An End-of-Semester Wish List

dodo-in-tophatMEME

The other night, I graded my last paper of the semester and cracked open the bottle of wine that had been calling out to me all week. As I sipped my single glass of victory, I reflected on the state of my students’ writing.

I couldn’t help but long for them to enter my classes with a better foundation in grammar and syntax, so I came up with a wish list I would like elementary and secondary school teachers to try and fulfill.

  • Properly teach comma use. I want to put a thumbtack,point up, on the chair of every teacher who takes the lazy way out and proclaims, “Put a comma in whenever you pause or take a breath.” They set their students up for a lifetime of comma confusion.
  • Teach other punctuation. I know K-12 teachers are doing this, but I’d appreciate it if they explained that exclamation points shouldn’t end every sentence and question marks should only show up at the end of direct questions. (Oh, and please explain that colons and semicolons are not interchangeable with each other or commas.)
  • Ditch the absolute prohibition of beginning sentences with “because” and replace it with “being that.” Yes, I understand students often end up with sentence fragments if they start sentences with “because.” However, this should not become a lifelong ban. Why not prohibit “being that” instead? Honestly, I can’t think of any good reason for it.
  • Help end creative capitalization. I understand that, in an age of texting and microblogging (Tweeting for the uninitiated), this could be tough. Trying to convince adult learners that the pronoun “I” should always be capitalized is frustrating. Modern texting apps may automatically capitalize it, but students don’t notice. The concept of proper nouns versus common nouns seems to escape them, too.
  • Show students how parts of speech are building blocks to proper sentences. Like parts of an engine or rooms in a building, each part of speech has a role to play to build solid, effective sentences.

The good news, at least for me and my future students, is that the Common Core Standards being implemented in states across America cover these things.

It gives me hope that good grammar, unlike cursive writing, will not follow the path of the dodo.

Can We Teach with Fiction?

Is fiction a good way to teach things? If so, can it be used to teach concepts like history and science?

I don’t know about you, but I’m much more likely to sit down with a good historical novel than a history book. I learn a lot from characters, and I jules vern booklike the omniscient view novels usually provide. Not to mention dialog is a lot easier to get through than long paragraphs of facts.

Fiction makes things come alive. We can learn certain truths through well written fiction. We can learn about character motivations, political strife, or the effect of technology on the way people behave.

But fiction does more than just show us scenarios of human behavior. It inspires us to pursue further knowledge. How many scientists were inspired by all those Star Trek series? Before Gene Roddenberry there were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

How many future police detectives were inspired by Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot?

Want to learn about the French Revolution? Read an unabridged edition of Les Miserables (go ahead, I dare you).

I don’t argue with the stress educators are putting on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). These subjects are important foundations to success in modern society. However, I would argue that a good, solid liberal arts education can lead to success in life, too.

The intelligentsia of the Renaissance had it right: We need a wide ranging knowledge base. More importantly, we need a drive to learn more about everything—especially subjects in which we might not otherwise be interested. This is more important in an era when we are spoon fed information by computer logarithms based on our web surfing habits.

Fiction can help by making unfamiliar subjects more interesting and by sparking in us the urge to learn more.

Who Cares About Shakespeare?

“I don’t know why we have to read Shakespeare,” grumbled a student recently.

Why should we care what someone who’s been dead going on 400 years had to say? What possible relevance could his writing have in an ever-connected, electronic, modern world?

The reason the Bard has lasted half a millennium is because he was a master of exposing the desires and emotions that make us human: envy, greed, arrogance, love, miscommunication, and social status. These things never change.

What sets him apart from a glorified Elizabethan soap opera writer is the way he develops his characters and their interrelationships. His plays are multi-layered. He can evoke sympathy for some of his most evil characters like Iago. He can make us lose patience with the hero (Hamlet).  He can show how the responsibilities of power can change our relationship with our friends (Henry V).

Modern relevance? Shakespeare dealt with depression and mental health issues hundreds of years ago in plays like Hamlet and King Lear. 

However (and this is a big “however”), there are two main problems facing modern readers of Shakespeare’s work. These are what produce groans and complaints from students.

A Rose by Any Other Name

The first is vocabulary. Let’s face it; English has changed in 500 years – a lot! It’s hard enough keeping track of the changes in word meanings and slang from the last half century let alone the last half millennium. And Shakespeare loved throwing in double meanings his Elizabethan audiences would have known and appreciated.

When I want to read Shakespeare, I first have to remind myself of some of the nuances of the vocabulary. Yes, reading the footnotes can be annoying, but they help me “get it.”

When we read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, I had a teacher who was wise enough to realize that Shakespeare’s English was like Greek to us.  He also knew that, if he pointed out some of the racier double entendres, he could keep the attention of his teenage students.  I thought he was a little crazy, but he made the play more real for us.

Any writer knows meaning is vitally important for painting the right picture. English has so many words! Synonyms have shades of meaning that can make a masterpiece out of a cartoon.

With Shakespeare, those shades of meaning are faded and need to be restored for us to appreciate the full richness of his work.

The Play Is the Thing

The second major problem with teaching Shakespeare is that students read the plays. Folks, the Bard’s work was meant for the stage, not the page.

Unlike a novel, where the author sets the scene and describes what is going on, a play is written with off-stage direction and dialog. If we can’t see and hear the speakers, with vocal inflections and body language, it’s really tough to get a good feel for the characters. It’s almost like reading a bunch of statements.

It wasn’t until I took a Shakespeare class in college that I truly appreciated the difference. At the time, PBS was running a series of BBC-produced Shakespeare plays. My professor held play-watching parties at her house. It was fun, and we got to experience Shakespeare the way he wanted us to – by watching the actors.

The Wheel Is Come Full Circle

Too often we think of Shakespeare as some guy sitting in a room churning out plays teachers tell us are masterpieces. Shakespeare lived in a time of political turmoil, intrigue, social class struggles, racism, and religious persecution. He sometimes put things into his plays that could be seen as critical to the monarchy, and he often skirted disaster.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a great PBS series that explores some of Shakespeare’s plays, what they mean, and the setting in which they were written.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare was a real man, living in a real world, with real problems. He used his talent to hold up a mirror to the world to say, “This is what you are, and this is what you could be.”

So, yes, what Shakespeare wrote centuries ago is still very much relevant today.