Speaking a Smarter Language

incomplete sentences

My English department recently had a guest speaker talk to us about teaching grammar in the high school classroom. The speaker was a college professor who had his doctorate in something to do with linguistics. I’m sure it was much more specialized than that, but that’s really what I remember. He talked a lot about how grammar, which was once seen as all important, has been almost demonized in our education system. There were years in the early 90’s where almost no grammar was taught at all, and that had a devastating effect on how kids read and write and blah blah blah.

I’m not saying he wasn’t an engaging speaker (actually, he was incredibly entertaining!)… I just don’t necessarily want a grammar history lesson. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how to actually teach writing or speaking. Then he said something that really stuck with me:

We all speak several different languages every day.

Wow. He’s right. And subconsciously, I knew that. I know that the way I am “speaking” on this blog is not the same as the way I speak when I text, or email, or give a presentation, or a million other ways that I communicate every day. But I never thought of it as a whole separate language before.

I loved the way that he described our different communication styles as new languages so much, that I told my students all about it that same day. We are, after all, just beginning a formal, persuasive research paper. We had talked about grammar a little bit (as much as my very limited knowledge of how to teach grammar and not bore the pants off my kids would allow) and even talked at length about why writing well matters for the future, but it wasn’t really coming across to them why they had to use certain words in their writing, or omit certain words, or not use text speak, etc.

As we had our class conversation on speaking different languages though, in a moment of true teaching how-did-I-think-of-that-just-now awesomeness, I said that writing a formal essay is like speaking our “smarter” language. So we can’t use words like can’t, because that’s how the every day us would speak. And we can’t say your or I, because we have to find a way to elevate our language, and make a point without making ourselves the center of everything, or generalizing that you will always agree with me, or pandering to our audience.

Essays, college applications, job applications, cover letters – they’re all our smarter language. “Speaking” through those mediums is the way that we want people to perceive us. We’re intelligent, we’re articulate, we’re educated, and so much more. We’re better than that other guy who made seven spelling errors and used incomplete sentences. Hire us instead. Let us into that highly competitive program instead.

Good writing matters. It sets us apart from others. It makes us the smarter versions of us. And who wouldn’t want that?

Until next time,

In a more lighthearted look at how writing matters, I showed my class the following Grammar Fails presentation. If someone does use it, could you let me know! I would love to see if other kids enjoy it as much as my students did!! Thanks!

Grammar Fails ppt



Juniors and Fear of the Tongue

A new semester has begun, and, being the mean teacher that I am, I have assigned my Juniors an informative speech due at the end of this week.  The assignment is simple enough: Find information  to share with the class on a college, trade school, military branch or other after high school alternative of your choice using three different resources. Present a 3 to 5 minute speech  on your findings.

And there it is, the unavoidable groans and the faces turning slightly green with the idea of having to speak in front of the class. The arguments and promises that this is going to be horrific for all involved:

A whole 3 minutes?!?! Mrs. Bone, you must be crazy! That’s, like, forever! 

But I’m no good at giving speeches!

I am so going to do bad on this assignment. 

What if my speech is really boring?

And yet, the assignment stands because this is something that I feel passionately about. Students need to learn how to speak formally in front of a group. They’re all going to have to do it someday whether it’s at a job interview, during a college admissions process, or at their future jobs. Every single one of these students is going to have to know how to appropriately speak to another human being whether they are running for president, or asking if you would like fries with your meal.

It’s not that they don’t ever speak in my class. Quite the opposite actually. My class is comprised mostly of whole class and small group discussions. Something about standing up at the head of the class all by themselves is what sends my students into a tizzy. It’s not that they don’t know how to speak in front of their classmates, they do it every day when they shout across the room or participate in class, it’s that they don’t know how to speak FORMALLY. They lack the confidence to get up on their own and speak with conviction about something they have researched all by themselves. They are afraid of screwing up, using too much slang, forgetting their speech, saying umm far too many times, of sounding like an idiot. What if they sound like an idiot?!?

Well, what if they do? It won’t be the first or the last time that they will make a mistake when speaking to people. Yes, it probably will be a little embarrassing, but honestly, how many people are going to catch, or even remember the mistakes anyway? How many people sitting in that classroom are going to care that a classmate mispronounced a word, or took a bit too long of a pause when presenting? Why do so many of them suffer from selected glossophobia and how do I fix it?

My first instinct was to remind them that they speak in front of each other every day. To try to get them to understand how important and applicable public speaking was going to be once they left their little world of high school. I knew I could talk until I was blue in the face on the importance of learning to speak well, and the fact that it was okay to mess up a little, and they wouldn’t look or sound as bad as they had it made out in their heads, but none of the encouraging talk from me was going to be as good as showing them.

The other teachers and I put our heads together and decided on a plan of action. We would show the students a video on someone who was a terrible public speaker. It had to be someone they could relate to, a young star that most would recognize, that some would like. And it hit us: Kristen Stewart. Because she’s awful. Just seriously awful. Really.

So, we found this awesome article (with great video examples!) to present to the class in powerpoint form: http://www.thegrindstone.com/2012/06/04/career-management/dos-and-donts-strategy/10-things-we-can-learn-about-public-speaking-from-kristen-stewart-597/

And turned it into this awesome powerpoint: Kristen Stewart – Public Speaking (1) (Yes, we sited the article and told the kids to make sure they were not plagiarizing and that we didn’t plagiarize, etc.)

And told our students that they couldn’t possibly be any more embarrassing than that. The students loved it, and it actually made sense to them. Their selected fear of the tongue seems to alleviated for now, and I feel like a successful teacher for the day.

Until next time,