“Man! Why you gotta hate?!”
“I’m not hating. You’re missing a period,” I calmly replied.
“It’s just one period! Can’t you accept it?”
“No. Plus your headers not the right size. It’s supposed to be 12 point font.” My student looked like he was for sure going to clobber me now, which he could have easily done since he towered over me.
“It IS 12 point font!”
“No. No, it’s not. Once you fix both of the problems, I’ll accept your essay.” He let out a cross between a growl and a groan. He was so pleased that he was going to turn in his essay early, but that’s one thing that was in his favor. Since I caught those errors, he was able to fix them (and conceded that his header was in 11 point font) and became one of the five students out of my 33 whose essay I accepted the day it was due.
Essay due dates are stressful for both me and my students. My students want to unload this essay that they’ve been spending their time on, but first it has to pass inspection of its MLA format, font, overall formatting, and works cited page. If it is not perfect, I don’t accept it until they fix it. The thing is, I warn them. I tell them exactly what I’m going to do on the day they turn it in. In addition to this, I also give them the resources they need to do it correctly. I provide tutoring, feedback, and often spend my prep helping a student with his or her essay. They have everything they need to do it correctly.
They, however, do not believe me. They do not believe I will reject their essay. They do not believe my resources and opt to use impostors that lead them astray. They do not believe me when I say, “Do it just like this one,” nor do they believe me when I walk them through it. They do believe that I will “let it slide” or capitulate at their sob story or story of heroics that they “tried”. They always have a rude awakening. Their response to my refusal of their “best effort” is anger and frustration– while I believe it’s often at themselves, it’s taken out on me: The Meanest Teacher In All The World. One boy refused to believe me when I said his works cited page was wrong and implied that my version of the 7th edition MLA handbook was wrong, while his computer generated works cited was correct. He would not budge from his position, and it nearly escalated into a shouting match until I remembered that I was the grown up. One girl made snide remarks to me about how much money it was costing her to print out numerous copies of her essay until I replied, “Do it right the first time and then you don’t have to spend so much money.” Some students, to avoid my wrath, started double-checking their work (what a concept!), and were prepared for me, “Ms. L, I put the wrong date, my works cited is not in alphabetical order, and I messed up on the punctuation.” Acknowledging their mistakes left them a bit more unscathed.
The problems with formatting and the works cited page reflects a greater problem of students: not using resources, not paying attention to detail, and using short-cuts. This is bolstered by students who toe the line of acceptance and/or are used to just turning in “effort”. Many students think they can do the bare minimum and get away with it; they don’t realize that they need to be an advocate for themselves when it comes to knowledge and learning. One boy today didn’t advocate for himself at all when I totally forgot to check his paper yesterday. What did he do? He left class with his essay and went home. Today, he turned it in late for half credit blaming me. I apologized for over-looking him, but then asked him whose responsibility it is to make sure his essay’s turned in. Did he ever call my name so I could look at his essay? Did he stay after class to make sure it got done? Nope. He went home. Today he stayed after class and fixed his mistakes.
This phenomena of not advocating for oneself and taking short cuts played out in my history class on a recent exam. The exam was very fair, and I was quite sure they’d do well on it. Their study guide also covered the material on the exam. The result? My highest score was an 80% and it went down, down, downhill from there. The results befuddled me. How could my bright, engaged students do so poorly? There were no trick questions. Their scores were unacceptable, and I allowed (demanded is probably the correct term) them to retake it. In preparation for the retake, they started to study and make flash cards and quiz each other. One of my girls reviewed her failing test and asked about one of the questions; she thought she knew the answer, but it wasn’t in the glossary. This stopped me in my tracks, “Did you just use the glossary to study?” She nodded her head. I called out to the rest of my class, “Did you all use the glossary to study the first time?” Everyone nodded their heads. Everything made sense. My test questions asked them to apply their knowledge and the glossary just provides the who, what, when, and where. It neglects the hows and whys. Their short cuts lead to failing grades and having to retake the test. Fortunately, fourteen of them came in to retake it and all did much better.
I remember being a high school student and studying fervently for exams. When it came to history exams, I re-read the chapters and quizzed myself. No one taught me how to create a works cited page; I had to use a handbook to figure it out. I followed the directions and double-checked my work against the examples. My student population is more diverse and mostly impoverished, so I understand that they don’t have the resources at home, but where is the disconnect? Where is the initiative? Do teachers (including me) with all of their scaffolding and second chances take away the motivation for kids to learn how to do things on their own? Is this a result of No Child Left Behind that passed failing kids along? When is the onus taken from teachers and given to the students? What’s frustrating is that they can all do it. If they sat down and took their time, each and every one of them can do it. So how do we get them there?