Oh My Aching Brain

For the past four days straight, the bulk of my time has been spent grading student papers.  Research papers, persuasive essays, quizzes, tests, final projects – they are all there, and they are all draining me.  I believe my brain has overheated and begun leaking out my ears.imageref(sorry – I thought this was funny!)

I know, I know – “It’s your job.  You get paid for this. Quit whining about it.”

I say the same things to myself, but to be honest, there are times when it takes far more out of me than any paycheck could possibly compensate for.  When I’m reading an essay at midnight and realizing that there are students whom, after 12 weeks, many other essays having been graded, and multiple offers of support from me, they still do not understand how to write a complete sentence.  Students are still turning in papers with the word “then” confused for the word “than” or “their” confused for “they’re” confused for “there” despite two class sessions devoted to these issues.  It is frustrating to see students who most obviously sat down at a computer, spit out a few pages, and turned them in thinking I wouldn’t notice or care.  And then there are those who clearly have some type of learning disability, but since they refuse to tell me about it (which is their right), I can’t ask them because of ethics and legal issues, so their papers look a lot like something my kids wrote in elementary school – and I’m not exaggerating.  What breaks my heart about this situation is that there are so many ways that I could help them; so much that I could do to make this class easier for them if they would just allow me to.

I’m sure that part of their reticence is having been stigmatized by their learning difference through most of their education, they are relieved to be in a learning that doesn’t apply labels to them.  I respect that.  I understand that.  I have two children who have learning disabilities, and I understand the torment of being singled out and identified as “different” or “less than” by teachers, and worse, by peers.  It’s cliche’, but it’s true: kids are cruel.

My students’ reluctance to seek and accept help makes perfect sense to me, but what they fail to understand is that I want to help them avoid further stereotyping and pigeon-holingimageref by helping them to express themselves better through written words.  I want them to be better able to put their own thoughts and ideas on paper in a way that best represents them as individuals.

Let me give you an example that I share with my students.  This is the actual opening paragraph of a paper turned in to me by a student at school for whom I no longer teach. I have not changed spelling, word use, or punctuation, this is exactly as it was turned in to me:

“When i was growing up and to these day, I love to shout riffles, hand guns, and shotguns.  I grew up around guns my hole life.  Me my dad and my bothers would go out shouting all the time. We would also go rabbit hunting and when we were old enough we started deer hunting.  I’m a perty good shout with a rifle but it takes alot of practice just like any other skill or talent.  Here aresome general shouting tips to make you a better shouter if you like to shout guns.  The frist thing you must now      ”

Verbatim – I swear it. 

It’s sort of funny, it’s sort of sad, and as the instructor, it’s definitely frustrating.  But before you think I’m being cruel, I’m not sharing this with you, or with my students, to make fun of this individual.  I share it to make a point.  The minute you began reading that paragraph, you began forming opinions about the writer.  It’s natural.  We all judge the message in terms of its credibility, and its value to us as readers in terms of our own standards of measurement.  Someone who represents themselves so poorly in writing is obviously not to be taken seriously.

When I ask students to tell me who they think this writer is, what he is like, they all say pretty much the same thing.  “Stupid” is usually one that comes to mind.  “Hillbilly” is another.  “Shouldn’t own guns” quite often is followed by much laughter.  When I ask students if they were to receive a resume’ from someone like this, would they consider hiring that person, the majority opinion is always “no!”

And that is exactly the point I try to make to my students.  You are judged by the way you represent yourself in writing, like it or not. 

Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it can be improved.  It takes only a little practice and a desire to be better, but it also takes the understanding and insight to acknowledge that change is necessary.  It is my experience that many teachers in elementary, junior high, and even high school refuse to correct a student for mistakes in the fundamentals of writing.  The students proceeds through grade after grade, never having anyone point out the errors and correct them.  By the time they reach me, they don’t even know their doing anything wrong, and worse yet, a lot of them don’t care.

So the end result is that I wind up caring a lot, trying to impart information that the students should have received six, eight, twelve, or more years ago, and then reading papers that cause my head to ache, and my heart to hurt. 

Seriously, is there a paycheck big enough for that?  Is there a paycheck that takes “I feel like I’ve failed” and makes it better?  If there is, would someone kindly tell me where I go to get that job, because I’m not sure I can take a whole lot more of this.

I’m going back to my grading now.  I’ve got a two inch-high stack left to grade within the next 24 hours.  I have Tylenol by my side, a comfy chair, and the phone at hand to call for pizza should the need arise.  Wish me luck.

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