Monday, July 27, 2009

My High School Teacher Doesn't Agree

I get a lot of static from students when I say something that differs from what they were taught in high school. They seem insulted that a college lecturer might know more or be more specialized than a high school teacher. They are put out that the information from Miss Phipps in the 7th grade isn't the last word on a topic. For those people, I'll throw out a few observations and a question or two:

Public school teachers don't need specialized education. Yes it's true. Especially in the lower grades (and many of my students haven't actually done anything with English since the 7th grade) a general degree in education is enough. That's not true in college. A master's degree in the specific subject is the minimum to teach here, and most college instructors have more.

Ohio doesn't require any public school teachers to know anything about English grammar. (That one speaks for itself, though they may have tightened up the requirements in the last few years. Even if the rules do tighten up, there are plenty of ignorant teachers out there.)

Even the best teacher in the world pitches a topic differently to a 12-year-old than to a college freshman. Seventh-graders are wonderful people, but they simply cannot deal very well with abstract thinking. They don't have much experience. They are on a very elementary level.

The source of the problem

A teacher who doesn't know grammar and usage that well is facing a bright-eyed 12-year-old who needs a concrete answer that will always be true. The result? The teacher (who doesn't want to look like an idiot to this child) makes up a fake rule on the spot, and the child faithfully memorizes it. Other (better) teachers talk to the same child and know that the elementary levels are better for laying down foundations, not for inserting insecurity, so more rules (nearly correct ones) come in. Yet other teachers who were taught in ancient tradition show up and don't realize that the English language likes to change and adapt very quickly, so they teach the child rules that come from Latin—rules that never did work in English.

A partial list of fake rules
  1. Put in a comma when you take a breath. No! No! No! A comma is not a mark for public speaking. It has nothing to do with the writer's physical condition. It's a grammar mark.
  2. There are no grammar rules, just opinions. People who teach this are just plain ignorant. They simply do not know what they are talking about. Punctuation isn't like the sprinkles on an ice cream cone. It's not a matter of personal taste. (If it were, then written communication would be impossible. We would all have our own systems.)
  3. Any sentence over seven words long is a run-on. Obviously people who teach that one have never read anything in their lives. One teacher who taught this lie told me the reason: "It's easier than teaching structure." I nearly punched here then and there.
  4. Every essay must have five paragraphs. This is another rule from people who haven't read anything. I'll sometimes teach the five, but only as a means of getting people into structure. REAL writing has a structure that comes from the subject.
  5. You must end with the words "In conclusion." This rule only applies if you are speaking at a Rotary Club dinner and want to kill your audience with boredom.
  6. The word "Although" at the beginning of a sentence always has a comma after it. No! No! No! It almost never has a comma after it. Yes, the CLAUSE it begins usually ends with a comma, but that's a different matter.
Yes, there are a lot of "always" and "never" rules. (For example, always begin a sentence with a capital letter and end a sentence with some kind of punctuation that has a dot.) Generally, though, the "always" rules that involve counting things or avoid thinking about structure and meaning are LIES.

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