On Monday, I brought you the story of Penny, who failed my course last term and is repeating it, and has transformed from a diligent and cheery student into a discouraged and sullen one. There were lots of thoughtful suggestions about how to help Penny, and several people asked to be updated on her story.
That post was automatically uploaded to this blog while I was in Penny’s class, administering a quiz. Penny arrived almost twenty minutes late, and almost ten minutes into the fifteen-minute quiz. She spent almost all of the remaining five minutes slowly removing her coat, scarf, etc., slinking to the back of the room to stack them on a table, returning to her seat, delicately plucking her reference materials one by one from her bag and arranging them on her desk, opening her electronic dictionary and powering it up, and then shutting it down when I reminded her that she was not, nor had she ever been, allowed to use any electronic devices during quizzes. She had time to circle a handful of random words in the error correction exercise (she did not correct them), and then the quiz was over.
The rest of the lesson was dedicated to working in assigned groups. Although she was quiet at first, Penny seemed to warm up as she and her partners discussed and completed their exercise. At the end of the period, she was the last one in the room. When she finished writing down the homework and began to wrap herself up again in her coat and scarf, I said,
“Penny, you seem very discouraged.”
She laughed a bit, and nodded. When she laughs, I recognize her again – she’s still the same Penny she was a few months ago. “Yeah,” she said. “I feel so bad.”
“I know you feel bad,” I said. “I’m worried that you feel so bad that you’re going to fail the course again. What are you going to do to try to get past your bad feeling?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what can I do.”
I let that sit for a minute, and thought. “I have a suggestion. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. But maybe you can try.”
She hesitated for a second, but then she nodded.
“Often, in school, students think only about their grades: pass, fail, good grade, bad grade. Of course, grades are important. But sometimes we forget that the purpose of school is not the grade.”
She was listening. She waited.
“The purpose of a course is to learn things. I know you learned things in our course last time. You made a lot of improvements. You need to learn more things before you can pass the course, but you’ve already learned a lot. Is it possible for you to think about the learning, and to think less about your grade? To take the things you’ve already learned, and use them to keep learning everything you need to learn?”
There was a long pause. She was nodding slowly.
“Do you understand what I mean by the difference between the grade and the learning?” I asked.
“Yeah. I can learn even if I don’t get good grade.”
“Exactly. Do you think, if you thought more about the learning, you could be more motivated?”
She smiled. “I’m not sure. But yes. I can try.”
When I returned to my office, there were already a number of responses to my post about Penny, and they continued to stream in over the next day or so. One suggestion that came up again and again was tutoring. Now, Penny, like all of my Prep students, was directed last semester to get help from the Learning Centre; we visited the Centre as a class, and after every assignment, I suggested that she go; she might have done so once or twice. I have also received, over the past couple of weeks, reminders from the college about peer tutors, sentence skills workshops, and all the other services offered for our many, many students whose language abilities are so poor that, let’s face it, they really shouldn’t be in college.
I’d been thinking that I should direct Penny to these services again, insisting that this time she MUST go regularly. But I’d been hesitating. Deep down, I was convinced that doing extra work of the type we were doing in class was not going to help her.
Something had not occurred to me, however, and it occurred to me now.
There is a tutor who often helps me with students who seem to suffer from undiagnosed learning disabilities. (I have already mentioned her in a few posts, including this one, about a student whose denial about his difficulties nearly drove me over the edge.) Penny’s problems are so obviously second-language based, I hadn’t considered that their roots might be cognitive. However, the knowledge I reported in the previous post – that she’s been in Canada for seven years and went to high school in English – had started a chain reaction of…understanding? speculation? I wasn’t sure.
I knew, though, that students who had worked with M had had good experiences. They hadn’t always produced stellar work, but they had known that someone was there especially to help them, someone they could go to when they were frustrated, someone who could take an hour to walk them slowly, patiently through something until it made more sense, and then another hour, and then another.
I wrote Penny a note saying that I think she needs a tutor, and that I have a specific tutor in mind. I asked her to come discuss it with me. I didn’t hold my breath, but yesterday she sent me a response. “Thank Siobhan. That’s would be good idea. We will discuss about next class.”
In the meantime, she received a single-digit grade on her quiz.
I don’t know if Penny can be rescued. I don’t know if it’s possible to teach students the kind of grit needed to deal with failures on the scale that she’s facing and will continue to face. The best I can do is the best I can do.
I’ll let you know how it goes – thank you all so much for your input!
Image by Sigurd Decroos