Twenty-three students flunk the quiz, the whole class. So much for my worry that the quiz might be too easy. Twenty vocabulary words taken from the readings, five factual questions, and a compare and contrast based on discussion during the same class period the quiz is administered. They excel at the essay question, but correctly answer only 20% of the vocabulary definitions. The dismal response makes me wonder how much they even understand when I lecture.
Where is my mistake? I pester everybody with this question. Paul launches into his theory that public schools dismally failed their mission so students read at an eighth grade level. Newspapers are printed in an eighth grade vocabulary. Corporations provide seminars in English and grammar to executive secretaries. “And vice presidents too, I hope,” I add.
“Miss Balkan had a point system and marked you down for repeated misspelling of the same word. At five points an error, you could fail in no time.” Miss Balkan maybe was his eighth grade teacher. “I don’t want to punish them,” I say. “I want to light their minds on fire.”
I email my boss Eileen with a copy of the quiz seeking advice. Jenn and Eddie come in from a day spent moving boxes and furniture and cleaning and unpacking. I detain them in the hallway with my questions while all they want is dinner and a chance to relax. “One student submitted internet pages on the Monroe Doctrine after he volunteered for extra credit. He probably didn’t read them, assuming it was adequate to Google the answer.”
Eddie says, “My students submit web pages all the time, and don’t see anything wrong with that. Only a few belong in Art School. Most have no talent and do nothing with their degrees, so it doesn’t matter.”
Jenn says, “I don’t know what you were expecting by assigning vocabulary. I had a student ask me what was trite. She didn’t know what the word trite means.”
“But you pass them through?” I ask, still seeking my best path. Paul starts again with his theory that it’s all the students’ fault and eighth grade reading level and– I want to strangle him. Just shut up! It’s Eddie’s advice I need here.
Eddie’s sweet nature wins out. Exhausted from moving and only wanting dinner, he politely listens then just tries again. I can see how he would prosper in an environment ruled by committee. “The principle is simple. You tell them what you will teach, then you teach it, then you tell them what was taught. Then your ass is covered.”
Paul starts with an old story about someone none of us know who could tell the same story three different practical ways and his success as a teacher. And the one about how they landscaped the quad at a California school but the plants were stolen. So they installed more which were stolen. And only when they made a third attempt did the students understand this was for everybody and kept their hands off. I hear an acerbic tone in my voice when I say, “Maybe their dorm rooms were full of plants by then.” Jenn guesses with a laugh, “Or the third set of landscape plants was thorny evergreens.”
Eddie reiterates my solution, only for the second time. “Just let the students know what’s coming. Put the essentials on the test, or they won’t learn them. Carrot and stick.” I finally release Jenn and Eddie to seek sustenance and rest.
My boss Eileen answers my email with comfort words about how it takes a couple weeks for any instructor to learn the makeup of the group in class. A more difficult scenario would be if half aced the quiz and half flunked. One method is to group vocabulary words around the root word with prefixes and suffixes. And she often uses a practice quiz before the real quiz to emphasize what’s expected.
A practice quiz?
Paul repeats that it’s all the students’ fault. I decide I spent too much time with Paul while we painted the wall in my studio. Everything he says I’ve already heard. I insist, “I want to win them over, not punish them. I just need to find a way to get students swimming in the same direction. My direction.”
So we’re cleaning the brushes from the final layer of glaze. A Ralph Lauren opaque product applied then brushed vertically and horizontally to create a sheen with no glare. This coat serves to softens the reds and tie the wall closer to the letterboxed panel on the staircase. “We’re such Bobos,” I say. “We don’t have two nickels to rub together, but we must have a Ralph Lauren product for the wall.”
Rhonda calls and says it’s four-dollar burger night at Corcorans and let’s go. “Give us twenty minutes to stow the utensils, and we’ll meet you there.”
When we’re seated in the noisy pub, however, I instantly regret inviting Paul. No girl talk is possible because I’m unsure how much she wants him to know. So I learn nothing about the lawyer, or has she seen Fred, or none of it. And besides, everything we say to Paul gets back to Candish. The duplicity is stifling. So we try talk shop about teaching, but he inserts himself with full renditions of stories I’ve heard at least twice that same day and drowns Rhonda’s attempts to share her classroom experience.
Rhonda finally gains a moment between Paul’s stories. “I told my sister about frustration with students, and she reminded me of all the tricks we pulled as undergraduates. How were we different? One time I missed three classes and a test. When I asked to take the test during the next class, the professor started yelling and humiliated me right there in front of the others. But I had a lot of nerve assuming I could just do what I wanted.”
We laugh together. I give it up, finally. “I expected the students to act like adults. What was I thinking?”