Guest Blog Post, Elane Johnson: For the LOVE of the Language

Elane with FrappuccinoAs many writers know, we have to get a “real job” in order to keep those Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos ® coming because those things ain’t cheap, and my thighs aren’t going to get fatter all by themselves. Wait a minute. That’s clearly not true. The longer I sit here doing jack, the more thunderous my thighs become. But I digress.

 

A real job. That’s where I was. There are many careers for which a writer would be a good fit, but just because we would be good at something doesn’t mean we should do it. Sure. I’d be the most celebrated WalMart manager south of Canada, but then I’d have to come home and self-flagellate at night to atone for the murder of my brain cells. So most writers without a multi-volume book deal about zombies coming of age during the apocalypse do that thing we do, which is teach.

 

I’ve many, many years of teaching under my tight belt, and there have been thrills and laughter and heart-warmth and breakthroughs and achievements and success and enormous paychecks that compensated me well for the services I’ve provided. Except for that last part. That’s bullshit. Anyone who teaches knows. Teachers—even those with an M.F.A. in creative writing—get paid squat to impart our wordsmith’s knowledge to hordes of students who may or may not capitalize the personal pronoun I. Yet we continue because A) We love our language and its beauty. B) We care about the success of our students. And C) Those Frappuccinos ain’t going to buy themselves.

 

The English language—while it is the most difficult of all the languages in the world to learn because of its plethora of rules and exceptions and integration of foreign words—thrills me with its lyrical malleability. My father and I played games with grammar all my young life so that I came to appreciate the ways in which a writer may play with the poetry of English. And my own children have blossomed in the linguistic soil their grandfather tilled. My younger daughter delights in learning and sharing new words. She recently dropped this one on me: Apricity. The word sounds lovely, and its meaning slays me. It is a perfect example of how the English language proffers just the right word for any instance. In this case, “the warmth of the sun in winter.” Isn’t that just breathtaking?

 

I rushed to the window that morning—the first of which in weeks the sun had finally burned through the snow-thick clouds—to luxuriate in the apricity.

 

Yes, yes. I know it’s an obsolete word and that we’ve moved on to such accepted terms as homie and vajazzle, for God’s sake, but still. Our language is a living entity, forever evolving (or devolving, it appears). But thank goodness our language throws back some of the “new” words that end up in its net, such as the words some of my students create because they learn primarily through hearing instead of reading. The most common, of course, is should of. Because those two words sound just like should’ve, it’s an oft-made error that makes me want to poke out my eyes with dull sticks. In the last week of grading papers, I’ve come across mind bottling and world wind romance. Lord, help me, but what the hell?

 

Aberrations like these are an affront to writers-who-must-be-teachers-in-order-to-eat everywhere! We poor, struggling souls toil like cats in a sandbox in our attempts to improve the writing skills of our charges. But c’mon! There is no excuse for college students NOT to capitalize I or to think that pit bulls have a “killer instant in them” or that “taking something for granite” means anything! The least that our students can do is to read, read, read excellent models of our language so that they can experience and emulate the right way to write (not the “rite way to wright”). And bringing us a Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino once in a while couldn’t hurt either.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 6

Tomorrow I will be starting my first day of actual work at New Era Public School. I will be shadowing and assisting teachers in different subject areas for the next week, after which I will be assigned a subject area to teach. When I first learned I was to be spending my summer here, the whole idea of teaching seemed incomprehensible to me. Despite being a good student for the better part of my life, I wasn’t able to place myself in that mindset of authority at the front of the classroom. Learning comes easy to me, but teaching? That’s a whole different set of skills altogether.

However, this past week of teacher workshops was a highly engaging and informative experience because I learned something very important from those running the workshops: differentiation is key. Kids are different and have different strengths in different areas of intelligence, and therefore teachers must be steadfast in their ability to be as flexible as possible with their methodologies to effectively teach the curriculum to a wide variety of students.

But with all I’ve learned this week, I’ve also realized that teaching is in not a simple task to accomplish, especially not in the typical Indian classroom. I know this because at one of the final stages of the workshops, teachers are grouped by their subject areas and asked to discuss the application of differential learning techniques in the classroom.

In my group, the subject happened to be English, and the two teachers with whom I was grouped discussed the positive aspects of differentiating classroom teaching. One teacher taught grades K-5 and the other taught grades 6-9, so as I expected, each came up with different techniques to teach their children. However, as I asked them questions about the specifics of their classes, I realized that such diversity in the classroom, though undoubtedly helpful, is nowhere near ideal in a realistic setting. First, both of these teachers teach six separate classes of 45-50 children per day. That’s 300 different students with 300 different sets of strengths and needs that must be adequately addressed by each teacher each day. By my count, my own high school’s teachers taught about four classes of 25-30 children per day, which is 30 kids less than HALF of what the average Indian teacher has to deal with daily. These numbers take on even larger scope when put in terms regarding the subject of English that, despite the school’s recognition of the global utility of the English language in today’s world, exists in an overwhelming majority of Indian households as a third language, preceded in usage by Hindi and a secondary dialect like Punjabi or Gujarati. Therefore, retention of grammatical rules is usually so low that from kindergarten to the beginning of the 9th grade, most students spend the first few weeks of school essentially reviewing the same basic grammatical principles for lack of repetition, engagement, and comprehension.

Furthermore, although the school has several alternative options for children with developmental disabilities, the sheer amount of students greatly lessens the effectiveness of these options for rehabilitative learning. The teachers with whom I spoke try their best to teach their students, but results are often less than ideal.

I have a newfound respect and compassion for the entire profession, especially considering how those who choose this difficult but necessary path can be vastly under appreciated for their hard work.