Monday, February 17, 2014

The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education - Week 4 - Reading: The Worst Student

I start out with one of two assigned readings (the other one is to watch, again, Michael Wesch's video, A Vision of Students Today, which I just watched a few days ago.): What I Learned as the Worst Student in the Class, by Adrianne Wadewitz, on the HASTAC site. Wadewitz asks how teachers can possibly understand their students' struggles with a subject that they themselves found easy and excelled in? I confront this question every day, as a teacher of English as a second/foreign language. I was a language geek from the get-go. Hearing and making weird sounds (like the French [y] in words like tu) came pretty easily to me, and I picked up new modes of expression fairly easily also. I was fascinated by grammar (I used to spend hours discussing Russian grammar with my fellow language geek Ivan Sag over breakfast at the Men's Dining Hall (aka Frederick Douglass Dining Hall) at the University of Rochester). My students, on the other hand, don't hear those sound differences, hate grammar, and struggle with every aspect of English. What worked for me does not (usually) work for them. So I am interested in what she has to say on this subject. 

Wadewitz approached this issue by enrolling in a rock-climbing class, specifically because she is klutzy and knew it would be extremely difficult for her. In fact, she had to hire a private coach because she was unable to learn in the class. She learned to set the bar lower for herself, selecting "small goals." She writes, "For students that struggle, goal-setting and repetition [are] necessary." A writing teacher (as am I, most of the time), she comments that we do not give students enough chances to repeat and practice what we want them to learn (like how to write a thesis statement). I totally agree with her there. I recommended revising our writing curriculum to decrease the number of organizational patterns we need to cover in a level so that students will have a chance to write more than one piece of writing for each type. Even so, I am fully aware that I don't have them practice enough. 

She considers how to praise students for small (but vital) successes even when they do not merit a good grade overall (but has not solved this problem so far). She plans to encourage students to focus on and "embrace" their failures as a way to learn and describes how repeatedly (and publicly) failing at what she was attempting to learn required a discipline very different from the academic discipline she had acquired in her own field. She ends by describing how she has "switched subject positions" by becoming a climber--one of those people she used to marvel at.

I remember back to 1975, when I signed up for a beginning Greek class in night school to try to experience what my students experienced learning English. (Of course, I was still me, signing up to do something I am good at.) I chose Greek because it was the only language offered that I had no experience with at all, and because I had recently met a Greek immigrant in the neighborhood whom I could practice with. Reader, I married him!


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