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Reading Glasses

"Let me guess... You teach English?" I've been asked the same question by nearly everyone when I reveal that I'm a teacher. I can thank my distant relatives for the name change to "English" from a Polish surname that we can only remember how to pronounce and never to spell.

I've noticed that revealing you're an English teacher elicits one of two reactions: 1) People either stop talking and are afraid that you will correct, critique, nitpick (<insert the pedantic verb of your choice>); or 2) People feel as if you are on their side and agree that something is taking place to the detriment of the wonderful, precious English language. And it was during my routine eye exam that my optometrist goaded me into the second camp.

He expected sympathy when he said, "I once had a secretary who would use 'seen' without the helping verb." And I responded with a quick, "Oh?', hoping to move the conversation away from the stereotypical view of English teachers in which I knew this was heading and, instead, to the condition of my eyes. But he continued. He lambasted his former employer for her "misuse" (I would argue that it was colloquial) of "seen," and then he continued to rant about the age-old debate of "me" and "I." And I bit my tongue.

I know people feel strongly about this. Rules are nice. They create boundaries. They tell you what to do and what not to do. They make us feel secure, and then they help create these ivory towers of power. And as much as I want my students to use the rules, I can't--and will never--reduce my job to the study of a few rules (many of which were created based on personal preferences). English language arts is so much more than that.

I ultimately received news that my vision hasn't changed. My right eye is slightly worse than my left eye, and I have a mild astigmatism. He kindly informed me that they don't make contacts for such mild astigmatisms, so I would be saving money. But as I left, he also reminded me that it was my responsibility to save American teenagers from "improper" grammar.

I nodded in the affirmative, but I regret that I didn't provide a larger picture for the work that I, and so many other English teachers, do every day. And this is what I should've told him:

I work tirelessly every day to match kids with books they want to read. And when they finally finish a book--and many admit to having read a book for the first time in years--I try to help them find another. Our reading lives are never done.

Then they talk about books. They share what they are reading. They swap titles, authors, and genres. They conduct book talks. They interview each other about what they've read. I encourage them to tweet about their books, like we did at the end of the school year. And when we are all reading the same book, students question their peers. They work through difficult texts--many of which were never written for or intended to be used in a high school classroom. Have you ever tried to prompt a student to speak in front of his or her peers? That alone is extremely difficult for young people. Their peers can be so cruel and judgmental.

And when students aren't reading or talking about their reading, they are writing. But I've found that writing is even trickier than silently reading a book or talking. Writing is visible proof that you might struggle with something. Do you know how difficult that is for a student that has been told time and time again that he or she can't do something or isn't good at it?

And grammar is the worst.

This notion of "bad grammar" infuriates me. There is no such thing. Everyone has a grammar. We acquire it at home by hearing others speak. Sometimes, however, we don't acquire an academic grammar, school English, or any other variant of "proper English." But the connotation of the word "proper" can send a permanently debilitating message to students that they are then "improper." With all dichotomies, you must be one or the other. And if you are improper, then school is not the place for you.

I don't want my students to EVER feel like that.

And then when I finally get a student to write, I want them to think about higher order concerns first. Are your ideas conveyed clearly? How's your voice? Does this sound like you, or did you lose your voice when trying to appease me, the keeper of the rules? Is this the appropriate genre for your writing? Have you conducted enough research, or are there questions you still need to ask?

See, at the end of the day, English is much more than grammar rules. I want my students to recognize that language, whether it is written or spoken, has power. They know that people might judge them by the language they use, but I also want them equipped to talk back to the pedants. I want them to recognize school English and have it in their repertoire to use it. But I don't want them to feel ashamed. I want them to have a lifelong passion for reading and writing.


  1. I love this post! I wish more English teachers thought like you. Our biggest debate is knowing or identifying the parts of speech. I taught 4th grade and many upper level teachers would be upset because students could not correctly identify parts of speech. I lean towards the just get them to write side of this debate. In today's world how important is it that they know what a noun or verb is? I was just wondering about your thoughts on this.

  2. I go back and forth on this one, Leigh. I think there's something to be said about knowing how words function and recognizing the patterns, like adverbs ending in -ly. I do, however, think that there are some elements of grammar that it really doesn't matter if students can identify them, e.g., participles and gerunds. As long as they recognize how a word is functioning, that's more important, right?

    1. I've been teaching English for seven years and I couldn't tell you what a gerund is. (But I could Google it) #justsayin

    2. Yes, if you want to see 8th graders cry, introduce gerunds, participles, etc. at the end of the year.

  3. I think knowing the basic parts of speech is very important when learning to be a writer and a reader - understanding the basic function of a sentence. Kevin, your post is wonderful.

  4. Interesting thought: no bad grammar, just different and maybe improper. I know grammar instruction hasn't been shown to improve students' writing, but I think the reality is more nuanced than that. Whatever the truth, as you say, "English is much more than grammar rules."

  5. Well, I have definitely been in the Grammar Police camp, having been a professional editor for a decade. But I also never forgot the lessons of a several-day Writing Process workshop at RESA many years ago. One was that, despite my familiarity with the "rules" (including those few seem to follow anymore, such as when to use the subjunctive mood and to never allow dangling participles -- even if folks know perfectly well what you mean), most of my writing skill came from two OTHER things: voracious reading and lots of practice. Reading enabled me to be a fluent writer; practice helped perfect my skills. The "rules" could not possibly encompass all the unwritten, complex structure of real grammar. That is why, to this day, I will override the rules when something looks or sounds wrong to me. (Or, sometimes, I will just avoid the usage when the "correct" version sounds wrong. I cannot say the word "forte," for example, because nearly everyone thinks it has an accent on that silent "E." Better to substitute "strength" or, informally, "super-power"!)

    A second lesson, truly learned when I helped pilot a writing workshop with 8-year-olds in my basement that summer, was that it is good to distinguish between "published" work (in which you strive for adherence to the rules, as well as to eloquent expression of ideas) and "draft" work (in which fluency and expression rule). Insisting on a standard of perfection for all writing terribly inhibits expression of ideas -- which is, after all, what writing instruction should be about. [And ending that sentence with a preposition is a great example of warranted disregard of rules!]

    Long-windedly, I'm saying you have a good point -- even though my editor's left brain will always inwardly rail at grammatical errors. You have no idea how often I stifle THAT expression! ;-)

  6. When english became the world's lingua franca and teaching it a highly profitable enterprise, it lost its self respect. It can be a language that resonates such beauty, mystery and diversity but it has been reduced to mere parody of itself by the EFL industry. Because more people now speak english as a foreign languange than as their mother tongue, it has been "dumbed down" for the sake of efficiency . We are heading towards Orwell's doublespeak. Obscure languages disappear because they are spoken by too few. English is disappearing because it is spoken by too many. No other linguistic group has to listen to their language being so badly spoken by so many people. I find it irritating that most EFL teachers have no love for the language they teach. Methodology should not preclude passion. So, say only "strength" if you must, but I intend to say "forte" too, and to say it loud.


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