I enjoy writing my Education Matters column and in doing so, I hope I have provided some helpful information to parents of school-age children. Writing for a broad audience can be a daunting task and I am acutely aware that my audience is largely well educated. So it should not have come as a surprise to me when I was mailed copies of two of my articles with grammatical corrections in red ink.
At the risk of being overly detailed, the grammar rule being questioned by my audience is whether an author could use a plural pronoun such as “their” when referring to a non-gender specific, singular antecedent. Heady stuff for sure, but put in laymen’s language it just means whether I am allowed to use the pronoun “their” instead of “his or hers” when I do not know the gender of the subject. Traditionally, grammarians were taught to use the masculine pronoun when the gender of the subject was not known but modern grammar appears to be shifting on this point.
It would have been interesting to talk about the ways to write around this grammar quandary, but the corrections were sent anonymously, making a discussion about the evolution of grammar rules impossible. I had no one but my remarkably patient assistant and an amused English faculty to indulge me as I expressed my opinions on this matter of grammar. What I really wanted to do was to reach out to my unknown editor and talk grammar.
Anonymity is useful in that it allows freedom of expression without repercussion. Unfortunately, anonymity does not allow for further education, elucidation, or elaboration. As I considered my own desire to chat with my mystery editor, I thought about the implications of anonymity in the classroom. Too often, our students are allowed to attend class anonymously, never being asked to justify their assumptions or to extend their understanding. They linger in the comfort of anonymity, allowing other students to carry the classroom in conversation. Or worse, they come to enjoy the intellectual one sidedness that comes in a class designed around lecture and recitation. Authentic learning requires give and take, something that cannot exist if students remain anonymous.
Good teachers and by extension, good schools, engage students at all levels. They recognize that meaningful conversations can occur in an art class, during break, or on the playing field. During my first year of teaching, my headmaster sat me down and explained to me that conversation with students, both in and out of the classroom, was one of the most meaningful things I could do as a teacher. And more important for me at the time, I was to be evaluated on that basis at year’s end. For me, I worked hard to relate physics to real-world examples. I coached soccer and sponsored the ski club. I recognized that I was part of a faculty that supported student government, honor council, student newspaper, literary magazines, model United Nations, as well as an extensive array of athletic offerings. Students were not allowed to just attend school, they were engaged by school.
Just as I was encouraged to do, today's school leaders should continue to encourage faculty to be fully engaged with their students, and parents should encourage every student to participate in a wide array of school-sponsored activities to get the most from their educational experience. High levels of student engagement in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities often result in high student satisfaction levels and greater confidence that they are valued members of the school. I suggest you engage your children regularly in conversations about the nature of their school experience and encourage them to actively, thoughtfully, and continually interact with their peers and their teachers. Remember, an anonymous child is only taking part in a one-sided conversation.
And for my anonymous editor, keep reading, and know that I will make my antecedents plural in order to take advantage of gender-neutral plural pronouns!
Christian J. Proctor, Ph.D.