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Correspondence
Dear Derek,

I know you’re wondering how the semester ended, so here are the stats: I began with 84 students and finished with 49. Bleak, I know, but of the 49, maybe only one or two failed. There was an older woman who couldn’t figure out how to use her computer and only turned in fragments of assignments. There was a mouthy young girl who came to every class but never turned in any essays. And, I guess, a couple of guys who appeared to have everything under control but never got around to submitting their work in spite of my reminders.

The others not only passed, they did well. After the November exodus, I likened my students to contestants on The Amazing Race, except, as I told them, they could all win.

A few weeks before the semester ended, I got a couple of emails from my boss, the dean of adjuncts. He said he’d been delayed, but that he was supposed to observe one of my classes. “Come anytime,” I said.

I know I’ve told you I feel isolated and frequently unsure of my teaching abilities. That’s true. But generally I don’t fear judgment and I definitely want to improve. Some teachers may dread the idea of being evaluated, but I thought having Roger sit in on the class would be a huge relief.

Then one day I got an email from the head of the department informing me that he was going to be the one to observe a class: the same guy who re-graded my A+ essays and told me they weren’t really A’s. The semester was waning, and the only day he could visit was when I absolutely had to cover some ground with my students about their final essays. No chance I could have them working independently or reviewing for a grammar test or something easy. He had to come in on a day when I was actually teaching.

I got there early that day and was relieved to see no dean among my students. But, as usual, the students hadn’t read the assignment, so we began that class with a process too familiar to everyone: the 5th grade go-around-the-room-and-read-a-paragraph process. The essay was Fredrick Douglass’ Learning to Read and Write. It was an example of a “Traditional Argument” I needed to expound upon to help them understand what I expected from their Traditional Arguments. I immediately saw that if they kept reading the way they were reading the expounding wouldn’t happen, so I took over, intermittently pausing to explain and checking to see if they were listening. We got through it and by the end of class I think they were feeling pretty confident about the looming assignment.

I packed up and made my way to my next classroom, dragging my classroom on wheels. (No joke. I have a rolling suitcase to hold my things.) There, in the back, displacing the guy and two girls who usually own the corner, sat the dean. My students were frozen and wide-eyed like a bunch of Narnian fauns and dwarves at the White Witch’s castle. I introduced him and told them to begin their free writing, as usual. I explained my independent reading/free writing program while they finished and then began reading the Douglass essay aloud. I paused from time to time to ask questions. They stared at me. I asked open-ended questions to spawn class discussion. They never blinked. Or spoke.

Class ended, and he marveled at the genius of my free writing program (which wasn’t even mine, but something from our friend Alissa Clark Wilkinson), but admonished me for not writing on the white board as I lectured.

“I don’t like talking over my shoulder at them,” I said.

“They’re used to smart boards,” he said. “There was no class discussion.”

“You made them nervous,” I said.

He shrugged.

His written assessment rated my teaching skills on a scale of 1 to 5.  For “communicating clearly and effectively,” he gave me a 5, but on “encouraging critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving,” I only rated a 2.

He made a couple of notes about writing notes on the board and using the classroom projector to beam up notes I had made on the class website.  But, he also wrote that overall, I “had clearly developed a mutually respectful rapport with the students.”

I’ll try to develop my whiteboard writing skills for next semester.

In other news, I had to implement the college’s Early Alert System about two students. The girl who wrote about her sexual abuse continued to end essays with statements about the hopelessness of her future. Another guy, a teenage father, wrote me a note to apologize for missing class because his child’s mother attempted suicide and he was up all night in the ER with her. Even though the semester was virtually over, I was sufficiently worried to hand them off to professionals.

The nerdy guy evaporated. His ponytail got fuzzier and fuzzier, and then he was gone. My first plagiarist surprised me by staying in the class, finishing her work, and earning a B. The girl with the radiant rainbow-colored eye shadow could become her generation’s leader, an activist who could change things. She is sufficiently outraged. She wrote her Traditional Argument about the difference between daddies and fathers. I read three revisions of her essay before I realized that when she wrote she was “rapped in foster care” what she meant was she was raped in foster care.

“Honesty” wasn’t on the rubric, but I’m glad she shared.

I bet right now you’re probably thinking, That was her Traditional Argument for remedial freshman comp?

Well, so, each of the five essays I was required to teach—Memoir, Issues, Character Analysis, This I Believe, and Traditional Argument—they’re all personal essays in some form or another. And personal essays are what I know. I’m hoping I taught all 49 of them to write a proper paragraph along the way.

Or maybe I just taught them to write like me.

And that’s the news from the front.

With all my love,

Betsy

P.S. Before I let them go, I asked them to write down the title and author of the book they most enjoyed in their independent reading. Now I have a list of books for reluctant college readers. I’ll post them on my website.

P.P.S. One student stopped me in the hall on the last day. He said he’d been so nervous about being able to hold his own in class he almost quit, but now he thinks he’ll go on to USC or the College of Charleston.  I told him he was absolutely able to handle a four-year degree program, and that I was glad he was considering it.  He grinned and nodded and walked away, still smiling when he glanced back at me.

Derek Smith is the editor of this blogazine. This is his eleventh year teaching high school Language Arts.

Elizabeth Kalman is the great-great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian maiden picked up by a wagon train on its way from the Trail of Tears in Texas to the Kentucky coal fields. Her great-great grandfather was one of the first merchants to bring silk worms to the U.S.  He kept a detailed hand-written journal that Elizabeth recently transcribed and is in the process of editing. She frequently wishes she could have accompanied Henry David Thoreau on his excursions to Cape Cod.  She grew up on Nantucket Island and is now an adjunct English instructor at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, with an MFA from Seattle Pacific University.

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