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.