April 15, 2009

Communication, Real-time

I gave a test yesterday on MLA format for my Less-Than-101 students, a level below Freshman Comp. On this test was an excerpt from a Washington Post news article. The student had to quote something from the article in MLA format, as well as summarize the short piece.

The article was about the falling debris from a piece of space junk--the second stage booster rocket from a Russian Soyuz rocket. The article's opening line: "The 'great ball of fire" that lighted up the Sunday night sky--and then lighted up police switchboards across several mid-Atlantic state--almost certainly was a big chuck of space junk falling from orbit."

Joaquin (not his real name) is a bright student, who obviously began speaking Spanish before he learned English, and although he's fairly fluent now, there are some interesting corners to clean out. One is the spelling of his appellation Junior. He's written all variations of it--most notably J.R.--and I told him I'd consider my job a success if he could spell it properly (Jr.) at the end of our time together.

On his test in summarizing the article, he wrote: ". . . the author explains how police lights popped up as witnesses of a fireball from space was coming decided to call 911."

The idiom, of switchboards lighting up, missed its mark, but how many of my students even know what a switchboard is? Are switchboards still in use?

And now an update on Boyd.
At our research paper rough draft conference yesterday (his draft was marginal, even at my most generous) I decided not to tell him all the problems, knowing he couldn't solve them anyway. It wasn't a decision I made randomly, but only after long experience of working with him as this is the second class I've had with him--the first was the Less-Than-101, which he passed, barely. Instead, I decided to tackle structure, a common problem at this level.

We worked through my graphic of an essay--what I call my essay map. Drawn in landscape mode, it has one big box on the left, where the main thrust of the argument is written. Traveling to the right, in the middle of the page, are three more boxes, where the main points of the thesis belong. Couple these things together and a student can easily write a thesis, in theory. We worked on that for probably 15 minutes. (Each conference is only 15 minutes--the next two students didn't show so we had the time.) The next step is filling out the nine boxes to the right of the middle three. These are the "details" or the topic sentences, breaking the main points into discussable, arguable points, for which a student is to gather research for support. [Email me and I'll send you my essay map: e(dot)eastmond(at)gmail(dot)com.]

We were working on why community colleges need money, and he was still working at the parking lot level. Finally I asked him to describe for me a basketball team. I wrote TEAM on the top of a piece of paper. "Break it down for me, Boyd." He reeled off the names of the different members of a team. As he wrote, I drew a diagram.

"Boyd, when we're talking about community colleges and what we need, it's like we're talking about a team. But when you say things like classrooms are too small and we need more parking lots, it's like discussing a power forward, instead of talking about a team. And when you mention we need more snack machines, it's like you're talking about what sneakers the basketball players are wearing."

I paused, giving him time to process. A minute or two went by, as he looked at the paper, looked at me, then back to the paper. Then he started to smile and nod his head. "I get it. I totally get it," he said. His face lit up like a police switchboard as if a fireball had dropped into sight. "You mean," he said, pointing to the essay map we'd just filled out, "that if I organize all my papers this way--that this is the thesis, and these are the paragraphs? And this," he pointed again,"is where my research and sources go?"

He sat back in his chair and nodded. "I totally get it." He smiled broadly, a sincere grin I hadn't seen since he'd started English 101 with me in January. I wondered where he'd been these last 12 weeks, sitting not an arm's length from me the entire semester. I wondered about me, as a teacher, and how this college classroom setting was painfully wrong for a student who hadn't a good grounding in the basics of putting together an essay, or figuring out how to absorb the prodigious amount of information flying in his night sky, a sky I now know, was perpetually dark.

He left, very happy with himself. Will he pass this course? I don't know. I do know he passed his conference today with flying colors.


  1. It is nice to have those moments! I know there were many times that I as a student worried about my fellow students and their writing ability. I can imagine it is quite frustrating as a teacher of adults. Good for them for sticking with it though. My husband didn't used to be much of a writer. Now that he is nearly finished with his Master's, he is finally getting the hang of it...and enjoying it!

  2. I am happy to know that there are educators who are putting this kind of time and thought into their students as individuals.
    I reopened my blog to do some more focused writing if you have time to visit.