Grieving Low Student Achievement

Grieving Low Student Achievement

In his article “The 4-Stage Response to Low Student Achievement” John Lemuel describes the range of responses—a “grieving process” of sorts—that academics experience in response to the underachievement of students in their undergraduate classrooms: “First, shock at appallingly poor results, soon followed by . . . dismay or guilt . . . [then] contempt [and] acceptance.”

The first three are primarily passive responses which often lead instructors to fault their students for being products of a questionable K-12 education system, for being inexperienced at the self-discipline and study habits required by college, or worse, for being “stupid”—non-productive attitudes at best.

However, Lemuel argues, the fourth—acceptance—is “active and constructive” and “involves recognizing students’ limitations and trying to work with them, around them, or in spite of them, to produce a better-than-predictable result.” His examples involve “going the extra mile”–for example, not merely sending an email to the entire class, but also following up with phone calls.

There’s an old anecdote about a man and his child walking along a beach after a storm, where the sands are strewn with thousands upon thousands of starfish. Approaching them is an old man, who as he walks, occasionally stoops to pick up one of the stranded creatures and then tosses it back into the waves. When the three walkers come abreast, the father asks the old man, “Why do you bother? There must be a million; you can’t possibly make a difference.” The old man bends to pick up one whose slight movement catches his eye, and throws it back into the ocean. He replies, “Made a difference for that one.”

While college students are not stranded starfish (and neither are all professors old men), the analogy holds true in this way: our job as educators is not to rescue every student from themselves and the challenges they face—we are to do our best to help those we can. We may not always recognize any “slight movement” indicating which are the “live ones.” But by our consistently spelling out expectations, clearly communicating consequences—both positive and negative—and occasionally showing mercy we would appreciate receiving, we will enable some to succeed.

I am only one, but I am still one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. Edward Everett Hale

***A small but salient post-script*** For any of you who have not explored the comments sections of the Chronicle of Higher Education articles like the one above, DO SO! The discussion that follows is often as valuable as the original piece of writing.

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There is No Joy in Mudville

Not-so-mighty Ted has struck out. (google it if you’re too young to get the reference).

While the professor made encouraging comments at the end of class about how good we are doing on assimilating, supposedly processing, and regurgitating both Scholes and Hemingway, I have a different take on my progress: blech (more polite version of what I’ve been saying to myself for days).

Last night’s class began with, to my mind, a much more fun and practical exercise: Dr. Beth Young joined us for the first hour, a rollicking good time of Q & A on grammar and (be still my heart) sentence diagramming, ala Reed-Kellogg via Kolln. This is not sarcasm: I am a grammar geek; how I can use the rules to improve my writing’s clarity is important to me.

Then, she left, and we launched into The Frustrating Adventures of Teaching Hemingway (it really should be a book). My struggles in this class began day one: other than the vague direction offered by the title–Teaching College Literature–I have little sense of what I am supposed to take away and how I can demonstrate proficiency. Add to this the great joy I find in literary criticism (Now, that’s sarcasm!) and, other than “to finish my coursework,” I really wonder…

One of the driving forces in my life is a variation on “First, do no harm,” and that is to avoid causing others pain. However, when taking literary-criticism-based coursework, I find myself in such agony that I must spend all my effort to keep from lashing out. And still, my whining and moaning (or bitching and ranting) will out. My words below are as tempered as I can make them; I apologize in advance for any hurt they transmit.

If I were King of the World, I would erase the vast majority of literary criticism since the beginning of time. I have little or no use for the so-called search for knowledge that is deliberately obtuse, couched in language that even the writer struggles to understand on re-reading. The theory I appreciate and can somewhat understand is than involving “putting on another pair of glasses”–feminist, Marxist, queer, post-colonial–and trying to see things from another’s point of view. This helps me be a better writer, to avoid hurting or offending readers inadvertently.

But for most theory, I envision a group of “monks” (though hardly monkish in their personal lives), cloistered away in their mountain-top fortress, counting the metaphorical angels dancing on the head of the pin, while below, in the “real world,” people are starving for what these pundits could provide if they so chose. The so-called “genius” argument, that the subject matter is so gravely important learners should have to fight their way through, holds no merit for me. Jared Diamond, Jaron Lanier, and Frances Fukayama, are all true geniuses, and they are accessible, deliberately so: they seem to believe their respective messages are important enough for them to work at being understandable.

Versus Derrida and the rest of that bunch?

So, what would have helped me in this class? It seems that much of the past 8 weeks could have been boiled down into 3-4 pages of handouts instead of having to slog through the texts. For example, I still don’t have a clear grasp of the so-called “Hemingway Themes” or tropes or devices–I’ve read his work for 35+ years but never “studied” it (ie. drain the life from it, dissect it, put it under a microscope, and complain about it, a la most of the critical reading I’ve found). In the interest of being a “good” future teacher, I would have been better served to read and reread the literature and then discuss the pros and cons of the supposedly commonly-known tools  (e.g. iceberg theory, from my imagined handout). Instead, we’ve all taken our varied but clearly limited experiences, mixed them with hard-to-grasp textbooks, and tried to somehow explain the resulting mess to others in the same circumstance. My stress level, at understanding (or not) the texts, preparing my own “mess,” and then trying to think of something useful to say about others’ presentations, has effectively eliminated most learning I might have enjoyed and has bled over into accomplishing even the simplest of other assignments, like this blog.

Since coming to this university, I have struggled in several other grad classes (curiously all involving theory): the 12-week GTA workshop run by the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning was tough, as was Dr. Wardle’s Rhetoric and Composition course; however both clearly showed in some way how they would be useful in teaching others. Both involved guided analyses of my writing and teaching processes and those of others in the class. The stress was directed somehow into shaping the learning, a tool I only barely understand as yet (and covet).

Enough. I appreciate the professor’s love for the literature and desire to raise up good teachers–these come across fairly well–but my inability to understand what I’m supposed to be learning and doing outweighs these positives. Sorry.

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Lead #2 – Hemingway’s “The Killers” (and one of H’s poems)

Working notes – Lead 2 – Hemingway’s “The Killers

Students will identify various forms of power evidenced in the story; students will examine the effects of rhetorical tools on themselves as readers.

Students are assumed to have read the story before class.

Ask for synopsis. Do they have any questions about the story?
Why didn’t they call the police? <discuss history, corruption of police forces>

What is Power? <control, authority, influence, dominance, mastery, domination, dominion, sway, weight, leverage> (Power).

Power WordsAcknowledge the “N” word (12x in just over 3000 words) <I wish the word had lost its power, but it has not. I am uncomfortable using it because I don’t to offend anyone.>??? ask/don’t ask. <How do you all feel about it?>

What kinds of power are there? (check off – mention some if little response).

Levels of Power – from the individual to global levels.

Spheres of Power – various spheres of power comprise a context. For example, Phase III of the SII outlined a number of spheres that it identified as important for its study on women’s empowerment and HIV vulnerability, which include:

  • Economic : access to markets, credit, trade, savings, etc.;
  • Political/policy : social and welfare schemes, women’s representation in administrative structures, changes in policies;
  • Legal : legal and judicial environment and its protection of vulnerable groups
  • Social/cultural : gender roles, interpersonal relationships, attitudes and practices around gender-based violence, sexuality and control over one’s body, conflict-resolution practices, etc.;
  • Normative factors : gender norms, systems of inheritance, polygamy;
  • Infrastructures/systems : the conditions in the workplace or in basic services like health, education, etc.; and

Types of Power – As discussed in the SII Women’s Empowerment Overview, there are various types of power:

  • Personal power :  The power within and power to know, pursue and achieve one’s interests.
  • Cooperative power : The power with others to work together to pursue one’s collective interests.
  • Controlling power : The power over others through rules and governing processes (visible), through determining who has the right to participate in decision-making and the settings in which people interact (invisible), as well as through the power to define what is possible, reasonable or logical within a given context through shaping ideologies of kinship, capitalism, religion, science and education (hidden). (CARE).

Power and Powerlessness – Instances in text

Insults and jokes at George/Nick/Sam’s expense

Al (mostly) to George and Nick: “bright boy” (216-19).

Al about George: “He’s dumb” (216).

Al (8x) and Max about Sam: “n-word” (217-19).

Ordering them around (Why do they obey? No weapon seen yet)

Max to Nick “You go around on the other side of the counter. . .” (217).

Al to George “tell [Sam] top come out here” (217).

Al to Sam and Nick “Go on back to the kitchen [Sam]. You go with him, bright boy” (217)

Homosexual slurs

Max to Nick “with your boy friend” (217)

Al to Max “I got them [Sam and Nick] tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent” (218).

Max to George “You’d make some girl a nice wife, bright boy” (219)

Andreson’s powerlessness

Why doesn’t he act?

What about the written form’s power?

“It breaks up into one long scene and three short scenes. . . . The focus of the narration is objective throughout, practically all information being conveyed in simple realistic dialogue.” (Brooks 114).

Who’s story is it? (power here?)

Gangsters (Al and Max)?





Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. “The Discover of Evil: An Analysis of ‘The Killers.” Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert P. Weeks. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.114-117. Print.

“CARE Gender Toolkit.” PQDL: Program Quality Digital Library. CARE USA. n.d. Web. 16 February 2011.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Killers.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner, 1998. Print.

“Power.” Apple Dictionary. Ver. 2.1.3. Digital file. 16 February 2011.

Weeks, Peterson, ed. Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Print.


Hemingway’s response to a critical review of Men Without Women:


For a Mr. Lee Wilson Dodd and Any of His Friends Who Want It.

Sing a song of critics

pockets full of lye

four and twenty critics

hope that you will die

hope that you will peter out

hope that you will fail

so they can be the first one

be the first to hail

any happy weakening or sign of quick decay.

(All very much alike, weariness too great,

sordid small catastropes, stack the cards on fate,

very vulgar people, annals of the callous,

dope fiends, soldiers, prostitutes,

men without a gallus)

Hemingway, Ernest, “Valentine,” Little Review, XII (May, 1929), 42.

(Weeks 4).

Just because I like it.

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Lead #3 – Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home”

Working notes – Lead 3 – Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home”

Students will focus on narrative description, tone, point of view, and reliability and examine how these characteristics affect the reader’s reception of the story.

Students must read the story and two critical readings (Boydbefore class and post a brief (150-300 words) entry on the narrative style seen in any single paragraph on pp. 112 – 113 (pages 2-3 of the story) using a close reading (interpretation of the words on the page without external influences) and focus on the effects the words have on the above narrative qualities.

NOTE: Each paragraph can ONLY be used ONCE. So CHECK what’s been written on before you post (TITLE your posts with “Page/Paragraph”) First come, first served.

HINT: POST your TITLE as soon as you decide; edit/write the post within 24 hours.

In class: Ask for volunteers to provide synopsis and to fill in additional information.

Do they have any questions about the story? Let class answer if they can.

Break class into small groups 3-4 students. They will use examples from the text to:

Describe the settings and how Krebs feels about them;

Oklahoma “small town”

The Krebs home

Other locations provided (even if recollections or flashbacks)

Describe Krebs actions during the war and how he feels about them;

His home and being back

Finding a job and moving forward
His family members (mom, dad, sister)
Friends and romance

Imagine what Krebs future will be like.

Are there any areas that are unclear or hard to understand? Ambiguous?

How would you “fix” them/make them more clear?

Why do you suppose Hemingway left them as-is?

Last five minutes of class: write entry in weekly journal.

Possible topics: Any surprises while reading? Agreement/dis- with critics read? With your classmates? How will what you learned from this unit affect your writing?


Works Cited

Boyd, John D. “Hemingway’s SOLDIER’S HOME.” Explicator 40.1 (1981): 51. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.                                                           PERMALINK:

Cohen, Milton A. “Vagueness and Ambiguity in Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home”: Two Puzzling Passages.” Hemingway Review 30.1 (2010): 158-164. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.                                                                                                                    PERMALINK:

Hemingway, Ernest. “Soldier’s Home.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner, 1998. Print.

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Make Mine Vanilla

Make Mine Vanilla

One of the bigger challenges in teaching from authors as well known and admired (or vilified) as Fitzgerald and Hemingway is the problem of choice: How to decide what students “need” to know/learn/appreciate is quite problematical a pain because of the enormous volume of work done, not just before we started teaching, but likely before we were that proverbial glint in our parents’ eyes.

I believe that I would do best, at least at first, to teach in an institution or department that has a rather rigid curriculum; my artistic license can find expression in how I present the material and possibly with additional work that fits in well. I just don’t do so well with near-infinite possibilities; I become bogged down and unproductive.

So someone else’s determination that Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” would be useful to teach on the vagaries of his writing, or his take on women, or war, or American Mid-West society would all be fine with me. And I’m sure I’d find something in this person’s choices to complain about—I can always do it better once I’m in the trenches (so to speak).

An alternative to this structure might be to have a close mentor who had been through much or all of what I was facing; but I’ve had my fill of new faculty “whine and cheese” parties (not at this fine institution—I’ve not taught classes here).

All this is to say that I’m having a hell of a time figuring out what to teach about tomorrow in my lead on the above-mentioned work; the more I read, in the story itself and in criticism and lesson plans, the less able I feel to deal with the material.

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Better Late (for me) Than Never: National Writing Project’s “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing”

National Writing Project’s “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing”

This recently published treatise (available here as NWP Framework for Success) is a rich resource addressing specifics of how to help college students become successful writers in and outside academia. While its focus is not entirely directed at teaching literature, so much of what this piece deals with is applicable that it should be required reading for everyone involved with first year students. Further, the document references the Council of Writing Program Administrators Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition Students, which “describes the common knowledge, skills, and attitudes sought by first-year composition programs in American postsecondary education” (Outcomes). The Framework is essentially a compilation of agreed-upon competencies that instructors wish to transfer to those in their charge—in essence, a target to shoot for—and then outlines some ways to hit the bull’s eye:

Habits of Mind

The Framework identifies eight habits of mind essential for success in college writing—ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines:

  • Curiosity: the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness: the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement: a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity: the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence: the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility: the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility: the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Metacognition: the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

Writing, Reading, and Critical Analysis

The Framework then explains how teachers can foster these habits of mind through writing, reading, and critical analysis experiences. These experiences aim to develop the following aptitudes:

  • Rhetorical knowledge: the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts;
  • Critical thinking: the ability to analyze a situation or text, and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research;
  • Writing processes: multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research;
  • Knowledge of conventions: the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing; and
  • Abilities to compose in multiple environments: from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies (Framework).

This treasure trove, while brief, helps quantify much of what instructors of higher education essentially know they want to communicate, but, especially  those who are just beginning, find difficult to pinpoint. There is little I can do to better summarize or enhance what these two resources themselves offer. All I can say is I wish I’d had these a few years ago when I first taught First-Year Composition.

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Applying the Socratic Seminar in the College Literature Classroom

In my new quest to examine “the relationship between students’ abilities to read, comprehend, critically analyze, and write about literature and their persistence and success in education” (which is already feeling far too ambitious), I came across something called by several names: “The Socratic Method,” “Socratic Seminars,” or the “Paedeia Approach.” Many of you may be familiar with this centuries-old tool, but reading Margaret Metzger’s 1998 article “Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot,” which discusses her experiences teaching freshmen in high school, sparked my interest. The problems she describes are still quite present in college classrooms, and her account of teaching The Great Gatsby with a modified version of the Socratic Seminar exposes challenges similar to those experienced by college literature students along with some desirable results.

Metzger’s variation, with an inner circle of students addressing higher-order questions about the literature under review while an outer circle enjoys a meta-view of the analysis process—started me thinking on the crowded nature of some graduate level workshops I’ve experienced, where I’ve found myself not listening well because I’m too busy thinking up something to say or worrying someone else will present my ideas before I get the chance. Further searching along these lines found this basic “how-to” application, “College and university teachers: Strategies for teaching graduate students,” this professionally produced, downloadable procedure, “The Socratic Seminar,” and the website of “The National Paideia Center [which] improves the ability of adults and students to think and communicate so that each might be good citizens, earn a decent living, and lead a good life.”

Basically, Metzger writes that for many students reading literature remains an intimidating task to which they bring a wide collection of fears and prejudices, saying, “They do not understand that anyone can learn how to read on multiple levels, just as anyone can learn, with effort, increasingly complex skills in sports or computers or music.” She briefly defines the Socratic Seminar, saying it’s “a focused discussion on a short piece of writing [where n]oncompetitive discussion moves toward a collective and deeper understanding of the reading rather than to one right answer [and s]tudents talk through possible interpretations.

Many powerful tools are present in this system: first, the use of open-ended questions encourages higher-order thinking where students are encouraged to work out possibilities; also, alternating the students between roles as active questioners and active observers removes the pressure to perform and allows listeners to really think about the questions and answers being posed. A safeguard against possible laziness could be to require all students to be prepared to take either role at any time and would encourage them to read the entire assigned work.

After having students practice the technique for some time, Metzger had them analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and was amazed by the results:

When freshmen read the ending of The Great Gatsby, I watched in stunned silence as they decoded multiple metaphors in six minutes. True, the students came to class well prepared. They had spent time on the reading the night before, and they had all written a journal entry about what confused them in the text, what comprehension techniques they used, and what they now understood. When they came into the classroom, they announced that they loved Fitzgerald. They worked through the text systematically. They gave multiple interpretations, all of them valid.

For many undergraduates, especially those who have come through high school with reading, writing, and literature phobias intact, Metzger’s modified Socratic Seminar may offer the right tools at the right time to allow both understanding and appreciation of literature. For graduate students, changing the nature of their roles in workshops and literary analysis sessions may offer an effective tool for examining both their own reading and writing processes and those of fellow learners.

Metzger, Margaret. “Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot.” Phi Delta Kappan 80.3 (1998): 240-46. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.


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