I’ve written a lot, I think, about the success I’ve experienced and witnessed working in this summer program. And I have written about those because they are exciting, and interesting, and I wanted to share them. But it’s not all roses over here, and I don’t want to suggest everything is perfect and great because it’s not.
Struggle #1: Attitudes within the Program
When I interviewed for this job, I was led to believe that the kids I would be working with were severely behind. I was told I was going to have to focus on basic grammar (and one of the directors was very into the idea of me teaching subject/verb agreement) and that they overall quality of writing was going to be very poor. I was also told that these kids would not be strong readers and would need a lot of support to read a text appropriate for their age/grade.
Now, I wasn’t deterred by this, and at the time I did not question it. I planned accordingly. However, when I got to know my students I found that these beliefs about them as readers and writers couldn’t be farther from the truth. They could write well for their age. They had interesting ideas and were very good at helping each other out with their writing. They didn’t need help with subject/verb agreement. They could write complete sentences. What they needed help on was learning how to expand on and develop ideas – a perfectly normal and reasonable thing. They needed help learning how to sit their butts in their seat and write when they didn’t want to write.
Given that the directors know the students in the program, I am confused about where these beliefs come from. They have worked with them for over a year now. I don’t know if these attitudes are built on where the students were when they started, but the overall sense from the people that run the program is that these kids need a lot of help and are academically deficient. They are in no way deficient. This deficit view frames the program on some levels, and I think it’s more hurtful than helpful.
Struggle #2: General Student Attitude
Speaking for just my class, I work to make sure that what the students do is relevant to helping them be prepared to go to college. In the first three weeks, we worked on essay writing. They know they have to write an essay as part of their application for a 4-year university. Some seized this opportunity and saw it as a chance to learn more about how to write their essay. Others saw it as a waste of time because it wasn’t the actual essay they would use.
That attitude has some truth to it, but not necessarily. For example, some students recognized that this essay could be a draft of what they would use when they wrote their actual essay for their application. Others saw it as an experience that would allow them to better understand what to do when they wrote their “real” essay. But others believed that since it wasn’t the actual application essay that they could gain nothing by taking the time to explore the process. They didn’t want to write if they didn’t have to write, and in their view the writing of the essay for my class was a bit of a fake assignment.
I was at a loss as to how to help them see a benefit. Their argument was that if it wasn’t the “real” essay then it was not something they needed to care about. Anything I had to offer about how the experience in my class was geared towards helping them with their “real” essay was shrugged off. When their peers explained how they found the essay experience to be helpful, they were shrugged off too. Maybe nothing can be done here.
Struggle #3: Believe in Yourself
During the last three weeks of this summer program, the students have 50 minutes a day, Monday-Thursday, where they spend time in SAT prep. I think this is a good thing. I am not a fan of tests like the SAT, but they are a reality. And I agree we need to help them understand what the test is and how to prepare for it as best we can within our constraints.
The prep class isn’t really the issue. What I noticed during our first prep class was that most students are thinking they need to aim for colleges/universities that are less than top notch. I don’t know how to word this so I don’t come off sounding like some privileged little snot, and I am not saying that some places are automatically better or lesser than others. Heck, I went to community college for two years, and it was a great decision for me. That’s my point – it was a great decision for me. It could be a great decision for some of these students too, but they need help in thinking it through.
For example, one student told me that all private schools were off his list because there was no way he was good enough for any of them. He has a perception of what a private university is, and it doesn’t align with how he sees himself as a student. I tried to explain that if a private university had a program that was good for him he could consider it – what’s the worst thing that could happen? If he gets rejected, well, at least he tried. If he gets accepted, well, now he has an option he wouldn’t have had otherwise. How bad could an option be? I think he understood the point but continued stressing that he wasn’t good enough so the effort placed into applying would be a waste of time.
This isn’t one isolated example. It’s a pervasive attitude that I’ve tuned into lately, and I’m never sure how to respond. It seems like they have already pigeon-holed themselves as particular types of students who are limited to particular types of things. Instead of seeing their future as one with limitless potential, they see it with boundaries. I’m not sure what to do, or if I should do anything. It’s starting to keep me up at night.