Ah, the glamorous life of an English teacher.
On deck this week are the first exams for my ESL developmental writing students. These are the students who have placed just below college-level writing because English is not their native language and they need just a little bit of catching up. Because an entrance exam placed them in this course, they need to take an exit exam to pass on to freshman composition.
This week, I will be giving the first exit exam to my two sections of this course. If they pass, they can register for English 101 in the Spring. If they don’t pass this week, they’ll have one more chance during finals week, which runs up to December 23rd for us this year.
Also taking exit exams this week are native speaker students who have placed into the developmental writing courses that are designated for those who speak only English. The entrance and exit exam process is the same as for the ESL students, but having taught both types of courses, I can tell you that they are very different. The native speakers have different issues with the language and often lack the motivation that the international students do. There are exceptions, of course, but overall, the resentment at having to take ‘remedial’ classes is more often present – almost palpably so – in native speaker groups than in groups of international students.
Either way, you can imagine that there are a lot of nervous students on campus this week.
On Thursday, there is a marathon scoring session for the English teachers, all of us sitting at large tables, reading pile after pile of essays, writing scores and deciding fates. For the sake of objectivity, we cannot grade our own students, so all we have to go by is the essay sitting in front of us, written in 50 minutes (100 for ESL students) by a student anxious to finally reach the first level of college English. Each essay needs to be read by two scorers, and sometimes a third if the first two readers disagree. At times, the teacher of a student is consulted if the essay is borderline. It is useful to find out if the essay is typical of that student’s work, or if nerves possibly caused temporary punctuation amnesia.
This is the time of the semester when students start to panic about missed assignments, absences, extra credit, and class participation points. In some cases, I’ll suddenly hear from students that I haven’t seen in weeks, wondering how they can get around that pesky “No Late Papers” policy of mine. Or they think that there’s a secret magic trick for passing an essay exam that, despite 12 weeks of writing lessons and practice, they have somehow failed to grasp, and couldn’t I possibly just tell them the secret in the next five minutes, pretty please?
While it can be discouraging to deal with the students who think that 12 weeks of negligence can be counteracted with a couple of all-nighters and an apology, there are bright spots. The students who attended regularly, took draft feedback to heart, and practiced consistently have shown great progress by this point, and it’s always a delight to see their faces when I reveal a passing grade on their exam. Some smile quietly while others sound their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the school.
It’s this moment that makes it all worth it.
I really hope there are some yawps this week.