9/23/10

Today's Lesson: Perseverance

Existentialist chalkboardImage by adactio via FlickrHave I told you about my day job?

I teach remedial composition at a nearby university. It's a working-class school with lots of commuters and part-timers and people scraping by just to buy books. At my school, no matter who you are and what your major is, you have to pass a writing proficiency class in order to graduate. If you fail that test, you can take my class!

My students are bright and hardworking. They just can't write. Almost all of them are immigrants or international students, so a lot of the problem is that their English is weak. But the bigger issue is that they just don't get writing. They don't break the world down into paragraphs or chapters. They don't see how a pause in a conversation could be visualized as ellipses or even periods. They haven't thought about how ideas can be like building blocks: Ideas need structure to stand up. Ideas need to fit together in order to make sense.

None of my students want to take my class. They want to take what they're good at: engineering, accounting, nursing, child development. They want to plow through their majors so they can move on to bright futures, and who can blame them. My credit/no-credit class doesn't even add to their GPA.

But I am dogged because I want them to have those bright futures, and if they can't write, they probably won't. Professionals write. Engineers write project reports. Teachers write lesson plans. Cops write narratives of events. If you manage people, if you communicate with people, you write -- now more than ever. I tell my students this. They listen, and sometimes they crumble a little because they believe me and they really want to succeed. They want it more than anything. They can taste it, and they have worked so hard just to be in my stinking remedial class that they hate. But they are in my stinking remedial class because they know all about failure, and so after they crumble, they pick up their pens and write, and they keep writing, and they keep writing. And I think, maybe, they are going places.
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31 comments:

Deb said...

Well this is an interesting little tidbit to know about you, Margaret. I can definitely see you being a great teacher and perhaps making it fun now and then with your fabulous sense of humor. Writing has always been something that I really enjoy and was always a strong subject for me. Math, on the other hand... I prefer letters over numbers any day!

Margaret said...

Deb: I'm with you. I prefer letters over numbers, but because of that I think I really get my students. They don't intuit writing just like I never intuited math. So I really break things down and show them what is going on -- which is what would have really helped me with math.

Jean Spitzer said...

I think maybe you are dogged because that's your nature. I picture you as feisty and persistent. Your students are lucky.

Joanne said...

You definitely have a way with words, I'll bet you're a very effective teacher. And kudos to the college for demanding writing proficiency in this day and age. To not do so is really unacceptable!

As an aside, I once knew a teacher (Kindergarten) who took a teaching job in CA. At the time, the public school system was operating on a 9 week on, 3 week off schedule. Is that something still being done in CA, at the elementary level?

altadenahiker said...

Oh, your lucky, lucky students. To get a foundation from such a teacher and writer. Not all, but some, will never forget Margaret.

Stacey @ Entropified said...

Great post.

In a way, I was talking to my son about this. He has a high school class where he has to write and give a speech each week. I said he was so blessed to have to do this because someday as a professional he'd be expected to do this very thing.

And your students are blessed to have you as their teacher.

Rois said...

I used to tutor and mentor Russian speaking immigrants most of which could not even read in their first language let alone English.
My biggest road block, words and phrases that do not translate in either direction.(the word "those" is a great example.) So I can see why your students don't want to write.But I do commend you for pushing them to keep trying.

Petrea said...

O god, Margaret, this is so beautiful. I want them to succeed, too. It sounds like they understand that they need you, and I love that the school insists upon this knowledge for them. As others have said, they are lucky to have you and lucky to have this requirement.

When my sister was getting her masters in English she was assigned to teach freshman English to a classroom full of Engineering majors. They sound like your people--smart, but they couldn't write. They just wanted to get on with their Engineering degrees.

Instead of making them write papers about Hemingway and Hawthorne, Gina had them read Asimov and Pohl. It was a good idea. They liked the science, and thereby got interested enough to write about what they read.

I picture you doing fun stuff with your students--they probably know all about gods and goddesses, for one thing. And I'll bet they write about accounting and child development. I'll bet they laugh a lot.

I don't get math either. Never did. I still had to pass a basic math course, and I barely made it. I almost ended up in remedial math my freshman year.

Shell Sherree said...

They indeed are blessed to have you as their teacher, Margaret. Your patience and belief in the value of what you are helping them to learn and achieve will surely rub off.

Najma Velshi said...

Being a retired teacher, I relate completely to your blog today- maybe a goddess to help them along (:)!

Najma Velshi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daisy said...

Is there a goddess for teachers of reluctant students? If not, I nominate you, Margaret!

Vanda said...

I'm ESL too, but tend to express myself better in writing than in spoken words. Of course, I'm no engineer. I suspect that lack of writing skills stem from lack of reading.

Petrea said...

Vanda, I admire that. Off and on I try to learn French. I can speak a bit of it but I can't write it at all. I would be terrible in a class like Margaret's.

... daisy... said...

It must be kind of frustrating. You and loads of people know how important is to know how to write! You're not becoming a good engineer without communicating (and writing means communicating), you won't sell either without good communicational skills and most of all you won't create or build anything worthy in your life. I'm afraid, maybe I'm too much of a writer (I am far from being a good one, but I truly love writing) to imagine a person without passable writing skills. I think your job is a tough one, but as far as I'm concerned and after reading what YOU write, I am positive that you're doing a great job! :-)

PS: I'm really bad with numbers... but it's not that I don't like them... it's just we're talking two different languages! ;-)))

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I think I might be very familiar with "said" school. Are you Sybil adjacent or north of the 10?

They're lucky to have you and your lucky to have such a short commute (it's what I based my higher education on)

Margaret said...

Joanne: I don't know the specifics, but some districts do go year round. It's up each district.

Petrea: I don't do gods and goddesses with them. The main thing I try to do -- and this is hard for me -- is talk as little as I can get away with so that they spend most of their time writing, and then I conference a lot with them personally. It's hard because you have to remain actively thinking the whole time.

Najma: I actually do have a goddess for teachers come up next in the queue. Good idea.

Vanda: You are absolutely right. They avoiding reading because it is hard, and then that just compounds all their problems.

...Daisy...: Finally! A language you're not so good at.

PA: I'm not sure what Sybil adjacent. I'm right off the 10 actually. Very convenient indeed.

Petrea said...

Conferencing personally with the students is remarkable, Margaret. Don't you think so? I think you're remarkable.

Margaret said...

Petrea: In this case, it's not so remarkable because my colleagues who also teach this course do the same thing. But thanks for the vote of confidence.

phoebat said...

Oh Margaret so lovely. "They are in my... class because they know all about failure..."; that line really hit my heart strings.

My son has a learning disability and I watched him struggle through all his school years. Long undiagnosed he got under everyone’s skin at times, even his own. I cajoled, fought with and encouraged him as I negotiated and persuaded teachers not to give up on him. I think it was our sheer tenacity combined with love and fear of further failure that got him through. Just thinking about it makes me tired :)

In the end, with no illusions about grand achievement, he unwittingly hit the jackpot. In his senior year of high school a teacher saved him. That teacher worked with little means and no flash to get my son and the other kids in jeopardy to graduation. That man does it every year. He’s helped countless people get over a major hurdle and get that so necessary high school diploma.

Sometimes it just isn't pretty but it’s worth it. Lots of stumbling and small successes while keeping one dogged foot in front of the other and life goes on. You are so loving and smart, such a good person to fill that oh so non-glamorous role of persevering while those students forge on.

Bec said...

Happy back to school! I'm not missing it yet but I have 2 writing classes for winter quarter. I always tell my students about a project I did in grad school where I interviewed employers at "non-writing jobs" and their employees. I found that the employees grossly underestimated a) the amount of writing they would do on the job and b) how important their writing skills were to their boss. Hope you have a great fall . . . your students are lucky to have someone who cares about their writing and respects them as people.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Sorry to confuse...happens. I got my MFA degree from CSLA. The main campus is north of the freeway but there is an additional facility off the Long Beach freeway It's across from Sybil Brand Institute (women's prison). The prison was closed in 1997 because of the Northridge earthquake. I read that the walls are painted pink. Punishment enough!


btw: does your course include native english speakers; kids needing remedial english? I had to take the english proficiency test to graduate from CSLB in 84. I barely passed the dang thing.

... daisy... said...

:-D ahahaha
but you're too kind!

Linda Dove said...

I just read this to Reuben, as he is teaching remedial comp for the first time this semester. He's in the swill of it.

Myself, I miss the classroom interactions, but I sure don't miss the grading. It sounds like your students are in very capable hands!

Star said...

How do you assign the writing topics? It must be really hard, with so many different interests represented. I teach an American English conversation class, in which we practice writing, too, but since most are interested in travel, whatever vacations they've had recently usually provides more than enough impetus for lively conversation. The class is part of a cultural after hours program, and so--HEAVEN--no grading! That's one of the things that I don't miss about teaching in a university (the other? disinterested students--no matter how much passion I put into reaching them--who don't even attend class, let alone study, then try to pull the wool over my eyes during exams and papers...it's so disgusting).

gaelikaa said...

You approach that assignment with a lot of courage and realism. You must be a terrific teacher...

pattiwag said...

Teachers write lesson plans, and lots more. The most important thing though, is teachers teach their students how to write-starting in Kindergarten. That was the scariest thing for me as a new teacher! But then we re-discovered Lucy Caulkins. If you haven't read her books, do.

Jessica said...

Oh, how I know your experience. . .I taught a class as part of the Rutgers Future Scholars program at Rutgers University, that gives underprivileged high school kids a chance at college prep. It was TOUGH, and they (most) didn't want to be there. But you can tell they want success.
Teaching is tough! You NEED to see the documentary Waiting for Superman, if you haven't already... incredible and horrifying.
-jess
http://dysfunctionalbeginnings.com/

Desiree said...

Bravo to all those students. I have to say, sometimes throwing in the towel is very appealing.

Cafe Observer said...

I'm a numbers dog. Nevethemore, I prefer letters over numbers - I think...

Margaret said...

Jessica: Saw the movie. Loved it.

Pattiwag: I do know Calkins work. I know it has inspired a lot of teachers.