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.
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.
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.
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?
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?