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Oh, teachers – seriously?
I know it’s not politic to say the things I’m about to say, but I’m frustrated and angry. Last week, about 1 a.m. one night, I got an email from a student who’s been having a really rough term. She’s come out of the junior college system, and is one of my students. She’s an older, non-traditional student, by which I mean she’s not in the 18-22-year-old age bracket – and she’s smart. At the end of her email was a statement I’ve heard or seen one too many times:

“All this time in school I have been looking for someone to tell me what I was doing wrong so I could make it right and when it happened, I did not understand it. Up until this term, it can be said that I have been getting by. I have had instructors giving me A’s on my papers and telling me how wonderful they were. When in all reality a high school kid probably could have written better papers… I have you and I have (another professor) analyzing my papers, for the first time in my college life. I appreciate all the hard work and time you have spent on me…”

She’s right in that her papers have needed a lot of work. But hang it all, it’s not her fault. As far as I can tell, it’s the teachers she had in high school and junior college who simply did not drill the basics of the English language into her head.

And no, this is not an isolated Oregon problem. When I first started teaching over seven years ago at a couple of public universities (in a couple of different states), I was shocked at what I was seeing. I checked in with my public relations colleagues teaching all across the country. “These kids can’t write!” I shouted through cyberspace. “They’re darned near illiterate!” To my dismay, they said, “Welcome to the club.” They were fighting the same battles. A whole generation seemed to be slipping away in a muddy whirlpool of illiteracy.

I finally started asking the students themselves what on earth had happened. When we’d get midway through a term and I was still being handed papers that were more or less at a junior high school level, I asked them how they were graded in high school (or in any previous college classes), and what they were taught. What they have said, very consistently, is that they weren’t taught grammar, punctuation or spelling; and that their teachers graded them only on intent.

Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, teachers? How on earth can you gauge intent if the grammar is so mangled the message is obscured? How can you gauge intent when an entire essay is just “stream of consciousness” writing, rambling and disjointed, with little or no relevance to the topic at hand?

O.K., I’ll throw in something for the benefit of the doubt: maybe the problem is not with the teachers. I’ve never taught in a K-12 system or at a junior college, so for all I know the problem is with school administrators, school boards, and bureaucrats in general. Maybe people who never step foot inside a classroom decide what teachers should teach, and how, and then tie the whole mess to public funding. I don’t know.

Nor do I know if you can blame lack of parental support for the fact that a teacher is grading on intent and overlooking grammar and spelling. Conversely, too much parental support can also undermine a student. One colleague at a public university called her students “sweet little snowflakes.” I asked her why, and she said “Because nobody’s ever told them anything different.”

Sometimes we’ll see a news report about educators who pad grades in order to make test results look good or graduation rates look good – all at the expense of the students, who remain woefully uneducated.

I don’t know where the real problem lies, but I sure have some questions. How can any of us justify turning out minimally-educated students with a casual “good luck” as they try to make their way in the outside world? Why are we – the so-called educators – throwing this burden over to the businesses who now have to tell the students they just can’t cut it? When did we lose the understanding that you don’t give a kid self-esteem – he or she has to earn it? When did we forget that softening grades means we don’t believe a student can learn? When did we lose sight of the fact that constant praise will make a kid constantly feel entitled to more constant praise without constantly doing something to earn it? Deep down, those kids know it’s all a pretense; they know.

When I ran my public relations firm, I used to say I would so love it if I could get paid just for showing up in the morning. Instead, for some perverse reason, I would only get paid if I produced results. So I did. And so must our students. We are expressing faith in them when we challenge them; we are doing them – and our entire society – a terrible disservice if we give them constant praise, padded grades and grade them only on intent. That’s a direct and underhanded message that we don’t believe they can do it.

Seriously.

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It’s about 7 am on Sunday morning, Feb. 13, and Bear – my Belgian Shepherd – and I are quietly ensconced in the den.  Bear is dozing, glad to be home after his hip replacement surgery two days ago, and I suspect equally glad for the morning’s dose of pain medication that he got just a little while ago.

I am reflecting on the events of the past five weeks or so.  On January 6th I flew to Australia to visit an old  friend from high school days, now retired in Coffs Harbour – about a seven-hour drive north of Sydney on the same coast, or a one-hour plane hop.  Sue and her partner, Trish, are both retired high school principals, and I knew they’d have no problems with the fact that I had to do some online teaching while I was there.

Dorrigo Rain Forest, New South Wales

At the edge of the Dorrigo Rain Forest, New South Wales

For most of the first week, it rained.  The weather was part of the same storm system that was then inundating the state of Queensland, a good ways to the north of us.  Each night we watched the heartbreaking scenes on the evening news.  People lost their homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases, beloved family members or friends.

And yet, night after night, when reporters interviewed these people, there was not a word of complaint.  The general attitude was, “We’ll have to just pick up and go on.  We’ll get through this, somehow.”

No one whined; it turns out that the Australians hate whiners.  That lack of complaint and the displays of Australian toughness and resilience were impressive enough just as they were.  But the other thing I noticed was the use of the word “we.”  Australians feels they are all part of their country; nowhere did I notice a sense of “me.”  It was nearly always “we.”

That sense of “we” was never more evident than what happened immediately during and after the Queensland flooding.  Suddenly there were donation boxes and cans everywhere in Coffs Harbour, and – I was soon to find – in Sydney, where I finished up the last two days of the trip.  I’m sure those donation cans and boxes showed up throughout the continent, although in Perth wildfires had already started and those emergencies began to take precedence.

The harbor at Coffs Harbour - a beautiful coastal resort community

There were several other things I noticed about Australians.  They are open, friendly, and laid-back people and they seem, at least from my cursory two-week glance, to be a people without the cynicism and anger that seems to have spread like a virus here in the U.S.  That being said, they still have their share of problems.  I started reading the “Sydney Morning Herald” before my trip, and find that I still check the online edition every other day or so.  There are the usual crimes one would expect in a large city, and they are not immune to difficulties with politicians, economic problems, and other issues.  Still, I kept noticing how much Australians reach out to help each other with even the smallest of things: carrying groceries out of a store, picking up something that’s fallen, giving assistance to someone trying to manage a baby carriage.  The cheery phrase, “No worries, mate” was something I heard often.

I also picked up on some startling differences in the media.  I happen to subscribe to “Reader’s Digest,” an old addiction from childhood, and my friends had the Australian edition in their home.  I was startled to find the Australian edition full of positive, uplifting stories while the American edition was full of more fear-laden “Can this happen to you?” types of articles.  I think I need to speak to the editors about that…

View of the Sydney Opera House from zoo ferry

View of Sydney Opera House from the zoo ferry

The newspapers were different as well.  I brought back a copy of the Coffs Harbour “Advocate,” because I was laughing so hard at the headlines, full of puns and plays on words.  People were pumped up about a new sewer line; a local construction firm felt hammered – and more.  Turns out the Australian love of words is evident nearly everywhere – from verbal rhymes which seemingly make no sense to the outsider, to puns in headlines.  There is a playfulness in all of it that is delightful.

I got home to the U.S. on January 22nd, after two weeks which gave me the mental rejuvenation – the hard “re-boot” – that I’d needed for several months.  Just a few days later, protests began in Egypt, and the world watched – and waited.  I discovered the tweets of Egyptian journalist Sarah El Sirgany, and told my students to follow the events online.  It readily became apparent that civilian Egyptians were carrying out security checks for anyone wanting to enter Tahrir Square – they didn’t want any firearms or any violence.  Later, I wrote on my Facebook page that  I cannot remember another time in my life when an entire nation – unable to vote – brought about revolution by peaceful means. Incredible self-restraint among the Egyptian people; incredible persistence until voices were heard.

Bear - sleeping off some pain meds

This morning, Bear and I slowly went out to get the morning paper.  He is limping heavily, of course, and I have a sling for his hind quarters to help support him and get him up and down the back ramp and over some rough spots.  Once we were back inside, I indulged in my favorite Sunday morning pastime: reading the funnies and “Parade” magazine before getting to the hard news of the day.  I checked in with Doonesbury – another 30-year-old habit – and there found that Gary Trudeau had hit the nail on the head yet again: ‘What are we like as a people?  Well, let’s look at two sets of facts…nine years ago, we were attacked.  3,000 people died.  In response, we started two long, bloody wars and build a vast homeland security apparatus – all at a cost of trillions! Now, consider this. During those same nine years, 270,000 Americans were killed by gunfire at home.  Our response?  We weakened our gun laws.”

Consider that. 

I wonder how my own beloved country can finally cast off fear, cynicism and anger, and begin to disarm ourselves, as private individuals, voluntarily – so that we get our sense of “we” back, and do not always feel the need to be protected from each other.  We have such a wonderful history of being an open, hospitable, friendly people.  Surely we can regain our American optimism and American “can do” spirit once again.   I’m spending the next eight weeks helping Bear to heal; I’m wondering what it will take for our amazing country to heal as well.

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I’m about to start teaching my two seminars in social media and public relations again for Marylhurst University, and although I’m always really excited about these classes, they also take the most amount of research and preparation for just about any class that I teach.  The social media world changes so quickly that I’m generally in a small panic just before the first day of class, hoping that what I present is both timely and relevant.  Then I remember that in these particular seminars, we’ll all be teaching each other; my job is simply to present the road map for how to get where we’re going.

Nevertheless, here I am on New Year’s Day researching again, and grateful to fall back on some of the best social media minds out there.  For example, just before Christmas Deidre Breakenridge posted some tips on engaging with Twitter and Facebook: http://www.deirdrebreakenridge.com/2010/12/how-to-engage-on-facebook-and-twitter/.

And Brian Solis, who is not just brilliant but a lot of fun in his presentations, has written a post titled “Once More, with Feeling: Making Sense of Social Media:

http://www.briansolis.com/2010/07/once-more-with-feeling-making-sense-of-social-media/

I start to relax a little when I realize how many sources are out there, and how many more sources my students will no doubt contribute to the class.  Online learning becomes a team effort, and we all move forward together: that’s one of the best things about it.  Rather than serve as some kind of authoritarian instructor, which puts almost unbearable pressure on me, I can simply open a few doors for my students and encourage them to walk through; they get it almost immediately.  Empowered, they go beyond what I realized what possible in any given class.

I’m also re-doing a client’s web site, have plans to re-do my own web sites – one for my private consulting, one for my particular service to our troops and veterans – and I swear, this year, I’ll be more consistent about blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo.  I do find, as some of my colleagues do, that after and eight- or 10-hour stint on the computer each day, I’m not always amenable to chat time or computer games.

Meantime, I’m preparing to teach another Marylhurst seminar on the law and ethics of public relations and a class in public relations writing for the University of Montana.  My students range from traditional college-aged students (up to their early 30s or so) in Montana to mostly older working adults at Marylhurst, with a few younger exceptions.  Without fail, these students really want to learn – but they also have vastly different learning styles across the generations.   One of my over-arching goals is to help equip all of my students with some of the skills they’ll need to compete in today’s difficult economic climate.  That’s not an easy task, for any of us; I research and write, they read and write, we talk and discuss and collaborate and dig in.   But by the end of each term, there are those students whom you know are going to zoom for the stars.

And that keeps people like me chugging right along… so here’s to 2011 and the adventures that I know lie ahead!

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In recent months, I have heard from too many friends and too many students entering my classes that their high school teachers – and sometimes college instructors at other institutions – graded the work they did in their English and writing classes by content alone, with no attention paid to grammar, spelling or punctuation.  I don’t know what their teachers thought they were doing.  Did they think the business world pays no attention to how content is presented?  Did they think that a garbled, misspelled, clumsy message was going to carry professional weight?  Did they think for one moment about preparing their students for the job market?

I’m furious at teachers who have done this, and not for my own sake.  Granted, I spend more time than I would like doing some remedial teaching to students who shouldn’t need the instruction by the time they get to college.  But most of all, I’m furious that these teachers have betrayed their students. 

Add to that the fact that the schools are forever asking for more money in order to succeed, and I really start shaking my head in disbelief.  Maybe they need more equipment in science labs, or for band instruments, or sports, or shop, or any of a number of other classes that use equipment.  But all you need to teach a decent use of the language is pen and paper.  A dictionary.  You don’t even need a computer (Shakespeare didn’t have a computer; neither did Homer, or John Steinbeck – or the writers of the U.S. Constitution.).

You need an instructor who cares about a well-crafted sentence; you need an instructor whose love of literature and love of communication comes through in every class session.  You need an instructor who is willing to take the long way around, with no shortcuts.  You need an instructor who understands that how the content is packaged is as important as the content itself; that it’s important to tell students about subject/verb agreement, about run-on sentences, about fragments, about the need for a subject and a verb, and a modifier that isn’t left hanging as if ready to fall off a cliff.

Does that take more money?  No, absolutely not.  It takes instructors who know the language and have a passion for the language as well as a desire to help students be the best that they can be.

That a full third of our area high school students don’t graduate is alarming and indicative of this same trend.  In addition, our local Oregonian newspaper reports that most students who take classes in English as a Second Language don’t learn English.  A dear friend back in Montana used to prepare his college students for a semester studying in Vienna by taking them out for beer once a week and allowing only German to be spoken there for several hours.  Immersion still works.  If you have a few basics, your ear will pick up the rest, and pretty soon you’ll be speaking the language.  When my friend Magda, from Poland, lived with me the first year she was in the U.S., she would call home every Saturday morning, and after a while I came to know what subject was being discussed. I could figure out when she was talking about school, about work, or about other family members.

Why, then, is it so darned difficult for teachers of English and writing to hold students to standards that will help them succeed on the job?  Why is more money necessary?  Why can’t a given instructor simply tell a student, “No, you can’t use a plural form of the verb and a singular form of the noun.  They have to both be plural or both be singular.””  What’s so hard about that?  Are teachers afraid of hurting students’ feelings?  Why?  Isn’t it going to hurt a whole lot worse when they lose a job – if they get hired in the first place?  What on earth is going on here?

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I love teaching.  I think I’ve been working toward this a lot longer than just the past five years I spent planning and then getting my Master’s in Communications Management at Syracuse.   I find a renewed gratitude toward the parents whose love of the language set the bar pretty hard in terms of trying to achieve something on my own; a renewed gratitude toward them as well for the introduction to Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, with their wonderful satire; and to Danny Kaye, whose wit and facility with words remains unmatched. 

So now, when I work with anyone who does not understand or know the delights of the language, I feel both irritation and sorrow: irritation at the teachers and parents who failed to teach them how to communicate effectively, and sorrow for these students whose worlds remain narrower than they should be. 

Someone told me last week that his high school teachers and his college professors graded papers on content only, and did not pay attention to grammar, spelling or punctuation.  How on earth does this serve the student?  Are those teachers trying to spare hurt feelings?  What about the hurt feelings that come from being unable to find a job that requires a certain degree of literacy?  What about the hurt feelings that come from being fired once it has become obvious that the person cannot write after all? 

Doesn’t anyone tell students anymore that it’s not just content that matters?  Why?  Let me tell you why: if you can’t present the content in a professional, non-distracting way; in a literate way; with as much elegance of style as you can create; with a clarity of vision and singularity of purpose, which spelling, grammar and punctuation enable rather than defeat – then the message doesn’t get through.  And if the message doesn’t get through, what are you there for?

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