In an earlier blog, I described a student I had in class who said he didn’t want to read our text (The Color of Water) because he couldn’t relate to it and thus he didn’t know what to write about in his literary letters to me or to peers. Though I tried to show him, I was unable to get him to internalize the issues that James McBride or his mother dealt with. John wrote no literary letters and eventually had to repeat this developmental writing course. He had come a long way in learning how to expand on a piece of writing but he had, perhaps stubbornly, decided that there were some things he wasn’t going to tackle. I was as stubborn and John received a D in the course, not allowing him to move on to Freshman Composition. He would have to repeat the course and, “Oh, no,” I thought, “with me!”
Though I explained to him at the end of the term how I didn’t consider him a loser but that he needed to master more things before moving on to the next level and we had parted amicably, I still anticipated that John would come to class the next time with a chip on his shoulder. I thought he might harbor a desire to cut corners this time by using many of the things from the previous course.
John didn’t do any of that. This time our class started at 11:00 instead of 9:00 and you could set your watch at his arrival to class. By 10:25, John would enter the room, pulling his backpack-on-wheels behind him. He would arrive 35 minutes early to receive response on his latest piece of writing and to get started on his work. He found a very conscientious beginning student named Jon and the two of them began exchanging poignant, well-developed literary letters. When John gave in the first of two letters written to me, I was floored at the length and depth that he was reaching in his comments. He was learning to trust me in the things he included in the letter and I responded with personal comments meant for only him. He began to search for connections he could make to the text. His responses grew longer as he explained how incidents in the text corresponded to his own life. I was amazed at how great a student John had become. I told him this often, both in writing and in person. He always beamed, this 29 year old student who had had nothing short of a miserable elementary school experience until two teachers in a “last resort” school touched his life in different ways. Still, he was never a good student in the years that followed. Thus he was placed in my developmental writing class.
As John continued to shine, I began to refer to his work more in class and he worked even harder. He actually began to inspire me to work even harder, to anticipate his needs, to be prepared for him. I told him several times how he was inspiring me. He is not very good at showing his emotion but he told me that he had been telling his mother how he was inspiring me and how pleased his mother was with his progress. He confided that he had used several of the poems that students had written as “gift poems” and had given them to his parents. His final portfolio was stunning. He received a perfect score for his work during those fifteen weeks.
Last week, I saw John in the hallway and asked him if he would come in to my new class and speak to them about what to expect, “giving them the straight truth” on the course and me. He beamed when I asked him and he showed up at my door 30 minutes later, ready to give his talk. The students sat listening to him with rapt attention and had questions for him at the end. John left feeling very good about himself.
I learned once again that things don’t happen over night. It takes persistence and patience. If you speak the truth, have faith in students, continue to praise them for the things they can do, most of the times they will work hard to meet your dreams for them. Patience doesn’t come easily. That’s why it’s called a virtue. May I have it more often.
If you have a question or comment and don't want to post it here, you can reach me at email@example.com