Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rules, mistakes, and considerate corrections

As a person who loves the written word and appreciates all the structural "rules" about language and how it functions, I often make "mistakes" both in writing and in speaking. Everyone does this from time to time and it is often off-putting when corrected by another person. Some of my errors have been more embarrassing than others. I'll share just two that stand out in my mind as striking when they happened.

The first one was actually made on this blog. Honestly, I'm sure anyone reading my blog would be able to find several incorrect usages, punctuations, or confusing strings of phrases or sentences. I don't profess to be perfect. However, one post particularly made me shrivel in mortification. I am still relatively new to the blogging world, and I am excited about building a readership base steadily and slowly. I like to look at the stats to see how many page views and followers there are out there. One of my earliest posts titled "Lunch with a clarinetist and a beatboxer who improv together at TEDxLincoln" was particularly popular. As days went by, I was elated at the increasingly high-number of page views next to the title of that entry. Glancing at the title one day, I saw it. My heart dropped. I meant improv and I spelled improve. In the title! Upon further investigation, I realized I spelled improve several times throughout the post too! What would people think of me? Why didn't anyone bring it to my attention? I even shared the mistake all over Twitter and Facebook! I quickly, in shame, made my edits.

There is an actual term for making a mistake in a title. It is called Muphry's law:
If a mistake is as plain as the nose on your face, everyone can see it but you. Your readers will always notice errors in a title, in headings, in the first paragraph of anything, and in the top lines of a new page. These are the very places where authors, editors and proofreaders are most likely to make mistakes.
I'm great at ensuring that my unintentional mistakes (and what mistake is intentional?) are in prime locations for all to discover. I proof and edit a blog post multiple times before posting it, yet Michelle will point out errors in seconds that I have glossed over time and time again.

Another embarrassing experience of mine goes back many years ago when I was in college doing a practicum with a very smart class of 7th graders. Every week there were several spelling lessons in which it was my job to lead. As an English Education major, spelling has never been one of my strongest strengths. I can manage on my own but I wouldn't proudly say I'm an expert. Regardless of all this, I can hold my own and was pretty confident in my skills. One day I was up in front of these terrific kids grouping words, writing and talking at the same time like most teachers do. And I kept spelling a couple of words incorrectly. The first time the kids were considerate in their corrections. The second time it became a bit of fodder for the group. But soon I realized I had to make sure I was thinking and writing instead of talking and writing otherwise the mistakes would continue. I tried to turn the situation into a "nobody is perfect" lesson that, to this day, I'm almost certain didn't stick.

Luckily, my cooperating teacher sitting in the back of the classroom observing was intelligent, gracious, and had a sense of humor. She understood that mistakes are alright, part of the learning process, and, that being vulnerable and honest with your students creates a classroom culture of trust, collaboration, and synergy. A teacher of another persuasion may have viewed my missteps as a lack of intelligence, knowledge, preparation, or inability to be an effective English teacher. Luckily, I was working with the former and not the latter.

The last day of the semester, when my cooperating teacher handed me my teaching evaluation, she gave me a gift. It was a cup, with several spelling errors crossed out. Many students over the years have commented on this cup when they see it at my desk or in the classroom, providing me with my favorite opportunity to share the story of my first experience in a classroom as a teacher. It's a great story that all students love, making me--Mr. Pernicek--someone who can be real and fallible, a person just like them, imperfect on a journey of literacy development. That cup holds much symbolism and meaning today, constantly reminding me what kind of teacher I should be.

I read a post on a blog this morning that resonated with me (and that gift of a cup many years ago). It is what spurred this post. Chandra addresses the act of correcting another person's language mistakes all the while examining the interestingly complex world of linguistics and literacy privilege. It's worth taking the time to read. Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People's Grammar on the Internet.

Because of my field of study, oftentimes when someone points out my language (or literature) mistake they will follow it up with a comment referencing me being an English teacher (ie "But you're an English teacher!"). This has always caused me to cringe, because the premise behind that type of comment is that an English teacher should never make an English-related mistake. That is like saying people in every profession should be expected to be perfect: a mathematician will always compute a formula perfectly, a physician always makes the correct diagnosis the first time, a scientist is always accurate in enacting impeccable experiments, and an actress always remembers her line in order to give a flawless performance on the first take. We all know none of that is true. Flawlessness is basically nonexistent.

1 comment:

  1. Oh no, you just had to go and mention your practicum. I read that paragraph about your spelling mistakes in front of those 7th graders and cringed, perhaps a bit too much. I wish I could re-do almost every single aspect of my practicum and student teaching. Wow...the things I thought I knew. *sigh* Fortunately, as is typical of Todd Pernicek, you don't let those mistakes get you down and instead turn them into learning experiences upon which to build. And thus it is with all of life, eh? We can either dwell on past mistakes or use them to help us grow and avoid doing the same things in the future. Way to be cool, Mr. P! :)