What first drew you to education as a career?
I saw a chance to make school a positive experience for kids. School was not a positive experience for me. I struggled with reading. I was in special education. I was bullied. As I thought about my life calling, it became really important to me to give kids a different experience than the one I had. The best way to do that was to be a teacher. I didn’t start school with that in mind, but it ticked all the boxes. My parents were horrified [that] I’d be poor if taught school. [But] I’ve always gotten by!
What did you observe about your students’ understanding of grammar when you were first starting out as a teacher?
Frankly, I didn’t think too much about grammar when I started teaching. I thought it was about right and wrong. Now I know the conventions shape meaning and purpose in an author’s craft. I didn’t see that until later in my teaching career. I knew writing was the most important thing and I still do. The conventions are where meaning is activated as we compose and comprehend.
In your 2005 book, “Mechanically Inclined,” you talk about the ‘pseudo-concepts’ students develop as they grow in their understanding. Can you explain why these are important developmentally?
Early twentieth century psychologist Lev Vygotsky taught me a lot about kids’ understandings and misunderstandings. I learned from interviews with my students they often had reasons for making the mistakes they did. In the past, I had thought it was carelessness that caused their errors. After talking with them, I saw their actions were often based in a pattern, even if the convention was different.
For more on Vygotsky and his learning theories, check out: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/pioneers-our-field-lev-vygotsky-playing-learn
Jeff’s book, “Mechanically Inclined,” is available via Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/zrpx7ug
Even though you’ve written several books on writing mechanics and editing…you say you’re not a stickler when it comes to grammar. Can you describe the need for balance between providing explicit instruction to students, while at the same time not getting mired down in a litany of rules that must be enforced with students’ writing?
I don’t know if rules must be enforced. I think they can be moved toward. I think they can be taught, one at a time. But honestly, I think we may weaken writers with an over-focus on correctness. Meaning is king. Yes, errors need to be addressed, but correcting is not teaching. Students need us to teach grammar, not mark it up on their attempts at communication. It’s a complex task and it won’t be learned at once. I find it’s more effective to study what writers do effectively rather than perseverate on error. So, instead of studying a sentence full of mistakes and correcting them, students could instead focus on a sentence from literature that models a pattern of power we want students to use.
When it comes to finding enough or any time for writing in the classroom, (time that is often precious to non-existent in the face of vigorous test preparation) what advice do you have for teachers?
Writing success is not found in a test prep workbook. Successful writing is borne out of blank pages that get filled again and again. Successful writing depends on composition of ideas and thinking. I’m the guy who writes books about grammar and I still argue writing comes first. I do believe we need to make time for grammar, but as I describe in my book “Everyday Editing” (Stenhouse, 2007), grammar and editing can be taught as part of the reading-writing connection. Students learn the serial comma by studying a sentence where this skill is modeled. Writing is about communicating. And conventions communicate, so teach them through meaning making rather than correcting mistakes.
You can find “Everyday Editing,” here: http://tinyurl.com/jay3enl
What led you to write your first fiction book for kids?
I actually tried to write fiction first. I was in graduate school for my masters and was reading hundreds of children’s books. I got inspired to tell my own stories. My first attempts weren’t published; however, I got the practice I needed. I also think it’s an extension of why I became a teacher—to make things better for kids than they were for me. I want kids to know they aren’t alone. I always felt so alone as a kid.
Describe Zack Delacruz. Is he a bit of what you were like as a kid?
Zack is short and I was tall, so no he wasn’t like me. But seriously, there is some of me in Zack and Janie and Marquis and even El Pollo Loco.
What is the writing experience–whether it’s a professional text like “Revision Decisions” or fiction books in the Zack Delacruz series–like for you? Easy, challenging or somewhere in-between?
The writing process is super hard until you get started and then it starts to flow. That is the most fun I think I’ve ever had. But then, for some reason—time, other work—I get out of the flow. And then it is hard again. Sometimes I need feedback. Sometimes feedback gets me going, sometime it makes me need to take a walk and a few days to think and come up with a solution. It’s always challenging. It’s just when it’s the right level of challenge that I’m happy. Writers always complain about how hard it is to sit down and write. And sometimes you do need to just do it, but other times during a nap you will solve your problem. You have to live life too. No one sits in a room all day, only writing. You need to live to write.
Your latest Zack Delacruz book book, “Just My Luck” just came out in early October. What can fans of the series expect with this new book?
Middle grade readers can expect to continue laughing and growing with Zack and his friends’ zany experiences at Davey Crockett Middle School. There will be embarrassing things, runaway trains, and exploding confetti eggs.
To learn more about Jeff and his work, please visit: http://www.writeguy.net/