Semicolons: A Mini-lesson

 In this mini-lesson, students use one class period to explore Dr. King's use of semicolons and their rhetorical significance in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." They then apply what they have learned by searching for ways to follow Dr. King's model and use the punctuation mark in their own writing. This lesson demonstrates a more advanced use of the semicolon rather than the basic use (to join two complete, related thoughts). It could be used toward the end of a unit on semicolons or as a refresher. The Holt Elements of Literature textbook contains a novella called "The Gold Cadillac," which is followed by a nonfiction essay, "Separate But Never Equal." These two texts are often taught around the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The mini-lesson on semicolons would be an appropriate grammar complement to these literature studies.

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.6.1
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.6.2
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.6.3
Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.2
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis...
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event...
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.4
Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific...
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.5
With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a...
GLE 0601.1.1
Demonstrate control of Standard English through the use of grammar and mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, and spelling).
GLE 0601.3.1
Write in a variety of modes for different audiences and purposes.
GLE 0601.3.2
Employ various prewriting strategies.
GLE 0601.3.3
Organize ideas into an essay with an introduction, developing paragraphs, conclusion, and appropriate transitions.
GLE 0601.3.4
Refine strategies for editing and revising written work.
GLE 0601.4.2
Gather relevant information from a variety of print and electronic sources, as well as from direct observation, interviews, and surveys.
GLE 0601.4.3
Make distinctions about the credibility, reliability, consistency, strengths, and limitations of resources, including information gathered from websites.
SPI 0601.1.1
Identify the correct use of nouns (i.e., common/proper, singular/plural, possessives) and pronouns (i.e., agreement, subject, object) within context.
SPI 0601.1.10
Identify the correct spelling of plurals and possessives.
SPI 0601.1.18
Identify correctly and incorrectly spelled words in context.
SPI 0601.3.1
Identify the purpose for writing (i.e., to inform, to describe, to explain, to persuade).
SPI 0601.3.5
Select illustrations, descriptions, and/or facts to support key ideas.
SPI 0601.3.8
Select appropriate time-order or transitional words/phrases to enhance the flow of a writing sample.
SPI 0601.3.9
Select an appropriate concluding sentence for a well-developed paragraph.
SPI 0801.1.15
Select the appropriate use of underlining/italicizing with titles, specific words, numbers, letters, and figures.
TSS.ELA.6.L.CSE.1
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage.
TSS.ELA.6.L.CSE.2
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. When reading or writing, explain the functions of...
TSS.ELA.6.L.KL.3
When writing and speaking, vary sentence patterns for meaning, reader/listener interest, and style; maintain consistency in style and tone.
TSS.ELA.6.W.PDW.4
Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
TSS.ELA.6.W.PDW.5
With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new...
TSS.ELA.6.W.TTP.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
TSS.ELA.6.W.TTP.2
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of...
TSS.ELA.6.W.TTP.3
Write narratives (fiction and nonfiction) to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective techniques, relevant descriptive details, and...
 
Alignment of this item to academic standards is based on recommendations from content creators, resource curators, and visitors to this website. It is the responsibility of each educator to verify that the materials are appropriate for your content area, aligned to current academic standards, and will be beneficial to your specific students.
 
Learning objectives: 

Student Objectives:

Students will

  • explore the use of the semicolon in their own and others' texts. 
  • review the rhetorical use and significance of the semicolon. 
  • revise their own writing, based on the stylistic knowledge gained from their exploration.

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Understanding
Differentiation suggestions: 

Extensions:

  • Choose among additional Web and text resources as well as find links to lesson plans and classroom activities that can be used to supplement or extend this lesson, from the January 15 entry from ReadWriteThink calendar.
  • Visit these Websites to learn more about Dr. King's life:

Today in History, for January 15, from the Library of Congress: The Library of Congress entry for King's birthday provides a linked overview of King's life and the struggle for Civil Rights.

The Nobel Peace Prize 1964: The Nobel Prize Website includes the text of the committee's presentation speech, awarding the Peace Prize to Dr. King, as well as Dr. King's Nobel Lecture, his acceptance speech, and biographical information.

Photo Essay: Martin Luther King in His Own Words: This Time.com collection pairs ten photos of King with excerpts from his writing. Each could provide a starting place for a classroom discussion of King's carefully chosen words.

Martin Luther King: His Greatest Triumphs: The Life site provides a wealth of pictures of Dr. King, including this gallery of his greatest triumphs.

Helpful Hints

Preparation:

  • Students should be assigned to read the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" prior to this class session, so that they are familiar with the text and its contents before they begin this activity. You can make copies of the letter for your students from the Website above, or direct students to the URL for one of the sites to read the text online. 
  • Ideally, students should be given time to explore the timeline at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project Website, which documents the highlights of Dr. King's life. Be sure to take time to discuss the ideas from the letter and its historical context. 
  • Consult the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" from the Univeristy of Pennsylvania for background information on the letter.
  • Provide paper copies of the text for each student-because students will be looking closely at the text, they should have a copy of the letter that they can mark on (e.g., circle semicolons). 
  • Make copies of the handouts of the shorter passages and the longer passage as well as the handout of a passage with no semicolons from Dr. King's letter for students. Alternatively, make overheads of these pages and arrange for an overhead projector.
  • Check your grammar textbook for information on semicolons, noting the pertinent section or page number on the board for students' reference. Alternatively, you can point students to the Purdue OWL Overview of Punctuation.

 

Materials and Technology:

  • Grammar Handbook, for reference
  • General classroom writing supplies (board, overheads, or chart paper, notebooks and pens/pencils, and so forth)
  • Internet access 
  • Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"—this text is frequently anthologized, appearing in many student textbooks and readers. The text is also available online; however, because the text is protected by copyright, the definitive copies of the letter are not printable:
  • PDF version, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (not printable)
  • Image of original, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (not printable)
  • HTML version, from the Seattle Times (printable)

 

Printouts

  • Examples of Dr. King's Use of Semicolons, shorter passages 
  • Example of Dr. King's Use of Semicolons, longer passage 
  • Example from Dr. King's Letter with No Semicolons

 

Websites:

  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (PDF version) 
  • This definitive version of the letter is copyright and cannot be printed.
  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (image of original)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement

References

Contributors: