Penny Gives Up

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


22 responses

  1. Such a distressing situation, for both of you. (Nothing like Rilke in the face of things like that! Thanks for sharing that bit.) It sounds like she needs some bolstering but may be carrying around some resistance/resentment.

    Would she respond to a personal challenge each week, no grades, just practice; something like sending you a message with three simple sentences (make rules: no ands, becauses, thats or whiches, etc) about three topics eg, what she ate for dinner, a chore or task she is avoiding, and something interesting she saw or heard? You could increase the challenge to sentence combining at some point. All you would have to do is send her a Thanks message, and briefly note whether her verbs agreed, or she used the right pronouns, or whatever. You wouldn’t have to correct anything; just say ‘Oops, verb! Try again.’ Set limits so she doesn’t flood your message box if she regains her former diligence!

  2. Penny needs to know what exactly aspects of her work let her down. In order to improve the problem they need to be identified – or she will keep on ‘practising’ her mistakes! And show her what she must actually do…..(but I guess you’ve already done that!)

  3. So… you say that she worked hard and was trying and you failed her repeatedly. Now you’re surprised that she no longer bothers trying? What is her incentive to complete the work if she is repeatedly failing despite putting in hours and effort? If you don’t believe she can pass at this point because of fundamental flaws I think you have to recognize your responsibility to tell her that she should not be there.

    And if you believe she should still be there you’re right, there’s no way she can solve her problems in one term, but there’s no way she can solve her problems taking the same class, trying her hardest, and repeatedly failing with no end in sight over two, or even three semesters, while she continues to fall credits behind from graduating and, I assume, take on debt in a hopeless endeavor. There has to be a way for her to receive the extra help outside of class that she needs at your institution. If there’s not then, again, we come back to the point where you have to tell her she should not be there.

  4. It’s always frustrating to see a student go from being motivated, hard-working, and congenial to angry, careless, and defensive. And those are the very difficult challenges teachers face. Could we have done more to help? Is there something in my instruction, personality, methods, etc., that simply is not working with students such as Penny? With all you’ve written about her skill levels and academic weaknesses, perhaps she’s one of those who really doesn’t belong in college–not everyone does! I would hope that there are other choices available for her, as she does seem a nice, young lady. Please keep us posted on how this all works out. I wish the best for Penny…

  5. Penny needs encouragement and I like Susan G’s idea – make it like a game, she writes an observation and you correct it – all via email, no grades, keep it brief, work on one thing at a time. Powerful stuff, really, if you can swing her to a positive mind-set…

  6. Is there a structure you can put in place for her to fix what she is doing wrong? This week, Penny I want you to concentrate on just verb tense. Don’t worry about anything else, just do that right. Next week, focus on possessive nouns and nothing else…..anyway, and so on, and so on.

    I know as a college student, we assume our students should have the basics under their belt, but in this case, she has missed some of that foundation. Can you take baby steps with her, so it’s not so overwhelming?

    I work with a professor, PhD, from Korea. His emails, as well as just his speaking, are full of grammatical mistakes, and yet here he is.

  7. I agree with S.’s conclusion that your course is likely too advanced for Penny.

    This is almost painfully obvious from the ‘positive’ diagnosis you gave, Siobhan: If Penny is able to muster total dedication and effort, she might scrape out a “D” and pass the course. This is also after seven years of familiarity and exposure to what she is trying to learn.

    I don’t know if I can adequately stress that, as a student, if I EVER found or believed myself to be in that situation, I would immediately drop the course and set my sights one or even two levels lower.

    There is one caveat: If yours is the most basic course AND Penny is doing well in her other classes AND she will not need to pass another English course to graduate…then she should take your course again and again until she can pass.

  8. I wish I had any better suggestions than that it sounds like she just needs to read and write *a lot* more, for herself. I think she needs to understand that what she needs to do aren’t just whatever isolated technical requirements will allow her to scrape a passing grade in your course, but that it’s about being literate, and for that, there’s just no substitute for reading and writing on her own time.

    French is her first language? What was her level of literacy in her native language? Because if she doesn’t understand how a sentence is constructed in *any* language, then I don’t think English being her second language is the root of the problem.

  9. Thank you all so much for your input here. Some replies to specific points:

    S.: Your attitude reflects Penny’s very accurately, I think: I tried, you failed me, what’s the point? I am trying to guide her toward an understanding that there’s nothing wrong with trying and failing. (Not “being failed” by the teacher, but failing to learn/develop/improve the skills needed to pass the course). The post on “grit” that I link to at the end of this post (above) addresses this topic in great detail. I had a conversation with Penny this morning about this. I will write about it on Thursday.

    This is the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel English course; there is no lower that she can go. She needs to pass four other English courses, but there is no way she’s going to pass any of them with the skills she has now. I have no idea how she’s managed to pull off passing grades in other courses.

    Penny is Cambodian; I believe her first language is Khmer. If she had gone to French school (which would usually be the case for an immigrant to Quebec; I’m not sure why it wasn’t for her), I would be able to evaluate her literacy skills in French to some degree, but where Khmer is concerned, there’s not much I can do.

    More on Thursday!

  10. Just a couple thoughts though it’s been a while since I’ve been in the classroom – on either side. Writing is such a fundamental component of college work, but it routinely amazed me how poorly many of my students did it. Perhaps a conversation with her about what it is that she thinks she’s doing correctly? If she has the assumption that she’s turning in “good work”, what does she think is good about it? That could be a starting point. I also like Susan G.’s idea, but I acknowledge that that’s a huge investment on your part. There were many times I was utterly frustrated with the lack of clear writing by my students in an upper-level undergraduate class but overwhelmed by the thought of teaching the course content in addition to a writing course (which is what they needed) – if there are international student resources or a writing center available they might be helpful. Hard work on her part is certainly a positive, but hard work doesn’t guarantee success and unfortunately that reality doesn’t resonate well with many students. I’m reminded of the adjustment to the old adage “Practice makes perfect” which distinguishes that “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

    I feel the cliches welling up at the moment so I should probably stop rambling. I was more encouraged by your post for your clear level of interest and commitment to Penny – thank you for being an involved educator. Good luck, and I definitely look forward to hearing more on Thursday.

  11. How old was she when she emigrated? I”m guessing 10 or 11 from your statement that she has been here “about 7 years.” And what were her educational experiences in Cambodia? If her first language was Khmer, she may not have a firm grasp of formal grammar in Khmer, meaning that she can’t transfer this knowledge over to her English and French. I’d take a different approach. Explain what’s going on, and tell her that, while it will be a challenge, you know that she can do it because she’s smart enough and works hard enough. Set her up with a peer tutor or another tutor (perhaps someone studying to teach ESL if possible), and work with the tutor to align classwork and what they’re working on in tutoring. That way, she has good feedback from someone who knows what the expectations are, rather than some friends who may or may not know. By this time, I think acknowledging that it will be tough for her, perhaps the toughest thing that she’s done yet, but that she is more than capable of doing it. That may allay the whole “I can’t do this because I”m dumb” belief. Good luck, and I’d love to hear an update on Penny.

  12. I can’t help but think of the group of students a colleague of mine calls “dense and diligent.” These are the students that work really really hard, they put in hours, but their study habits are completely inefficient and ineffective, especially for the types of conceptual problem-solving questions that we ask (its a cell biology class). These students probably put in more hours than anyone else in the class and yet they keep doing poorly and they can’t understand why.

    In our case, we often run study strategy sessions for these students. They come in in small groups and they talk about what they did to prepare for the midterm exam (memorize, read everything in the book and everything online) and how they think that helped/ hindered them (they didn’t do any problem solving practice, so they couldn’t do it on the exam). Just by talking about their strategy and how they can match the studying to the types of questions they are going to be asked on the exam. An hour of our time goes a long way in this case.

    Maybe you can use her last year’s essay to spend an hour and try and show exactly what the problem was and see how to match her hard work with the things she needs to work on? I hate watching a student give up. Its hard.

  13. I didn’t do well during my time at school, nor did I do to well in college. In fact I failed but was lucky enough to get into University. Despite this I still continued to do badly and eventually failed my first year at University. However it was only during my second year, after eventually passing my first, that I took into the account that I couldn’t go on drifting through my course otherwise I would most definateley fail. However this overcoming wasn’t developed until I had developed other interest outside of the University. Perhaps ask what other interests she has as creative arts and even sporting activities can help to develop a slighlty more diciplined and/or constructive mind set. Of course this is all speculation from a whole number of possibilities, but also a personal experience of my own.

  14. You’ve already had lots of great feedback and I haven’t read all of it. But I’ll throw in my 2 cents. I’ve been teaching Classics at university for the last ten years. Certainly breaking down her issues into very clear chunks will help. If she’s as keen to learn as she is to pass then she will be willing to do the necessary practice to remedy at least some of her language problems. Every effort in the right direction also needs positive reinforcement, and lots of it. It may also be useful to agree on a way of tracking or measuring her progress, even a chart of some kind. As she makes improvement visually represent this moving up toward the goal of passable competence. If the grit is worn out (and I too loved the Rilke quote), it can be best to recommend doing something that she knows will make her feel good. I did this regularly during my PhD – going to the gym, a movie, lying in the sun – that much is very personal of course, but it’s about creating a pattern interruption and rebuilding self-esteem. Good on you for taking such an interest and effort – this is what teaching is about. But remember, ultimately, whether she succeeds or fails is really her responsibility in the end.

  15. That would be so difficult for me and possibly why I might not be a good teacher. I want to MAKE people go the direction I think they need to. Hold their hand and make them feel all right. All of that. Keep us posted.

  16. I’m a teacher of English in the Netherlands, and I do not teach students who are university-bound, far from it actually. The students I teach come from primary school, always being at the bottom of the class, always being told that they’re just not good enough. Then they come to our school, they attend classes with students just like them (on a cognitive/intelligence level). We break the assignments and work up into the smallest possible chunks and let them experience something other than failure: success.

    Obviously, this is not only true for the less intelligent students. When putting in the work, the hours, the dedication, all people need to feel that success to keep them going. If I were Penny, I would give up too. She just realizes that nothing she does will make a difference, which would be frustrating to anyone.

    The best way to get her out of this ‘funk’ will probably be to let her experience that it pays to work hard. How you could go about this, I can’t tell you, because I’m quite unfamiliar with the system in which you are a teacher, but something must be possible.

    Also at my school we have a special counselor who helps the kids whose native language isn’t Dutch and who haven’t been in the Netherlands for very long.

  17. I love to hear how much you care for your students and their success. You have gotten so many wonderful comments that I am not going to give any advice. Honestly, my skill in dealing with ESL students is very limited. But, I am positive you will do your best to find a solution that will work. It is hard to see students down on themselves. You can talk and talk, but if they believe the negative messages they feed themselves it is very difficult to combat that. Best of luck to you!

  18. Does your university have a writing center or a tutoring program where Penny could go to get more help? Perhaps one on one? I think that no matter what you do at this point, Penny needs more help. If she has already graduated from high school and is now in college, I wonder what her options are? Perhaps there is a community class or something she could enroll in or a friend that could help her? I feel for you and Penny both.

  19. Actually, it sounds like Penny is self-medicating this semester. In any case, we can safely say that giving up won’t solve the problem, no matter what the problem is. I’m afraid her thinking isn’t quite straight, especially if she is depending on her friends to evaluate her writing. All I can suggest is a remedial class (somewhere there must be one) that starts at the very bottom and works up. That might insult her, but…

  20. Some people who arrive from overseas with no English (or French) skills pick ithem up pretty quickly — and I include several friends who arrived from Latin America at an older age than Penny arrived from Cambodia. For others, it is MUCH rougher going. It’s not just a matter of intelligence or even of hard work. There are aspects to language learning that are very do-able for some, and hardly do-able at all for others.

    All by way of saying that if Penny has been working hard for 7 years and still can’t write a sentence, I think there is an opportunity cost for her in continuing to struggle with English composition. If she still has to pass 4 more similar but more demanding courses in order to graduate, maybe a better strategy for her is to switch to some other type of education or training that doesn’t require her to write in English.

    We might like to think that we can create a level playing field for everyone, including immigrants, by providing a first-class education at our colleges and high schools, but the reality is that we can only take people whose basic skills are weak from point A to point B; rarely can we get them to point G.

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