(Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
If someone were to ask me to define my job as a high school English teacher—which, oddly enough, no one has yet done—I would say it has two parts.
My first job, as I see it, is to interest kids in reading. I try to show my students that reading is worth the effort, that it is enjoyable, useful, and meaningful in their lives.
My second job has to do with writing. I start with the assumption that somewhere in their lives my students will be called upon to engage in consequential writing. I try to introduce them to the conventions of grammar and spelling that will enable them to participate in the world of the written word—a place most of them have never visited.
To perform these two functions requires that I navigate a very hazardous path, one that protects my students’ egos while still coaxing them towards improvement. I have the capacity to show them a better way; I also have the ability to turn them off fatally to both reading and writing.
Most everyone has had the experience some time in his or her life of receiving criticism. Even those who profited from such censure would concede that it’s often an unpleasant experience that can knock you off track for a while.
When a student receives an essay back from the teacher with a dozen misspelled words circled in red (or any color) the natural reaction is to avoid that kind of pain in the future. The best strategy for dodging this kind of rebuke is to rein in one’s vocabulary to only words you know you can spell.
The obvious retort here is, of course, that if students aren’t made aware of their errors, how can they correct them? There’s also the predictable contempt that many folks have for teachers who spend time protecting the self-esteem of kids at the cost of back-to-basics strictness.
My own solution to this paradox is to shift my role from critic to editor.
When a student hands in a story or essay to me I find ways to show them their errors. Sometimes I circle mistakes. I might write notes in the margin. Occasionally I sit down and type a corrected version of their work to show them how it should look. In some cases I ignore most of their errors, focusing on one or two important issues.
I never reduce their grade on a paper because of errors. And I provide them with oodles of time to hand in emended versions with the errors fixed.
I want students to take chances. I want their writing to reflect their thinking free of the self-imposed constraints that they internalize when someone like me repeatedly points out their errors.
That means I tread carefully when I try to steer them towards more conventional spelling.
Adults wishing to demonstrate the general incompetence of teachers will cite the spelling anomalies of the young. I’m convinced that older folks get so exercised over these errors because following the conventions of spelling is one of the fundamental ways that members of a community signify their commitment to the larger group.
If you care about others you try to follow the rules of the group. That may be why so many of my students, who do not yet feel themselves a part of the larger community, are so sloppy with their spelling.
“It is the effort to use words well,” wrote John Holt, “to say what one wants to say, to people whom he trusts and wants to reach and move, that alone will teach a young person to use words better.”
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