*Background; this semester, I’m teaching composition classes at Local U. and Not-Local Community College. I’m also teaching a teacher intern seminar and fitness classes at two different places, so I’m effectively working five part-time jobs. I’m so frazzled, I often have no idea how I make it to the end of the week. That being said, I’m more than a little surprised by how well things are going in general, and I’m not sure what to make of that…**
So, this happened;
The other day, instead of reflecting on a quote, I had my Local U. composition students write me a brief note about how the writing of their first paper is going. I asked them a bunch of questions to spark their thinking, ending with “is there anything specific – a grammar question or an issue with organization or comprehension of the source materials – that you’d like me to go over with you?” That was the question upon which I based our post-writing discussion.
With the exception of a couple of kids who just finished an associate’s program within the University, every single one of my students in that class is a fresh-out-of-high-school freshman; that’s important to know. The very first kid to volunteer to speak asked about MLA formatting and how much of it they were supposed to do for this paper.
“None of it,” was my answer, and 22 pairs of eyebrows shot toward the ceiling.
“Look,” I said, “you’re working with two sources; MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and President Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech. As long as you identify them in your introduction and are clear about which source you’re quoting from in your body paragraphs, you’re fine. MLA citations in this rhetorical situation would be unnecessary and distracting.”
It was at this point that another girl chimed in with, “can I just say that you’re NOTHING like what my high school English teachers said you’d be like?”
If the preponderance of nodding heads is any indication, her answer to my query about what she was expecting was affirmed by nearly everyone in the class; they were pretty much universally told that they would have to hit the ground running with a full and competent knowledge of citation, structure and process, and academic vocabulary, and that anything less than skillful and consistent display of these qualities would have them shamed and ostracized in their classes. From the sounds of it, fully half – maybe more – expected to fail out of college within the first few weeks.
It was at this point that I stopped them – literally held up my hands in the “whoa, Nellie!” position – and asked them what, exactly, they were doing here. “WHY are you here, You Guys? What is the POINT of your being in this class?”
Genius boy in the corner pipes up with a hesitant “to learn stuff?” (reminding me that I should probably show them Taylor Mali’s “Like, Um, You Know?” poem).
“YES!” I bellowed, making a couple of them literally jump in their seats. “If the POINT of your being here is to LEARN STUFF, then why the HELL would I expect you to KNOW any of it ALREADY?! What would be the POINT of this class if you already KNEW everything I came here to TEACH you?! Can you IMAGINE how BORING that class would be? Seriously; I’d want to gouge my own eyeballs out by the third class! GAH!”
One of the things I’ve observed in my teaching practice over the last year or two has been the fact that students would rather sit in silence, confused – and frustrated by their confusion – than speak up and admit they don’t know something. I can’t tell you how many times I read an article aloud to my classes and stopped after a particularly challenging concept or a $5 vocabulary word to check comprehension, only to have them assure me that they “get it” but not be able to explain it to me when I asked them to prove it. At some point, the system the way we practice it beat out of these students the kind of curiosity that encourages questions. It discouraged them from admitting that they don’t know something, which is devastatingly ironic given that the one place we should ALWAYS be able to admit we don’t know something is in a goddamned CLASSROOM.
So, now I’m on a mission. I am crusading to get kids to start ‘fessing up when they don’t understand something, to ask for help if they need it, and to not let teachers get away with assuming that someone ELSE taught them what they need to know to do well in class. I’m done with that shit. I am a teacher; my job is to help people learn, not assume that they should already know everything.