An Update on Grammar and Graciousness

Photo Credit: Nadine Yap

By Nadine Yap

Last week during the going-to-school hubbub, Zoe asked me to put a piece of homework on her desk so she could file it. I glanced at it and was puzzled when I saw the corrections. I thought Zoe's sentence was fine and didn't know why the corrections were made. I posted it on Facebook, to get grammar clarification from friends who know grammar better than I do. Over the course of the morning, checking in on my phone, a friend wanted to share it and asked me to change the settings to public. By the evening, it was on the Chinese News, and by the next day it was in the English news.

A number of issues may have contributed to the “virality” of the post. Some people were genuinely curious – the amount of very good debate around the grammar was nice to see. Some castigated the teacher for incorrect grammar. Others chastised her for being too rigid with grading the answer of a seven year old who had otherwise written a very nice, grammatically correct sentence. Quite a few people were very harsh and downright vitriolic.

The crowdsourced general concensus from people whose grammatical and linguistic credentials I know and respect (and yes, there are some who disagree) was that the corrections were actually grammatically correct and answered the guide question more accurately than Zoe's answer.

I had a good meeting with the teacher last week, and a few other school authorities. They were very clear and very gracious. They explained that the assignment was a “stimulus based conversation” – an exercise that Zoe is familiar with - where the teacher goes through the assignment first with the class. She did give verbal instructions on which tense to use.

On the assignment itself, none of Zoe’s words were harshly crossed out, and the “1/10” you see is the date, not the grade given. The teacher then usually goes through the answers with the class, which is when she might point out common errors and areas to pay attention to. The children have the opportunity to talk to the teacher individually later.

In the meeting, they were also very clear that these internet “happenings” and associated conversations do not change anything for Zoe – the school is there to nurture the child, and to nurture the community – including parents – and of course, the staff at the school.

This teacher is encouraging and dedicated. She is a positive and caring introduction to formal schooling for our first year students and beloved by the kids and parents. We like her creative lesson formats - like having an ice cream party when “ice cream” was the spelling topic for the week, and playing games and races with flash cards when she taught ordinal numbers in math. The topics jump out of the worksheets and textbook and the kids are given a motivational and multi sensory way to learn.

She is not a stereotypical rigid, imagination-squelching, incompetent, curriculum-following drone, but an attentive, imaginative and caring professional who didn’t deserve to be flamed and insulted by hundreds of strangers. I apologized in person, and now am doing so publically for being the cause of the unjust beating she’s been subject to. Whatever else you may want to take issue with in our education system, I hope people will try to remember that our teachers are human and work hard for our kids.

Having said all that, people did reach out to me in private messages, with negative experiences of their own to share, of questions and answers that didn’t make sense to them, and of a system that can at times be unecessarily rigid. These included parents as well as educators and administrators within the system. This is a real and ongoing problem that many of us are tired of being resigned to accepting with a face-palm, a private gripe, maybe an individual battle to right the wrong for our own child.

Some of us will be trying to figure out a way to channel that feedback (constructively) to people who will listen and have the ability to move things forward. If you are interested in providing feedback, or being part of this dialogue, let me know. Or if this inspires you to do the same with your own circle of parents and friends, go for it!

I think it’s a huge job to shift institutions and mindsets – approaching issues with negativity and accusations deepens rifts and suspicions, hardens rigid stances. It isn’t very conducive to the kind of dialogue and brainstorming that we want and need to have a positive impact on our education system. I have seen many things changing for the better in the education system in the last few years, and I expect to see more. The ruling party has said that they want to be more collaborative and take more input and feedback from the citizens on the ground – it takes both parties to make this work really well. Singapore is really small, so the impact of what one says is larger than one might expect. It would be helpful if we approach ad hoc public criticism of the system with some thought towards the impact of what we say on bringing the results we want (yes, I’m lecturing myself here too). Rather than meeting perceived arrogance with anger, inflexbility with disdain, etc .. perhaps we can be example of the way we’d like the authorities to speak to us – clarity in our positions and explanations, persistence in our efforts, yet civil and – perhaps even gracious.

This first appeared as a post on the Facebook wall of Miss Nadine Yap. Zoe is her precious little princess. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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