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The Skull and Crossbones List

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If we're going to improve the quality of writing our students are capable of — an absolutely critical endeavor — then we first need to ensure that our kids have a large amount of writing that they do. Quantity precedes quality. In improving the amount of writing students do across the school day, we need to be strategic — the Pyramid of Writing Priorities helps with that.

But with measures for ensuring quantity in place, we then look more directly at quality. One very basic thing that we all ought to do is to create, as the year progresses, what I call a Skull and Crossbones list. This is essentially a list of writing sins that are unacceptable at the secondary level, such as:

  • Lower-casing the first person pronoun “i”
  • Lower-casing the first letter of a sentence
  • Neglecting to use end-of-sentence punctuation
  • Lower-casing proper nouns (e.g., “America”)
  • Indenting a new paragraph
  • Common misspellings (this varies by year, although Stuart is a pretty consistent one)
  • Using emojis

I don't recommend pre-populating this list; it ought to be responsive.

Here's how this works:

  1. As the year's first pieces of writing come across my desk, I identify five or less basic problems like those above. I'm thinking about things that ninth graders have most certainly been taught and things that aren't that recursive. (For example, placing commas correctly is something that gets harder over time because the kinds of sentences students are trying to create get more complex over time. But capitalizing things doesn't really do that. It's not recursive.)
  2. As I'm identifying these things, I don't mark a single thing on their papers — I'm just populating the Skull and Crossbones list. If I have to put a grade, it's credit / no credit.
  3. The next day, I give the pieces back, and I tell students to create a page in their notebooks with a skull and teaching crossbones drawn at the top. I then create this on one of those big poster-sized sticky note things or a sheet of white butcher paper. This will hang up in the classroom all year, always available as a reference.
  4. I introduce each one of the items to students, being sure to give an example of the problem. We record the item. I ask students to demonstrate for me on a scratch sheet of paper what the problem looks like and what the solution looks like
    1. E.g.,
      1. Problem: i strive for excellence.
      2. Solution: I strive for excellence.
  5. I tell the students that, henceforth, any time that I see a Skull and Crossbones error in a piece of readable or polished writing (see Pyramid), I'm just going to draw a little frownie face at the top (I'd draw a skull and crossbones if it didn't take so long) and return that work to the student. It won't go into the gradebook as anything but a zero until the student fixes whatever's wrong.* I don't identify on the paper what's wrong with it — because, after all, the Skull and Crossbones list isn't terribly long, and it's always hanging up in the classroom as a reference, and we had that whole mini-lesson thing where we wrote this in our notebooks and you demonstrated understanding, and this is really just a list of early elementary standards… You get the idea.
  6. As time progresses, I'll add things as needed. I don't want to create 100 things on this list, but a dozen or two goes a long way.

When we do this, we're of course not trying to be jerks — rather, we're just expecting that a basic level of care be put into the work that our students do. If a team of athletes wanted to be elite — if they wanted to do hard things — they would certainly be silly to think they'd get there by being sloppy in the most basic elements of their sport. I want all of my students to have the chance now to be held unemotionally accountable for a basic attention to detail by someone who loves them (me). I want them to know that, in truth, details do matter — that it pays to attend to them.

*I think this is one reason that parents don't tend to complain about this. The student is free to fix her problems and re-submit.

Side note: These are the blog posts in which I'm always terrified of a typo and in which one will almost certainly appear. Forgive me.

Later side note: I had to go back and fix a misplaced comma in the above side note. Also, there was an unnecessary apostrophe in the asterisk section. See? I was right 😉 Thank you to my helpful commenters.

9 Responses to The Skull and Crossbones List

  1. MrsBobThompson August 16, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    Gaaah!!! Skull and Crossbones error in the asterisk section! 😉 You are forgiven, of course, because this article is very helpful and I plan to implement this idea toot-sweet! 🙂 Thanks for all you do – I typically don’t comment, but I’m always lurking and using your ideas – with much success. Happy New School Year!

    • Carmen Munnelly August 16, 2017 at 11:04 am #

      Love, love, love!

      Question, question,.question: you presumably teach many classes in one day. Do you refer to the skull and crossbones pic from period one all day? Recreate the poster five times that day, but choose the one with your best handwriting for display?

      In other words, the “us-ness” and immediacy of the poster creation that happens with your first period class is difficult to replicate by referring to an already-posted-skull-and-crossbones-poster they see when the rest of the day’s kiddos rush in. Kids asking ,”Mr. Stuart, what’s that for?” kind of preempts your intro, unless you just roll with that.

      How do you roll?

      • davestuartjr August 16, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

        Yeah, that is so right Carmen. Yes. So I usually am not organized enough to have multiple S&Cs and as result the later less suffers. Sometimes I cover it up for the later hours and reveal it, complete with sound effects. That helps. But I like your way better.

    • davestuartjr August 16, 2017 at 2:46 pm #

      LOL MrsBobThompson! It had to happen! It [was] the comma, right? I caught it in my email newsletter but not here. [Fist shaking at the heavens]

  2. patrycja August 16, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    Great idea.

    It reminds me of The Never Do List I made after being fed up with the grammatical errors of my grade eight and nine students. I decided to do a grammar smackdown and write down all the grammatical and punctuation errors the were making with examples of corrections. I printed them the resulting 12 page package and we read it aloud….

    That was three years ago.

    This skull and crossbones idea is much better alternative! Thanks!!

    • davestuartjr August 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

      You’ve got it, Patrycja — same thing! I actually like yours better 🙂

  3. Barb August 19, 2017 at 7:38 am #

    I think it is the apostrophe in “parents.” Quick, fix it! It is probably the fault of over-zealous auto-correct. Thanks for sharing this idea. I’m going to use it!

  4. Shelby August 19, 2017 at 9:53 am #

    I love this! I will put this beside the “Words That Make Mrs. Dupuy Scream” poster (which is accompanied by a poster of Munch’s painting). Thank you for sharing.

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