Monday, October 18, 2010

"Why should I care what I write?"

 "Does spelling count?" That's a good way to get thrown out of my class--especially if I'm on the 2nd floor. No, you won't use the door to leave--I have another idea--and you'd better hope the ground is soft when you land. Yes, it counts--and I'll deduct your ignorance from your grade too.

The idea for this answer was fanned into a white-hot issue by a former student. Katie had just completed a course with me in English composition at a community college in New Jersey in the fall 2005 semester.  She was a very motivated achievement-oriented young woman, and I had learned to enjoy her feisty nature.  In some ways, she clearly reminded me of my own attitude toward authority and accomplishment:  she wanted to be recognized for what she did, she was impulsive, aggressive when her intelligence was challenged or questioned, and she wanted to be a high school English teacher.  
In return, I gave her a large measure of personal and professional freedom, including soliciting her views on topics to discuss with the class as well as providing her with textbooks and materials that I had obtained as requirements for upper-level classes that I had taken.  If it helped her in her endeavors, I was willing to share the goodies I had accumulated.  Why not, I thought—she’s serious about her goals and objectives.  In fact, one of the reasons I was so generous was because she was student-teaching at a parochial school, and I had done my first two years of formal teaching in that environment.  At the end of the semester, I gave her an A as a final grade, partially because (a) she was determined to get one by virtue of trying harder and improving her writing, (b) she really did want to be a teacher, and (c) I wanted to be considerate of her goals. 

Therefore, I was aghast—at best—to see an email from her that read as though it came from a 1st grade child.  I used to warn students that emails were as sensitive a document as any formal paper they produced—and that spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure should be correct.  It was communication, I explained, even though it might have been in an informal setting—and if they were going to write me (I gave my email address as a back-up means to contact me), I expected the formalities of English to be followed.  After all, it leaves a trail of evidence of one’s intellect.  Here is what I received in its rawness:

hey i need ur opinion on something. i had to do observations for my intro to teaching class. i wore dress jeans one day and brang coffee with me all the time. they just called to tell me that i cant go back bc of these things.  also i didnt go once and emails the teacher to let her know bc i got into a snow tubing accdient and i had to go to the doctor. What should i say to my professor since obviously hes going to ask.

    (Sigh.  What did I do to deserve this?)  If you’re not reeling in shock, then you can skip reading the rest of this book because it’s not going to be a happy-ever-after event.  There is a nice ending to this story, but it depends on whose point of view one takes.  And certainly, the young lady in question who carved that monstrosity into my memory isn’t happy—but she ought to be.  Actually, she’s rather righteously indignant at this time because I forwarded the email intact to several friends and associates, soliciting their response.  

Aside from the expected tongue-lashing that she deserved (for having the nerve to drink coffee while being observed; for wearing dress jeans, let alone not wearing a more formal outfit; and for the massacre on the English language, let alone her lack of respect for me—and the grade I had given her), the smallest, least expected and wisest response came from Callie Bolyard of Memphis, Tennessee.  Callie, a former classmate of mine in high school (and whose maiden name was English, of all things!), is a 2nd grade teacher, and she used it as a lesson for her class.  Their comments are an indication of the eagerness of those young minds, the practicality of Callie’s experience as a teacher, and the hope that I keep intact for the future of our youngsters as they grow into adulthood.  Consider these thoughts as well as Mrs. Bolyard's lesson for these kids:

    This was so much fun for the students.  Here is what happened:

I wrote the “paragraph” on the board.  I asked the students to look at it, but not to say anything out loud.  We all studied the passage for about 2 minutes.  Then I asked, ”Raise your hand if you see anything wrong.”  I have 24 students.  Seventeen of them raised their hands.  I called on each child.  Here are some of their responses:

Ethan- “It ain’t got no capital.
Ally- “I is always capitalized.”
Alex- “The T in they is little, it should be capital.
Hunter-”Who wrote this?”
Austin- “There’s a whole bunch of “I”s that need to be a capital.
Cormega-”What’s bc?”
Hanna- “It’s for a headache.”
Brianna- “Brang is not good English.”
Domonique- “You have to push in a paragraph.”

After everyone had their say, we went over and corrected the whole paragraph.  Here is a new version:

February 14, 2006

(Julia- “Where’s the date?”)

    Dear Mr. Mitch,

    (Gavin- “A letter needs a greeting.”)

How are you?  I am fine. 
(Connar- “You should be nice in a letter.”)

I need your opinion on some observations.  It is for my introduction to teaching class. I wore dress jeans and brought coffee with me.
(The students couldn’t grasp where she was going with the coffee.) 

They (Raymond- “They is a pronoun. I don’t know who they are.”) just called to tell me I can’t go back (Garrett-”Where is she going?”) because of these things. (This is where I said the coffee must come in.) Also, I didn’t go once. (The students figured it must be class.)

I e mailed (The students thought this was a good sentence.) the teacher and let her know I was in a snow tubing accident and I had to go to the doctor’s office.  (Sherlisa-”Did she hurt herself bad?”) What should I say to my professor since obviously he’s going to ask.  (Morgan- “I thought she said she sent him an e mail?”)


(I told the students that this was not necessary in an e mail, but they wanted to finish the letter.)      (Tyler- “What’s her name anyway?”) 
P.S.  We will be taking time out this afternoon to talk about e mail letters and notes!

    I can’t improve on the simple beauty of the words of these children, nor could I make a more sincere and enriching lesson than Callie.  In fact, I suggested to her that she use this as a key example for her end-of-year evaluation; to immediately show it to her supervisor and principal, and to write it as a formal article for an education magazine!  

    Does writing matter?  More than we know—because it is a small part of our attitude toward education.  And it reflects upon the way that we approach (or tackled) assignments, whether or not we are students, teachers, or administrators.  

A tip of my hat and a bow to your class, Mrs. Bolyard, and I’m glad to keep my promise:  hey, kids, you’re going in a book! 

Finally, to an angry, annoyed young lady who may never read these words:  you made a mistake—or a great deal of them—but that doesn’t mean you won’t or can’t be a teacher.  I hope you realize someday how much it matters to write well—and how powerful an impact you made on those children.  I hope you still pursue your dreams of being a teacher—and accept that mistakes are part of the job.  Believe me, I made my share—and that could be another book.

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