Thursday, October 02, 2008

Plodding through Purgatory

Once upon a time a well-loved teacher of eighth-grade English succumbed to an aneurysm in the middle of the school year and had to be replaced by a long-term substitute who, whatever her merits as a teacher, could never replace the dead teacher in her students' hearts, so certain students expressed their feelings about the class by posting above the door a sign that read, "Relinquish all hope, ye who enter here."

I was one of those students, and this week, those words came back to haunt me after I taught a class characterized by weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Midway through the dark wood of freshman writing I found myself faced with the necessity of giving what we call the Come to Jesus Speech, which has three essential points:

1. If you don't earn at least a C- in this class, you will have to take it again--and as much as I know you adore my class, you really don't want to take it again.

2. The average grade on the first essay was a 77, and one-third of the grades fell below the C- theshold; moreover, this is the easiest essay assignment you will receive from me all year, so if you've struggled on this one, you need to figure out how to use all the resources available to help you pass this class.

3. And speaking of resources, none of you paid a visit to the Writing Center or met with me for a one-on-one conference, and many of you ignored the helpful comments you received on your drafts. This is not the best way to assure safe passage out of the dark wood of freshman writing.

This kind of moment always lends a certain sombre tone to the rest of the class, except amongst those who happened to be snoozing, a classroom contingent pretty much identical to the list of students who most needed to hear the speech. Then I returned the graded papers. That woke them up.

First, though, I offered a rare lifeline: spend the rest of class time revising one paragraph of your essay to respond to all the comments on the paper and turn that in for up to 5 extra points on your grade (depending on the quality of the revision). Most of the class immediately set to work on revising a paragraph, but the sleepers, apparently annoyed at having been so rudely awakened, staged a protest.

One cried. One sulked. One yelled: "I don't know how anyone could get an A on this assignment if I didn't! There must be professional writers in this class!"

I pointed out that the alleged professional writers in the class were diligently working to improve their writing and the yelling student would be well advised to do likewise, and in the end everyone ended up trying for the extra points. I invited students to confer with me individually if they needed help understanding any of my comments, and a few did, but the the atmosphere in the classroom remained fraught with tension, grumbling, and tears. It was, like Dante's Hell, not a particularly happy place, and I wondered whether I might be facing payback for my youthful prank.

But this morning there were no warning signs posted outside the classroom, no weeping, wailing, or gnashing inside. We seem to have moved on beyond the gates of Hell and toward more pleasant vistas, which is a profound relief. I won't say we've reached Paradise just yet, but at least it's vaguely visible in the distance. We've got a bit of Puratory to plod through first.


Bardiac said...

Teaching writing makes me go gray. It's so frustrating!

Bev said...

Yes, it's frustrating, but in general, I love teaching writing...I just don't love teaching students who aren't interested in improving their writing.