The Ones Who Made It to May

May 29, 2009


Adjusted for gunshots, my student retention rate for this semester is 81 percent, my all-time high. I teach College Writing 1, an entry-level course. The graduating students signing up for their caps and gowns down the hall from my Bunker Hill Community College office now are two years and more ahead of my students. The national policy spotlights are always on the completion rates for community college students. Beyond “a lot more than today,” no one knows what the completion rates ought to be for this struggling, diverse, multilingual, mostly part-time population of 6.5 million, about half the undergraduates in the nation.

In theory, my section retention rate contributes to the (low) national community college graduation rates. In practice? No one knows. This college is part of the national community college retention effort, Achieving the Dream, which seeks to create a “culture of evidence” to make some sense of this vexing situation. I asked the registrar for my evidence, the won-lost records of the seven sections of College Writing 1 that I have taught over the past two years. I decided to measure the number of students enrolled at the start versus those who completed the course with a grade of “C” or better.

By “adjusted for gunshots,” here’s what I mean. I did not count in the starting total Cedirick Steele, who was shot and killed in Dorchester on Thursday of spring break 2007. I did count the mother this semester, who could not complete an assignment about a month ago because her son was shot.

I did count the 20-year-old man whose work and home life barely give him time to read the assignments. I spent an hour with him this morning. “I’ve had a bad weekend. Thursday, a week ago, there was a shootout in front of my house,” he said. “Then, Saturday night, one of my friends was shot in the face. I think he’s going to be eating through a tube for the rest of his life.” This student and I revised his plan for completing the semester. He and the mother agreed to complete the assignments over the summer. Both have the ability, given time, for a least a “B.” For now, I counted them as having completed the course with a “C.” I have not asked for a ruling from IPEDS, the federal education database. In the spirit of transparency, I am disclosing my data-quality standards.

Atul Gawande, the surgeon, inspired me on data in “Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant,” the afterword of his book, Better, A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. “My third answer for becoming a positive deviant: count something,” Gawande wrote. “Regardless of what one ultimately does in medicine -- or outside medicine, for that matter – one should be a scientist in this world. In the simplest terms, this means one should count something…. If you count something interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

I do not have terabytes of statistically sound evidence. Here’s what I found. My scorecard for the seven sections of College Writing 1 since 2007 is 74 percent, 60 percent, 63 percent, 58 percent, 67 percent, 71 percent and 81 percent. The 74 percent is from an 8:30 a.m. class, which draws more full-time students than my other sections. I have had two sections from 6–8 p.m. Tuesdays and four at 7 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Knocking out the 74 percent lines up more apples with apples. Even my lowest percentage is above the expected 50 percent or so completion rates at community colleges.

(Increasing the completion rate is a national policy battle cry. Ohio is one state contemplating a link between completion rates and campus funding. I cannot find any studies about why students do fail to complete their intended course of study. Without that, how will we know what an individual college can be accountable for? With no hypotheses on causality, my simple plan is to look at the evidence I have and to assume that the more students completing my courses, the better.)

This spring I had two unemployed students throughout the semester and a third who was laid off during the semester. The third was a dropout, due to his jobs, from the same section, 7 a.m., last fall. Thanks to his job loss, I guess, he completed the course this time.

Only two students this semester spoke English as a second language, one Spanish from Mexico and one Creole from Haiti. I’ve had sections with half the students non-native English speakers. Other languages have been Albanian, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, some Stans and several African dialects. My highest completion rate, 81 percent, was in the section with by far the most native English speakers.

I start each semester explaining that the national expectation is that only half of them will complete the course. The reason is the complexity of their lives, whether grueling night jobs at Logan Airport or gunshots or sick children. I give them my name and my cell phone and my e-mail. I tell them they can call any time. No one has abused that. “We’re only all going to make it if we help each other. I want you to get the name and phone number and the e-mail of the person to your left and to your right.” They do. “Now, I want you to shake hands with the person on your left and on your right and say, ‘I am committed to you being here in May (or December).’ ” I ask them to walk around and shake hands with everyone in the class, with the same commitment. The students humor me.

Last fall, in the Tuesday evening section, a student stormed out during the handshaking. The next morning, the dean brought me a complaint the student had written -- that I was rude and pushy and not focused on the course content. I replied in writing to the dean, as required, and we found another section for that student. For my first section, we had a written contract that everyone signed. No handshakes, though. I push the handshaking now into even the second month of the semester. Students have reported two pieces of (anecdotal) evidence, according to colleagues. The first is that I am “crazy.” The second is that they make strong new friendships in my sections.

For assignments, I use Argument in America: Essential Issues, Essential Texts, edited by Jack Selzer. I discovered this book, a Penguin Academic series, in a friend’s bathroom. The book meets my standards of lightweight and high primary-source content, from Ain’t I a Woman to The Declaration of Independence to Emma Lazarus, Cesar Chavez and James Baldwin. Community colleges are citizen factories. Why not read the powerful arguments of U.S. history? Most selections are short. With students commuting and raising families and working 40 and more hours a week, I use short bursts of great writing.

For this same reason, I download all I can from the Advanced Placement site for English Language and Composition. The essay questions there have short bursts of great writing, from Virginia Woolf to Edward Abbey to Milan Kundera. I went to AP to test myself. Was I teaching the same skills students learned in freshman writing at Williams, where I went, or Yale or Harvard? We began this semester with an AP question on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “Evaluate the rhetorical strategies Lincoln uses to achieve his purpose.” I didn’t return to Lincoln’s short burst, 700 words, until the end of the semester, when I gave the same question and then let the students compare the results. They wrote fine answers. I had the most fun this semester with a new assignment, “Evaluate the rhetorical strategies Tom uses to achieve his purpose.” The reading was Chapter Two of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, whitewashing the fence.

What else? For the first time, I offered students a third, extra, class each week. No penalties. The class picked the time. We met again at 7 a.m. on Fridays. No more than half could come. Those who did, though, sent notes from each session to the rest of the class. Fridays, when we could not meet in a room with computers, I brought sticky buns from Iggy’s. We are all addicted. I had assumed that the more-time models, Jaime Escalante and the film "Stand and Deliver" and Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans, were possible only in high school, with younger students. I was wrong. Spring break is a bit of a joke at community college. No one is going to Daytona. I offered classes during spring break. Most students came, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

One regular Friday, the students were more exhausted than usual. I read aloud, Bill McKibben’s introduction to American Earth: Environmental Writing since Thoreau, which he edited for Library of America. I chose that for McKibben’s observations about the power of writing. “It’s worth noting how each advance in environmental practice was preceded by a great book, a procession perhaps unique in American letters,” McKibben writes, adding later, “There seems to be an almost inverse relationship between ecological decline and the rise of powerful voices.”

During each semester, we pay homage to the back end of the First Amendment, the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The class didn’t like what they learned about the economy and student aid. The students decided to petition the state commissioner on education. One student wrote on behalf of the class, and we spent several classes on the letter. The required argument for the letter, they agreed, was not to reform financial aid but to persuade the commissioner to come to a 7 a.m. class at Bunker Hill Community College. He replied that he was sending his deputy.

With a date set for the visit, the students shifted to proposal arguments, proposals on how to improve aid for students. The deputy commissioner said she will work with the students over the summer, to make their four proposals happen in the legislature. The proposals all can work at the federal level, and U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s staff is working with the students, too. “I can’t believe that what we wrote might make a difference,” said one student. “We wrote something and a deputy commissioner showed up at 7 a.m. I never believed that letter would work,” said another. The students put up a Facebook page for the project.

The Charlotte Foundation this semester gave each of the 1,300 students in College Writing 1 an Oxford New Essential Dictionary and a volume from the Penguin Great Ideas series. Students could choose from Thoreau, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Wollstonecroft, Orwell, Paine and Gibbon. The idea was to signal the students -- we know you can read these works and even write a Great Idea of your own. The nation thinks that we can only educate people for $50,000 a year. Borrowing an idea from Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize winning microlender and founder of the Grameen Bank, the Charlotte Foundation wants to see what a little bit of money can do, in this case, $7.37 per student with Penguin’s generous discounts.

“I’ve heard of that guy and microfinance,” the student whose friend was shot in the face told me when I asked him to edit this column for me. He works at least 40 hours a week at Whole Foods. “At work, we raised money for microlending. I gave $20, and I raised $300 from other people.”

For the final assignment, I asked the student to find 10 new words in their Great Ideas book. Then, I divided the class into three groups. Use the 10 words in an essay. I asked one group to write a jeremiad, one an encomium and one a Jay Leno monologue. “Are you crazy?” asked one. The essays were great. My favorite was a Jay Leno monologue by a woman who was a lawyer and a judge in her native Mexico. Bunker Hill was about to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Her monologue was about how no one in Mexico has ever heard of Cinco de Mayo.

On the T on the way home, at the end of the semester, I met a young woman from the class, one who had not completed the semester. “Are you okay?” I asked. She had signed up for four courses, including mine, which met between Monday and Thursday. This left her Friday, Saturday and Sunday to work as a home health care aid. But her mother had lost her job. The student had to take any jobs the agency called to offer. The student was hoping to pass one of the original four courses.

“From the essays you did, you seemed to understand the readings and the questions. Your writing is okay,” I said. “I’m still reading as much as I can from what you gave us,” she replied. “I really enjoyed the essays by George Orwell. My favorite, though, from the book was ‘Am I Blue?’ ” Once in a while, I let the students pick what they want to read in Argument in America. Then, write an essay about the argument in what they chose to read. More evidence. In each of the three semesters I have used this book, several students have always chosen, from the 72 selections, “Am I Blue,” by Alice Walker. I don’t know why. I asked. “Well, I thought, ‘I’m feeling blue, so I’ll try this one,’ ” she said. “The story turned out to be about a horse, but it was really good.”

Eighty-one percent made it, adjusted for gunshots. The economy may be stabilizing. Federal tax policies, which offer tens of thousands to students at the schools I attended, Williams and Yale, and nothing to Bunker Hill students, are the same. Those colleges will try to regain what they lost by taking their endowments to the dog track. My students don’t know if they will have enough money to enroll in the fall. That’s a jeremiad for another day.

For now, just this encomium to these men and women who made it to May.


Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.

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