Another rant. Liam turns ONE year old in about two weeks, and since he was born, we've been trying to get his name recorded properly on his birth certificate. We've been all over the place and even had an ACLU lawyer helping us for a time, but it looks as though the state of Indiana refuses to spell his name correctly.
Our last name is Pérez. The accent mark is part of the name, not some cute add on. Indiana's excuse for disregarding it? Their computer system can't handle "special characters." Really? Really? You'd think we were trying to spell our son's name with a smiley face instead of an "a".
A thoughtful post about a similar problem in California gets right to the heart of why "pesky" details like accent marks really make a difference (they're part of the language for a reason, folks):
"It's not wrong, they're just missing," said a spokesperson for the California Department of Health Services, referring to birth certificates with the missing Spanish markers.
Well, it is wrong. Those little marks aren't decorations. They're part of the Spanish language. In Spanish, ñ is not just an embellished n, but a distinct letter of the alphabet. "If names don't have the accents or the tildes, they are not spelled correctly," said Al Camarillo, director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.
On any third-grade Spanish quiz, a word spelled without counts as a spelling error. That's because leaving them out can change a word's meaning completely. So, for example, caño means pipe, while cano means gray-haired. Mamá means mom. Mama means mammary gland. Pañal means diaper. Panal means honeycomb.
Sure, the accent mark has been missing from Arnie's name on his official documents in the U.S. and he's not scarred, but we wanted to get our name (as it appears on birth certificates and documents from Mexico) back into the system. And that name is Pérez. With an accent mark.
I'm a big fan of the building-on-your-strengths school of thought. I can expend energy trying to be someone I'm not (e.g., a humorist), or I can put that energy to work in a direction that's natural for me. But when it comes to teaching writing, sometimes the educator's greatest asset can be his or her own insecurities.
Recently I gave a talk for a group of pre-service teachers taking a course in writing instruction. My biggest message to them was to be real with their students when it comes to writing. I asked the future teachers how many of them felt challenged or frustrated by writing--at least some of the time. When hands went up, I promised them that this was a good thing.
Make mistakes and let your students see the mistakes. The job of the writing teacher is not to teach students a particular "proper" form of writing but to help them find their process to do many kinds of writing. This can only happen when teachers present themselves as students of writing as well.
I don't know about you, but as a beginning tennis player, I'd much rather practice with someone who's got tricks I don't know but who is still learning as well. The same goes for students. It's time to ditch the notion of the teacher as "pro" and start thinking of the teacher as a partner who can still miss some serves.
And it's critical for students to see that--in writing--sometimes what seemed to be missed serves can turn out to be aces. I often show students how writing that I thought was "trash" had the seeds to important scenes in my novels.
Now, nothing is scarier than being vulnerable with students, especially when teaching older kids (or, worse, teachers themselves!). But this is critical if we want the writers we're working with to take risks and to do writing that actually matters. Until students see the teacher as a fellow writer and learner, they will simply write to fulfill requirements and see that teacher as an arbitrary judge of a product that they (the students) don't really care much about anyway.
When teachers also engage in the writing process and share the imperfect work that they are doing, students become willing to invest in their writing.
P.S. The idea of showing weakness and talking through how we deal with challenge applies in other spheres, too. As Liam has just turned one, we are realizing that one of the best ways we can help him deal with challenges and struggles (mostly related to self-control) is to model outloud our own dealings with frustration. Arnulfo and I walk around saying things like, "Darn it, I can't find my keys. It's so frustrating when this happens. I really want to get mad, but I think it will be easier for me to solve this problem if I stay calm. Hmmm, what can I do to change what's bothering me. I know, I'll ask for help..." This is pretty dorky, but I hope it will be effective eventually.
Possibly I have given the impression that my days teaching in Houston were nothing but hard work and success. This is what happens when you tell about challening experiences through the blessed buffer of years. In fact, though, this page from an old writer's notebook reminded me how teaching can equal great challenge (and great rewards), but also some pretty big heartbreaks at times, especially when best efforts are met with disregard or outright hostility.
Here's the next page from my writer's notebook, full of antidotes for dealing with a doozy of a bad day. (A transcript follows in case you can't read my scribbles.)
From Brian Andreas's Traveling Light:
No hurt survives for long without our help.
Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero.
Wisdom from A.P. (aka Arnulfo):
Just do your job tomorrow, and that'll be enough.
Stop worrying about the whole world.
Know what you are going to do when things don't go how you expect them to.
Don't expect things to go a certain way.
Know who you are on the inside, and let that be enough.