What My Students Taught Me

For an English teacher, the last two weeks of any semester can be a sleepless, stressful, mind-numbing blur of reading essays, handling all types of problems, paperwork, and of course, determining and submitting final grades.

With student loads ranging from 125 – 200, the end-of-semester push presents significant logistical and physical challenges for instructors and students alike. It used to be that way for me both at the high school and community college levels, until I made a simple and profound change in my end-of-course process. Today, I finished our fall semester, as I do each semester, exhausted, but exhilarated!

The difference is reflection.

I won’t describe the entire process here, but my final exam requires each student to look closely at his/her own learning based on the Student Learning Outcomes for our course. Then in writing, they must convince me that they are ready to proceed to Freshman Composition II.

Using examples from their own work, they have to present evidence that they have achieved the Learning Outcomes. On final exam day, I give each student a copy of the introductory letter they wrote me the very first day they attended class. In that letter, I asked them to describe their past experiences with writing, how they approach writing tasks, and what they hoped to learn from this course. Since they have not seen those letters all semester, many are genuinely shocked at what they said, and more important, at how they have changed as writers.

These final exam essays are, without fail, some of the best, most interesting writing students produce all semester. These writings also provide me with the most valuable and authentic evaluation of my own teaching. Here’s a sampling of what we learned together:

  • L, a mother of six who finally talked herself into returning to school, now believes she can actually handle and succeed at college courses.
  • One special needs student I had watched struggle to get through school for several semesters without accommodations, realized it’s okay to self-identify and ask for legally entitled support services.

One of our assignments was to write letters (which we mailed) to civic leaders or school administrators about an actual problem and propose a realistic solution. Most of these young adults told me they had never written a business letter, much less communicated directly with an authority figure.

  • Ashley realized that she could use writing to make her community safer. [She got a dark, dangerous section of highway painted and lit].
  • BM discovered that “details [in a piece of writing] don’t matter, if they don’t make a valid point.”
  • AJ, learned to “carefully adjust my writing towards the audience,” and added, “I enjoyed flexing my literary muscles.”
  • MM a private school graduate who thought the class would be boring because she “already knew how to write essays of any kind,” was pleasantly surprised by how challenging the course was and by how hard it was to write a simple business letter.

A major unit this semester was our  study of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, along with watching the documentary, The Children’s March, as part of our study of persuasive writing [especially poignant in this 50th anniversary year of its publication].

For that study, I connected my normally separate composition classes into one large online class, and we, in turn, connected with students in two other states as part of a larger exchange.  Most of the students commented on that unit in their final writings.

  • FW is a grandmother with chronic lung condition who came to class with her oxygen tank and fought through several bouts of major illness to finish the class. She observed: “It takes a great deal of self-control and insight into one’s self to help another person or people without taking a negative approach.”
  • AD said, “This was the first time I’d ever analyzed the writings of others to understand how it [writing] was done.”
  • One English Language Learner (ELL) student for whom this unit was especially meaningful, showed steady but tortuous progress in her writing in English, but also eloquently revealed how our school was not prepared to support ELLs properly.

Several students wrote about the power of empathy in writing, and how surprised they were that words could draw pictures and evoke feelings. This, and other revelations the students’ shared, saddened me because the students are testifying to how little genuine literacy learning these mostly poor Delta students had prior to attempting college. The joyful news is how eager they are to learn, and how well they do when given the opportunity.

Several expressed gratitude for direct instruction in grammar, something often frowned upon by constructivist learning purists in English language arts. I recommend reading Lisa Delpit, Geneva Smitherman, and other African American education researchers for more on the cultural disconnect between students of color and some applications of “best practices” in writing instruction. Student reflection included:

  • EB, a gregarious, pant-sagging Black male with ADHD, wrote proudly: “I didn’t know a verb is the heart of a sentence; or what a sentence is.”
  • JM, a shy, struggling student from a very rural area, worried that she had not improved at all and that her writing looked the same [as at the beginning of the semester]. But I noted that now she knows what to look for in her own writing, and how to make it better.
  • DN enjoyed being made to “tackle challenging readings and learn new ‘big words’.”
  • BR warned, however, “Using big words is good, but don’t overpower the essay…”

Many of these students had traumatic life experiences during the semester, and had to pursue their classwork under duress or against opposition from family and friends.

One showed up as I was frantically trying to input final grades before the deadline, needing to take the missed final exam. I also had several students who were in and out of jail or on probation. One of them, who had been dangling on the edge of dropping out, was thrilled just to make it to the final exam, and finished the course with a respectably earned “C.”

My students have taught me many things this semester.

I’ve been taking notes in my journal throughout the course on what did and did not work for which students. For example, I’ve been reminded not to over-teach, that is, not to be so eager to tell or show everything I know about a topic, which just overwhelms students. I’ve learned how dependent many of these students are on me and my colleagues to teach them how to use computer technology and web tools for learning. Most of all I’ve confirmed the value and divine potential of every human being, and why I should be their teacher, not their judge.

The students were able to separate the evaluation of their work from an attack on their personal worth, with comments like, “I know I failed your class, but I can’t wait to take it again next semester.”  Happily, many students also learned to be patient with themselves as writers.

  • SP shared that “it will take time [for me] to write without struggling… I know it will get better with time.”
  • “I feel I can still improve because writing is all about progression.,” said RF

Thank you, my students, my teachers.

What have your students taught you?