When the Student is Not Ready

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

That proverb was once my mantra. On the days early in my career when I would leave class with an aching head and a sore throat, I would surrender to forces beyond my control all the shrugging, eye rolling, discouraging responses, and awkward, if not chaotic, offerings I had received in response to my assignments, advice, and exhortations.  That  ageless wisdom offered me the comfort of resignation. But I have come to recognize that I can’t afford that comfort. That mystical philosophy has a very selective application for me now. I summon it up only in regard to those “students,” probably here for the grant money, who have no intention of doing anything more than showing up for class with a cell phone and a coke (and a blank stare I couldn’t penetrate with a power drill).

But those students are not the subject of this post. I want to talk about those other students on the edge, the ones who sometimes give inspiringly beautiful answers when I ask them, as I routinely do on the first day of every semester, in effect, “Why are you here and what do you want?” Many of these students also lack readiness, an academic unreadiness compounded–because many of them are first-generation college students–by an unawareness of what the culture of higher education requires of them.  Helping students learn how to learn is a monumental challenge for all who teach in the open admissions, two-year college setting, as I do, but I think those of us who teach writing have a special struggle because we know, whereas students may not, how central writing is going to be to their learning throughout their college years. The readiness to learn to write better so that one might learn everything else better is a quality I want for all my students, especially the ones whose future academic success may be at risk. And rather than wait for it, I now try to cultivate it.

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

Like most of my kind, I am a reader, and I have relied heavily on books to guide and support me through just about everything I have undertaken in life. I was fortunate as a graduate student at two universities to have been exposed through reading and conferencing to some of the best thinking and practices in Comp /Rhet studies.  Probably because of all that on-paper learning, I began what has grown into a 20+year career at the community college with the air of a stone-cold know-it-all. Such arrogance does not invite trust, especially from those who are already scared of their teachers. In short, some humbling was in order. Experience does indeed run “a dear school,” and I imagine many people whose names I don’t even recall paid the price over the years for my ignorance, but, thankfully, I can report now that I have learned some important lessons, among them discernment, patience, flexibility, and renewed optimism.

Never one to diss book learning, however, I have tried during my teaching career to maintain some  acquaintance with scholarship for composition teachers, and I continue to be impressed, even awed, by the many talented and passionate authorities out there. While I could recite an epic roll call of inspirations here (because nothing I do in the classroom is original), I prefer to take an approach similar to Kathleen’s in her recent post, possibly more for my own benefit than for others’, and try to articulate some of what I think I now know  about how to teach underprepared writing students.

When the teacher is ready, the student appears.

  1. Students who are not fully at home in a classroom profit from feeling a sense of community. From Day One, I encourage them to know their classmates.
  2. Students need compassionate guidance in how to respect The Classroom, not just the people in it. I try to show them that I view the classroom as a singular place where great things can happen if everyone does his or her part.
  3. The better prepared students are often a rich source of help to their peers. I try regularly to create collaborative activities for them.
  4. While the better prepared students may be of help to their peers, they should not be expected to sit in judgment of each other.
  5. All students, especially the underprepared ones, need a teacher who does not try to pass herself off as just another  peer. I am not afraid to speak with authority and tell them when they are wrong in those aspects of writing that are a matter of right and wrong.
  6. All students, particularly the underprepared, need lots of modeling, and not just canned modeling. When appropriate, and as authentically as I can, I share my own writing processes with students.
  7. Underprepared writers need a safety net, a system of second chances that aims ultimately for independence and responsibility. I allow students at the semester’s end to revise and resubmit one or two earlier works–with the understanding that a rise in grade is not automatic.

Seven is always a good number to have, so I will stop the list there and close by saying how much I look forward to learning more about teaching writing at the upcoming Transitioning Symposium. I am excited about hearing the invited speakers as well as my fellow writing teachers in the high schools, other community colleges, and universities of our state. I sincerely appreciate once again the opportunity to be part of this very important event.

See you on the 28th!


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