Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What Happened to the "formal" in Formal Writing?

NB:  I wrote this post three weeks ago, but have only today posted it. Hence the timeline weirdness. I am still hesitant to post it, but after reading essays from other classes, feel it is too important an issue.

I spent the weekend marking junior mid-year exams. After two terms of teaching formal writing, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, parts of speech, and two extended texts, my kids have had the opportunity to show off what they know. They did great with the grammar, and the punctuation, and the vocabulary.  But then, we had the moment of truth:  when they had to apply those skills to their formal writing.  cue music:  dum dum da DUM. What happened to the formality in formal writing?

When I was in school, kids had their own lingo, just like the kids of today. However, we also had a comprehension of register, which kids today don't seem to have a clue about.  What I mean by this is that when I was a teen, I spoke to my friends one way, much differently from the way I spoke to my parents, and certainly much differently from how I spoke to the elderly or strangers.  (There were consequences if you couldn't manage to comprehend the difference. Not bad consequences, just a response.) I might have said, "hey man, that's rad," to my friends, but I certainly didn't say "hey," "man," or "rad," to anyone older than 14. Not only wouldn't it have been right to speak to my elders as if they were my peers, I showed respect for my elders which I demonstrated by the register I used when speaking with them.  Part of this was taught to me explicitly: "when you meet so and so, say this and thus." But much of it was modelled for me. I never had to worry about going somewhere new, or meeting new people, because I could behave the way my elders behaved, and feel secure that I would be proper and fit in to any situation.

This idea of register, that there is a different voice for different situations, was reflected in our writing. My teachers modelled in word and deed. We learned early on that formal writing was supposed to be, well, formal.

Let's put this into some context today. My Year 10 classes had read a novel about two friends, both on the precipice of adulthood. One realises that he can control his future by taking charge of his present and responsibility for his decisions. The other doesn't, and it ends badly.  Students were asked to write an essay on the theme of maturity/growing up. Some essays contained sentences like these:

"Liam learns that to take control of his future, he must ditch the dickheads he hangs out with all the time."
"Dave is such a dickhead he ends up getting killed from his own stupidity."

Did YOU ever write an essay that contained the work "dickhead?" No?  Me neither. I also didn't say "ditch" when I meant, say, "leave behind" or "hangs out" when I meant "spends majority of time with."

But why shouldn't they? After all, if Paul Henry (a man who functioned as a newsreader/interviewer, but who, it should be noted, has no real qualifications) can giggle like a three year old on national television over the sound of Shiela Dikshits name, and the majority of viewers think there's nothing wrong with that, well? What can we expect?

When rugby great Josh Kronfeld calls Paul Henry a dickhead on the most popular morning show in the nation, and gets a good laugh all round, why not?

When our government representatives swear regularly in Parliament, on the news, and in official emails, why should we be surprised?

Last year, at a parent-teacher interview, I spoke to a father about his son's tendency to leap out of his seat, calling his classmates all kinds of things I won't print here. Dad laughed, slapped him on the back and said, "take after your old man, do ya?"  Nope.  No surprises there.

And I wonder:  how can I, in my measly four hours a week, help shape a boy to have an awareness of register, what it is and what it is for, when the other 164 hours a week informality is modelled for them by the very people who are supposed to be demonstrating appropriate communication.

Or is it me? Am I behind the times? Is it perfectly fine to express yourself in any way at any time? That writing isn't, shouldn't, be any different from speaking? To anyone?  Am I dated when I express surprise that the leaders of our country, our sporting legends, and the people who represent our main news station, who are supposed to be credible sources, are also automatically role models by their positions and should communicate that way?

Today I sigh. And tomorrow I will go back and show them all over again how important it is to get a handle on formality today, before NCEA tomorrow (Year 11) when it's really going to count.

But I will wonder: of what great importance are those 4 credits if they are going into a world where there is no separation between oral speech and the written word?

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