Thursday, February 20, 2014

Me and Joe Went to the Store: And an English Teacher Weeps

Me and Joe went to the store.

This line in a student essay sent me freefalling over the edge today. I’d only finished grading a short stack of essays, but all of them had too many basic errors like this one.

Most of my community college students this semester don’t know that it should be “Joe and I went to the store.”

The thought hit me hard and made me angry. Steam-out-of-the-ears angry. Then, sad, very sad.

How could these students think “Me and Joe went” was a proper construction?

I want to blame someone for shortchanging my students, for not teaching them the basics that were drilled into me at school so young that I don’t even remember learning them. Even at home, Grandmother, Mother, Dad, and older siblings automatically corrected my grammar. I was lucky.

But my students apparently didn’t get that instruction at school and at home. Or, if they did, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t listen.

These students range in age from 17 to 45, and because we are in a military town, they were schooled at different places, at different times, all over the country and sometimes in other countries. They are not a homogenous group of local 18 year-olds, so the local public school system can’t be scapegoated here.

Yet they were robbed if their education did not teach them the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment, a comma splice and a coordinating conjunction. We had devoted 2 full class periods to a review, with in-class exercises and homework to these particular basics. I called it a review, since I was sure this was information they already knew, and they looked bored. They should have looked scared.

Now that I’ve read their essays, I wonder if there is enough time left in the semester to bring their grammar up to a passable college level. I’m not really supposed to be teaching grammar and punctuation. Students who arrive in this class are presumed to have these basics mastered—it says so in the state-mandated course description-- and to be ready for me to teach them how to write a college level essay. This is the essay writing class.

Well, ha and double ha.

Of course I never find all my students equally prepared, but this semester is different. They are just as bright as always, but they are going to have to struggle more than any class I’ve seen in my twelve years teaching. To bring their basic grammar and punctuation skills up to a level that will allow them to pass any curriculum classes that involve written assignments will be a challenge. They will have to scramble, to work their butts off.

Further, do I tell them they were robbed? Do I ask them if they slept through middle school and high school? Do I read them the riot act about listening more carefully to my grammar advice?

Do I exhort them to become community leaders, state senators, members of the U.S. Congress so they can work to make an American education something to be proud of? (I’ve been known to go off on this topic in class before, but hadn’t got around to it yet this semester.)

Some of these students are hanging by a piece of dental floss already.  They tend to be fragile. They are not the golden boys and girls of America, for the most part—not many silver spoons at our school. They are the ones coming back to school after having children young, or who had dropped out of college previously, or who’ve recently left an abusive relationship, or who are wounded combat veterans trying their damndest to ease back into civilian life.  Some of my students don’t even have much food in the house. Some work two jobs. My students are not overflowing with confidence that they will make it to the end of the semester, much less to the end of their degree or program.

Some days I have to remind myself that I’m an English teacher, not a psychologist or a social worker, although our dedicated campus counselors know me by my first name. I want to make it right for my students. I don’t want to make them feel any “less-than” they already do. Some of them are skittish as rabbits, looking for any reason to bolt from school. So I favor the gentle approach. I want them to do well. I don’t want them to feel ashamed. Or blamed. Or heaven forbid… dumb.

But the time we will now have to spend on basic grammar will take away from the time normally spent on some of the finer points of transitioning from high school to college writing. This first college English class is really considered a “service class” to the other, non-English college classes students will take that require writing papers. They aren’t taking this class because they want be English majors. That doesn’t mean I will expect any less of them, but realistically I keep reminding them that what I teach will help them write better papers for sociology, history, biology—any class.

We’ll try to make the most of the weeks we have left. I will do what I can to help them, to prod them, to get the ones who aren’t afraid to work hard ready for the next level English class.

They won’t all make it; even the ones that pass will have much more catching up to do. And that makes me angry all over again.