing to teenagers and young adults at the high school and undergraduate levels for over thirty years now, I have a standard approach to the first few classes: We identify and then unpack and challenge the lessons the students have learned about writing.
For these foundational lessons to work, however, I have to gain the trust of my students so that they are open and honest about the real lessons (or more accurately framed as “rules” they have conformed to implementing). One of the best moments in this process is when I very carefully ask them to explain to me how they decide when to use commas.
Usually someone is willing to confess: “I put commas when I pause.” And then I ask who else uses that strategy, and essentially every time most, if not all, of the students raise their hands.
Next, I help them trace just…
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