Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

Bye-bye, Google Reader

As many of you know, Google Reader is shutting down on Monday.  I haven’t used it in years, but I’m sure some of you still do.  If you need a new platform for following Classroom as Microcosm, here are a few options.

  1. Look in the right-hand column.  See the button that says “Sign me up”?  That will ensure that you receive an email every time a new post appears on this blog.
  2. You can “Like” my page on Facebook.
  3. You can follow me on Twitter.
  4. You can try out a new feed reader.  I just started using Bloglovin, and I like it a lot.  It’s pretty, it’s simple, you can get a dashboard plugin that lets you know when new posts are up, and it has apps (I haven’t tried them, but hey!  Apps!)
  5. Or: all of the above!

But please stick around!  Google Reader is not the boss of you.

Student Blogs: Challenges

mi40mFwSome of you have asked to hear my final thoughts on the individual student blogs I used in one of my classes this semester.  I have a lot to say on the matter, but I may wait until I get the course evaluations back from my students before giving you my ultimate reflection.  As all you teachers well know, sometimes our assumptions about how things have gone turn out to be less than accurate from the students’ perspective.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some PENultimate thoughts.  I put these down in a recent journal entry for a course I’m taking on IT in the classroom.  The journal assignment was to write about the challenges of integrating information technology into the classroom setting.  Here’s what I had to say.

*

This semester, I had my students keep blogs.  I’ve used blogs in a course before, and then stayed away from them for years because they require such a time investment.  This year, I decided to take a stab at them again, and although there were a lot of benefits, I will think twice before using them in another course.

One of the main issues was that the course, as a whole, is brand new.  Although I spent a lot of time thinking about the general topics I wanted to explore, and the assessments that I’m REQUIRED to include in such a course (some sort of research component, an oral presentation, a 1000-word essay…), I was aware from the beginning that my desired learning outcomes were…vague.

I wanted students to think about the concept of “character” and examine how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature (these are Child Studies majors).  I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better.  I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.

So that adds up to a whole lot of thinking.  How can they demonstrate to me that they’re thinking?  By writing a whole bunch of stuff making connections between these different ideas.  And then having conversations that I can observe.  So a blog is perfect: they need to write regularly about the ideas we’re discussing in class, they need to make connections between these ideas and things they already know, and they need to comment on what others have written, generating conversations about these subjects.

The potential of these tasks to lead to deep, authentic, long-lasting learning is exciting.  Writing and commenting on a thoughtful blog post requires a high level of what instructional designers call “cognitive complexity”: the students are understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing in order to create their posts.  Writing the posts involves a number of different “types of knowledge”: conceptual knowledge (understanding the theoretical works about childhood character that we are reading), procedural knowledge (understanding how to write a coherent post whose logic, grammar etc. communicate clearly) and a certain amount of metacognitive knowledge (not only are they reflecting on the theoretical material and how it relates to the novels they’re reading, to other things they know and to their personal experiences; but they are also, to a certain extent, recognizing those leaps of understanding when they make them, and recognizing that they are something worth writing about).

Which is to say: BLOGS ARE AWESOME.  They are, like, the perfect learning tool, if you do them right.

And I think, in purely pedagogical and methodological terms, I did them right.  I set out very clear requirements: they had to post at least three posts a month, and spread their posts throughout the month (one per week for at least three weeks out of the month).  They had to comment at least three times a month on others’ blogs, also spreading their comments out throughout the month.  They had to reply to all comments left on their blogs.

I promised to read and comment on every post.  I did my best to keep that promise for a while, and as I read and commented during the first month, I was truly impressed.  Some of them were just banging out the minimum, or not meeting the requirements at all.  Most, however, were writing very interesting things.  They were MAKING CONNECTIONS.  They were HAVING CONVERSATIONS.  It was clear that writing about the seven character qualities that children need to succeed, or the “licking and grooming” theory of parental nurturing, and applying these concepts to other things both fictional and personal, was helping them understand what these things mean.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that I hadn’t thought it all through.  Of course I hadn’t – it’s impossible to think a course entirely through before you teach it, no matter how well you plan.  The problem is, if you’re teaching a new course AND using unfamiliar (in this case, technological) tools, problems multiply.

The first came from my willful disregard for what I knew, from long experience, about many of my students.  Regular writing, including written discussion, about complex topics is a great tool for students who are already good communicators.  For students who have language issues, who are not habitual readers or writers, and/or who already have an awful lot on their plates, this kind of regular written communication is extremely demanding.

What’s more, they’re working on a platform that is new to them.  Most of them have never written blogs, and it’s not just the technological aspects that are unfamiliar to them, but the communication medium: what should a blog post consist of?  If it’s not an essay, then what does “logical structure” mean?  And so forth.  The instructions I gave them – not just on setting up their blogs but on how to earn a passing grade or 100% – were very clear.  However, because this clarity involves so many facets where blogs are concerned – one can’t take for granted that they know ANYTHING – these instructions were also extremely long and detailed, and students don’t fully understand them.  Even now, two weeks before the end of term, a number of students are not sure why they’re earning 59% even though they put up the minimum number of posts (“But Johnny, you didn’t leave any comments for anyone.” “But I did!  I answered the comments people left for me on MY blog!”)

There are things I can do to improve the evaluation scheme; for example, if I’m ever foolish enough to do this again, I will separate the grade for blog posts from the grade for commenting, and I will clarify and delineate criteria so that it’s possible to earn a passing grade even if you fall short in one area.  Nevertheless, figuring out how to grade this new form that has few formal standards is extremely challenging, and it hasn’t worked very well this time around.

Using a newish tool like blogging in a course has much in common with teaching a new course in general: it’s exciting and full of energy because you never know what happen, but it’s also messy and fraught and doesn’t always work because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.  I’ll probably take a rest from blogs next time I teach this course (maybe a discussion forum would be simpler and less demanding?)

*

I’d love to hear about experiences, successful or otherwise, that the rest of you have had with blogs in your classrooms.  What could I have done differently?  Is it worth taking another stab at it?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

Image by charcoal

New Adventures in Social Media

Dear readers:

I’m trying to expand my social media horizons because, well, I live in the 21st century, and all that jazz.  So I’m polishing up some old accounts and experimenting with some new ones, and it’s turning out to be a lot of fun, so I just might keep it up, especially if you encourage me.

1. Twitter:

I created a Twitter account long ago and have mostly used it as a default distributor for blog posts.  Last week I signed in and updated my account for the first time in ages, and have since found myself a bit obsessed with reading, replying, re-tweeting, and linking.  I have made a new commitment to tweeting lots of cool stuff I find around the web, whether education-related or not.  I would love it if you followed me there: @siobhancurious

2. Tumblr:

Here on Classroom as Microcosm, I write about teaching and its relatives (books, work, self-preservation…).  I’ve been thinking of keeping a more personal blog that focuses largely on my new home and my domestic pursuits therein.  I’ve finally done it.  The blog is called “Who’s She When She’s At Home?” (one of my favourite Irish turns of phrase) and it will be a grab-bag of posts, links, photos and re-blogs concerning my life outside the classroom (although the classroom will of course never entirely disappear).  I know a lot of smart and interesting people who post about a lot of smart and interesting stuff, so I think it’s going to be cool.  If you have a Tumblr blog, you know what to do; if you don’t, you can always follow through your feed reader or through my Twitter stream.

3. Alltop:

My blog has been added to the Education directory on Alltop.com.  You can go to yesterday’s post for more info.

4. Facebook:

As always, you can like my page on Facebook, and I hope you will.  Tweets and Tumblr posts will sometimes stream there (I’m still trying to optimize that, and am experimenting with selective streaming – would love your feedback on whether the Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook mix is annoying).  Posts from right here on CAM will always appear on my Facebook page.

I hope you’ll also continue share CAM posts you like on your own social networks, because I love watching the interesting discussions that blossom when more and more people are dropping by and adding their thoughts.  What’s more, I hope you’ll give me some recommendations.  Where do you love to hang out online to read, chat, link and think?  Why should I go hang out there too?

I feel lucky to have you all following me – thank you for your continued readership!

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

RateMyTeachers FTW; or, the Value of Unsolicited Feedback

As the end of the semester draws near, there is a lot of student emotion banging around.  There are some stories I could tell you, and I will.  Today, though, I’m thinking about a particular outlet for student emotion: RateMyTeachers.com, the site where students go to tell each other which teachers to take and which to avoid.

When I first started teaching, I checked RateMyTeachers all the time.  I couldn’t help it.  We teachers would discuss our ratings  while trying to maintain humility and indifference.  In those days, there was an indicator for “hotness,” in the form of a little chili pepper icon.  (The chili pepper lingers on RateMyProfessors.com.)  There was a lot of pretending that we didn’t like our chili pepper, or didn’t care that we didn’t get a chili pepper.  There was also a “coolness” measure, and if you got enough “cool” votes, sunglasses appeared on the little face next to your rating.  (The sunglasses seem also to have disappeared.)  We didn’t talk about the sunglasses much, perhaps because if you were under the age of 40, you were almost guaranteed to get a “cool” indicator.

These days, I rarely look at RMT, but occasionally I succumb, and then wonder why I bother.  If there are new positive ratings, I think, “Well, sure,” and promptly forget about them.  If there are new negative ratings, I become fixated on figuring out who could possibly have left them, and why.  This is a useless endeavour, and leads to bad moods.

Teachers and other education professionals often debate the validity of even formal student evaluations.  Recently, our college has given us the option of having the students fill out their evaluations online, and there has been a lot of heated debate about whether this compromises the results.  There are discussions on edublogs and in education classrooms about whether anonymous student evaluations of any kind have any value.  I think about these things myself, and the conclusion I have come to is that the value of student evaluations (whether formal or written at 4 a.m. after a kegger), like the value of grades, lies in what you do with them.

Consider the six most recent comments that have appeared on my RateMyTeachers page.

  • “she is too strict. she has this crazy look in her eyes when she is mad. she is bias and judgemental” (1 month ago)
  • “This teacher was a joy. She is the nicest and most patient teachers I had at X College.” (3 months ago)
  • “most wonderful english teacher. recommended one hundred and ten percent.” (6 months ago)
  • “BEST ENGLISH TEACHER IVE EVER HAD!” (1 year ago)
  • “doesn’t give enough time for work.  makes us read too much.” (1 year ago)
  • “Best!  Uses an innovative approach.” (1 year 3 months ago)

There are many attitudes I could take to these comments.

  • I could stop reading them.  (Seriously, would that be so hard?)
  • I could ignore them.  (Once I have read them, this is impossible.  Can’t unring a bell, etc.)
  • I could focus on the good ones and assume that the negative ones were written by disgruntled morons who will never amount to anything.
  • I could assume that I am a crazy-eyed, biased, judgmental, strict teacher who makes unreasonable demands, and that the students who like me have somehow overlooked this.
  • I could declare that the very existence of RMT is an insult and that any information it contains is useless.
  • I could cautiously examine the information that RMT provides and try to make dispassionate use of it.

The last is obviously the best approach, but also the most complicated.  What does it mean?  How do I make use of this information?

Here is an example.  A few years ago, when I was burnt out and tired, there were a few comments in a row on my RMT page that used phrases like “she seems bored with her job” and “she gets annoyed easily.”  These comments were hurtful.  They were also sincere, and, as I was mulling them over, I realized that they were true.  They were instrumental in getting me to examine whether teaching was still the job for me, and, if it was, what I would have to do to stop being bored and annoyed.

The comment above about “doesn’t give enough time for work” had a similar effect.  I knew, during that period, that I was rushing my students.  I was cramming long analytical exercises into the last half-hour of class, and it wasn’t working.  I was trying to fix this problem, but the comment spurred me to take even more drastic measures, and slash exercises or give them for homework, even at the risk of finishing class early.  It did not inspire me to give less reading, however, because … well, see posts like this one for some discussion of that problem.

The most recent comment, at the top of the list above, is one that I may have to set aside.  Yes, I do get a crazy look in my eyes.  (I have very large very pale eyes and I have been known to scare the bejeezus out of people by being a little chilly.  There’s not a lot I can do.)  No, I am not “bias,” at least not more than your average person, and probably considerably less, as overcoming bias is one of my major internal preoccupations.  And I would rather be considered strict than easy – I was far too easy for far too long – so students who don’t like that can lump it.  I don’t doubt that the student who wrote these things was truly upset about something I had said or done, but the reasons for that upset are not things I’m interested in changing.

As for the positive comments, it’s possible to enjoy them without taking them too seriously.  It’s nice when students like you, but it’s beside the point, as are words like “innovative” or even “patient.”  The only positive comments of any real value are those that say “I learned a lot in her class.”  Those sorts of comments show up only rarely on RMT, I’ve found.  Perhaps this is because students don’t learn a lot in my class, but I think it’s more likely that many of them don’t see this as the purpose of this site, or because they don’t realize what they’ve learned until many years later.

The main problem with RMT, I feel, is that it doesn’t ask the right questions – in fact, other than instructing students to give a score for “easiness,” “helpfulness” and “clarity,” it doesn’t ask questions at all.  This is one way in which formal student evaluations are superior: they instruct students to focus on specific things (even if students aren’t always clear on what those things mean.)  And of course, the best evaluation of all is an email out of the blue from a former student, or a conversation at the end of the term in which a student says, “I never understood X before, but because of you, I do now.”

Information is always useful, if we make it so.  RateMyTeachers, even if it is the online equivalent of a slam book or a bathroom wall, is still a source of information.  Like the internet itself, its contents are random and unreliable, but they are real reflections of real feelings.  We are privileged to have access to them.  It is up to us to treat them with the care and skepticism they deserve.

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Top 10 Posts of 2011

It’s that time of year again.

(Actually, it’s a little past that time of year – it was that time of year, oh, two weeks ago, when it was still last year.)

Nevertheless: a roundup!

Here are the posts from Classroom as Microcosm that received the most hits this year.  The reasons for their popularity are varied and, in some cases, mysterious.  No matter.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give some indication of what’s been going on around here.  If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  (Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.)

1. Fail Better

This post was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” cover story by WordPress, which guaranteed that it would get tonnes of hits (over 11 000) and comments (245 at last count – about 15 of them are my replies, but I soon ran out of steam.)  In this little anecdote, I explore a problem – my students are so afraid to fail that they won’t even try – through the lens of some recent research – Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine article on “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  The results are inconclusive but gratifying.  All in all, it was a good week.

2. Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Another “Freshly Pressed” pick.  This one received almost 9 000 hits and 177 extremely interesting and thoughtful comments.  It’s a response to an article by Virginia Heffernan on Cathy N. Davidson’s book Now You See It.  Davidson’s book proposes, among other things, that the academic paper has had its day and needs to make way for more current tech-friendly forms.  I, and the commenters, are not so sure.

3. When in Doubt, Make a Plan

This post is a response to a reader’s plea for advice.  Nick’s not sure college is the place for him, but he can’t see his parents agreeing to any other path.  I can’t solve his problem for him, but I have some suggestions, as do readers.  His original query, and a lot of interesting reader responses, appear here.

4. The Five Best Podcasts in the World

In May, these were my top five, and I still love them all, although “The Age of Persuasion” is now defunct (but was replaced on Saturday by Terry O’Reilly’s highly anticipated followup, “Under the Influence.”)  If I wrote this post now, I might rearrange these and introduce a couple of new favourites, including “On the Media” and “Planet Money.”  If you have a favourite podcast, please visit the post and leave a link in the comments.

5. What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

I got so many responses to this open call that I followed it with a full week of guest spots: five posts from students explaining how school could be better.  You will find most of those responses in the comments section of this post, along with lots of other interesting ideas on how to improve the education system.

6. “Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

Ah, plagiarism: the inexhaustible inspiration for teacher rants everywhere.  Here, I discuss an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Rob Jenkins explains that we need to just chill out.

7. Character = Behaviour: A Lesson Plan

This extremely successful lesson, in which students write reference letters for fictional characters and, at the same time, learn a bit about how their own behaviours reflect on their characters, is just now coming home to roost.  This winter, I am receiving an unprecedented (i.e. crushing) number of reference letter requests from students who clearly took this lesson to heart.

8. Life and Death and Anthologies

The stats for this post took a couple of random spikes, and I’m not sure why.  I like it a lot, but it’s just a quiet little meditation on the joys of anthologies and of travel, and on the links between the two.  In particular, it describes my experience of reading an anthology of Irish short fiction while travelling through Ireland.  It seems to have resonated with some people.  Perhaps it will for you.

9. Why Do I Have to Learn This?

We don’t always take this question seriously.  Louis Menand says we should.  I agree.

10. What Young Adults Should Read

After a Wall Street Journal essay made some indignant pronouncements about the trash that young people are reading these days, and after everyone got all upset about it, I threw in my two cents.  This post makes special reference to the thoughts and writings of Linda Holmes, blogger at NPR’s “Monkey See” pop culture blog, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and person I most want to be when I grow up (granted, she’s probably younger than me, but I still have a long way to go.)

And, just because I loved it:

Bonus Post: Rolling In the Girls’ Room

I walked into the women’s washroom outside my office.  I discovered three students, two of  them male, sitting on the counter, rolling joints.   This post transcribes a Facebook conversation with my friends and colleagues, in which my response to this event is analyzed, critiqued, and mostly (but not entirely) supported.

*

Resolutions for 2012:

  • Continue to post on Mondays and Thursdays.  Posts will, if all goes well, appear around 9 a.m., although dissemination to Facebook, OpenSalon etc. may be slightly delayed, as I am teaching early classes.  If you want to be sure to know about posts the moment they go up, please make use of the “Sign Me Up!” button at the top of the right-hand margin to receive email notifications for every post.
  • Tweet more!  I am lazy Twitterer.  However, I find all sorts of cool stuff that I don’t have time to blog about but should really share with you all.  So now I will.  Again, there is a button to the right that will allow you to follow me at @siobhancurious.  Follow me!
  • Be present, be present, be present.

Do you have a favourite post that you read here this year, and that I haven’t mentioned above?  Do you have blogging or teaching resolutions that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment.  I always love hearing from you.

Thursday’s post: my favourite reading experiences of 2011.

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone!

Image by Maxime Perron Caissy

Unfriendly Grammar: A Reply

On Monday, I published a letter from S, who feels the urge to delete friends from her social networks when they write updates full of grammatical errors.  You had lots of interesting responses.  Here’s mine.

Dear S,

I sympathize.  I really do.  But I can’t commiserate, I’m afraid.  I’ve had to work too hard to overcome the response you describe.

People have different priorities.  Those of us who prioritize grammar and clear communication may see it as an almost moral concern.  Believing oneself to be right about something often entails believing that one is, quite simply, better than those who don’t care about that thing.

However, a concern with correct grammar (and its relatives: sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, accurate vocabulary etc.)  is a fairly rarified preoccupation.  And those of us who are preoccupied with it are that way, not because we are better or smarter or right, but because we LIKE grammar.  Maybe not grammar rules (although some of us like those, too), but the effects of correct grammar.  We like the sound of a well-constructed sentence.  We like the clarity of the appropriate word.  Our ears are grated by faulty constructions.  We’ve probably read a lot of books, some of them very snooty books, and we have learned more or less osmotically what sounds right.

Here’s the thing, though.  What sounds right to me – and I am, as you may well know, OBSESSED with grammatical correctness – may in fact be incorrect in some circles.  For example, I know there are people who still castigate those who use “impact” as a verb.  A few years ago, I would have been among the castigators.  Now, I use it freely.  It’s useful, just as the verb “unfriend” (liberally used in your letter) is useful.

I nevertheless still cannot abide the usage “If I would have known….”  Why?  No reason.  It’s wrong, but no more wrong than plenty of other things, and the meaning is clear.    It just bothers me, especially when I hear a news reporter or an English teacher use it.  “Bothers me” is in fact much too mild: it makes me nuts.  So does the word “relatable” and the “its/it’s” confusion you mention.  Other stuff, not so much.

A colleague once sat in my office for almost half an hour, bemoaning her inability to get her students to stop writing sentences beginning with “This.”  As in, “Our house is on fire.  This is a problem.”  For some obscure reason, she hated such constructions.  Maybe she was right; I have no idea.  I certainly didn’t feel like getting into a lather over it, and was a bit disconcerted by how much it upset her.

I am sometimes unable to restrain myself from raging about a foible that peeves me.  However, I frequently hearken back to a conversation I had years ago with another colleague who had ventured into the world of internet dating.  She’d been communicating  with a man  whom she liked quite a lot.  “But I don’t think I can meet him,” she said.  “I’m not going to be able to date him.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because there are spelling and grammar errors in his emails,” she said.

Now, this woman was an English teacher.  I could certainly understand that clear writing was a priority for her.  Here’s the problem, though: that very morning, I had received an email from her that had three glaring errors in it, errors that just happened to fall into my wheelhouse of abominations.  I had to bite my tongue very hard, and I also formed a new opinion of her chances of finding happiness in love.

Mostly, though, it made me realize that my own ravings about misplaced modifiers and apostrophes in plurals might be undercut by lapses of my own, and that others might be thinking, “Well, you used ‘hopefully’ wrong last time we met.”

Which is to say: I try to maintain some humility about this.  I still get irritated, but if I need to run off at the mouth, I try to focus on something specific – my hatred of the use of “aggravate” to mean “irritate,” for example, which according to some people (including Charles Dickens) is not even wrong.  I try not to make sweeping judgements about people based on how well they spell or conjugate.   People make language errors for myriad reasons: dyslexia, limited education, second-language interference, innate ability…I may think less of someone whose poor grammar seems to arise from pure laziness, but I remind myself that, even if that’s the cause, others may judge me the same way for taking taxis when I could easily walk.

Here’s the truth: I enjoy the company of people who know how to use words.  Their ability to use words is one of the reasons I enjoy their company.  However, I enjoy other people for all sorts of other reasons.  Just because they don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer me.  In fact, while I was busy learning to nit-pick about grammar, they may have been off doing things that had actual constructive impacts on others’ lives.

Go easy on people.  In return, they just might go easy on you.

*

What do you think of this advice?  Leave a comment below!

Have a question about language, teaching, learning, writing or other concerns that Auntie Siobhan can help you with?  Send it to me through my contact page.

Image by Shirley Booth

Unfriendly Grammar

The other day, I received a letter from a reader who is having an extreme emotional response to others’ bad grammar.  What should she do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan,

Would you consider writing a post on the issues of being an English teacher and social media user?

When I read status updates on Facebook and other social media sites, I actually want to unfriend people who make consistent grammatical errors. If anyone posts on my wall and uses “lol” or “its” instead of “it’s” (or worse, “it’s” instead of “its”) I have the great urge to delete the friend and the message. Is there something wrong with me?

Sometimes I want to write to friends and correct them but I know that I’d look like a pedantic twit if I did. I don’t mind the odd typo, but I get scared when it seems as though friends of mine don’t know how to write in English.

Remember in 1984, when they had Newspeak and they trimmed down the language? That could happen to our language! It’s losing its meaning.

It could be argued that if you can’t articulate a thought you are not having the thought. I don’t want our language to be reduced to lols.  I’ve only unfriended one person so far, but I’ve unsubscribed from many…I know that many great writers invented words, and that our language is always changing. I’m all for developments and new ways of expression, but I fear the sloppy use of language and shrinking meanings.

What should I do?  It’s really making me crazy.

Yours, S.

I’ve written a response, but haven’t yet sent it to S – I will publish it on Thursday.  In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.  Have  you ever had a similar urge?  Is bad grammar reason enough to unfriend someone in the social media world?  Let us know what you think.

Image by miamiamia

How to Cheat

So I came across this Wikihow site the other day.  It details 120 ways to cheat on a test.

Does this say something about:

a) kids these days?

b) human nature?

c) the inevitable descent into absolute amorality/immorality for which the internet will prove responsible?

d) a revolution in human thinking that I’m too old and prissy to understand?

e) all of the above?

My favourite part is the introduction:

Cheating is considered dishonest. It counts as stealing and lying. There are some cases, however, where cheating on a test might be argued to be acceptable. Sometimes there are tests that are the result of politics, rather than practicality.

The wiki is in fact helpful for teachers, whose minds will pop at some of the instructions.  Write on your hands with skin-coloured gel ink?  Use a compass to scratch answers into the cover of a metal binder?  Tape a paper inside your hood and then put your hoodie on backwards? (Seriously? Like no one will notice?) Score an eraser down the middle and write notes on the inside?  Wouldn’t studying be easier?

Many of the methods involve using a cell phone.  This brings up the inevitable question: in a world where everyone has a cell phone with them at all times (everyone except, ahem, me, as I would prefer to save my money and NOT be reachable every second of the day, thank you), does it make sense to give tests for which a quick internet search or a text to a friend will turn up an answer?

I know that if I cared to look, I’d find plenty of things online that would horrify me more than this wiki.  I know there’s no use in being morally outraged about school cheating – students who cheat find this outrage amusing.  I hear students in the hallways all the time saying things like, “Why didn’t you just cheat, you idiot?” or “This calculator is perfect for cheating – the bottom slides right out.”

What’s a teacher to do?  Is cheating more rampant than ever, or is it something that always has been and always will be?  I – most of us, I think – approach cheating as a moral problem, as if we could solve it by teaching students right from wrong.  This clearly isn’t working.  Is it school, and tests, that have to change?

Image by David Hartman

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,992 other followers