The tween students.

The school year has begun and true to form, September is already passing quickly. Students as well as teachers are still sorting out their routines, their schedules, and their roles on campus for the next four months. This is an easier task for some than it is for others. It’s still fairly easy to pick out the students who are just starting school for the first time. The look of shock hasn’t quite worn off yet.

Please forgive the low quality of the photo. This is one of the very few pictures of my home office before I started the Great Book Reorganization.

I work at a community college, where there are no admission requirements beyond a high school diploma. We are the Statue of Liberty of higher education. We take the tired and the poor, and many of our masses really do huddle together, especially the small cadres of smokers grabbing a quick fix before class starts. Because of the absence of entrance requirements, students need to take a placement exam in math, reading, and writing to see if they need remediation in these areas, or if they already have the skills to embark on college level work.

I am part of a number of English professors who regularly read the essays written for the placement exam. Students are placed into remedial classes (either for native speakers or for non-native speakers) or straight into Eng 101. The readings go for most of the summer and get quite heavy in August, and then they slowly taper off. This morning’s batch, for example, only numbered eight.  It’s a fascinating part of working at the college, and I love this way of getting new insight into our student population.

That low shelf was intended for shoes and books had to be carefully arranged in load-bearing piles.

I can tell you, for example, that many teenage mothers, gang members, soldiers, ex-convicts and older Gen-Xers are eager to get a second chance at making a better life for themselves. We’ve read about violent neighborhoods, broken families, emotional scars, physical illnesses, lost loves, and scholastic failures. Without fail, these students have high hopes that going to college will finally bring them some of the success and respect that has eluded them so far.

Though it seems during some reading sessions that every other essay is written by one of these ‘second chance’ students, it’s only part of the picture. We also read about lives of privilege. Some of these students describe the experience of going away to a four-year college only to realize after a few months that they are overwhelmed and not ready to be left to their own devices. Others knew that their high school grades wouldn’t get them into top tier colleges, and so they come to us as a stepping stone. Still others enroll with the illusion that college is just an extension of high school, just without calls to parents, late bells, or assemblies.

Many of the essays, regardless of the demographic of the author, are quite similar to each other. Some days, they blur together and all of us readers at one point will say, “Wait, didn’t I read this one already?” It feels like every single student is grateful for his or her mother, wants to meet Martin Luther King, Jr., and has a goal to ‘be somebody’ by having a dream job and the most beautiful family in town. On those days, the boredom is grinding.

We also have our days in which we are challenged or surprised. When we are lucky, we get to read a thoughtful, lyrical essay about someone’s favorite room or how music helped someone else understand abstract concepts in physics and math. We have the pleasure of placing these students in an honors class. If the essay is good enough, we’ll even pass it around the room after it has been scored, just for the pleasure of reading a well-written essay.

Here's an even crappier picture of the other corner. I don't have pictures of the opposite wall since these were all taken with my laptop before I had an actual digital camera. Yes, my migration into the modern world generally goes quite slow.

The easy essays are the ones that clearly do or clearly don’t need remediation. Things are not always so simple, however, and we are often hit by the essays of students who don’t seem to belong anywhere. One student may write an essay with great ideas but few correctly punctuated sentences. Is this serious enough for remediation even though the student has shown critical thinking and intelligence? Can the student catch up in Eng 101?

On the opposite extreme, there are essays that are written in perfect grammar and punctuation, and yet they say almost nothing. The student had spent four pages writing, for example, that smoking is bad and people shouldn’t do this. There are no reasons why smoking is bad, only reiterations of that one idea. Can this student handle the kind of analytical reading and research that is expected in Eng 101? The student can learn grammar, clearly, but can they learn how to think critically or have more complex ideas?

Beyond these muddy waters lies an even trickier quagmire: international students whose first language is a non-standard dialect of English. In particular, our school sees many applicants from Jamaica and English-speaking West Africa. Should those students be in class with native speakers? Or has their dialect of English strayed so far that it may be more useful to consider Standard English a second language and put them with other ESL students?  Would they accept that or would they be offended. In which type of course would they be helped the most?

This is the upper part of the room. It was feeling completely uninspiring, not to mention dusty.

A final group we’ve been seeing a lot of lately is the d/Deaf. In case you are wondering, the d/D was not a typo but rather an abbreviation of the complicated attitudes and issues surrounding those who are typically referred to, in a politically-correct world, as ‘hearing-impaired.’ Depending on the educational background, a d/Deaf person may be, strictly speaking, a non-native speaker of English, if American Sign Language is their primary language. Again, where would the needs of these students be best met? Should they get more focus on grammar in remedial ESL classes before they even attempt the placement essay again? Do they just need a tutor and an interpreter? What environment would not only be most comfortable but also most effective for these students?

The challenges of not only placing these students but then teaching them how to improve their writing is something that I will be focusing on for the next several months in my classes, and also for the next couple of blog posts. I hope that in the course of learning (in the case of Jamaican students) or revisiting (in the case of d/Deaf learners) the linguistic issues these students face, I can do my small part in helping our school meet their needs.

(And P.S., I’ll also be revealing the ‘after’ pictures of my newly organized books and workspace!)

How has Back-to-School been going for you, as students, teachers, or parents?

22 thoughts on “The tween students.

  1. My online class in Spanish has been surprisingly delightful. I have conducted three web meetings a week totaling 6 so far and have two scheduled tomorrow. Yay, to the students who are attending and not daunted at all by the technology. And yay, me for scheduling, inviting and hosting. There was a learning curve (on my part) but the students have taken to it well.
    Using Respondus on ANGEL to generate tests…has been challenging. It took me 4-6 hours to create my first test with images and audio files…whew…thankfully the others only took no more than a couple of hours. Discussions again, are delightful and the audio activities are being worked out, scanned and submitted…here is where the Spanish happens in my view.
    Still, I think the value of a face-to-face class cannot be replaced. Great post…as you can see this is exactly what I am thinking about now.

    • That sounds really exciting! I took a certification course to be able to teach online classes at the college but haven’t done so yet. I’d love to develop one, but I know it’s a lot of work. And like you said, the face-to-face class time, as stressful as it can be at times, is something I would certainly miss.

      Good luck! I’d love to hear updates about how it’s going.

  2. You connecting community college with the Statue of Liberty made me smile. Great point. True point.

    I find the diverse collection of students attending community colleges interesting. There is a consumer advocate on a local station here in GA (Clark Howard) who recommends community colleges for students unsure of what they want to do in the future and/or unable to afford their first college of choice. He suggests laying the groundwork at a community college and moving up to the larger colleges when one is feeling more centered/directed.

    He also says the professors/teachers in the community colleges tend to be more invested and interested in the students. Less is more, in his opinion. Less referring to size not accreditation.

    As a parent, I am pleased with the start of school and the response given by my kids. Joe (1st grade) comes home anxious to start his homework. He tells his teachers on a daily basis that he loves school. Oh how I hope his love for learning will continue.

    • I think community colleges are definitely the place that some people need to be when they need to sort themselves out. I have seen plenty of kids who came when they weren’t ready (parents probably made them go to school) and they disappear pretty fast. But when someone is ready, I’ve seen remarkable progress and achievement, and it’s exciting to be part of it.

      So many of us who teach are adjuncts and some bad apples give us a reputation by just showing up, giving a half-assed effort, and then leave without ever having taught a thing. But most adjuncts that I know work really hard and truly care about the students. Most university profs care a lot as well, but unfortunately have to live with the whole ‘publish or perish’ paradigm that they can’t give as much to students.

      It’s so great to hear about a kid who loves school so much. I can relate :) I hope he continues to have such a great experience!

  3. I loved the statue of liberty line too. Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, wandering the halls late at night one summer and feeling nostalgic because I hadn’t taught for a few months (once the term starts, there’s no time for nostalgia!).

    Community College

    I love the stained carpets,
    the broken equipment,
    the valiant IT guys who keep trying
    to fix things, showing up like
    Jedi with giant coffee cups.
    I love the single remaining, hard-used
    computer lab, and the inadequate
    parking that brings out students’
    predatory instincts. I love that there
    have been fistfights over spaces,
    and that everyone drives a junker.
    I love the cafeteria line, where we
    who were never fed at home can get
    turkey and dressing every Thursday,
    and tacos, reliably, on Tuesdays.
    I love the part-time, adjunct
    faculty working like the crew of
    this nation’s Titanic to unlock
    the gates in steerage for those
    coming up behind them. I love
    the teenagers with pierced lips,
    and the old heavyweights like me,
    struggling for breath on the stairs,
    hauling five hundred dollars worth
    of knowledge in a backpack on wheels.
    I love the thrill and terror in the eyes
    of these people who have seen it all,
    and still not given up. And yes,
    I love even the swastika tattoo I glimpsed
    on someone’s back in the financial aid line,
    because it is behind him now, because
    he is here for something more than skin deep,
    something more painful than ink:
    he is here to learn something
    he does not already know.

    • This was so great! And of course, on a personal note, I have to give special thanks to you for giving a nod to us battle-weary adjuncts :) I love your description of the students because it’s just dead-on. (In fact, the whole poem makes me wonder if you work at my school! ;) There are days when I curse the fact that I have to work at a place where I hear bad (in my opinion) music leaking from earbuds or or thumping bass coming from cars in the parking lot every 30 minutes, or deal with the exhausting energy that 18-year-olds have for trying to sneak a cell phone out in class or cheat on their essays or talk about utter nonsense. But for the most part, I can’t imagine working anywhere that doesn’t have the incredible mixture of people, backgrounds, interests, talents, and goals.

      Thanks so much for sharing the poem!

  4. It’s interesting to read about the community college experience from the non-student side of things. My community college journey began at fifteen, between my sophomore and junior/senior years at high school.

    To take summer courses, I had only to take two multiple-choice exams: math and grammar. Based on the results of those exams, I was eligible for Writing 121 and Math 111. I took Writing 121 (A) and Sociology (C, after I lost my focus following a friend’s drowning). I got approval to take courses there during my junior/senior year at the high school; I took science courses so that they’d count toward both high school and college. My Marine Bio course spurred me toward a summer researching killer whales in British Columbia the summer after I turned 18, whereas my Computer Science courses confirmed I absolutely did not have a future in computing.

    I don’t recall what I wrote for my University of Oregon entry essay, but I do recall what I wrote in my law school admissions essay. I believe it was that essay that was determinative in my law school path.

    It’s interesting to revisit the trajectory of my education seven years after its (so far) formal conclusion. It’s interesting, too, to consider the different educational trajectories others are on, and how they’ll look back on their own paths seven years after they’ve finished their own schooling.

    • We get some high schools doing our placement essay in their junior year to see if they are eligible for AP classes at their schools. That option may have been available to me when I was in high school but I never would have thought of doing that. I don’t know if I ever would have been quite that ambitious. Plus, I’d bet my very strict mother wouldn’t have let me go to a college campus while still in high school ;)

      It’s is interesting but also inspiring to see how some students thrive and really take advantage of opportunities that my school offers. It takes the edge off of the many others who are wasting their time by cutting class, not doing homework, cheating, or trying to just coast through.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      • In my mom’s case, I think she suspected (probably rightly) that not giving her consent would have worse consequences than consenting! By that point, at fifteen, I’d already moved out of the house once; I would move out (nigh) permanently at sixteen.

        My siblings experienced much more typical freedoms than I. My mom always told them I got away with more because I was old for my grade. Really, it was that I was rebellious, vocal and determined, and she wanted to make sure that the local community college was the furthest away I got.

        Looking back on it now (something I don’t think I’ve ever done before), I’m surprised anew by how accurate my mom was in her predictions. I wish she hadn’t had to make them, but there’s nothing that can be done now to change that.

  5. Reading your description of the good essays made me want to be part of the fortunate group those get passed on to. But the thought of trudging through the cookie cutter essays…. ugh… And on the difficult questions of where to place those ‘tweens?’ It seems like it can so easily influence a students chances of success – push them forward and they could flame out. Keep them back and you might lose them to boredom. You, and anybody with a vocation to teach, truly have my admiration!

    • Next time I get a really good essay for one of my class assignments, I’ll forward it to you. The thing that keeps me going through the cookie cutter essays are looking for good one-liners to collect, some of which made appearances in the post from a few weeks ago (I think it was the “Where do I start?” post. It took me half a minute to remember that title!) I also don’t know if I could get through them alone, but there’s never fewer than 3 scorers sitting in the room, and mostly it’s 4 or 5, and the interaction with colleagues is something I so look forward to. They’re so smart and funny and I think we make it bearable for each other with the fun banter.

      You’re right, I think, about how a placement can really have a long-term effect and that’s why we all struggle with it so much. This semester I’m hoping to get a bit more involved in finding out what happens to our d/Deaf students.

  6. I know this would be logistically and administratively unfeasible, but it would be interesting to require students, as a condition of graduation, to revisit their admissions essays and critique, revise, rewrite, or respond to them. I wonder if giving make some of the “tweens” an immediate reason to improve their writing would prompt them to pay closer attention in class?

  7. Now there’s an interesting idea. You’re right that it would be an administrative nightmare (and we all need more administration in our lives…not! ;) but it’s something I’d love to do myself if I could somehow. I’d probably be able to access the essays because of my work with the placement center, but I have a feeling there’s something all kinds of forbidden about it because they normally keep all the essays.

    In fact, just a week or two ago, one of the women from the testing center told me that they agreed to send an essay to the family of a boy who had just taken the test but died shortly after. So I guess you have to be on your death bed to be able to take back your placement exam essay.

    Actually, the whole thing bummed me out. She showed me the essay and asked me if I remembered it (my initials were on the score sheet, so that’s how she knew I had read it). If it had been a typical essay, I don’t know if I would have remembered it, but as soon as I looked at it, I realized it was one that I’d copied a line from, something about the negative effects of the “No Chiled Left Behind” law. Yes, he spelled ‘child’ wrong. While writing longhand, not typing. I thought I was in for a doozy. As it turned out, it was a really thoughtful, developed essay on the dangers of ignorance, but this kid just couldn’t spell. I’d never met him, but his essay was a rare light of hope that some people are still engaged in real questioning and evaluating of society. And then he died. It still makes me really sad, especially when she told me that the family wanted to see the essay and maybe have it because he was so excited that he did well on the placement test, all sections, and would be starting college strong.

  8. Lenore! This is such a fabulous post! I will need to mention it somewhere! I, too, gave a diagnostic and experienced that same range: from the banal to the sublime. Our English Department worked with the Transitional Studies Department (kinda) to try to get students where they needed to be. It is frustrating knowing that I currently have students in my class who will likely fail because they did not take my recommendation to take a remedial class. They do not understand homonyms or basic punctuation, capitalization or how to use a spell-checker let alone how to do citation. It is confusing but, as a department, we did come to some consensus as to where we feel Comp. 101 should start. And we started with the premise that kids should be able to pass the exit exam for TRS 105 with a basic competency. If students can’t write a simple essay with all the components you discussed, we are in trouble. Boring is one thing: I can work with boring, but working with a student who doesn’t have basic skills — the types of skills my son already has in 7th grade — that is a recipe for disaster.

    • Thanks Renee. I figured you’d have similar experiences with your students. You’re right about the boring essays. I can work with that. I may not like it, but it’s manageable. But the ones who either can’t express an idea clearly because there are so many mistakes would be lost in Eng 101. Sometimes they have even taken remedial writing already and somehow passed! I remember one student who was taking the first level of remedial writing. I had worked with him in the Writing Tutorial. He had some fairly severe learning disabilities, though I’m not sure of the specifics. He passed one exit exam to get into the second level of remedial writing. At the time, students had 3 chances at the exit exam, so even though he already passed, he took it again to see if he could skip into Eng 101. I was at the scoring table when his essay came up. It was okay, but very very simplistic. Knowing the student as I did, I thought he should not be skipped, and I scored the essay lower. The second reader disagreed and scored higher. We needed a third reader, who also scored it higher. I fought against it, but they ignored me. His teacher also could have kept him back, but instead he was recommended for 101. Of course he ended up in my class. Our first day writing sample was about literature – What do you think it is? Do you like it? Has it affected you? Most students understand the question, though some aren’t used to self-reflection so they stumble a bit before they get it. This student actually cried. He had no idea what to write and felt overwhelmed by the class right from the start. Even though he kept trying, he knew he was out of his league. I finally sat down with him and a counselor and we convinced him to withdraw and take the remedial class the following semester.

      I wonder how many kids like this or with other language issues slip through the cracks.

  9. Really wonderful post! The students at your school are very fortunate that you make your placement choices with great care and consideration. I’m with Keenie Beanie, I’d like to read the essays that you pass around!

    I also can’t wait to see your newly decorated office! :)

    • Thanks darlin! I’ll send you a copy too of the next really good essay I get from class (it’s hard to do for the placement essays unless I want to copy the entire thing by hand!)

      The new office is fab :)

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  11. Today is actually my first day back. It’s just my French course here in Belgium, once a week, but it’s only starting today for some reason I don’t know.

    That would be a hard job I think, sorting through who should go where with those essays. I’m not sure if university was the right choice for me, but I made it work and have a degree now to show for it!

    Happy term!

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