Teacher turns language nightmare into lesson

Many high school English teachers battle text-message and Internet slang.

Andrew Miller embraces it.

“If this is one more way I can get them engaged in my class, why not,” said Miller, who teaches ninth-grade English and eleventh-grade Advanced Placement composition courses at Federal Way High School.

His first few years of teaching, Miller, 26, ignored his students’ tendency to speak in acronyms like LOL (“laugh out loud”) or BFF (“best friend forever”). He didn’t mention that he knew they spent hours each day using online profile sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

This year, Miller, who has his own profiles on MySpace and Facebook, decided to try something new. He found a way to use MySpace and text-messaging lingo as educational opportunities.

“I think there’s an instant interest in the subject if you talk to students about what’s real in their culture,” he said.

Miller created an assignment using MySpace to teach the concept of persona. Students analyzed musicians’ profiles online, then created fictitious MySpace profiles and wrote a paper analyzing what they did to create a fake persona.

Students were tremendously engaged in the assignments related to MySpace, Miller said.

“It’s important to speak with the kids on the same level of discourse,” he said. “They just like the fact that something that’s important to them can be legitimized.”

Miller also used Internet profile sites in an essay question aimed at teaching students the structure of an argument. Do Internet profile sites build community or encourage alienation, he asked. In the assignment, students practiced formulating and supporting an argument as well as rebutting counter-arguments.

“It’s a hot topic right now, so they took a stand on it,” he said. “It’s something in their everyday life. I’m sure they have something to say about it.”

Miller said he sees text-messaging or Internet lingo almost daily in students’ assignments. Students have also developed a tendency to write in fragmented sentences, borrowing the style used in text or instant messages.

In formal assignments such as essays and tests, students are marked down for not using proper English, Miller said. But if it’s an informal assignment, such as journal writing or worksheets, he lets the language use slide.

“You need to pick your battles, I think,” he said. “Sometimes you need to just focus on one thing for today so that the goal is achievable to them.”

Miller will speak about how technology like MySpace and text-messaging can be used in the classroom at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference this November in San Antonio.

Contact Margo Hoffman: or (253) 925-5565.

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