No, Virginia, there is no extra credit.

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.

The blue book: such fear it strikes in the heart of anyone who is, has been, or will be a college student.

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.

8 thoughts on “No, Virginia, there is no extra credit.

  1. I’ve often wondered if those kids that think they can somehow apologize and work really hard on one test to make up for weeks of negligence had parents that never made them deal with negative consequences. Or parents that “rescued” them when they slacked off. Just something I’ve pondered… :)

    • I’m sure some of them never faced consequences at home, but a big part of the problem is that they have never faced any at school either! I was having a conversation in my freshman comp class about a week or two ago and was horrified by some of the stories they told. One kid said that he knew he could pass his classes even though he would end up blowing off most of the assignments. He said he would just act good for a while, charm his teachers, and they would let him skate by. “Oh, we know you, just do well on the final and you’ll pass.” The other students seemed to agree that he was not an exception. I’m sure it varies depending on the district, and that all teachers aren’t like that. But so much of it isn’t even in the hands of the teachers, so maybe they get some blame, but certainly it’s a more complicated picture. Even when parents try to enforce consequences, kids may learn that they can’t get away with the b.s. at home, but they can at school. And we wonder why students can graduate from high school barely knowing how to add or put a sentence together!

  2. Once upon a time, when I taught a writing course at a major NYC college (to a group of students that were in a similar situation to the one you describe here), I was waiting for the crosstown bus, on a rainy evening after class, when one of my pupils from Peru approached me to ask if I believed in past lives.

    “It doesn’t matter if I believe in them or not, ” I told her, “your paper is due in this lifetime while I am still around to grade it.”

    Humorless student that she was, I did get a smile out of her, and soon after, I also received a well written paper – turned in on time for me to grade.

    All the best to you as you find yourself in the home stretch of another semester.

  3. I am picturing all of you hunkered down. reading essays and having a good time. Obviously, I have no direct experience with what you describe, because it sounds like fun to me. (smile) Of course, I always wondered what took place beyond the door to the teacher’s lounge.
    Happy reading! (And, thank you for teaching.)

    • Actually, it is kind of fun. It’s nice to be together with other teachers and have that instant camaraderie even though we’ve all spent the semester just coming in, doing our classes, and going. We share war stories or read out funny parts of the essays we’re reading. There’s usually quite a bit of laughter at these scoring sessions, and not all of it is of the “If I don’t laugh I should cry!” variety ;) And there’s more coffee than you could ever imagine!

      Your “thank you for teaching” really made my day because it’s easy to feel kind of invisible in this job, so it’s nice to get a little bit of encouragement :)

  4. Another wonderful post! I love picturing that quiet smile of success. Although it does confirm that I don’t have the grit to ever go back for my Masters. Just that picture and caption make my stomach flip-flop!

    • Thanks Jules! The smiles are just so great. Of course, the looks of disappointment can be a bit heartbreaking when it’s a student I know is trying so hard to pass but just isn’t there yet. Those are hard.

      I have to confess that there are days when I long to be taking the test instead of giving the test. Because then I wouldn’t have to grade them! :) The blue book strikes a whole different kind of dread in teachers than it does in students.

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