Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Agony and Ecstasy of Teaching Basic Writing

(Forgive the melodramatic title; I writing this with what I suspect is a mild concussion from a hard driving head-butt from my daughter)

While teaching Basic/Developmental writers can be really rewarding, my Basic Writing class this semester has been particularly trying. More than half the class disappeared. The half that showed up today to hand in their final papers have been missing themselves for much of the semester. I had four students who consistently attended, took the work seriously, and will do well. 

I have students who were taking my class for the second time. They were doing so well, and then they were gone, without a trace. I have students who drank away their first semester, came back looking to save their academic lives, and still couldn't come to class on a consistent basis. Even the threat of failure (and in the case of many of the students, getting kicked out of school) couldn't seem to get the students motivated. One of my students, so proud of the fact that his narrative essay was published in his local paper, is now MIA.

What makes it so hard is that I know the students almost all dealing with a lot of issues outside of class. The narrative essay often reveals so much about their lives before coming to my class. One was homeless for a few years. Another is dealing with a physical ailment that kept him home for most of high school. Another lost his baby twins in childbirth. Last semester, one student lost his mother in a house fire. Another was a veteran, trying to get his life back together. I know how much these students have had to overcome in order to be in college to begin with.

But then again, the students who did show up regularly also are dealing with issues. One is pregnant with three other kids at home, all under the age of 10. Another is dealing with legal issues (which, in a wonderful switch, he didn't feel the need to share with me). Yet another is participating in the very demanding ROTC program. So which group are the exception, and which are the rule? 

I honestly want all of my students to succeed. And while I know that some students ultimately won't succeed in college, I don't want it to be because poor preparation and a lack of basic skills is holding them back. I know that my students, at the very least, can be successful in my class if they do the work. Even if they eventually drop out, their writing and basic communication skills will have improved enough to write a basic cover letter. A few of them, in spite of (or maybe because of) how they behaved in my class are planning to take my regular Freshman Writing course in the fall. 

And maybe that's a victory in and of itself: the student who wants to come back in my class to prove that he or she can do better. The way this semester went, I'll take it. 

1 comment:

  1. It is very hard to teach a population which is underprepared, especially those who may not understand the commitment level required for college success.

    My colleague and I, the hardest in our department, were commiserating about how half of our classes have disappeared.

    And yet, this semester, I have six students who are going into the final in developmental English with a 95 average! Two of those could probably write before they got to me. The other four could not. I have made a difference in those four students' lives.

    Students who haven't disappeared have worked incredibly hard and made terrific gains in their ability to write. Some of them are still way behind the curve, unfortunately. But all of them have improved.

    I am proud as punch of the ones who stuck with it. And concerned about the ones who were doing well and disappeared. (Two more were on the way to that 95 in the final, but quit coming.) And sad about those who just could not make it through, whether from other issues or lack of commitment.

    It's a hard thing to teach basic writing, but a worthwhile endeavor. Hopefully our students feel that they have learned as well.

    I will be sad to be leaving mine, as I head off for a tt position far, far away.

    But I am glad we had this time together.

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