Sunday, August 29, 2004

I have teacher-type questions (to help keep the dreams from being deferred)

The past two mornings I have been awakened by ideas I dream up for language lessons for my students, specifically about their writing, and I can't get back to sleep until I write them down. And then when I do sleep again, I dream up some more. I feel haunted. Intense. Obsessed.
There are some specific issues in their writing to address. About 25% of my 11th and 12th graders have failed or not taken the English part of the LEAP. And they have all these hopes -- to be nurses, choreographers, successes in the business world, lawyers -- but where they stand right now as writers will not get them there. They won't even graduate.
Since this blog has become so interactive, I'm including a few anonymous, out of context examples of their writings. These are all first lines of paragraphs taken from second drafts of essays they wrote. Maybe you have some words of wisdom about how I can help:

1. "How our country does not allow gays to marry. I think it is wronge because people lover there partner, and they want a commitment of marry. So why can the state approved."

2. "Money is power and respect, evil some people get all that money and change. They start to at like the shit don't stake. Rich people start big happis that they can efford."

3. "What make me, when I am around alot of people that I know I get very happy. When am around my family not very shy to talked to others people, I get very shy. I love enjoy outside because it a beautiful."

Of course, these are the most glaring of the problems. But make no mistake; there are also many excellent writers. I'll write about them later, though. There's a LEAP retake in October and that's the most pressing thing right now.

Thank you.

Recycled: two old bottles that our neighborhood person of interest found under a house.

Melanie Plesh


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Melanie,I wish I had some magic formula to give you, but we know there isn't one. But here are my thoughts on your blog: You can't save them all. You need your energy and creativity for the other students, too, and can't afford to be "haunted, intense, obsessed." It's truly a tragedy that these students have reached this point in their life with such poor skills, but maybe all you can do at this point is guide them toward something that is possible. When I taught at Southeastern, I experienced this same angst over some students and I tried, did my best to help, but when you're up aganist incoherent thought and poor skills in grammar, spelling, etc. it's damn near impossible. The only idea I have is that maybe you could forego the usual exercises and just try to get them to write a coherent sentence with few errors, one sentence at a time. It's like trying to get someone to run a marathon when they haven't learned to walk. Teach them just to walk a short distance and then build on that. I used a fourth grade book for one of my students. He didn't know that's where his lesson came from, but there wasn't any use bullshitting him that he was going to pass. I miss you in writers group. And so does everyone else. I remember when you read your journal entries to us at your house one time. This blog reminds me of that. You're so brave and smart and I'm so happy to get to read these blogs of yours. Sorry this is so long!!! I'm going to ask some other educators if they have any ideas for you.

10:30 AM  
Blogger leslieg said...

I have a different take than anonymous, but I agree that you can't let yourself obsess (easier said than done), and you must tell the truth. I'd be willing to talk to them about what will happen when they get to the community college if you think they would respond to me.

The examples you've given are like the writing of non-native speakers. I have come across it, too. I could tell you some of what has worked for me, but I think I'd rather talk about it instead of try to type it all. I will say that they need to study English in a new way now. What has happened to them up to this point has not worked or mattered. The good news is that many of them want something for themselves, and I think that is the key to leading them toward the skills they need to survive in the worlds they imagine for themselves.

One other thing: most of the scary errors happen at the beginnings or ends of words. I am fascinated by this. Once I realized that pattern with my own developmental students I had something to manageable to show them. I start by looking at the way they end their words and go from there. Something always emerges.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog is an incredible read. I responded to you via e-mail because I wasn't sure if what I posted was appropriate as a blog response:)

You are doing great! You've gotten them to write and express what they feel. That is step one. Keep writing as you discover steps two-five thousand. I'm learning from you every day!

Mary Beth

8:28 PM  
Blogger Melanie Plesh said...

Mary Beth,
Just to say thank you, and I am grateful that you're reading this blog. You know things about language I don't know. And since we're all in this for them, the children, it's like this blog belongs to them and we're just its executrices. (Is that a word)

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Tami shared your blog stories with me yesterday, and I have been utterly fascinated and amazed ever since! Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with others. I look forward to each new entry.

After reading this post on the writings of your students, I do have one question. Do your students correct their grammatical errors when reading their work aloud? I wonder if they are at a level where they could at least reconigize errors in English when spoken.

I once taught a student who only spoke Chinese in her home. While she communicated fine in English during school, her basic writing skills demonstrated severe problems. I spent many hours trying to figure out how best to help this student.
The interesting thing to me was that when she read her writing to me, she would immediately recognize mistakes. The problem was that she didn't know why it was a mistake. We spent a good part of the year reviewing and correcting the same simple errors over and over again. I think a big part of this repetition in class was that she never received practice in English at home. (Not complaining about this! I do think it's great to speak two languages!)
Ultimately, while I feel her writing did show some signs of improvement at the end of the year, there was so much more I wish we would have accomplished. I would be very interested to see what works with your students this year.


7:53 PM  
Blogger marshathib said...

I can feel what you're going through--I've had several students in the same boat and have some again this year. The main thing is, don't BS them. They know they're weak in "teacher English"---but don't tell them they can't do it either. I had a student last year in summer school who failed the LEAP by over 100 points (passing is 270, he had 125). Couldn't spell, couldn't make a "complete" sentence. Of course, he failed the summer retake. I had him again in the fall for remediation; he failed the October retake. He came to tutoring in the spring....AND HE PASSED THE SPRING RETAKE!! This is a young man who I personally felt would never be able to pass, but he had a strong will and a dream that he wouldn't let be deferred. Your students may be like this too--you've made several comments about how strong they are. They may not all pass this October, or this spring, but some of them will.
Do you remember what I told you during the summer, that one lost is too many? I still feel that way, and I have made it my goal that I will do my best to guide these students, every one, even the ones I think don't have a chance. Let them know that there are dreams and good jobs out there that don't require a college degree (do you know what a plumber makes per hour in New Orleans?!?!!?). We've done kids a disservice by making them think that a person is only a success if he/she has a college degree---what is important is that we do what is right and good.
As for tips, what works for me is to start them on poetry (like Langston Hughes--he's fabulous). Get them analyzing, get them responding. Bring in rap and hip-hop and R&B (whatever music they like), analyze that. When they're comfortable reading it and writing it and analyzing it, move on to stories or essays. Don't underestimate the power of positive movies like Remember the Titans. And always, always, let them know how much you love them. It truly does make a difference--your problem child this year may turn into your defending angel next year (like D. did for me!)

6:41 AM  

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