Saturday, February 12, 2011


Oy. These essays do a number on me. Last semester, I got to hear stories of rural white poverty as part of their reasons why a college education is important. This semester, it's The Wire gone live --- my mama had to take the electricity money for food because my baby sister couldn't sleep for hunger and she screamed at me never to be working three jobs like her, my older brother took me down the street to ask all his dealer friends why they didn't get a regular job and they said they never finished high school, my parents adopted me out and gave me up because they thought the projects here were too dangerous. It's heartbreaking. I have never had to choose between food and light, with heat not even an option on the table.

I wish I could do something for them ---- that it was possible to make up for years of crappy schooling and no reading and terrible spelling, grammar, vocabulary and even reading comprehension in just a semester. But really, you can't ---- those are all skills built up through long and continual years of practice. It takes the same kind of daily, constant work to be literate in your own language as in a foreign language; we just don't think of that. I want to give them things, hand them certain books and movies and say, go look at this right now! but there's no way they would actually go through with the reading or watching.

And yet, these are the same kids who all couldn't do the in-class writing assignment in the class period last week because it was clear that they were reading the article for the first time before they started. And then these same kids, after I told them that this made me annoyed and I was going to institute reading quizzes, all got zeros on their quizzes this week. Grr. I straight-up told them there would be a quiz on the reading!

I spent an early class period warming them up by asking what specific study habits were important for college and they came up with a massive, wonderful list --- a list that I know they are not using, though they know better. Sigh --- and yet, I can't make them have that connection; I can lead the proverbial horse to water but not make it drink. They have not yet figured out, or really taken to heart, or something, that all these study skills and hard work do in fact apply to them and they are going to need to do a lot more work to make it through their college classes. And I worry about them because the college here makes a lot of money off them with their pell grants and loans for as long as they are enrolled, but it doesn't actually have any vested interest in getting them to graduate, to say nothing of whether the students who graduate actually got a college-level education. But I guess if you're coming out of the projects and went days without food at the end of every month, pretty much any degree and job based on it will be miles better. If they graduate. If they get jobs with this degree. If they aren't strangled by student loans. Ugh. Worries.

My students sure talk the talk in their essays about dedication and drive being important for a college degree (or the degree teaching you or proving you have dedication and drive, depending on whose thesis you look at, and none of these papers are arguing the same thing from one page to the next.), but man, they are fighting me every step of the way, and complaining, and eye rolling, and sleeping in class, and asking how soon til class is over, and everything else annoying you can think of. They seem to think they are magically exempt and for them it will be easy, despite what they have written about their last semester's grades. I told them that I was going to be their Mr. Miyagi, making them practice over and over until they mastered the art of essay-fu; that they weren't going to be able to write an essay until they did the academic equivalent of Rocky running up and down those museum steps, but man! I said that because they need to be putting in a certain amount of the effort and caring here --- I'm not going to carry them up and down the damn steps!

They talk a good game in their essays about valuing some amorphous thing called "education" and how it will bring them "higher and higher," and yet they are utterly unwilling to connect their own arguments about dedication being important to education to their own experience in my class. Sigh. I worry that they have been sold a bill of goods by a school that is desperate for tuition money ---- that they have been brightsided with promises that "going to college" is something that just happens by walking in the door without any sort of effort.

But mainly, I'm just tired of grading already and wish it was summer.


Anonymous said...

I think I might stop assigning that particular essay prompt, myself. I don't have the heart for it. Have you tried asking them why they don't follow their own advice? I wonder if anything useful would emerge (possibly not). Oof! Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing: I bet they *are* following their own advice. I suspect that your students are working (maybe more than one job), have a lot of complicated personal life stuff, etc. If that's what's going on, then "dedication" and "hard work" look a whole lot different. Just the fact that they are showing up for class, that they are submitting their assignments, IS dedication and hard work - more dedication and hard work than they see from most of their friends and family. It's all about context.

This is not to say that you should congratulate them for doing crappy work, nor is it to say that you in one semester can make them into stellar students. You shouldn't, and you can't. But if I learned one thing from teaching a student population similar to yours in the past eight years, I learned that I had to teach the students I have, and not worry that they aren't the students I was trained to teach.

As for the essay prompt, I think I might tweak it to put less emphasis on the students' pasts and more emphasis on their presents and futures. I wonder how much they are giving you sob stories because they think it will get them a good grade, or will make you happy. (Because as much as I have come to terms with the students I have, I also am entirely cynical about their motives and think that they will lie through their teeth if it gets them out of real thinking or work.)

recent Ph.D. said...

All these things about your students are reminding me of my years teaching in an urban high school (before grad school). It's so disheartening, because, yeah, you can lead the proverbial horse to water, but...Towards the end, I gave up on expecting them to read at home, and we did the readings together in class. It slowed things down, obviously, but they needed to learn how to read actively -- to linger, to think, to question, to engage, to take notes. They didn't read on their own because they didn't know how to do those things, and so reading was boring.

It was exhausting, and I quit after 3 and a half years. I'm not even sure it made any difference for them in the long run. And you probably don't even have the luxury of trying that sort of thing out in a college environment...

Good luck with the grading.

Sisyphus said...

@nicoleandmaggie: but if they gave me hideously bad essays and I didn't even know as much as I do this time about them, I would hate them even more!

@dr crazy: it's one paragraph out of 5 (or 12, depending on how my students define a paragraph) in an essay about whether going to college is worth it --- the personal info isn't overwhelmingly important for the essay one way or another, and I'm not going to pass bad essays because I feel sorry for the students; just feel bad while I fail 'em.