My seventh grade English teacher was a merciless grammarian. No nonstandard utterance went unpunished. “MINES?” she’d roar at least once a day. Then, icily: “Mines explode. Are you talking about a war?”
Her vigilance extended beyond the classroom. She threatened to call our homes and ask to speak with us, hinting that anyone sloppy enough to respond with “This is him!” would live to regret it.
When I became an English teacher, I realized that I was no Mrs. Murphy. With my students’ writing I could be relentlessly nitpicky, but if during class someone lamented Hamlet’s “undecisiveness,” I just couldn’t bring myself to turn a spirited literary discussion into a lecture on morphology. Yes, I would try to work a casual “indecisive” into my response, but I can’t claim I always succeeded.
In teaching as in most endeavors, though, finding something difficult is not exactly a good reason for avoiding it. So one day, in the context of a unit on language and power, I put to my students the question I had asked myself for years: Should Ms. Bradshaw correct our spoken English?
Opinions varied. One student said flatly, “You’re our English teacher. If you don’t make us speak properly, you’re not doing your job.” Another was indignant. “If I’m trying to say something, I don’t want you interrupting me. That’s rude!” A few wanted me to remember their mistakes and correct them privately after class; others suggested that I target common problems with mini-lessons to avoid embarrassing anyone individually.
As classmates challenged one another’s suggestions and assumptions, the conversation grew more nuanced. The current unit had included discussions of linguistic hegemony and violence, and many in the room had seen family members insulted publicly for their non-native or African American Vernacular English. If I, a White authority figure, tolerated nothing but Standard English in class, would I be complicit in bigotry or helping my students fight it? No consensus emerged.
Near the end of the class period, I sighed. “Okay, I’ll note down each of your preferences and teach accordingly from now on. Some people I’ll call out for every error, some I’ll meet after class each day, others I’ll correct only in writing—What? Why are you laughing?” My students were scandalized. “You can’t do all that!” “It’s ridiculous!” And finally, something teachers hear all too rarely: “Do whatever you decide is best—we understand how complicated your job is.”
Research tells us that Conferring with students—valuing their ideas and empowering them to act—can benefit them both academically and emotionally. That is reason enough to do it, of course. Everyday experience suggests another possibility, though: that Conferring might do as much for teachers as it does for students.
When I had my students critique my teaching practice, I told them the truth: I was performing a pedagogical exercise, one I hoped would deepen their understanding of language and power, but I was also quite simply asking for advice. In return, they gave me much more than advice. They gave me trust.