On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

The Subtleties of Privilege

I’ve been teaching first year college writing seminars since my oldest daughter was knee high. Now that she’s a first year college student herself I sporadically think about her when interacting with my students. Sometimes I imagine her sitting around our seminar table. What kind of discussant would she be? Would she tune in or go through the motions? Be bold enough to come to office hours? Appreciate my killer sense of humor? How would her writing compare to theirs?

Most recently I’ve been thinking about how her college experience compares to theirs. Her family is flawed, but more stable and secure than average. As a result, her life is more simple than some of my students’ lives, one who has missed a few classes as a result of “family business emergencies” and another who disappeared for a week and a half because of serious domestic problems. She doesn’t know it, but her comparatively uncluttered mind is a subtle, but significant form of privilege. When it comes to her homebase, she doesn’t have to worry about substance abuse, abusive behavior, violence, estrangement, or divorce. Consequently, in class, at swim practice, hanging with friends late at night, she has no excuse not to be fully in the moment.

When it comes to her family, my guess is that most of the time her orientation is “out of sight, out of mind”. We’re social media luddites meaning we don’t exchange a constant stream of text-messages. Alright I confess, we don’t exchange texts at all. However, we do enjoy Sunday night skyping. Last Sunday though, she texted younger sissy and said she was hosting a prospective student so now we’ve gone a week and half with zero contact. Not complaining, just illustrating how relaxed she is about her distant family’s well-being.

Maybe the most challenging aspect of parenting is striking the best balance between providing your children a stable and secure foundation while simultaneously giving them increasingly challenging responsibilities that prepare them for independence and adulthood. Provide the former without the later and you run the risk of children developing a debilitating sense of entitlement. Provide the later without the former and odds are the increasingly challenging responsibilities will prove overwhelming.

I worry that some of my students may not persist to graduation because their chaotic family lives will prevent them from attending class regularly and they may not roll up their sleeves and strengthen their basic skills enough to earn passing grades in increasingly difficult courses.

And I worry my daughter may not fully realize the extent of her privilege.