Friday, December 16, 2005

Student writing, someone should have told her

I occasionally complain about students and their inability to write clearly. While I am reading their papers, it is a source of frustration. When the semester is over, it is a source of sadness. This is one of those situaitons.

I had a student in one of my classes this semester who was generally a good, kind and smart person. She's also very strong and a single mom who works way too much. In other words, she is generally the kind of student I like. I'll call her "Jill" -- since I have about 200 students and no "Jill", I'm not spilling the beans..

The problem is that Jill doesn't write well. In particular, when she started my class, she didn't know when to put in paragraph breaks. In my class she turned in a paper that was about 5 pages long, but only one paragraph. The rest was also pretty poorly written, but that isn't unusual in my classes.

I returned the paper to her with a note saying that I could not grade it because I could not understand it. I asked her to revise it by putting in paragraph breaks and I would be happy to grade it. Without a grade on this paper, she couldn't pass the class.

A week later I get another version of the paper back. It is single-spaced, no paragraphs. I realized that she may not know what the term "paragraph" means. At this point, I knew I needed to talk to her -- that a note on her paper wouldn't do it.

After I explained what I wanted and showed her an example of what her paper should look like, she came back with a sample of the first page... and she had made progress. I told her to turn in the revised paper by the end of the semester and I'd grade it as if it were the first version. When she turned in the final paper, I gave her a hug and told her it looked good. Jill told me that she'd never been taught that she needed paragraph breaks. I believe her.

What angers me isn't that Jill didn't write well in the first place, but rather that she wasn't required to learn how to write before getting to college. She's a minority student with a sharp mind and amazing presentation and acting skills (they had a presentation in class, did a skit -- I nearly cried she was so convincing). Without someone to teach her to write, she'll never get access to the excellent schools she should have.

Imagine an over-worked admissions person getting an application essay that is all one paragraph. They wouldn't even read it. The middle of the essay could give a free cure for AIDS and homophobia, the end could propose a free and workable solution to peace in the Middle East, and the admissions person wouldn't even get that far.

Jill told me part of her story --- she is from a poor neighborhood, had a child early in life and has been working to support herself since she was 15. Her parents were no help and while her mom babysits while she's in school, her mom thinks school is a waste of Jill's life. Jill took my class because she wants to be a nurse. She's smart, compassionate and driven -- I'm sure she'll make it.

Jill didn't have the luck to have someone help her. I did, and although helping her isn't really my "job" it is my duty to pass it on.

A related experience also shocks me.. a student who reminds me of a movie character wanted to argue with me when I wrote the following on his two page, one paragraph paper, "This paper is poorly written. You may have greater knowledge of this topic, but I can't see that because you do not break it up into paragraphs" -- he wanted to maintain that it wasn't poorly written for that reason... I didn't feel like fighting with him, and frankly -- he can get his help from someone else.

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