Saturday, December 16, 2006

in which I write lovingly of my students

[sorry, this is a little long]

The last day of class was ages ago (Dec 6th) and I turned in my grades on the 12th. In a brief interlude in which I extol the virtues of technology, let me say that my mad Excel skillz really made grading a breeze. So there's that.

But back to my students. I couldn't have asked for a better bunch of students for my first class. I had a range of abilities, sure, but not an unwieldy range. In fact, I was concerned about how to address issues of grammar because there were not widespread grammatical problems. Everyone started at a good grammatical place (or an easily fixed grammatical place) and their biggest issues were in thoughtfulness and organization.

That is, everyone could write reasonably well (some could write very well) but were seemingly terrified to do so.

Before I go on, let me provide some context (in the form of generalizations, forgive me). My school: large regional institution that is part of a system (CSU) living in the shadow of its sibling (UC system), a large number of students transfer in from community college, those who are here for all four years are typically in highly-structured programs such as engineering (computer, civil), nursing, sciences, etc. If a student goes to a CSU, they're already labeled (whether it is true or not) as not being part of the top 12.5% of college graduates (they go to UCs). A large number of our students are generation 1.5 students. To that end, a lot of our students have been told they're not good enough, not smart enough, or have been shuffled through the overcrowded educational system without personal attention (unless they were troublemakers). What happens when a typical teenager receives no affirmation of their ability? They believe they have none, and then self-fulfilling prophecies take over and they end up in remedial/basic writing/call it what you will courses.

By the time we get them in 1A—if we get them at all, because a lot of students take 1A/1B at community colleges because it's "easier," although they then fail the WST (writing skills test required before junior year that allows them to take upper-division general ed courses) at a rate of 66% instead of the 2% who take 1A/1B here—they either lack confidence in their writing (or even their intelligence) or have already decided they don't care to learn to write. Given this generalization of the students at our school, the goals of 1A/1B are not as advanced as those of freshman writing courses at other institutions. The final essay in 1A is an argumentation essay; in 1B students work on "research papers."

We get them through 1A using modes-based pedagogy, and we musn't show them any "literature." There's an insitutional policy against having "literature" on our syllabi. I have "literature" in quotes because I'm not really sure what that means. In general, it means "don't teach sonnets to students in 1A," and sure, I'm ok with that. But there are plenty of pieces in our reader that are literary without being poetry or fiction.

In short: 1A is much like a basic writing course elsewhere, we do a lot of personal writing, and we musn't introduce them to scary things like literature.

So what did I find myself doing? Cheerleading. The simple act of picking out positive things in students' personal writing so as to show them that they had thoughts in their heads and the ability to express themselves had far greater results than picking out the deductive and inductive arguments in "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

That is not to say my students didn't get any book-learnin', as they certainly did. On the last day of class we had an impromptu "exam" in which I wrote a bunch of terms on the board and they had to pick one and explain it before I let them go get their donut/cake/bagel from the party table. It was, pardon the pun, a piece of cake to them, and I think they were as surprised as I was with all they ended up knowing about types of writing, tools for writing, and the writing process.

Did everyone end up with an A? Of course not. Only three students did. The average number of absences in my class was just under two, and six students had perfect attendance. People wanted to be there and commented on how much fun class was, even if it was 7:30 in the morning and they didn't like any/all of the readings. Heck, I didn't like all of the readings. I will be breaking the "no literature!" rule in the Spring as I will swap out a few of the readings with excerpts I think better address the particular mode/I like more.

Sorry, I forgot that I was writing lovingly about my students.

On the last day I had them write something about what they liked best/didn't like/thought they learned/etc and in their responses I learned far more students than I originally thought had previously been in the remedial sequence of courses. Many of them said their original goal for the class was to learn what it was all about so when they had to take it a second time they'd be able to pass. Wow. It's a good thing I talked about aiming high and self-fulfilling prophecies and such, earlier in the semester (actually, one of my students quoted me saying this in his final exam, and the reader pointed it out to was both funny and embarrassing). Some of my best writers were those tagged as remedial. In my comments to them as I sent the email with their grades, I emphasized they should remove all traces of that tag from their brains because nothing about their thought processes or their writing requires remediation and in fact they are as capable and prepared as any other student. I'm not anti-remedial in any way, but I am anti- whatever test put them on a path that set them back an entire year in their studies and confirmed what they already (incorrectly) thought about themselves. But that's probably another post for another day.

Many of my students said I was their best English teacher ever, which I of course do not believe, but I will concede that perhaps I was the first to actually pay attention to them and provide them with an atmoshere conducive to success. That I can do, and if I learned anything from my first batch of students, it's that it's really important to do so. I vow never to forget that.

I could tell you something personal/specific to every single one of my students. In fact, I will.

One feels about herself because she got a butterfly tattoo (she likes butterflies) and all her friends told her that makes her a ho. One is still reforming himself from life in a gang, in one of our crappier neighborhoods, and wrote a final exam that tied for the highest in the class. One student has a mother who was a schoolteacher in their native country but can't find skilled work here, who has instilled the need for higher ed into her daughter, who is just so stoked to have made it to college that you can't help but be cheerful along with her. One who has begun school after a two-year tour in Iraq, who has a wicked sense of humor and a love of UFC and Borat. One who wants to be a pharmacist and help all the elderly folks in his community, to honor his grandfather who died when he was in high school. One who has been working on her own graphic novels for years, and who develops and draws and describes a whole cast of characters. One who has strong opinions about immigrants' rights and other political issues, but doesn't yet have the verbal ability to get all that stuff out on paper; she was not the "chosen one" in her family, and I think she suffers because of it. One whose father is a quadriplegic and has a lot of responsibilities outside of school; that she can even make it to class is a plus for her. One whose father has mapped his life out for him, but he doesn't agree; every day is a struggle between what he's told to do and what he thinks he wants to do...and I hope one day he chooses wisely. One who overestimates his argumentation skills, but is certainly funny and smart and kept class lively. One whose family had to move for financial reasons, who now lives in an area not so safe and full of distractions for a budding student, which she has to negotiate daily. One whose family left a relatively palatial home in another country for "opportunities" in America, which currently includes stuffing the family into a wee apartment in a crappy part of town, with parents working multiple jobs so that their children can go to school here; the student longs for something he can call "home" and knows it isn't here. One who struggled to make it through high school because he was "the smart one" at a school where gang life was valued, not intelligence. One who hides his enjoyment of things sentimental and literary because it's "not cool," but he doesn't do a good job hiding it and he knows it and it's ok. One who is thoughtful and funny and smart, whose father started out as a gardener and built for himself a landscaping business and moved his family to a better part of town. One who wants to be a nurse, and teases me about my inability to refer to science matters (I once referred to "those things with -tons"). One who should have been able to skip 1A but for some reason didn't, who did every single extra-credit assignment not because she needed it but because they were reader responses to actual literature; I hope she becomes an English major. One who realized that his issues had nothing to do with his writing skills or intelligence, but everything to do with his own time management; once he realized that, he was golden. One who wants to be a nurse and provide obstetric services to women in third-world countries. One who apologized for not contributing "smart things" to classroom discussion because once (out of twenty or so times) he wasn't exactly correct; I quickly informed him that it's ok to be wrong, because sometimes the best discussions come out of incorrect blurtings, and sheesh, go a little easier on yourself! One who hated all the readings because she couldn't identify with a single one of them, but loved the class anyway and was there every day. One who had incredible difficulties getting started and writing the required amount, but everything he did manage to write was grammatically correct and sometimes insightful; his favorite reading in the class was an extra-credit reading...the fellow thought "A Modest Proposal" was just the bomb, although he couldn't quite get all the words together to say why. Finally, the quiet fellow who sat in the back, who wants to be a computer engineer, who loves soccer more than anything in the world, who wrote his descriptive essay about a friend who was gunned down in their neighborhood, who was told by other students in a summer program at a private high school that he wasn't good enough or smart enough because he spoke Spanish, who said that he hopes one day to write poems in both languages.

I adore them all.

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