Teaching English: a Challenging but Frustrating Honor

Teaching English: a Challenging but Frustrating Honor

I have the challenging honor of being an English Instructor at two community colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. The word “honor” is not one I use lightly. Teaching is a profession that I am proud to be a part of, although it can be frustrating at times.

I know it sounds strange, but many college students do not like to read. I tell them, “But that’s what college students do: Read!” Perhaps more understandably, they also hate to write. Many students enter my classes without knowing what the subject of a sentence is. They also don’t know the difference between an adjective and an adverb. Many have told me they had never heard of a sentence fragment or a run-on sentence until I had mentioned those errors in class.

There are prerequisites of a sort for the classes I teach. Most students must take an assessment test. After that, they are placed in what someone determines is the appropriate writing class. The students in my Freshman Composition classes have supposedly passed that assessment test, or have taken and passed a lower level developmental writing course, or have passed an AP (advanced placement) class in high school. They still make too many grammatical errors in Freshman Comp. Every single student who steps into one of my classes — I am not exaggerating — is incapable of writing a double-spaced one-page essay without several grammatical mistakes. Students who hand in papers that are barely passable often claim to have received an “A” in AP English.

Another problem is grade inflation. I am as guilty of that, I admit, as every other teacher I know of. If I graded the students’ work according to my standards of what good writing should look like, many would not pass. But I hear that some teachers give out A’s as if they were candy. I don’t give out candy A’s, but I must confess I do give out too many mercy C’s. I am perpetually in a quandary over this.

To improve basic writing skills, one thing I suggest is to ignore tired formulas like the five-paragraph essay model, so well known to English teachers at every teaching level. Discarding such formulaic thinking is a big step toward encouraging students to think critically about their writing instead of just following a preset blueprint. I know that high school teachers and those in the lower grades have to follow a set curriculum to “teach to the test” and all of that. I’m not trying to point the finger of blame here, but I am questioning the wisdom of packaging what should be a creative and critical process into a one-size-fits-all rubric.

This kind of packaging can lead to even worse situations. In response to an article I wrote on the Huffington Post, someone commented, “School districts are now using computer programs to both teach and grade writing. It’s not supplemental or complimentary, either. It’s a computer with grammar and spell checkers automatically teaching the five paragraph persuasive essay.” And another HuffPost commenter added, “It is worse in Florida. For the FCAT, they tell the students what sentences to write as well.”