Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Students come to my essay workshops and office hours with their drafts, and I sort of love these students. They are eager to try. When they leave, I can see the change in their eyes – like they ‘got it’ while we were working together. They turn in their final essays, and I see that they have made vast improvements upon their drafts. Often, a student will tell me that I’ve helped. This makes me happy.

I’m not looking for people to be scholars. I’m not looking for students to apply to ivy league graduate programs. I am just hoping that they grasp how to better organize their thoughts, what it means to analyze rather than summarize, and that they can push themselves to think critically. When I see that little shift, or the extra push, I’m happy.

I think it helps that I’m from the South. I get that a lot of these kids come from families of farmers, farmers who’ve sold ranch land to developers b/c farming in America is so impossible unless you're a corporate farm in CA. Some of their parents work at oil refineries. Then there are the first generation kids and the immigrants. Kids for whom English is clearly not the first language. Suffice it to say, I'm looking at a lot of middle and working class kids. Middle America.

These students come from families who add ten-fold, and without real recognition or compensation, to the quality of privileged people’s lives. These are kids whose families hope their kids will take the next step up. I don’t expect them to be brilliant. I doubt their parents expect them to be brilliant. At the same time, I assume students' intelligence before I ever assume their lack of intelligence. I feel positive that these student's life experiences give them perspective that I cannot fathom. Likewise, intelligence proceeds knowledge.

I've heard it said a many times now (mostly by graduate students whose lives have been vastly different than their students' lives) that students who don't have a leg up, be it language issues, or other issues, must work that much harder because they're competing with students who do have a leg up. I don't see school, or life, as a competition. I know that many people do. It seems to me that only the most privileged among us have the liberty to view education through the lens of competition. For those who do not come from privilege, it's probably fair to say that an education is about creating a new opportunity, the next opportunity.

I agree that students who are behind (be it language barriers, poor family foundations, poor K-12 foundations, learning disabilities that have been mistreated and/or ignored for years) have to work that much harder. I suspect that they are already working 'that much harder' than their more advantaged counterparts. But competition? When students meet with me, I'm conscious of one thing. I want to assess where they are, and I want to assess whether they improve upon that. I'm not interested using other students as a measuring stick. A person needs to be his own measuring stick.

An IA was struggling with what grade to give on an essay. It seemed clear to him that part of the student's issue was language.

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