As a teacher, part of my job is to critique the work of my students in an effort to make them better writers. Occasionally, my criticism will rankle a pupil to the point where he or she will feel compelled to “strike back” at me in the form of a letter. It is nearly always anonymous, often sarcastic and generally takes the form of a personal assault. I received just such a letter last month.
My first reaction to the missive, which listed Kenny Rogers as the author and displayed 500 E. Grand (the high school) as the return address, was to become defensive and angry.
Since I assumed the note was not actually from Kenny (how cool would that be, especially since he is too old to have been one of my students?), I could have easily chalked it up as just another misguided attack from a disgruntled teen. After all, the note, which went to great lengths to point out every error I allegedly made in a column I wrote in early July, had its own share of problems. “Sincerely” was misspelled.
Most of the errors identified were, in fact, not mistakes at all. Several that were pointed out could be attributed to style rules, including use of commas and numbering. As nearly as I could tell, only two of the goofs were accurately noted, and only one of those, a sentence fragment, was truly my mistake.
The communiqué writer assigned my column a grade of D-, based on a score of 70.8 percent. Unlike in my classroom, no rubric that assigned specific numbers to that score was included.
Quite frankly, if a student turned in a lengthy essay containing only the number of mistakes attributed to me in my July column, it would more likely receive a grade in the mid 90s.
So, I was tempted to dismiss out of hand the comments of someone who loosely identified himself or herself as one of my students.
Upon further reflection, however, I began to see that this letter was actually a compliment. I submit the following evidence: (1) the student took the time to carefully read my column, albeit searching for ways to ambush me; (2) the student did a decent job of editing my writing, indicating at least a basic understanding of writing rules; and (3) the student went to the effort to contact me rather than just be satisfied with grumbling about my teaching techniques to acquaintances through some other means, i.e. gossip, Facebook, YouTube.
Were I able to have a face-to-face conversation with this student, I would be remiss not to point out that he or she must have me confused with some other writing teacher. I was accused in the letter of expecting my students to be perfect. I do not recall ever asking young writers to achieve perfection, just to pursue it.
Besides, is setting high standards such a bad thing in education? Should I reward mediocrity as good enough when many students are capable of so much more?
The author of the letter also incorrectly stated that I do not allow my students to start sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) and suggested it was hypocritical of me to include several such examples in my column.
To set the record straight, I have never ascribed to that rule and have often pointed out that good writers utilize fragments to enhance their compositions. All I ask is that such deviations from standard, formal English are not overused, and the teen writer understands when a fragment is a fragment.
I know, I know. I am starting to sound like I am defending myself to make the kid look bad. On the contrary, I do not want to come across as belittling the student, who took the time to correspond with me in order to express some concerns about my teaching style.
I actually want to thank the person who wrote me. Rest assured, I will do some soul searching as I ponder whether, as I believe is most likely the case, a personality conflict between this student and me is what led to his or her decision to take some action.
Did I come across as arrogant? Did I talk down to him or her? Was my criticism perceived as sarcasm? These are all things I can—and perhaps should—work on as I start a new school year.
So, thank you, Kenny Rogers. Not only did you give me an opportunity to re-examine my approach to teaching writing, you also gave me a solid topic for my column this month. I owe you one, whoever you are.