So, I've just had a meeting with a student. He's a good kid; comes to class every single day with his homework done, asks intelligent questions and pays attention, participates in class activities and is both respectful and polite.
This is a smart kid and a good student.
And he's doing horribly.
His marks just keep going down. A few times in class he's indicated that he just doesn't get certain concepts and will turn to a classmate for help.
I've been teaching long enough to know that this could either mean that I am not explaining things effectively or that he'll simply understand it better if it's explained by a peer, rather than someone "above" him.
When this happens, I usually do a quick survey of the class and if everyone else seems to get it, I let G. ask the fellow next to him and then check up on him later, while the students are involved in an activity and I can circulate around and answer questions.
Today G. came up to me after class and asked for help. Finally!
On his last test I wrote something to the effect of, “You can do this! Come and see me and we’ll go over this together.” But I heard nothing... until today.
It happened that I had nothing specifically scheduled after class (except my own work), so we spent an hour going over his previous tests, reviewing his mistakes and talking about study strategies. He explained to me that not only does he do all his homework, but he also has a tutor now, who helps him twice a week.
He told me that his entire apartment is covered in Post-it notes filled with verb conjugations. He even went into his wallet and pulled out a sample of one that he carries with him to study. He told me that Spanish takes more of his time than the rest of his courses combined and he’s frustrated because he’s not seeing results.
He’s also never taken a language before (except once, in grade eight, when it was mandatory) and he loves math… says he’s getting straight A’s in calculus, which impressed me all to hell, being someone who stinks at math herself.
And he was quite open about the fact that his confidence in this course has plummeted. He’s at his wit’s end and doesn’t know what to do… but he really doesn’t want to drop the course at this point in the semester.
He comes across as a bright, strong, confident young man with a good head on his shoulders. Through the conversation it came out that not only does he have a full course load, he also works part time and this is his first semester living away from his family and on his own. In addition to school life, he’s learning to cook and manage how to live on his own. All kinds of changes for this kid at this point in his young life!
It dawned on me that there are some parallels between young G. and me… struggling to learn something new…. Overcome negative perceptions from previous mandatory classes in a subject… diligence and determination that are diminished by low self-confidence and escalating frustration levels. Hhhmm… sounded a lot like me with exercise!
So, I said, “Do you feel like you’re getting to the point where you’re so frustrated you want to just walk away?”
G - “Oh yeah!”
Me - “And like everything you do is wrong and you don’t know how to get it right?”
G - “Yup! I mean… I come to class. I study. I conjugate. I do all my homework. … And I bomb on the tests. I put in so much time … and you’d never know it… My test results are crappy.”
Me – “Mmm…. Yeah… I understand.” (And I did, really I did – just in the context of exercise, not Spanish!) So I said, “If it makes you feel any better, I can see that you’re working hard. I've been at this long enough that it is obvious to me when someone works hard or just doesn't give a damn. You're definitely putting in the effort... Let’s see if we can make sense of this for you…”
We met for over an hour, going over his tests in detail. We also talked a little bit about study strategies and what kind of learner he might be. Ultimately, I recommended that he clean up his apartment, taking down all the sticky notes, instead organizing his notes into clear, systematic and ordered charts, tables and lists. We figured out that he likes it when things are organized and orderly and when there is a clear system or formula to follow. So, I said, “OK, let’s just take that and apply it to Spanish. You need to find a way for this to make sense to you personally and if order and organization is what you like, then use that.”
By the end of the meeting, G. left armed with some new study strategies and seemed to feel a bit better. His confidence is still low, but at least he knows that his teacher has no intention of letting an otherwise good student slip through the cracks. We have an agreement that he can come by for help whether it is official office hours or not.
After the meeting, I spent time going through my stash of workbooks photocopying extra practice activities for him… stuff other students got weeks ago, and he still needs to grasp it. The main difference between him with his Spanish and me with my exercise is that he’s got a final exam to write in three weeks’ time. Ouch!
I told him that he'd put in a lot of time already today and to take tonight off from studying Spanish... that his verbs would still be there in the morning. He liked that idea and left with a smile.