How do you challenge a teacher when you’re 8? How about when you’re a lot older than 8?


This week, I was helping Thalia with her writing homework because if there’s one thing I can help her with, from deep within piles of nightly third grade homework of dubious value, it’s writing. Especially if she’s studying some of my favorite style choices, like the ironic use of run-on sentences, frequent employment of the onomatopoeia, unreliable narrators, starting too many sentences with I  or and , Oxford commas, and the overuse of parenthetical asides just for fun.

(See how I did that with the oxford comma?)

(And yeah, I know what you’re thinking: I totally missed my calling as an Ivy League professor of creative writing. One day, my friends.)

Notice, by the way, that I did not mention the turning-a-whole-sentence-hyphenated-as-an-adjective style choice because that’s soooo blog world circa 2008.

Also, yes, we did sit down and look up the word onomatopoeia partially so I could spell it right, and partially because I told Thalia she would be the single coolest kid in the entire third grade if she could use it in a sentence just once that day, ideally in front of her teacher.  Of course she thinks that she would be the single coolest kid if she goes to school wearing 147 Rainbow Loom bracelets on one wrist and that I am something of an insane person,  so we’ll have to fight that one out.


Things were fine and dandy in the writing homework department until I pointed out her misuse of a particular punctuation rule having to do with single quotation marks. Thalia explained that her teacher told her to use it that way, and me being me, I questioned that.

Then I wondered if that was a bad call on my part.

I’m not quite sure what the protocol is with taking issue with something that’s being taught that’s not right. Or…not the

Now first off, I think her teacher is awesome. So she starts off one big point in her camp off the bat. Next,  if the topic was  something I were vehemently opposed to like Holocaust denial; dismissing evolution as “one possible scientific theory;” or  worst of all, using U for You in informal correspondence,  I’d have no problem speaking up at all. Especially in Brooklyn. This is the community of parents that discusses nearly weekly the constitutionality of making kids say the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, hey! A European parent new to this country asked me that very thing this morning.

But this is different. This is not church/state separation anxiety, it’s punctuation.  

Thalia asked me to bring it up at drop-off, and the teacher alluded to the fact that while the punctuation rule wasn’t entirely accurate, it was a placeholder for an alternative that they would learn later, and it’s how they’re teaching it and that’s that.

I smiled and said thanks.

And then I didn’t know what to do.

strunk and white: the elements of styleI raced back to Mr. Google and looked it up every which way and even MSSRS Strunk and White were no help. I did find a single reference to it in a writing forum as an “unofficial” style choice for some, but that “if you had written a manuscript employing [the marks] in this manner, they’d likely be removed or replaced by your editor or a typesetter.”

And of course I can’t go back to the teacher with that because she’d be all, “what’s a typesetter?”

(And now I have no authority whatsoever because I used she’d be all… instead of she would say which is my own unofficial style choice that would have likely been removed by a typesetter back in Gutenberg’s time, A.K.A.when I was in third grade myself.)

(Extraneous parentheses for the win.)


What do you do? What would you do?

Would you present the teacher with your position, possibly with a few annoying references to support it? Would you let it go and tell your child to just follow the rules the teacher is laying out in the classroom? And as a bigger issue, at least for me, how do you teach your kid to respect her teachers while also being able to acknowledge that teachers are human and not alway right?

My understanding is that there are some class issues at play here. In Malcolm Gladwell’s must-read Outliers, he makes an excellent case that learning appropriate ways to question and challenge authority is strongly correlated with success in life. I’d add that it’s not always easy for me because I want everyone to get along; but I am teaching my kids that expressing respectful disagreement with an issue or policy is an important skill. It’s a lesson in civics, democracy and conviction.

However here, in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Errant Single Quotation Mark,  I split the difference. I suggested that Thalia respect her teacher’s rules for the writing assignment, but explained that the rule isn’t entirely accurate, and that it’s something she’ll probably do temporarily until she learns a better option.

She seemed satisfied with that. Or maybe she just wanted to me to shut the heck up so she could get back to the very important business of Rainbow Looms.

Have you dealt with this yet?


43 thoughts on “How do you challenge a teacher when you’re 8? How about when you’re a lot older than 8?”

  1. My wife and I have both dealt with this and our oldest. Both in English & Math, the curriculum will suggest shortcuts, that are either inaccurate or far more steps than necessary. As I’ve told my daughter, if the teacher isn’t going to count it against her grade, do it the correct way (even if that’s not exactly what is being taught).
    And now I’m going to listen to “Oxford Comma.”

    1. Okay so here’s where a question leads to another question… does it only matter if it counts against your grade? Even if it’s wrong?

      Happy listening!

      1. If I can understand where the lesson is heading I’ll totally back up the teacher. Even in those cases I feel compelled to show my girls the correct way. The oldest is in 5th grade now, so I’m pretty good at doing so without confusing her.
        Up to this point, I’ve been fortunate to have a decent rapport with the teachers via email. I’ve always approached these issues from a “help me, help you” angle so they know that the goal is for my kids to succeed in their class.

  2. Here is what I would do. First, find out what book she’s using for english/grammar/whatever and then do a google search using the book title and the punctuation rule. Do you know what is going to replace it? You really can’t make any solid moves in this without knowing where she’s going with her thought process. If you use humor, make it a joke. If you’re the room mom or whatever, make a cupcake and ask sweetly. Send an email if she’s into that kind of thing. But making her explain her teaching methods is going to be sticky because she’s going to feel like you are questioning HER (because I believe that’s just a human thing not even just a teacher thing) and it might be a great way to do it and also was there an example of the rule? I’d help you look it up but I didn’t get what you were getting at in the post. Maybe if you shared the example you’d run into someone else reading who knows what’s up. Information, get all of it before you start the conversation because you’ve already had the informal exchange, bringing it back up is the last chance you get without being a nagging mommyhole.

    1. Thanks Jen, very good points. I always try to deflect with humor (i.e. “Hi, I’m an anal writer and I have a question…”) so I definitely hope I’m not at the nagging mommyhole stage only a month into the school year.

      I intentionally didn’t specify the issue, because I know how SMART you all are and we will end up debating the rules of punctuation instead.

  3. I think it is really important to learn how to challenge authority and how to not to internalize it when you don’t win. Winning the battle with the teacher is beside the point. You questioned, you got the answer, you disagreed with the answer and you told your kid to respect the teacher anyway. The process of all of that is what really matters.

    1. Thanks Siobhan. Great points on not internalizing; I don’t think of it in terms of “winning.” Just trying to figure out the right thing to do.

  4. I absolutely love this! Your response to Thalia seems completely reasonable. I, too, have come up against Say Wha? moments with teachers and their styles (Phoebe’s former preschool sent home things with incorrect forms of its/it’s. Gah!), but have explained that sometimes, even if it’s not what we teach at home, we may be asked to do work a certain way in school. Just like when I wrote for a major CPG company and my boss beat the Oxford Comma right out of me. For my guy, who has a knack for doing complex math in his head (clearly, he did not get this from me), he is constantly asked to “show his work” which just confuses him. It’s a standardized testing thing so I told him to draw pictures. *sigh*

    1. Oh, now its/it’s would be a huge pet peeve. That’s not even a question. I can only imagine you going nuts over that one, Karen!

      1. Yeah. I was glad she couldn’t read. I would “loose” my mind. (ARGH!)

  5. I think in this case you handled it just right. Because the concern would be if the teacher didn’t know the correct way to do it and was teaching it wrong. But if it was part of some long-range plan to teach it right, it’s fair to explain that to your daughter. I have this issue with my kids and violin. Their private teacher does not do things the way I would, and I share my concerns upon occasion, but overall I think she’s an excellent teacher and I trust what she’s doing. I also explain to my kids that teaching methods are not universal or set in stone. They should do it the teacher’s way, but I don’t have a problem with showing them another.

    It ‘s tricky, though. When my oldest started kindergarten that first year in our school, we got a student paper in her backpack one day. It was produced by upper elementary students with the help of a teacher and it was rife with errors. Terrible errors. Not just spelling and grammar and punctuation, but factual errors. One student wrote a whole piece about how Gandhi was inspired by Rosa Parks, which makes no sense if you just look up a few dates. I stewed about it for days and then finally called the school and talked with the teacher in charge of the paper. We had a long, maddening talk where she said the whole thing was an exercise for the students and it was up to them to edit and fact check before they sent it out. I argued that the whole point of them doing it in school was to get guidance. They don’t know any better, and it does them a disservice to let them put something out there that is so flawed. I think the teacher thought I was crazy, especially since my own child wasn’t even involved, but it still bothers me. But these are fair discussions to have in front of and with children. Respect does not just go one direction, and no one should feel afraid to speak up if they are trying to simply clarify or help.

    1. Awesome distinction between misinformation and intentional tactic. I really like that.

      I’m dying over Ghandi being inspired by Rosa Parks.

  6. I agree with @toyfoto – it’s about the process. Respectfully questioning authority is an important skill for critical thinking. But, sometimes, the answer isn’t what you want to hear and choosing how to respond is perhaps an even more important process for your child to understand.

    Sometimes a thoughtful debate is in order, sometimes you can create change, and sometimes you just have to let it go.

  7. “Winning” might be an overemphasis, but I think it can feel like “losing” when we speak up and don’t affect change. If that leads to either extreme — never speaking up, or never standing down — we run the risk of going from one power struggle to the next. I just think it’s so easy to take our pet peeves to extreme.

    I think you handled it perfectly.

  8. While reviewing a selection of CJ’s writing in a parent-teacher conference yesterday, her teacher pointed out where Ceej had started a sentence with “And,” and I mused, “Gotta know the rules before you can break the rules.”

    You know me: I like it all to be perfect, but none of us get it right all the time. Sometimes it matters more than other times. I like the way you handled it, and I think your approach taught Thalia much more than an outright correction of the teacher would have.

    1. You are right on rules!

      I couldn’t have possibly have corrected the teacher until I got her point of view…which helped immensely. Ask questions first right? I still can’t find justification for the perspective, but at least I understand where it’s coming from.

  9. I take situations like these as an opportunity to teach my child that the “rules” of grammar, like those of society, are made up by people, vary more widely than many will admit, and can change. When we practiced cursive, I would say, “This is how your teacher wants you to write the letter. This is how I write the letter. And this is how my fourth grade teacher taught me to write the letter.” Same thing with punctuation rules and different ways of finding an answer in a three digit by two digit multiplication problem. I think he’s mentally flexible enough to learn to recognize that different people have different standards. (And that will help him immensely if he ever becomes a freelance writer with multiple clients and has to abide by five different style guides, at least one of which will almost certainly be ridiculous.)

  10. I think you handled it great. I would have done the exact same thing. You’re right that it’s an important skill to know when and how to challenge/question authority figures, and it seems like you guys both did that in a respectful, appropriate way. So she’s starting to learn the lesson that the teacher can make mistakes or just be wrong on occasion. (Remember when your class would find some mistake in a textbook in high school? Blew my mind the first one or two times…then you start to realize they’re written by humans and not text book gods.)

    But at the end of the day, we’ve all got to realize that sometimes you just have to go with the flow, and let the little things go. If it’s a minor grammar rule that 99% of the population has to look up to know whether it’s even wrong, that’s definitely a little thing and if the teacher really wants it that way, then so be it. Sounds like she even has a tenuous grasp on a reason she’s doing it that way.

  11. This is a tough one.

    In our case, my kids go to a French school and they are decidedly there to learn to speak, read and write French well. They also have English classes and I have come to expect (and be okay with) the fact that the level of English taught in the school will not always be on par with what I would like to see. While I would probably challenge any major issue, I do let little things slide.

    I do that because I don’t want to be the trouble-maker parent in a school that is a wonderful environment for my children, where they are thriving, where they have lots of friends, and where they are learning to speak impeccable French.

    So I’d probably handle a minor English punctuation issue the same way I handle the rule about “no unnatural hair colours,” which is to go with the flow and not make a big deal out of it even if it makes me cringe a bit inside.

      1. Yes, your neighbours to the North like to spell things like “colour” properly. 🙂

        P.S. One of the little things that enrages me is lazy Canadian English teachers who grab U.S. spelling lists or other materials that use American spelling instead of British/Canadian spelling.

        1. Ooh interesting! I can see where that’s a problem.

          In fact, one of the challenges with quotation marks in general is that the Brits reverse it: single quotation marks for dialogue, doubles for quotes within quotes. MY BRAIN IS EXPLODING.

  12. This reminds me of the Investigations Math program where they teach habits that drive me NUTS in the name of furthering (dubious at best) conceptual understanding. teach Thalia the right way, but let it go.

    I’ve encountered more grammar debates in recent years than I ever expected. Some punctuation has changed due to technology, but it can be very confusing.

  13. Oh oh oh oh. I love your style.

    I subscribe to the “having your own voice is more compelling than following the rules” philosophy. Which I just made up in this comment. I have the gorgeous illustrated copy of The Elements of Style, and this is my favorite quote.

    ” It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.”

    (Please note that in a book of rules I pulled the thread of nonconformity out.)
    – Anna- the mom who refuses to sign the reading log for my 3rd and 1st graders.

    1. Anna, that is an awesome quote.

      And I am starting this next sentence with “and” and ending in a preposition, just to piss the rules sticklers off.

  14. It’s important to know that third grade is the beginning of: ” My teacher said to do it this way.” Doesn’t much matter what the “it” is. You don’t stand a chance for a few years. Now when I tell you the homework is silly or not challenging you’ll know what I mean. And how I feel. So- schoo 1, Mom -0. Just for a minute.

  15. I don’t understand the whole placeholder thing. They’re teaching it wrong now and will replace it with right later? Help me.

    I was a typesetter. In code. On film. I know how to “spec type.” I know my ligatures. I am 100 years old.

  16. I’m not one of your “SMART” readers (I had to google “Oxford Comma”) and my kid just started kindergarten this year — so I really don’t have anything to add to this discussion here 🙂

    But I did learn a lot from both your original article and some of the wonderful responses in the comments… and it reminded me of a niggle at the back of my mind. What do you do when your kid is on a play date and the other parent has a different set of rules than yours? How would you explain it to your kid? Would you bring it up with the other parent? Would you just suck it up and let things be (let’s say the other kid is your kid’s BFF)? I would love for you write on this topic some day if you get a chance… it’d be interesting to see your take (and your readers’s takes) on it…

    1. Thanks for commenting Sumitha–you sound smart to me! I’d be happy to hear other takes, but as for me: I tell my kids that every parent has different rules. If they have to eat all their dinner before dessert, or take their shoes off in the front hall, so be it. Just like their friends have to follow our rule when they’re at our place.

      If it’s something I have issues with, like praying before a meal, I would tell them what they can do so that they are respectful of the hosts.

      If it’s corporal punishment, then they have to find new BFFs.

      I’m curious to know what your issue is!

  17. I think you handled it perfectly well! My only quibble is that I’d rather “ask” a teacher something (or being asked something) than “challenge” as a first encounter on a topic!

    In HS one of my son’s teachers (not an English, math or social studies teacher, thank heavens) read aloud the word ubiquitous to the class and repeatedly pronounced it as u-be-kway-shus. He came home to check and make sure that he’d not been saying it incorrectly, but didn’t correct the teacher. It has provided us with years of enjoyment though, to use the alternate form.

  18. When I was 8 I told Miss Busby that I didn’t think that the pilgrims were the first white people that settled in the US.

    After class she pulled me aside and told me that she didn’t want to hear my snotty voice contradicting her ever again. I cried and cried and cried and cried and didn’t stop crying for like 3 hours after my mom had called the principal, to complain both that no teacher should be treating a 4th grader like that and also, if a teacher has never heard of Jamestown, perhaps she shouldn’t be teaching social studies.

    But in your situation the teacher sounds much nicer.

    I agree with Jen above– a good teacher is never offended by being questioned. Sometimes as a professor I’m wrong and I’m happy to be corrected, because that means I’ve learned something and gotten a much deeper understanding and next year I’ll teach it “right”. More often, the student doesn’t understand, and working through from their wrong answer to the right answer brings much deeper understanding to the entire class. “Why isn’t it this way?” is a great question to get in class.

  19. The single quotation mark I think I’d be tempted to let go, after explaining to my child that there are occasionally differences of opinion about these things and differing schools of thought, respect for the teacher but on the other hand “most people though think that yadda yadda yadda my way is right and I’m an editor so you can trust me”…

    That said, when my fifth grader’s (non-native speaker and barely literate) English teacher tried to tell him that the correct term for work to be done at home was “home works” (as opposed to “school works” – and this just one day after she insisted that he was spelling HIS OWN LAST NAME wrong(?!?!?!?)), I admit, I flipped. Totally and utterly flipped. As in, my native speaker child will from this day forth be following his own curriculum which I will set – you tend to the non-native speaker majority, I will take care of this even if I have to go all the way to the principal. Which I did. Ahem.

    PS He’s in 7th grade now and our favorite 3rd grade English teacher has now moved up to the junior high. We are thrilled. I buy the workbooks she tells me to, she actually teaches from them. Even though he’s still the only native speaker in the class. Swoon…

  20. We homeschool our kids, so taking up issues of academic inaccuracy with the teacher is a lot easier, but also a lot weirder. And more deflating. Nothing knocks one’s writerly gumption down a peg or two faster than a 5th grade grammar curriculum or a beginning Latin handbook.

  21. Love how you described the intricacies of the situation-with humor and authenticity–these are no joke some of the moments that I struggle with most as a mom to a third grader (the grade that oh by the way-I used to teach and wrote the county curriculum for). I agree that teaching to question politely and respectfully is important- but also that at some point- just like we do in everything else as parents, I have to pick my battles. Sometimes I resort to (unless it is a major inaccuracy or historical issue)- “just like we all have different strengths, sometimes we have different ways of thinking about things. This is my way- and you might want to file it in your brain in case you should ever need it.”

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