Thursday, February 20, 2014

Me and Joe Went to the Store: And an English Teacher Weeps

Me and Joe went to the store.

This line in a student essay sent me freefalling over the edge today. I’d only finished grading a short stack of essays, but all of them had too many basic errors like this one.

Most of my community college students this semester don’t know that it should be “Joe and I went to the store.”

The thought hit me hard and made me angry. Steam-out-of-the-ears angry. Then, sad, very sad.

How could these students think “Me and Joe went” was a proper construction?

I want to blame someone for shortchanging my students, for not teaching them the basics that were drilled into me at school so young that I don’t even remember learning them. Even at home, Grandmother, Mother, Dad, and older siblings automatically corrected my grammar. I was lucky.

But my students apparently didn’t get that instruction at school and at home. Or, if they did, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t listen.

These students range in age from 17 to 45, and because we are in a military town, they were schooled at different places, at different times, all over the country and sometimes in other countries. They are not a homogenous group of local 18 year-olds, so the local public school system can’t be scapegoated here.

Yet they were robbed if their education did not teach them the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment, a comma splice and a coordinating conjunction. We had devoted 2 full class periods to a review, with in-class exercises and homework to these particular basics. I called it a review, since I was sure this was information they already knew, and they looked bored. They should have looked scared.

Now that I’ve read their essays, I wonder if there is enough time left in the semester to bring their grammar up to a passable college level. I’m not really supposed to be teaching grammar and punctuation. Students who arrive in this class are presumed to have these basics mastered—it says so in the state-mandated course description-- and to be ready for me to teach them how to write a college level essay. This is the essay writing class.

Well, ha and double ha.

Of course I never find all my students equally prepared, but this semester is different. They are just as bright as always, but they are going to have to struggle more than any class I’ve seen in my twelve years teaching. To bring their basic grammar and punctuation skills up to a level that will allow them to pass any curriculum classes that involve written assignments will be a challenge. They will have to scramble, to work their butts off.

Further, do I tell them they were robbed? Do I ask them if they slept through middle school and high school? Do I read them the riot act about listening more carefully to my grammar advice?

Do I exhort them to become community leaders, state senators, members of the U.S. Congress so they can work to make an American education something to be proud of? (I’ve been known to go off on this topic in class before, but hadn’t got around to it yet this semester.)

Some of these students are hanging by a piece of dental floss already.  They tend to be fragile. They are not the golden boys and girls of America, for the most part—not many silver spoons at our school. They are the ones coming back to school after having children young, or who had dropped out of college previously, or who’ve recently left an abusive relationship, or who are wounded combat veterans trying their damndest to ease back into civilian life.  Some of my students don’t even have much food in the house. Some work two jobs. My students are not overflowing with confidence that they will make it to the end of the semester, much less to the end of their degree or program.

Some days I have to remind myself that I’m an English teacher, not a psychologist or a social worker, although our dedicated campus counselors know me by my first name. I want to make it right for my students. I don’t want to make them feel any “less-than” they already do. Some of them are skittish as rabbits, looking for any reason to bolt from school. So I favor the gentle approach. I want them to do well. I don’t want them to feel ashamed. Or blamed. Or heaven forbid… dumb.

But the time we will now have to spend on basic grammar will take away from the time normally spent on some of the finer points of transitioning from high school to college writing. This first college English class is really considered a “service class” to the other, non-English college classes students will take that require writing papers. They aren’t taking this class because they want be English majors. That doesn’t mean I will expect any less of them, but realistically I keep reminding them that what I teach will help them write better papers for sociology, history, biology—any class.

We’ll try to make the most of the weeks we have left. I will do what I can to help them, to prod them, to get the ones who aren’t afraid to work hard ready for the next level English class.

They won’t all make it; even the ones that pass will have much more catching up to do. And that makes me angry all over again.


  1. No doubt you will find a sensitive way to instruct about grammar. Let me know when you do this, as I may want to attend the class too. Let them know that even the most sophisticated of us (ha ha) makes errors.

    1. Oh, shucks, Elaine, your grammar is excellent. But as you say, everyone makes mistakes. I know I do! Thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for being willing to take on this daunting task. Our country and its youth need someone to care about grammar and communication. Part of the problem has to do with the way we learn grammar and syntax - in the home, interacting with friends, through public media, and at school. Learning language is an organic process, and connections become etched in our brains as they mature; these connections are formed through what we hear the most frequently. And much of what students hear these days is not grammatically correct. It takes a lot of practice to correct a bad habit.
    Unfortunately, even educated people get thrown off by pronouns. They have been told that "Joe and me went to the store" is grammatically incorrect. So later, as professionals, they're afraid to use the objective case of pronouns. This leads to constructs like "He talked to Joe and I." I've heard such sentences from colleagues and seen them in pieces by "trained" writers on blogs and web sites with some cache.
    The problem with English is that its grammar is degenerate (after all, it's an amalgam of Germanic and Romance languages with a lot of other stuff thrown in). So we don't have the linguistic and grammatical subtleties that other languages such as Latin or Russian do. I really only came to understand English grammar after I had learned Latin and French.
    I applaud you for taking on this task.

  3. Thank you, Javs, I've been obsessing about this problem. You know, learning French and Spanish did teach me a lot about English. The students that are coming in to college today may not have taken any foreign languages-- there was a period of years when they were not required.

    I love that you called English degenerate! English grammar is overly complex, too. I am no grammar expert, but I can listen to a sentence in my head, and think "would Mom say it that way?" Without all the many corrections I received from adults and older kids, I wouldn't have internalized so much grammar.

    Then, too, as you say, we hear and see so much incorrect grammar by journalists and other professionals that set a bad example. I spend a lot of time in class saying--" I don't care how you say it talking to your friend in the hallway, but in a formal college essay, we say it this way."

    I never wanted to be a grammar cop, but I owe it to students to try keep them out of grammar jail. :(

    Thanks so much for the comment!

  4. I see this from a distance in my son's classmates. He goes to the local community college full time, to earn his HS degree AND an AA. I'm constantly surprised by how much these kids (and, as you said, they aren't all kids) didn't learn.

    You know (I think) that I home schooled my son. All I can do is wonder what is so wrong with the system that they are graduating students lacking the basic skills.

  5. I currently have a dual-enrolled student doing high school and CC at the same time. This young man is home-schooled and is light years ahead of almost every student in the class. His grammar is excellent, and he's well read, and shock of shocks, LIKES to read!

    It's completely sad that our public schools are in such disarray. Thanks for commenting, Renae!

  6. I'm a bit of a grammar freak and I've passed a bit of that on to my children. It's mostly served them well except perhaps for my daughter, who has been known to become inappropriately rabid over small-ish errors. Once or twice, she even corrected her teachers. That she WAS correct did little to smooth things over in those situations. ;)

    It must be quite a challenge to strike a balance between passing along needed information and trying not to discourage your students. I really admire the work you do.

  7. In my volunteer work, I serve a similar demographic. It's mostly one-on-one work, for me, but my students are all underserved in one way or another, all marginalized to varying degrees, and all failed by Western public education. They are young adult with day jobs and families, or older adults whose children have moved out and who finally are taking some time to focus on themselves, or youth whose highschool English class instruction like the teacher from Charlie Brown, or whose friends/family/employer convinced them that English doesn't get anyone a job, anyway.
    All we can do is teach them where they are, right? And hope that there is enough support within the school or in the third sector community to keep them lifted until they each can stand on their own. I wish my students met more teachers like you.

  8. I think it's outrageous that our students aren't being taught correct grammar, spelling, and usage. A lot of it is the culture around us. After all, the Internet doesn't require correct spelling or grammar. Texting is done by abbreviations. But young people need to know what's right so they know when they're violating the rules by choice, not by ignorance. I went through public school in the 50s and 60s and we always had units on grammar and spelling, even to diagramming sentences. Do kids today even know what a preposition is? I'm afraid we're gradually turning back into a semiliterate society in which soon we'll be communicating with images, like cave people, instead of words. Thanks for writing about this!

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Elaine. Fall semester starts in about a week!