Penny Tries

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

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28 responses

  1. From the brief writing sample you’ve shared, it looks like she’s struggling with primarily with grammatical morphemes in her written language.

    Two questions: Does she speak accented English? Are her oral language patterns similar to her written language?

    If so, I’d recommend a tutor who specializes in ESL or a speech-language pathologist (SLP). In many universities in the states we have SLP clinics that offer free accent modificaion services to students. Perhaps your university offers something akin?

    If Penny’s English training didn’t start until high school this is likely why she’s struggling with writing.

    • LE:
      Most of the students at our college (note: not a university: http://siobhancurious.com/what-is-a-cegep/ ) speak accented English. Many, if not most, speak English as a second, third or fourth language, and did all their education in French until they arrived at CEGEP. Our tutors are all well-versed in ESL issues. Penny’s issues, however, go beyond the run-of-the-mill ESL problems we deal with, and believe me, we deal with some pretty severe ones. We don’t have SLPs on staff as far as I know; I wouldn’t have identified Penny’s problems as speech-pathology related, but you never know…

  2. I agree that a tutor–and that tutor in particular–seems like the best option here. After seven years in English-speaking education, some small errors in language might be understandable but not consistent failure of English assignments. The tutor would provide some additional advantages, besides just the academic help she could offer. She could offer emotional support. Because tutors do not typically give grades, the help she gives Penny, the exercises and work they do, would keep her focus on learning as the real goal.

  3. SC, I am so proud just to know you! I regularly hear the claim that teachers improve for five years or so and then plateau. You are dedicated and caring and talented and resourceful and always professional. You inspire me!

    I will keep my fingers crossed for Penny. :)

  4. Clix: Aw, shucks. I have indeed plateaued at several points and have had to make the choice between quitting my job or re-investing in what it’s really all about. So far, I’m hanging in there…

  5. I’ve read your blog for a while but haven’t commented until now. For some reason I’m really touched by the struggles of this student, and I’m touched by your desire to genuinely get her some help.

    I was really surprised when you mentioned in the last post that she had been in English-speaking schools for 7 years. For 7 years this child had an opportunity to get a lot of help so she wouldn’t have such poor English skills — and yet clearly several teachers just passed her by, without stopping to really look at her. Now here she is with you, after 7 years of being ignored and shrugged at, and you’re trying to take a step to help her. I’ve always liked reading about your classes, Siobhan, and I’ve always felt like you do genuinely care about your students — and I really see that in your desire to truly help Penny. You could just be like all those other teachers and shrug her off, but clearly you’re concerned for her.

    I hope this tutor can help set her on the right path. I’m not a teacher (my mother is an elementary teacher here in the States) but it sounds to me like she might have a learning disability, so I definitely agree with the decision to check her out for cognitive issues. I also think that, in regards to writing English and comprehending written works, she needs to go way, way back to the absolute basics: Noun verb. The noun verbs. The adjective noun verbs. The adjective noun verbs adverbly. I hope the tutor can help, and I really respect you for caring so deeply for your students at this level. So many teachers obviously ignored this kid and didn’t bother to help her improve, and finally she’s got a teacher like you to help right the ship. I hope she can do it and would love to read updates on her.

    • PW: Thank you so much for this. I agree that it’s amazing that she got this far, but I hesitate to blame too much on high school teachers; they are seriously overloaded, and trying to wrestle with so many issues, and a student like Penny who is generally pleasant and hardworking and causes so little trouble can easily slip through the cracks. I wish she had been helped more before now, but if we’re lucky, maybe now something can be done!

  6. Good luck with Penny–your tutoring plan sounds hopeful! Helping a student focusing on learning in light of grades is a necessary but daunting task. It is not a new concept but one that it is not as easy to address in our current educational institutions as we would like. We talk about learning and its importance but need to record grades–and thise grades alone seem to broadcast success. Silly, really. The Barr and Tagg learning paradigm article from 1995 expresses the focus on learning that needs to happen. Tagg’s 2003 book The Learning Paradigm College looks at the institutional barriers that undermine a true focus on learning outcomes.

    I appreciate your willingness to always focus on learning and students. If only all instructors were so dedicated, more students would have a chance to become independent learners. Keep up the good work.

    • Patti: “Helping a student focusing on learning in light of grades is a necessary but daunting task.” I agree. It’s clear to me that Penny needs an entirely new outlook, and I can’t just hand it to her; it may take years for her to learn that a small failure can actually be helpful in the long run. And the truth is, she may never learn it…

  7. As I private tutor for three years, I think your suggestion of a tutor is a good one. Many tutors are not great, but I think it sounds like you have the right one for her. Please let us know how it works out.

  8. I hope this helps her! It sounds like M might be just the thing she needs to begin making improvements. Wow, her skills are very low judging from the brief note she sent. I didn’t realize it was that bad. I hope she gets some help!!

  9. I’ve been following Penny’s case and eagerly reading your posts and it’s indeed possible that she has some mental problems… as you said like learning disabilities. Anyway, I liked how you’re struggling to help her and tell her about the difference between focusing on grades and learning… Now I know what to think of when I’m depressed about grades :)

  10. At some point, beating ourselves up (or beating Penny up) to get her to be a fluent English writer starts to seem like pushing a square peg into a round hole. Is there, perhaps, a resource at your college where Penny can get occupational-preference testing that would reveal what her strong suits are instead of just showing her how bad she is at writing English?

    • EB: I do not know of any such service at our college, but in any case, any path that would eliminate the need for Penny to pass this course (and four more English courses) would involve her leaving CEGEP altogether, or going to a French CEGEP, where I assume her problems would be worse. Given how battered her self-esteem is by this simple course failure, I can’t see that being a path she’s willing to take right now.

      • Doesn’t Canada have ANY educational institutions where you don’t have to be a fluent writer in order to pass the courses? In the US, the CC’s do have some majors where writing is minimal to zero. These are not academic majors, they are technical (horticulture, electronics, hospitality, pharmacy tech, etc.). I sense a real “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” thing going on here. You and many of the posters are English composition teachers, so you (naturally and understandably) are looking for an English instruction answer to Penny’s problem. Tutoring, a different attitude towards grades, encouragement as she struggles along, etc. But what if her problem is not specific English writing skills, but rather that she has chosen an unrealistic goal for herself, and would benefit more from learning about other goals that are more attainable for her. What if she has a huge talent, unrelated to English composition, that she is NOT focusing on because she is spending too much time agonizing over her difficulties with writing? I say this as the Aunt of a young man who is fabulously gifted in Art but could never write a paragraph to save his life (and his first language IS English!).

  11. PS And if Penny doesn’t pass the 4 English classes, she’ll flunk out anyway; it that’s inevitable, is it really fair to let her spend 2 more years at what, for her, is an impossible taks?

    • EB: Penny cannot accept that failing a single course is a chance to re-evaluate, to learn, to keep trying and see what happens. Instead, she feels stupid, angry and ashamed. I could ask her, “Are you sure CEGEP is the place for you?” I ask students this all the time. In my judgement, this is not the right moment to ask Penny this question. You are fully entitled to disagree with me.

      • I fully support your judgment as to when is (or is not) the right time to share with Penny that other educational options might work better for her, Siobhan. I’m just hurting for her because (from the way you’ve described her experience so far) she is spinning her wheels in English composition, despite her own efforts and good instruction, when she might do better in some other field of study.

  12. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months and have not yet commented, but your posts about this particular student have really touched me. I’m a graduate student in my final semester and I’ve found over the past month that I’ve completely lost my passion for teaching in the midst of my own academic exhaustion… but your post today, and your obvious passion for this one individual student, brought tears to my eyes and made me remember why I really do love this job despite my burnout this past month. Thank you.

    • Jannell: This makes me really happy. I went through an intense burnout a few years ago and went through a number of steps to recover. I wrote a series of posts about this process for the Times (UK)’s education blog, but it seems they are no longer available…maybe it’s time for me to reprint them here. I wish you luck – it’s a struggle, but I do think it’s worth it.

  13. Hi Siobhan. I find your blog incredibly thought provoking and I admire your heart for your students. One thing that crosses my mind about Penny’s story is to wonder if she practices using English correctly **outside** the classroom. If she hangs out with primarily non-English speakers then she might either not be speaking English most of the time or else be influenced by their bad language habits. I know people in a similar situation who have never picked up fluency despite years of living in an English speaking country and I have always felt that this is part of the problem. Maybe you could set her up for less formal meetings with native speakers (perhaps over coffee)? That way she could learn simply by being immersed.

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