The Agony and Ecstasy of Teaching Basic Writing

(Forgive the melodramatic title; I writing this with what I suspect is a mild concussion from a hard driving head-butt from my daughter)

While teaching Basic/Developmental writers can be really rewarding, my Basic Writing class this semester has been particularly trying. More than half the class disappeared. The half that showed up today to hand in their final papers have been missing themselves for much of the semester. I had four students who consistently attended, took the work seriously, and will do well. 

I have students who were taking my class for the second time. They were doing so well, and then they were gone, without a trace. I have students who drank away their first semester, came back looking to save their academic lives, and still couldn’t come to class on a consistent basis. Even the threat of failure (and in the case of many of the students, getting kicked out of school) couldn’t seem to get the students motivated. One of my students, so proud of the fact that his narrative essay was published in his local paper, is now MIA.
What makes it so hard is that I know the students almost all dealing with a lot of issues outside of class. The narrative essay often reveals so much about their lives before coming to my class. One was homeless for a few years. Another is dealing with a physical ailment that kept him home for most of high school. Another lost his baby twins in childbirth. Last semester, one student lost his mother in a house fire. Another was a veteran, trying to get his life back together. I know how much these students have had to overcome in order to be in college to begin with.
But then again, the students who did show up regularly also are dealing with issues. One is pregnant with three other kids at home, all under the age of 10. Another is dealing with legal issues (which, in a wonderful switch, he didn’t feel the need to share with me). Yet another is participating in the very demanding ROTC program. So which group are the exception, and which are the rule? 
I honestly want all of my students to succeed. And while I know that some students ultimately won’t succeed in college, I don’t want it to be because poor preparation and a lack of basic skills is holding them back. I know that my students, at the very least, can be successful in my class if they do the work. Even if they eventually drop out, their writing and basic communication skills will have improved enough to write a basic cover letter. A few of them, in spite of (or maybe because of) how they behaved in my class are planning to take my regular Freshman Writing course in the fall. 
And maybe that’s a victory in and of itself: the student who wants to come back in my class to prove that he or she can do better. The way this semester went, I’ll take it. 

Big Brother or Autonomy and Respect?

Today in the NYT, there appeared two opinion pieces on education reform, The High Cost of Low Teacher Salary and A New Measure for Classroom Quality. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in how they propose to improve schools. The first hopes to treat teachers with respect while the second looks to instal Big Brother type measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. Seeing as how it’s May 1, and thus your monthly allotment of 20 free NYT articles has reset, I really encourage you to read both of these important opinion pieces. 

“The Hight Cost of Low Teacher Salary” points out that when war goes wrong, we don’t blame the soldiers, we blame the policy and strategy makers. In teaching, we do the opposite. Reading “A New Measure for Classroom Quality,” we see this attitude in action. The author argues that we should video tape (digitally record?) all teachers and measure how much time the teacher spends on and how closely they follow the prescribed curriculum. The assumption is, once again, that it’s how the teachers teach, not what they teach, that matters. No question if the curriculum developed by politicians, businessmen, and administrators is even worth teaching. 
“A New Measure” also makes classrooms sound miserable. Children should be seen and not heard, and teachers should read from a script. No variation, no deviation, no fun. Now, I’m not saying that learning should always be a joyful experience; it’s hard work. But, this type of learning suits one kind of student and one kind of teacher. This is not the modern reality of the classroom. 
But it shows the fundamental disrespect that teachers receive in this day and age, or at least a fundamental misunderstanding of what teachers do. Not to mention the inherence dangers that come from the recording of what goes on in the classroom, both for the teachers and the students. How can we expect students and teachers to take risks and challenge each other intellectually if we know that what we are saying is being recorded to potentially be used against them later?
Oh, yeah, while critical thinking is on the curriculum, it isn’t really what policy and curriculum makers are looking for from students. If it was, then we wouldn’t be reading op-eds about monitoring a teacher’s every move in the classroom, and we’d have already done what is being recommended in the first piece.