The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it

I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and my own 12 years as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their primary language, English.

My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.

I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.

I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.

The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.

Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?

You'd think this was a parody flashcard.
You’d think this was a parody flashcard…

I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good” my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.

In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.

A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.” Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.

What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it. 

I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.

If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.

Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!

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14 thoughts on “The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it”

  1. I read voraciously (when we use one of those good words, someone would always shout out “SAT word”!) and picked up a whopper vocabulary. I agree with you that just sprinkling big words doth not good writing make. The big vocabulary, however, allows you to write pieces that are more unique. Sometimes the sky really is “azure” and not blue, and the word just sounds right there. Also, the vocabulary helps you get out of the cliché rut : people often don’t notice when they use common similes or metaphors, but used in large amounts, the piece can sound like a cheap dime store novel. Instead of saying, ” He drank like a fish, ” you could say something like, “he drank alcohol as if the world were out of water”. Not saying that’s a particularly great example, but one good way to make your writing stand out is to avoid those overused expressions, and that does require vocabulary. But I agree that there is no need to throw in the big words just to impress. When I started writing, I did the exact opposite – I insulted my readers by assuming they wouldn’t understand the “SAT “words and wrote down to them. I always remembered one incident when I was in middle school – I was taking tennis lessons with these two snotty sisters, and I remarked that there were so many mosquitoes that we needed insect repellant. The older girl snapped, “Why can’t you say bug spray like everybody else?! “. I really internalized that and used the smallest words possible around most people, lest they detect that I was smart, and therefore wouldn’t fit in with them. It took me a long time to find medium ground.

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  2. We were always taught to use ‘good words’ in India. Or teachers had the best of intentions, but killed creativity. We had to write for examiners ONLY. And then one day (grade 9) we had a workshop with a journalist who wrote for one of the premier newspapers in country. He asked us if we knew what made a good article. The student who was the brightest amongst us promptly said ‘Good vocabulary’ and the nice journalist man smiled and said, ‘No. It helps if you don’t use big words but try to get your message across as simply and as interestingly as you can.’ Light bulb moment!

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  3. It may be hard to believe considering my lengthy posts, but I have also served as the editor of two separate monthly newsletters (one for business and one for a Christian ministry) for a total of about 4-5 years experience. There is a certain amount of vocabulary and grammar that you learn from the classroom, textbooks, reading and your own writing. But if you really want to apply your language skills, try editing a bloated article written by an amateur writer so that it fits into the space and length you asked for. You learn ways to make the article more concise, precise and stand out so that it does a far better job of explaining the topic. My job was to make them look good for the sake of the organization and to fulfill the purpose of the newsletter. No one ever complained that I chopped up their article, so I guess I accomplished my objective.
    Lois

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  4. My writing has ben influenced by two very different teachers who later became well known as writers.
    The first was my second form English professor at a boarding school. He was a brutal task master who insisted on a broad vocabulary and mastery of grammar. His homework every week consisted of the following exercise: On Monday, he would write a sentence on the board and instruct us to copy it into our journal. Every night we had two activities to do with that sentence. 1. restructure the sentence grammatically without changing its meaning. and 2. Replace at least one word in the sentence with a synonym.
    The final exercise on Sunday night was to offer a new sentence with the same substantive meaning using a different structure and word order with words that are synonymous with the words in the original sentence.
    This man is now well known for his historical writings of the American revolutionary period. To him, I owe a debt of gratitude for my love of linguistic form and my diverse vocabulary. Thanks Mr. M!
    The second was my sophomore creative writing professor. He was a stickler for economy of verbiage; his way of saying that “If you used two words to say something, see if there is any way you can say the same thing with fewer words.” He also was a big believer in peer critique. He only held class once a week and insisted that we come with a copy of our work for each class member and one for himself. You come to class, give everyone a copy of your work for the week and collect copies of all the other students work. Then we would have a freeform discussion about the pieces of work from last week. What worked, what didn’t, what spoke to you, what left a sour taste in your mouth and what you would have done differently. At the end of class, you return your annotated copy along with written critique to the author and collect your critiques from your classmates. Then you go home and spend the whole week reading your classmates critiques of your work, writing critiques of their work, and writing new works for next week. This man continues to teach, is a poet of some renown in the deep south and edits a quarterly online literary magazine. To him, my brevity.
    Thanks G!

    All of this is a non-G like way of saying, words matter, but using them effectively is essential as well. I try to consider my intended audience and write in a way that will best reach them.

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  5. Okay, I definitely have to take this to heart. Sometimes I use bigger words just for the sake of using them, instead of applying them where they fit the best. I’m still growing as a writer though, and this article has helped my growth. Thanks for this post! I enjoyed it.

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  6. Hey Karen, thanks for your thoughts on teaching English. I think any subject can be uphill for a student who is not gifted in that area. I love teaching English also because the literature opens people’s minds to experiences, to themes, to foibles, to compassion and empathy. I love words. The big word is not the best, but the right word is. I’m sorry I haven’t scoured your blog enough yet to see where you teach. I’m teaching in Santa Monica at a private Christian school at http://thelighthousechristianacademy.com I just finished Antigone with my freshman class. Creon’s stubbornness can show students the dangers of being stubborn.

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    1. That’s wonderful! I teach at a public high school on the South Side of Chicago. How do you like teaching at a Christian school? I’ve always felt rather torn between my desire to teach in a Christian/Catholic environment, where I’d be able to explicitly talk about Christian virtues, and teaching at disadvantaged public schools where good teachers are so needed!

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      1. If you are teaching in public school, I think you have a wonderful opportunity to help those children. Of course, you can’t openly present your Christian values, but you certainly can lead discussions in a wise way. I have a friend who teaches in the public school. Eventually God gave him so much favor that he was able to invite a former gang member to come speak about gangs and drugs in assembly and present the gospel. I’ll pray for God to open doors for you. Btw, the self-drawing is cute. Keep in touch!

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  8. Absolutely spot on – my over excitement when finding new words and sometimes my desire to impress (maybe backlash from school) tends to ruin my verse and prose. Writing that reflects YOU as a person is valuable, writing that merely reflects your capacity to describe and relate in great clarity doesn’t always fit the bill.

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