You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

This phrase, feels to me, like an excuse for failure, and I’d like to use it to get myself off the hook. I have a few students who are refusing to drink. 

My morning class is extremely small, so it is impossible to go unnoticed. I know every time B texts his friends or H surfs the net; I know when S is scribbling homework that should have been done before class and when C is hurriedly reading during discussion. And, I know that Y almost never arrives prepared.

I spend class time talking about exactly what is expected on assignments. We practice together in class, and then I give them opportunities to practice on their own and get feedback – all before their assignments are due for grades. Most of the class participates, at least in part, in this process; in fact, everyone does, except Y.

But it is always Y who questions assignment grades, who claims he deserved better. When I point out exactly what parts of the assignment were lacking, he acts as if it was the first time he was hearing about such requirements. I always give my students the opportunity to rewrite essays because the goal of the writing class is to develop as a writer. But the last time Y re-wrote an essay, he did not pay any attention to the comments I wrote on his paper and so his grade was unchanged. He stopped by my desk on the way out of class today to say he would like to submit revisions of a few other assignments. I reiterated that he needed to use the comments I had given him, and his notes from class, to make improvements. He also needs to hand me the original graded work, so I can make side-by-side comparisons. And I reminded him that turning in a revision does not guarantee an improved grade; the essay has to show significant improvement. He has less than two weeks to accomplish this work. I hope he takes a big drink from this well.

In my other, larger, sections, there are several students in a similar situation. They miss classes devoted to organizing essays, the fail to attend individual conferences, they don’t turn in drafts for review, and they let due dates pass unnoticed.

With Y and these others I know I have failed. Yes, I understand that they are responsible as well, that I can’t make them drink, but a different path to the well may have done the trick.

With each new group of students, I learn a little more about methods to reach each one; ways to connect to their reality. And, I have managed to carve out a few new trails. But, I thought I had it right with one or two this semester, only to see them wandering off again. Frustrating.

I allow myself to enjoy a wave of private anger at the students for a little while. I rant alone in the car about irresponsibility and disrespect for education. I harrumph out loud while reading the essays at my kitchen table; I even laugh and share tidbits with my husband. But, after indulging in emotion, I get to work and write the comments that will help the student rewrite. I send out emails to remind students who missed the deadline that I will accept late work, with a slight grade reduction. I re-read failing essays to see if my frustration impacted the grade and make adjustments. And, I put a picture of my immature nieces and nephews who are struggling through college, and my own lovely daughters who will surely make mistakes, and I respond to my own students as I hope their teachers will respond to them – by putting up searchlights and flares and giant signs pointing to the well.


keeping an eye on Ron

I have a student who told me on the first day of our writing class that he has ADD and has a really hard time writing. And, since then, I have watched him carefully.

Almost every class meeting includes some on the spot writing – our “10 minute write.” We always engage in some whole or small group discussion first; sometimes some brainstorming or even outlining. I do this so we can begin to organize our thoughts. After the discussion, I give them a specific question to write about, based on the discussion we’ve had. They all lean over notebooks or laptops and begin to write, and I watch Ron.

Ron begins by carefully lining his notebook up to be parallel with the top edge of his desk. Then he smooths out the paper. The paper’s not wrinkled in any way, but he has to perform this action before he can start. He chooses one of the three pens lined up along the top of the desk and begins to write.

It is my custom to announce when we reach the half-way mark in our ten minutes, and usually I include an important reminder like “check to make sure you’ve used specific examples from the text.” However, lately, I look at the writing clock, then I look at Ron. If he is mid-sentence, I hold off and wait until I see him straightening out the row of pens or smoothing his paper down again, before I make the announcement. I don’t want to throw him off; interrupt the idea I know it took him great effort to organize. Sometimes, this means that I don’t alert the group until there are only 4 minutes left to the writing time, but everyone still seems to have the time they need.

I first started watching Ron, but now I look more carefully around the room. If I see some folks sitting back, clearly finished, I add a hint to my announcement that suggests they look at organization or add a concluding sentence. If some look like they are struggling, I throw out a lifeline from the discussion.

And, I write, too. If some aspect of the prompt trips me up, I know it might be frustrating others. If I can answer the question completely, while watching Ron, I figure they manage a decent answer. Usually, they prove me right.

Hey, my friend

As I was packing up this morning, I overheard another professor in the hall tell a student  that she would deduct points for a late assignment. I smiled, not because of the familiarity of the event, but because of the way the professor addressed her student; “My friend.”

I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot this week. Then again, for the first time, I am listening for it.

At the start of the week I read the draft of a personal essay from one of my ESL students. He has been in the United States for a few years, so has some experience with the language and culture. He does now, anyway. He was relating an experience form his first few months at a Massachusetts High School. He forgot to hand in an assignment and asked his teacher if he could still get full credit. “Sorry, my friend, I have to deduct points for being late.”

The boy was confused. Was this man, at least twice his age, his friend? And, if so, why would he deduct points? He was so confused, he made an appointment with his guidance counselor for advice on how to handle the situation. He was relieved to find out that people use the phrase “my friend” to try to soften the blow of bad news and he should not expect an invitation to hang out with his teacher.

We throw language around as if everyone knows what we are talking about. I love these little reminders to slow down and think about the expressions I use that might not make sense to a newly arrived student, even to one who has good conversational skills.

What phrases have you confused newcomers with?