Monday, November 21, 2005

Revelation (or... How Spanish class is like going to the gym...)

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see the parallels you draw between Spanish and the Gym - I'm sure we all face the same issues, sometimes in many other areas of our lives. My hat is off to you for the effort you put forth in helping a young mind. When I went to school I'm sure I passed many courses by receiving and "E" for effort. What made me try, and NOT throw in the towel? Kind and understanding teachers who knew what it was like to struggle.

madcapmum said...

You're a heckuva great teacher, Sarah. I want you for MY coach!

That poor guy. I've been in his shoes, and it's so frustrating and humiliating to be putting so much effort into something and still not getting it! We all have our limits, I guess.

Sarah Elaine said...

Anon - Yes, "E" for "Effort" is a compassionate response. Someday I'll post about my grade 12 Chem class... But for now I'll just say that if it wasn't for a compassionate teacher, my life would probably look very different today.

MCM - I don't know if you'd really want me as a teacher. I'm compassionate at times... but also tough and demanding... The trick is knowing *when* to use which approach -- and with whom! My heart went out to this kid today though...

ipodmomma said...

well, it sure sounds like you knew what to say and how to say it for that young chap... well done!

it is funny when things like that come, parallels, that give us a chance to reflect upon that which is a low point in our own day... gives us fresh perspective and might even offer a new insight.

glad you got away for a bit of time with other students too... it is always good have a bit of time to chill... :)))

Elliot said...

My mother was a teacher for 35+ years and always told me that she gave extra time and instruction to many students who she thought were making steps toward the learning. In her era, there were no actual Post-it notes, but by talking to a student, she could tell that there were some mental stickies getting stuck up all over the place.

I commend you for the time you take for those who are trying, yet still need the defining bit of advice, guidance, and "been there before" testimony.

The best way to teach a thing, I surmise, is to have already lived the thing.

zouzou said...

You are such a star. Rah Rah Rah! hey you even have it in your name, saRAH! woo hoo.

Hope he finds his way successfully through your course - or you find a way to get him relatively successfully through. How much leeway do you have on how you test the students - it isn't test anxiety he's suffering is it?

Sarah Elaine said...

IPM - Well, teachers don't *always* know what to say... I just happened to relate to G. on this one...

Elliott - I like your last line best... especially since I'm not a native speaker of Spanish myself... I've been through it all myself... ugh!

Z. - You're hilarious. And no... I don't think it's test anxiety... Poor chap doesn't get most of the concepts in class either. But he looked happier today in class. Rah, rah for that!