Saturday, April 29, 2006

After-School Special

I left school a few minutes early on Friday because we couldn't have my last-period class due to scheduling snafus. So I headed over to my coffee shop, as I often do on Fridays after school, to get all of my homework-grading done before the weekend.

My British Lit kids had a homework assignment to read Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" and write their impression of Tennyson's view of war as based on this poem. They were told to include references to the text. The assignment was for only a paragraph or two of brief analysis: nothing major.

As I read and commented on the paragraphs I was just ... I can't explain it. I hesitate to say "surprised" because I wasn't really surprised. "Happy" is a good word. "Proud" is another. But those aren't quite right, either. It's just that they had written some really nice paragraphs. Topic sentences were clear, succinct, and grammatically correct. Quotes from the poem were relevant, well-interpreted, and (sigh) cited according to MLA guidelines. And quotes weren't little islands among a bunch of sentences saying, "This quote means that ..." These quotes were smoothly integrated into my students' well-worded sentences. There were no sentences that started with "Well, what I think is ..." or "This is like a boring poem and I totally don't understand it but ..."

They even used their commas correctly.

Now, I'm not one of these teachers for whom punctuation is everything (though semicolons are indeed the sweet spice of life). I don't focus on conventions to the neglect of everything else. But I do require that the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed if they're going to turn work in to me. My philosophy is this: content, organization, tone, etc., are hard to learn. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation either (1) have relatively reliable rules that can be learned, or (2) can easily enough be looked up in either MLA or a dictionary. Learn the rules, or at least learn how to find the rules, and then you can devote the rest of your energies to the more difficult tasks of content, organization, tone, etc.

The paragraphs I read today were well organized. The analyses were basically good at worst, and original and thought-provoking at best. The content was better than I expected. And the punctuation, citations, spelling, etc., were done correctly.

I was thrilled. Perhaps "thrilled" is the word I'm looking for.

These kids are learning. Or else they are cheating. But I don't think they are. They're good kids. And I am a happy teacher lady.

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