Trust your students

As a professor of freshman writing, I teach students who are just out of high school. Some students are satisfied with their former high schools, but most complain bitterly. The most frequent complaint is about sitting around doing nothing, not that the subject matter is too difficult. Why are teachers so afraid to challenge their students?

One student just handed in an essay in which she wrote about a high school Ceramics class where they barely made any ceramics. Why? Nothing is harder than just sitting there. Other students write about History and English classes which consist mainly of videos, as if the students wouldn’t learn unless it was packaged like watching television. How insulting!

One of my students wrote an essay in which she begs for more “variety” in high school classes. She writes, “I can tell you that I learned at least three times about the water cycle, the scientific method, and the Pythagorean Theorem in science and math.” The “lack of variety” she writes about seems not to be caused by relearning these things, but by the fact that they were not presented at a more challenging level. If I can read between the lines of her (and many other students’ ) papers, they feel not only bored but also disrespected.

Underestimating students’ abilities begins, it seems to me, in very early grades. Everything has to be “fun.” In high school this translates into a cowardly genuflection to “self expression.” It would be fine if they expressed themselves AND did it clearly and concisely, but the dogma of self-expression overlooks wordiness, lack of clarity, misuse of vocabulary, and all manner of either ignorance or self-indulgence which make student work incomprehensible. What is the use of self-expression when the reader cannot understand the point? It is likely in that case that the writer was not sure what he or she was writing either.

They are in college now, where they must write clearly. Many of them struggle with this because they have no idea how language is constructed. If they had learned the basics of good writing in high school, they would be able to express their more sophisticated ideas by now and bound into the advanced subject matter they so crave.

So. A bit of a rant today. If we dug under our curricular difficulties into the attitude which treats students as if their default setting was “dumb,” and corrected that attitude, things would improve quickly.

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