Shotke, a veteran middle school teacher with a Master’s degree in Education and a Communication degree from the University of Southern California, has become increasingly disturbed by “text lingo” migrating from students’ smartphones into their formal papers.
Slang and abbreviations have become “the unapproved norm in the classroom,” says Shotke, “blurring the lines between formal and informal communication.” To draw attention to the issue, she launched a 31-day grammar challenge. For the entire month of March, those who accept the challenge can only write using proper grammar, type out full sentences, and use entire words in their school work, formal writing, and, in what is sure to be the most vexing aspect of the contest for many teens, in text messages and Snapchats. In a bit of irony, Shotke has even given the challenge its own easy-to-text moniker: gramMARCH.
What follows is my lightly edited conversation with Shotke on her passion for teaching, what led her to launch gramMARCH, and why she believes we should all take a step back to pause, ponder, and prose.
Monica Gray: You’ve been a middle school teacher for over a decade. What is it about this age group that keeps you coming back?
Heather Shotke: Middle school is an age group that you love or you hate, and I love it. I think it’s that you’re still able to reach them. They’re not too cool for school yet. They think they’re grown, but at the same time you can still connect and make a difference.
MG: Breaking through to a middle schooler seems like it could be tough. How do you reach them?
HS: As a teacher, you’re always trying to relate to these kids. You kind of have to play this game where you’re an authoritative figure, but you have to still be relevant and cool. So, you know, you have to stay in touch with the music and the fashion but at the same time you’re helping to mold them so that they’re successful in society, by, for example, knowing when to use informal versus formal language.
MG: What do you mean by “informal” versus “formal” language?
HS: I’ve been teaching 14 years now, so I’ve seen the evolution of technology in the classroom. At first, more and more kids started getting cell phones. Then they were getting smart phones. And at the same time that this technology started becoming so readily available, I started seeing for the first time that my students would draw a little happy face :) in their writing. Or, they’d write “OMG” next to a sentence that they really wanted me to notice. Or put an “LOL” when they were trying to be funny. At first, I thought, “This will pass. I’ll just mark it up with red. Talk to them about it.” But over time, I saw it happening more and more and more. As a teacher, I was thinking, “What am I doing wrong? They’re not listening to me.
MG: Were other teachers seeing the “OMGs” and “LOLs” in formal writing assignments, too?
HS: They were; I even spoke to some some admission advisors at Cal State and USC who said they were seeing this text lingo in admission essays! That blew me away. I see students working so hard on their admissions essays, and you would think that they would take the time to write out “you” rather than “U,” or type out “easy,” rather than “EZ.” But these people said it was becoming more and more prominent.
MG: Avoiding shorthand in a college essay probably seems like common sense to a lot of adults, but I guess we forget that we weren’t texting when we were in middle school. It would be confusing to know which “language” to use if you’d never been taught.
HS: Exactly. We teachers didn’t grow up with a phone in our hands. They have! That’s what they’re familiar with, so it’s tricky for them to know when to switch and go back and forth between the two. We have a “no cell phone” policy during the school day, but I swear their hands are in their pockets all day, making sure it’s there, even though they can’t even bring it out. Now the thing is SnapChat. They’re on it 24/7. For me, technology has become a gift and a curse. Although it has made the world a much smaller place, it’s led to brevity and this constant shorthand. It can really diminish quality writing.
MG: So you decided to get creative and do something about it…
HS: Yes, in 2014, I decided to try to meet my students where they were: on their phones, in their texts, on their social feeds, and in their games. I started something called the gramMARCH Challenge. The idea is that for the entire month of March, everyone is expected write in proper grammar, in full sentences and use entire words no matter the medium. No emojis. No text lingo. All correct punctuation for the entire month, whether writing on Instagram or writing an English paper.
MG: In your ideal world, would text lingo and emoticons be banned forever?
HS: No, I don’t want to come across as this grammar grandma. The gramMARCH Challenge is about awareness. There is a time and place for everything. I have no problem with the text lingo. It’s just a matter of being aware of audience and knowing when to differentiate whether it’s appropriate or not.
MG: How did your students first respond to the idea of the gramMARCH Challenge?
HS: The way I presented it to my class was: “I really don’t know if you can do it?” They were definitely intrigued, and said: “Ok, we’ll accept that challenge.” Each day had a different theme. For example, we have a Simile Day, a Rhyme Day, a Hyperbole Day, an Irony Day. At first I got questions from other teachers, like: “How are you going to monitor if students are sticking to the rules?” But the kids got really into it and monitored themselves! They are always checking each other on it. Then my kids started challenging their cousins at other schools to join in too. We started handing out stickers and working together to brand the idea. We created a website and started an Instagram account, and it took off from there.
MG: Who can join the 2016 gramMARCH Challenge?
HS: Anyone! It’s for adults, families, and classrooms everywhere. It’s a fun way to get people to think about what they’re writing and to consider their audience. Everyone wants to get information out so quickly they don’t always pause to think what impression the information might be making on others. Through gramMARCH, we are challenging America to just slow down and consider language, so that thoughts and words are given respect. My students and I really hope the whole country will join us on throughout the month of March to pause, ponder and prose.
Interested in joining the gramMARCH Challenge? Sign up here to join the movement.
Monica Gray is co-founder & president of DreamWakers, an edtech nonprofit. Reach her via email or Twitter.