Essay on teaching a student who may never pass

"Mike" is a student in my developmental English course. He was born in Argentina and calls himself Argentine, but he came here with his parents and older sister when he was 5 and he’s now 26. His family members speak Spanish at home, but Mike is of course perfectly fluent in English, having gone to public schools. He has been at our community college for two years; his only class this semester is developmental English. He has taken this very course four times, and his choice of other content courses is limited until he passes this class.

He has a round, bright face, dark hair, bushy brows, wire-frame glasses, small features and a neatly trimmed goatee. He is usually smiling broadly or grinning nervously. He is always anxious about directions. Today he is anxious about finding words with which to describe "The Rules of Friendship." I have written those four words on the board, and told the class, "Go ahead. List the rules … or laws or duties … of friendship."

"Friendship’s a duty?" Mike asks.

I address the class, "Is it a duty?"

"No," says Adam. “It’s more like … friendship has duties. That means if you’re gonna be a friend, you gotta do this or that."

"Right! So list — just list — what you think the duties or rules of friendship are."

This assignment never works.

I mean to draw them out, to get them to commit themselves to some ideas and then I imagine complicating those "laws" they’ve proscribed by having them read William Carlos Williams’s "The Knife of the Times," a very short story about Maura, a married woman, whose friend from childhood, Ethel, also a married woman, has realized she is passionately in love with her. Then, having read that story with my students, I imagine saying to them, "Well, why can’t a friend fall in love with you? What control do we have over that? Why shouldn’t we be sympathetic, as the flattered but confused heroine is?"

Just describing that assignment, it fools me again! It sounds so good!

It never works! It’s not Williams’s plot that throws them; even the most agile writers in the class get angry at their thoughts or annoyed with me for having tricked them in contemplating discomfiting possibilities; my queries in the margin are ignored or hastily answered.

Mike, in any case, is stuck. He raises his hand. Mike sits in the front row by, whenever possible, patient Joyce, who knows from her own difficult experiences in education what it is to be an outcast. Though smart and hardworking, Joyce has difficulties with fine motor skills that have hampered her social acceptance and made her handwriting appear — though it’s not — illiterate. (She refused to accept the services of a scribe, though she had used one in high school, she told me.) Mike, in a panicky hushed voice, says something to her. Joyce whispers something in reply. Mike shakes his head and keeps his hand raised.


“So, professor, is it O.K. if I say … if I say the duty of friendship is to be a friend?”

Joyce covers her eyes and bows her head.

Especially in developmental English, I really try not to be sarcastic. So I pause, but several students in that pause tilt their heads in wonder. It’s only the second week of class and Mike has become already the touchstone of incomprehension. Everyone understands better than Mike. If they don’t, they know they just weren’t listening. Mike’s presence is reassuring ("I’m not that confused!"), but it’s also worrying ("If I’m in the same place as this guy …"). I don’t want the other students to feel misplaced. They are in the right place — but they will make progress and Mike never ever will.

If you’re a serious teacher, you should indignantly ask, "How could you know that?" Or, trying to be kind, "How did you resign yourself to accepting that?" I’ve asked myself those questions, too, because I’m quite accustomed to being wrong about students — so how could I have faith in (resignation to) Mike’s failure?

By the end of the second week, I have guessed that Mike is probably a student who uses the outstanding special services program at our college. He and I are veterans of this course; I have taught it 22 times; he has taken it or the class immediately below this one four times.

He has told me his previous instructors here were nice but they didn’t know how to help him. He says it’s very good that I know some Spanish ("Some?" I wonder — I thought my Spanish was pretty good!), and that he has appreciated a few of the explanations I’ve been able to give him in Spanish, but he says my vocabulary is poor. "It’s O.K.," he says, encouragingly, patronizingly, in the same way I realize I sometimes address the students. "People think Spanish is easy, but it’s not."

One morning at the end of our third week, he waits for me after class. I have announced the date for the departmental midterm, and he tells me, "You know I have a few problems and I get to have extra time on my exams?"

"No, I didn’t know that."

He pulls out a form from the special services program that does not explain in any particulars why he’s to be allowed extra time, and he notes the date of the midterm. "And you have to sign here so I can be allowed to do that."

"Of course."

"I don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have extra time sometimes. It’s hard for me to think when there’s lots and lots and lots … and lots of pressure. When there’s a lot of pressure, I don’t really care for that, you know?"

"I know there’s a lot of pressure with exams. It’s fine, Mike."

The next week, Mike asks, a few chapters into our crawl through To Kill a Mockingbird, "Why is Scout angry with his brother?"

"But … Scout?"

"He’s mad at his brother."

"Remember, everyone, Scout is a girl — Mike, you mean her brother."

"Scout’s gotta be a boy," insists Mike.

"But she’s not."

"Because she plays with boys."


"But she’s a girl?"

“Is it the term ‘tomboy’ that’s confusing, Mike?”

"Yeah, maybe that’s it."

Mike makes progress in moments, but those moments are piles of leaves on a windy day. They don’t stay where we pile them. They blow every which way, and the next day there’s no sign of them.

"Scout was a boy but now she’s a girl," he announces.

"No, she’s always been a girl. She is a girl. 'Tomboy' is a term people used to use to describe a girl who plays with boys and prefers their company to other girls."

"So ‘tomboy’ doesn’t have to be a boy?"

"It’s never a boy — it’s always a girl."

"That doesn’t make sense."

"It’s an expression, but that’s really what it means."

"It’s very confused — that word is confused, you know that?"

He writes draft after draft of an essay on a scene from the novel, and I cross out and query his logic or his bewildering accounts of the book. I return draft after draft to him. He is proud of his persistence. This rare quality, which I aspire to and always admire in others, is finally the quality that convinces me Mike’s hopes for educational progress are hopeless. If he weren’t trying so hard, I could keep thinking of ways to try to motivate him. But he is trying so hard. I’m stumped.

"I worked on the revision you gave me back yesterday, because that’s all I really have to do. I don’t have a job, and so I like to sit at my computer and I do my work really fast. I think you’ll like this new one I did. It has everything you said I should say.”

Because he can’t do much with the queries I make (e. g., "Where do you see this in the chapter?" "Is this you or the author making this observation?"), I have been crossing out and rewriting his phrases into sense and instructing him to simply type up what he sees there on the page. Copying what I have written or copying sentences by Harper Lee, it turns out, is quite enough of a challenge. After four or five weeks, we have built an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t look too closely, the essay seems to make sense.

"But this is good, right, professor?"

"Well, it’s getting clearer.”

“But it’s good?"

"Not yet."



“But better?”

“Clearer. So, yes, clearer is better, Mike."

During revision time in the computer lab, I have him read new drafts or paragraphs aloud to me and I, holding my own copy, stop him if he doesn’t hear his frantic wandering circlings or missed words. He misreads his own writing and I check him: " 'She seen me,' you wrote."

He’s continually reading my face — I am perplexed by his confusion. "Oh, oh!" he says. He starts his random guessing: "'She didn’t seen me'? …" He studies me. "That’s not right," he concludes. "I can tell!"

"Right. So …"

"Oh! She saw me!"

"Right — and you read it aloud as 'saw' — but you wrote it as 'seen.'"

"Why did I do that?" he asks grinning. He turns and looks over his hunched shoulder at his classmates. He is smiling in embarrassment, though no one else — they’re all typing away -- has witnessed his mistake. "I know what I mean, but I don’t write it. It’s confused. It’s confusing. What’s the difference, confused and confusing? You say both things on my papers sometimes."

"Sometimes I’m confused; sometimes what you write is confusing — producing … making confusion. So, Mike, let’s try to get you to use your ear to check. Go on, we’ll continue, but you can do this on your own, too."

The next day, another draft.

"So this is my sixth draft, professor. You think this’ll pass me?"

"Do I think this will get your portfolio to pass? … No, probably not."

He grins. Had he heard right? "You’re teasing, right, professor? You like to tease."

"I do tease too much … but, no, I wasn’t teasing — Mike, the main thing is to make progress. Your writing is very confusing — even to you! We have to work on that.”

"But I could still pass the class, right?"

"You could — but you don’t need to think about that." He cannot pass! Why am I lying? He will never, ever pass the exams.

“So you think I could pass?” he says quickly, eagerly.

"Right now …" I pause and reflect.

What is encouragement but the faith in progress? I cannot and will not encourage him. I’m going to take back my lie. I’m going to tell him no, never, he’ll never get out of this class and this course. I’m going to be teaching this course until I die and he’ll still be taking it. "Right now, Mike … it doesn’t look likely."

"But if I work real hard …"

"If, somehow, the confusion disappears, then it’s possible."

"It is possible," says Mike. "I can write not so confused, right, professor? And then I’ll pass for sure."

"Let’s get back to work. But I can’t see any more drafts of this because I need time to look at everyone else’s third drafts."

"I have faith in me and you have faith in me, too, right, professor?"

"I know, Mike, that you’re going to work hard. That’s my faith."

He takes a long look over his shoulder, as if to refute his doubters, Pyotr, Adam, and Beatrice, and announces, "I’ll work hard and professor says I’ll climb out of this class!"

A couple of weeks after the midterm, one of my kindly colleagues returns to me my students’ exams. (In our developmental courses we instructors evaluate one another’s students’ exams and portfolios; I’ve come to like this system, as we can all take comfort that the judgments the students receive don’t wholly depend on our personal biases.) "I think I missed on one," says Luisa, with perplexity. "There was something going on and I couldn’t follow it. Miguel, I think it was."

"Mike — yes." That day I hand back the midterms and the other professor’s responses and then meet for a few minutes with each student about the exam. Mike tells me, "I did pretty good!"

"Which part did your reader like, Mike?”"

"None of them really — but she said I could probably do better. I could probably be more clear. So that means I’m doing better."

I will hear, a year later, from Mike’s teacher in the same course, that when Mike showed up to her classroom to take the midterm, she expressed her surprise. "Mike, you want to be here?"

"Yes, here. I know my rights."

“I mean … that’s fine.”

“I can take it here. You can’t stop me.”

“That’s fine, Mike! But you won’t be able to have extra time if you take it here.”

"I know that! I just want to be like everyone else, that’s all."

"Oh." (My colleague: "That’s what got me. After all, his goal’s pretty humble. It’s just … I don’t want to admit it even to myself, but I don’t think I can help him get there.")


The last day of the semester usually seems anticlimactic. The last day used to mean so much to me when I first started teaching. Now the goodbyes are less regretful, less complicated. It’s a cycle rather than an end, I tell myself.

For the developmental class, it’s results day: the students receive their portfolios and their reading scores. If they pass both, they can take the systemwide writing exam and graduate to Freshman English, where they can finally see their time and money paying off in their pursuit of an associate degree. In my office, I gather their portfolios — cross-graded by my colleagues — and leave early for the classroom. I want to see Mike, who is always early, before his classmates arrive. When I arrive he and Adam are there. I have also brought two boxes of doughnuts. I lay the cartons on a desk to the side and open them. "Have one."

"I’m going to wait," says Mike. "I want to see first if I passed."

"Adam?" I say, nodding at the doughnuts.

"Don’t mind if I do!"

I sit at my desk with the stack of student portfolios before me. “Who’s first?”

"We were on the same elevator," says Adam. "Go ahead, Mikey."

Before he approaches, I feel Mike’s eyes trying to read me. Hope? Hope? Hope!

I feel stone-faced, like a judge. How can Mike possibly think he can pass? How?

He sits at the chair to my right beside my desk.

"I passed, right?"

From the stack of portfolios I take his and push it across to him.

"This is my portfolio," he says.


"I should read it?"

I nod.

“Should I?” he asks. He is desperate to read congratulations in my expression.

As I watch him hesitate, his fingers rubbing at the portfolio cover, his body slowly rocking in the chair, I groan, "You didn’t pass, Mike!"

His mouth goes tight; his round, mobile features go numb. He has never been at a loss for rambling, panicked, anxious words.

The portfolio before him remains unopened. I reach over, he pulls his hand off, and I open the cover.

Imagine a sawn tree just before it’s pushed over. Is it wobbling? Is it unnaturally still because it’s about to topple? I see that stillness in Mike.

I extract the evaluation sheet from the portfolio. "Now look — your revised essay, the one on To Kill a Mockingbird, the one you worked hard on, that’s ‘Satisfactory-minus.’ The professor who read it liked it, for the most part. … See?" I read aloud her comment.

Mike isn’t responding. He is looking at me, not reproachfully, as far as I can tell, or angrily, but as if he has been sentenced to life in prison for a parking ticket. Then I realize he is doing all he can in order not to cry. I am his executioner and in the absence of his voice I am the one babbling. I encourage him!

"You made progress with that essay, Mike. You made some progress. It’s O.K. … it’s not a failure," I lie. "Are you O.K.?"

He doesn’t answer. I close the portfolio.

"Mikey," Adam’s voice calls out from the back of the classroom, "it’s cool. You’ll make it next time."

Mike doesn’t turn. His reproachful eyes land on mine. His eyes are watery but he does not cry. I look down in shame. I see his hand take the folder and when I look up he is lifting his backpack as he rises from the chair.

I say, "Take a doughnut, Mike."

He turns and walks out the door.

I want to lay my head on my desk, but I hear the chatter of voices in the hallway.

Adam says, "I told him before you got here that it might take like two semesters."

For Mike it might be "like forever." He will be here forever, and I will be here forever in that purgatory of non-progress.

I sigh. "You passed, though, Adam. Congratulations."

"I know — anyway, I thought I would. I didn’t want to get too cocky or be too happy while Mike was still here."

The other students are arriving and someday Mike will be back.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

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Danger of Secondhand Laptop Browsing by Students

New research at York University in Canada both confirms and extends the concerns of many faculty members about laptop use in class. The research found that undergraduates who multitask on laptops comprehend less of what has been covered in a lecture than do other students. That part is unlikely to surprise most professors. But the study also examined students who were taking notes -- with some students sitting next to those who were multitasking on their laptops. Those next to a laptop multitasker also saw drops in what they picked up from the lecture. The findings have been published in the journal Computers & Education.

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Boulder Hires Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought

The University of Colorado at Boulder on Wednesday announced the hiring of Steven Hayward as the first visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy. The position was created with $1 million in donations, and follows years of criticism of the left-leaning tilt on the Boulder faculty.  Hayward has taught at Georgetown and held positions at a number of think tanks, including the the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. At Boulder, Hayward will teach constitutional law, American political thought and free-market environmentalism.

In a statement, Hayward called the creation of his position "a bold experiment for the university and me to see whether the ideological spectrum can be broadened in a serious and constructive way." He added that he hoped he would interact with students with a range of views. "Good teaching should make all students, of whatever disposition, better thinkers,” he said. “In the humanities, this should be done by considering fairly the full range of perspectives on a subject. That’s the way I intend to conduct classes while I am visiting at the university, and I hope that students of every kind of opinion will feel welcome in my classroom.”

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British social scientists propose new approach for ethics review

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British scholars, like some of their American counterparts, want oversight that is distinct from that used for biomedical research.

Essay on why professors should object to the failure to teaching cursive

A recent news item cut me to the nib. Many public schools no longer teach cursive writing; 46 states no longer mandate that districts must teach cursive in their language arts core curriculum. This comes from the mistaken logic that our keyboard-happy society has made cursive a relic of the past that students no longer need. Numerous public schools now teach only printing, and some don’t even bother with lower and upper case – just block letters. Roman Catholic schools still demand cursive, and good for them. For the foreseeable future, kids who don’t have cursive will be at a competitive disadvantage. I’m surprised parents aren’t on the pitchfork-and-torch brigade over this, but I’d like to suggest that college professors should be (especially if they have kids).

I’m no pen-wielding Luddite waxing rhapsodic about creativity flowing down the barrel of a pen, making allusions to a shared Western heritage, or discoursing on calligraphy as art. Like millions of Americans I hit the keyboard most of the time. Nor do I harbor fond memories of learning cursive. My grade school taught the Peterson Method, a system loaded with unnecessary curlicues, severe angles and precise slants. It required mind-numbing oval drills that began with a roomful of kids rotating their arms from the elbow down as the teacher chanted, "Round, round, ready, touch." We repeatedly penciled the same oval – points deducted for lines that strayed. I hated Peterson Method and couldn’t wait to dump its silly W -– a looped double-V – with a more efficient double U construction. I was so bad at penmanship that even my sainted Pennsylvania grandmother called my handwriting "chicken scratchin'." These days I have a hand disorder that makes my scrawl closer to hieroglyphics. But I can read it within 90 percent accuracy and I can pen it very fast.

My defense of cursive is pragmatic, not aesthetic (though I covet elegant script). The first is discipline-specific. The humanities are more text-oriented than most math, computer science, and hard and experimental sciences. We humanities professors tend to demand more prose writing, our content is frequently more subjective, and an ability to take notes is essential. One unexpected consequence of cursive’s decline shows up among recent graduate students working in archives. Those unable to write cursively, often experience difficulty reading the script of others. That was difficult enough in past times, but what we are seeing now is quasi-illiteracy in all things cursive. If a document hasn’t been transcribed, students won’t use it. Need I remind humanities professors how few documents have been transcribed?

A second problem lies with blue-book exams. Count me among those who find blue-book exams an imperfect way of assessing student achievement, but I doubt that they will become obsolete as long as class sizes soar rather than shrink. Large classes present logistical problems. Administrators want professors to be up-to-date, yet they saddle them with classroom structures akin to industrial-age assembly lines. Those with bulging classes of first-year students could assign take-home exams or papers, if they wished also to flunk half of the class for plagiarism. There are other options, but they are limited, which means that today’s college students are likely to take numerous blue-book exams. The results won’t be pretty.

Students swear they can type far faster than they can "write," by which they mean block-letter printing, and that’s correct. Then comes a blue-book exam and with it the instruction, "No, you can’t type this on your laptop." (If you allow that, you’d better have an army of test monitors to stare over shoulders.) Many students cannot fill an eight-page bluebook in an hour, which means that their essays are superficial and are graded accordingly.

"Unfair!" they cry. "Incomplete," we reply. "We cannot assign a grade based on what you might have said." Is it unfair? No more so than a math class in which a professor insists that students do their own arithmetic rather than using a calculator. Or a computer scientist who tells students that the code students write must work at the end of the hour. There are numerous other situations that disallow computers, including the GREs, LSATs, and most licensing exams.

Problem three occurs when technology fails. Students use electronic devices so frequently that they’ve come to assume access. They’re often the same ones who don’t keep batteries charged, think professors come to class armed with extra power cords, and can’t imagine a classroom without empty electrical outlets with their names on them. Heaven help them if their laptops run out of juice in the middle of a class. You know what most of them do? Nothing! The best students try to focus, hoping they will retain enough information to transfer it to their computer once it’s recharged. Try that and tell me how well it works. Almost none open their backpacks and pull out pen and notebook. The weakest students ask me to put my notes on the class website. I know that some of you do that, but I refuse.

Problem four is among the reasons I won’t. "Good listening skills" generally rank high in lists of what employers desire of new hires. There are still jobs where one cannot use technology all the time. Journalism – even for e-zines – is one of them. I have done freelance music journalism for decades. When I can, I use a recorder and a laptop. But I have conducted interviews in backstage green rooms as noisy as a chorus of jackhammers, in the back of buses, on the street, at the side of stages, and in various other situations where the only thing that makes sense is pad and pen.

Journalism isn’t alone. One business leader tests perspective candidates by devising mock scenarios. Candidates must jot down information – no machines allowed – as the interviewer rattles off details, and the candidate must come up with a plan to address the problem. The point isn’t revelatory problem-solving; it’s a test of listening and short-term memory. Why? Because sometimes you simply need to take notes on the fly – a supervisor barks out an assignment, one is trapped in a no-gadgets environment, verbal directions are given to someone who is lost, or you need to focus on a client, not a screen. (Realtors, doctors, caseworkers, therapists….)

Problem five is one of keeping up. An accomplished typist cranks out 60-80 words per minute (WPM). I can write faster than that even with my bad hand. To hit 60 WPM, you need to know how to touch-type, another skill that most students never acquire. I often observe students struggling to keep up. Sometimes I can slow down, but there’s not much to be done during discussions or AV presentations. Just as violin players can play faster than a cellists because they don’t have as much instrument to cover, so too can a cursive writer scribble on paper faster than typists can traverse a 12-18 inch keyboard (especially if one is a hunt-and-peck typist.)

There are limitations even in nontraditional classrooms. The latest rage is the "flipped" classroom, in which students refine what would normally be called “homework” in class. One historian assigns questions to answer in writing outside of class and devotes class time asking students divulge, discuss, and expound upon their answers. They hand in their prewriting and keep a second for themselves. On the second they take notes based on class responses, as this is all they can use to complete papers and exams. The pace is rapid – answer, redirection, and discussion until depth is achieved. When I asked if all students keep up, I was told, "No. And that’s not my problem. It’s not a remedial course."

Finally, computers can be deadly to discussion and deep comprehension. A mind focused on a screen is less actively engaged with live speakers, be they professors or student peers. (And that’s before other temptations from the World of Wireless intrude. Try reading a single e-mail and see how long it takes to refocus on an active discussion.) Many students are great at retrieving information, but extremely slow in analyzing it, partly because they fail to grasp the connective tissue that relates one bit of information to another. The more distracted they get, the less likely they are to find that tissue. Some educational psych studies claim the physical act of writing produces better comprehension than typing. That’s not my field, but it rings true.

Again, I’m not a technophobe. But I do think those declaring the death of cursive are wrong -- at least for the immediate future. Today’s world depends increasingly upon flexibility, suppleness, and adaptability. I simply see no benefit in retiring cursive, and the potential for harm looms large. It’s no fun to teach or practice. Meh! I didn’t like learning multiplication tables, conjugating verbs, or discovering how to decode the periodic table of elements, but they were good medicine.

College professors should deliver the message that the decline of cursive reduces student chances for success. Our new Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, might be able to get away with scrawling gibberish across a page, but ask yourself: Would you hire some kid who can’t sign his or her own name?

Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of Inside Higher Ed's "Instant Mentor" career advice column.



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Essay on issues of 'fit' when applying for jobs at teaching institutions

At teaching-oriented colleges, a search committee will be focused on how candidates match institutional values, not just their C.V.s, writes Melanie Springer Mock.

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Survey shows demand still outstrips supply for doctorates in math education

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A survey of the job market for doctorates in mathematics education shows demand outstrips supply -- even after the recession.

Anthropology journal will convert to open access format

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American Anthropological Association announces that one of its journals will be converted to open access.

Academic Minute: Infant Brains and Adult Disorders

In today’s Academic Minute, Rebecca Knickmeyer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill explains how an infant’s brain can display signs of future neurological disorders. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


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Essay on the importance of virtual communities to grad students

Sometimes grad students need more support than they can find on campus, writes Rachel Leventhal-Weiner.

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