Penny was in one of my courses last semester. She failed. Her basic skills – reading comprehension, written and oral expression, logical organization – were all very poor. However, she was motivated and hardworking, and didn’t seem discouraged throughout most of the term, even when she failed quiz after quiz and assignment after assignment.
It was only at the end of the term that she started to show her frustration. After receiving 40% on her first version of her final essay, she seemed to be at a loss. It was the first time I saw her show signs of anger. “But I asked some friends to look at it!” she said. “They said it was good! I don’t trust these people any more!”
I tried to speak with her logically with her about the difficulties she was having; she didn’t even seem to grasp that her skill level was so low that it was unlikely she could solve her problems in one term. We had a couple of conversations in which I told her that she needed to be prepared for a possible course failure. “But I work so hard!” she said. Yes, I acknowledged, she was working hard. She was also a lovely person and a delight to have in the class, but she still couldn’t construct a comprehensible sentence. And, as predicted, she ended the course with a failing grade.
At the moment, I am the only person who teaches this course, so this semester, Penny is in my class again. She seems to have entirely changed. She missed the first two classes, and has come late for the others. (She missed no classes last semester, and was always punctual.) When she does show up, she seems sullen and distracted; she doesn’t ask questions, and moves listlessly to join her groups or write on the board.
After the first class she attended, she asked to speak to me.
“You said talk to you about my essay,” she said. “I don’t understand how I failed. If I didn’t rewrite the essay, I would had a passing grade! But I fail the rewrite and you fail me for everything! In class, when I show you the essay rewrite, you say it’s all good! But then I fail!”
And so forth. It was more apparent than ever that explaining the mathematics of her grade, of reminding her that I did NOT say that the rewrite was “all good,” etc., was not going to be productive. Nor would it help to tell her that when I said “Come see me in January,” I meant “Come if you want to look at this essay in detail together,” not, “Come if you want to negotiate with me about your grade.” So I simply repeated what I’d already told her several times: her skills are very weak. If she goes into a 101 course now, she will fail. If she works as hard this term as she did last term, she may very well pass the course, but she needs the extra practice.
“But I feel so bad!” She laughed a bit, and I saw a glimpse of the Penny I knew in the fall. “I feel so bad since then! I think, ‘Why am I so dumb? Why I can’t do this?’”
“I know you feel bad,” I said. “Failing a course feels bad. But if you can get past your bad feeling, if you can put it aside, then this can be an opportunity for you. It’s a chance for you to learn more and practice more, so your skills will be strong. You are not dumb. How long have you been in Canada?”
“About seven years,” she said.
This pulled me up short. What? “Seven years,” I said. “But you went to high school in French?”
“No, in English.”
She has been going to English school for seven years. How is this possible? “Did you do well in your English courses in high school?”
“English, no, but everything else I do fine.”
I took a deep breath. “I hope you will try to see this as a chance to do better, Penny. You are a good worker. Don’t be discouraged. If you keep working, you will improve.”
Today in class, Penny was finishing her paragraph homework assignment instead of paying attention. (Last semester, she ALWAYS came with her homework complete and was ALWAYS completely attentive.) When I called on her during grammar exercises, she had no idea where we were; she hadn’t even opened her book to the correct page and, as it turned out, was using the course pack from last term, which means that she hadn’t made any attempt to do her grammar homework at all. It seems likely that she will fail her quiz next week. What concerns me more, though, is that she seems completely deflated. I have no idea what to do about this.
What can we do when students are so traumatized by failure that they can’t pick themselves up and move on? In a previous post, I discussed research that suggests that “grit” – or resilience – is the most important ingredient in student success. What can we do if a student’s “grit” seems to be all used up?
There’s a Rilke quote I love, and that I turn to when I feel like I just can’t catch a break. Penny won’t be able to hear it – I’m not sure she’d even understand it – but I wish I could find a way to deliver its meaning to her whole, as a gift.
Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Is there anything I can say to convince Penny that the solution to her problems is to just keep going?
Photo by Cherie Wren