A little lesson in grammar

       Yes, I know, I’m an English teacher wannabe dressed in high school mathematics teacher’s clothing. Of course, as a fellow high school math teacher (now retired) used to say, we’re all English teachers, since English is the language of choice in which we analyze, debate, learn, and convey ideas of all sorts, whether in math, science, history, humanities, even technology. And as Vygotsky and his legions of followers note, such learning is socially negotiated, with language as the method of negotiation. Nowhere does this play out more obviously than in online discussion, an arena in which I’ve been an active participant and trainer for over fifteen years. (The math part comes later… 😉

It's Really Not That Hard
A recent posting from Facebook's "Official Grammar Police" site

       One of the things I see very frequently in my social networking circles is an implied debate between those who value the quality and traditions of written language, and those who could care less. The former would never dream of using “u” in place of “you.” The latter would never dream of using a word when a letter will do. The former posts memes with lists of frequently-misused or misspelled phrases and usages, the latter posts memes about grammar Nazis and other self-styled elitists of all stripes.
       It’s surprising who one might find on one side or the other of these discussions. I had a debate with a professor of English education about whether folks who regularly use internet slang and “lol”-style text abbreviations represent a new language, with its own rules, use patterns, and (his contention) reason for being. Clearly his contention is that correcting such online speech patterns was a little like declaring war on a culture.
       But anyway, back to my “lesson.” I’m going to chat a bit about the difference between “may” and “can,” as it applies to how discussions work online. Lots of folks use these two words interchangeably, but, as the grammar police will tell you, there’s a lot of difference. If we really want to up the ante in online discussion by…

  • Connecting participants to each other and you, as their teacher,
  • Increasing vocabulary,
  • Attending to mechanics like spelling and usage,
  • Embracing the value of pursuing complex and higher-level thoughts, and the language such require,
  • Increasing writing length to make all the above come together,

…it’s worth looking at both of these words. (For a fuller treatment of “why” we do this, read this From the Editor’s Desk posting.)

May I up the ante?

       We’re asking for permission. OK, well, whose permission are you seeking? My professor above was implying that student use patterns (abbreviations, Internet slang) are frequently running the show, since it is, in fact, its own thing, developed by kids separate from long-form writing and scholarship. Hence, when using online speech, one has to gain permission from students.
       And, of course, the average English teacher would follow that with “Really? Do I need permission from my students to set performance goals and standards for online discussion? Most certainly not!” But it’s extremely surprising how often that is exactly how it plays out. Many of the early adopters of tech tools in online discussion are more than happy to embrace the enthusiastic use patterns of their students, and use (or allow for) those patterns in the pursuit of learning goals. It’s as if a teacher’s embracing online slang and abbreviations creates “authentic” and “contextual” learning opportunities for students.
       Well, maybe. Frankly, I agree with most English teachers, that facilitation of discussions should try to improve on where students are. But even more important, the “May I…” question can be thought of as being aimed at the goals themselves. That is, may we pursue “…increase[ed] writing length…” as a learning goal? If so, a more thoughtful, complex, and high-level approach to language is a necessity. In any case, the “May I…” is aimed, quite frankly, at you as a teacher. You needn’t apologize for the interest and decision, if the discussion is to aim high. Give yourself permission!

Can I up the ante?

       We’re now asking for possibility. If you’ve given yourself permission, that’s a first step. But giving oneself permission doesn’t’ make you a great writer, nor does it make you a great facilitator of online writing. I have been teaching online facilitation for many years, and I’ve come up with a bunch of tricks which can specifically help with this realm of possibility. The facts are, with some attention to mechanical things, one can really increase a student’s attention to the above list. Facilitation of discussion doesn’t mean that you write long, complex sentences in the pursuit of subtle ideas. It means you induce your students to do so. Sometimes it requires only a well-placed “Why is that so?”
       Knowing when, where, and how to place those facilitation prods isn’t “rocket surgery,” it’s just attention to detail, and a realignment of values and attentions.
       Interested? In two weeks I’ll be presenting on exactly this issue at KySTE 2014. See this course, a part of the Fayette Co. online PD menu, for how you can learn to improve your online facilitation.

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