Guest Post by Tess Mueggenborg
In a world plastered with poor writing, it is a struggle to convince students that learning to write well is a task worthy of time and energy. Yet I persist, in this tedious and possibly futile pursuit, because I believe it is best for my students, and crucial to the intellectual sustenance of humanity.
My students are, supposedly, the best and brightest of their generation. Contrary to what some other teachers think, this doesn’t mean they’re easy to teach. My classroom battles begin in much the same way as every other teacher: convincing my students that what I’m teaching them is worth learning. But I have an added challenge: worse than just being apathetic, my students are often combative, and they have the brain cells to back up their resistance to my proffered educational nuggets. In their daily life, my students are inundated with crappy writing…written by people who are getting along just fine in life. By and large, their parents don’t know what a comma is…much less how to use it correctly. Their peer-to-peer dialogue is a mashed-up mixture of text-speak, generation-specific slang, and Spanglish. And with this hybrid cut-and-paste short-cut of a “language,” they feel that they are able to communicate quite effectively. So why should they have to pay attention to my lessons on commas and dangling modifiers, homophones and varied syntax, and the difference between a semi-colon and a dash? (I shudder to think of their protests if I tried to differentiate between an em-dash and an en-dash…oh, the horror! the horror!) With a nod to pragmatism, I’m forced to concede: to a large extent, they’re right.
Many of my fellow teachers don’t know comma rules (or don’t take the time to employ them), and they certainly struggle with homophones (attention: IT’S means IT IS – it’s NOT a possessive pronoun. Oh, sorry, you don’t know what a possessive pronoun means, so that tidbit doesn’t mean anything to you). But they’re certainly not in any danger of losing their jobs for this, or being dinged on their annual reviews for imprecise use of language…since the administrator will probably comment to them: “You’re communication is excellent – your a great teacher!”. When I see such errors committed, a little part of my soul cries in pain: not for the stupidity and ignorance of my coworkers, but because of the example they set for my students. My students are right to question me and push back against my lessons on grammar and usage: if everyone else is living happily in the land of grammar ignorance, and are none the worse for it, why should they bother with the mundane nuances of the English language?
My answer to my students’ queries of “why” is simple: because you can. Because you have the brain cells to notice and understand what are, to many people, subtle or irrelevant differences. Because you should try to be the best person you can be, and that includes communicating. And if that means you have to learn some new things and you’re irritated every time you see grocery store sign advertising “Banana’s for sale,” so be it.
In spite of ever-mounting evidence that I have litttle chance for success, my job is to convince my students that they must learn to write well, and that writing well is a worthwhile pursuit…and I will continue in this likely futile endeavor, because it is what my pained word-nerd, grammar-geek soul demands of me.
“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School. Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature. The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg