Monday, June 24, 2013

Will I Pass the Test?

Spelling is hard for me. Memorizing how to spell a word is a daunting task; often the spelling of a word just doesn't stick. This has been true my whole life. As a child in school, the ever present spelling tests were painful. Generally I did well in school, my college degree is in English, but spelling was just plain hard. The fact that children who received perfect scores on their spelling tests were often lauded, given prizes, or special treatment, only made it worse. It wasn't that I didn't try, my low score did not reflect the amount of time I spent studying, writing the words over and over, and spelling them out loud. The worst was the weekly vocabulary test in sixth grade. We had a workbook with ridiculous words like gambol, as in, "We watched the lambs gambol in the field."  Now there's a useful word that you'll use every day! Or how about the word kowtow, "Each boy would kowtow before the king."  I cannot think of any time in my 45 years when I've used that word in a sentence, other than the one I just wrote. These weren't words that would help us in life, that we needed to know how to spell to succeed, they were just words some workbook writer plucked out of a dictionary to make my life miserable. The hardest part of the test was that they gave each word's phonetic spelling.  Some how the odd letters and symbols between those slanted lines made remembering the actual spelling of the word all the more difficult. 

Now, some people are really good at spelling. That's another way of saying that for some people the way words are spelled easily sticks in their brain. They may have a photographic memory and once they've seen the word in writing they will always remember how it's spelled, or perhaps they are particularly good at memorization. I don't know what the mechanism is in their brain, but they are gifted with the ability to spell. My daughter has this ability and in second grade she always got 100% on her spelling tests. I would pester her about studying, thinking I was being a good mother, but she didn't need to study, which made it a total waste of her time. She resented being tested on words she could easily spell. In the end we worked it out with her teacher that if she got 100% on the pre-test that they took when they were first given the words, to see which they didn't know how to spell and therefore needed to study more during the week, she wouldn't have to take the actual spelling test.  This teacher also gave students candy if they got 100% on their test. That made me sad for the other students. I knew that I wouldn't have ever gotten the candy and that it wouldn't have been because I hadn't studied or didn't work hard, it would have been because spelling was hard for me. And yet my daughter would get candy every week, not because she studied or worked hard, but because spelling came easily for her. 

How unfair is that?  Reward the kids who do something because it's naturally an area where they excel, but punish the kids who didn't do well in an area where they struggled because of how their brain worked, or didn't. (For more on the detrimental affects of prizes, gold stars and rewards read Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards.)

In school, more than once, I had teachers call me out in front of the class for misspelling a word in a paper. In 6th grade we were making Mother's Day cards and I signed mine, "From your loving dotter."  Over 30 years later I remember my teacher pointing out my mistake. I can picture the classroom, her hair, I remember her name: Mrs. Holman, I feel the shame.  In 7th grade I had Mrs. Brown for English. She was tough and I tried to avoid her wrath whenever possible. One day I wrote her a note asking her to "except my late assignment."  I don't remember what the reason for my tardiness was, but I do remember how she handed my assignment right back to me, in front of the class. I stared at her in confusion. She then went into a lecture about the difference between "except" and "accept," saying that she was doing what I had asked, she was excepting my paper. The humiliation was brutal. 

So, what's my point. Why write about how hard spelling is for me, to this day when I live with great appreciation for spell check and still with the fear that I'm going to make a glaring error and not see it before someone else does?  Because, it's still a sensitive spot for me. And in a world where people create memes for everything, now and then a graphic crosses my facebook page that is posted by someone who is blasting those who make grammatical errors or common spelling mistakes. There are times on facebook when I hesitate to post because my grammar or spelling might be inadequate and I worry that people I know, people I'm friends with, will think ill of me because of my mistake. As a writer, I'm drawn to friends who like words, writing and literature. And those people often have been blessed with the ability to spell and write, to remember how words are spelled and what the rules of grammar are, with ease.  The child in me doesn't want them to see my mistakes, to find the errors, to have to opportunity to roll their eyes at my inability to do something so simple, because it's not simple for me. 

I have a degree in English, but I still regularly doubt my ability to put a comma in where it's needed, or to craft a sentence that has a proper structure. And if I feel that way, how do kids feel? As people, parents have a tendency to express their pet peeves around their children. We often fail to filter ourselves when we are talking about our views and beliefs, partly because we want our children to share those views and beliefs, but sometimes just because we don't stop to consider what our kids are hearing and how that might be affecting them.

If I am harshly critical about other people's poor grammar usage in front of my child how does that make them feel if they struggle to understand when to use the past tense? 

The same is true in every area of life. I have known quite a few children whose parents were openly critical of other people's size or weight. When those children started puberty their bodies did what young bodies do, they started storing up for future growth. In other words, the kids started gaining weight. This is completely normal, and actually quite necessary. And yet, I've heard several kids talk to my girls about how they were "getting fat" in worried tones, and I'm not just talking about little girls, boys have done it, too. 

When your children are born you have no idea what they will be good at or what will be challenging for them. You may have come into parenting with expectations that your son would be good at sports and your daughter would be naturally graceful. If you verbalize your expectations, if they are aware of your biases and prejudices, and then they realize that they aren't what you expected, or they fall into a group that you openly criticize, this is going to hurt them deeply and it is going to hurt your relationship with them. 

I've written about this before and I'm sure I'll write about it again: Our children need to know that we accept them for who they are. Our children need to feel our unconditional love, they need to know that whatever their strengths, weaknesses, natural abilities and challenges, we love them as they are. For that to happen, we need to be aware of when we criticize others in front of them and stop. I'll admit, I tend to be critical and this is a challenging area for me. 

As I wrote in my blog post Tolerance vs Acceptance, accepting our children can be a matter of life or death. Young people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and experience family rejection, are more likely to attempt suicide, suffer from depression, use illegal drugs and engage in unprotected sex, than those with supportive families. You can go Here to see the statistics. 

Children are always listening. They are always learning. As a parent it can be hard for me to be aware of the subtle messages I'm sending my kids about what I appreciate and what I find worthy of ridicule. It is so important for me to listen to what I'm saying, and not just with my mouth, but what I say by my actions, my facebook posts, a sigh, or a dismissive shrug. 

Parenting should push us to become better people for the benefit of our children. Ultimately we benefit, too, from a closer relationship with our children and a kinder, less critical view, of the people who share our world. 


1 comment:

  1. Excellent points about tolerance, rewards and humiliation. But I want to share my secret for spelling and grammar. Its not memorization. I have a terrible ability to memorize. I have an excellent long term memory but poor short term memory. Memorizing the English language wouldn't work well because there are so many exceptions. After all, the plural of 'dog' is 'dogs' but the plural of 'mouse' is 'mice,' not 'mouses.'

    No, reading is the secret to great spelling and grammar. As much reading as possible. The only way to become an expert at all facets of the written language is to absorb it. It increases vocabulary. I'm familiar with the words 'gambol' and 'kowtow,' because I must have seen them in writing a few times. I didn't memorize them. Its the same with grammar. I never studied for spelling tests and never did grammar worksheets, but I enjoyed taking the tests because I just understood how the language works. The trouble with traditional school is that it believes it can teach language through memorization. This hurts our kids, because its just not accurate.

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