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Scrawled in a Student’s Notebook

I opened one of the students’ portfolio packets tonight and laughed and laughed. She’d submitted her personal notebook, as I’d specified students do—I don’t know why, I guess I was planning on quickly perusing their note-taking and whatever in-class exercise work was done outside of the journals when marking them on class participation. Anyway, in this notebook was scrawled, on the first page, in neon pink, the following phrase:


This was an admonishment I made to the class on the first day. I was warning them that a writing class is an intensive undertaking, one that requires some dedication and patience with oneself, willingness to work at something over and over even when it becomes a bit of a pain.

Okay, yes, the class was one that had no prerequisite applied though I’d specified I’d teach on the condition there was a prerequisite for the semester 1 writing course. Which turned out to be a good thing since some of the new students were excellent, far better than the majority from the semester before. Still, it was full of students who couldn’t string together a single sentence in English (one girl had never taken an English class in University, but was a Chinese major who’d aced the Chinese writing courses and decided, in her senior year, to give English writing a try, even though she knew almost no English), who didn’t belong in a second-level writing class, who hadn’t taken the prerequisite, and were doomed. It only scared off maybe three or four students, though that did bring the class down to a manageable size of a dozen students (which is a great size for a serious writing class).

Anyway, I paused at some point during the first class and asked people if they could follow me. I was speaking, after all, in my English-teacher voice, slow and clear and simple and careful. Some of them nodded, and some of them smiled knowingly, and some of them gave me blank looks. To the latter, I shook my head and said, “You must ask me questions. If you don’t understand, you cannot learn. In my class… you have to tell me… if… you don’t understand.” And then, a little faster for the benefit of those who could follow normal ESL speech, I added, “You have to make sure you know what the hell is going on.”

This was a point I reiterated later, when I asked the students why they were taking the class and a couple of them responded, “I dunno.” I told them they’d better have a goal, a reason for studying writing in a foreign language, because without a goal, they’d probably give up halfway along. There’s no point in doing it if you have no reason to remind yourself of when you are frustrated and want to give up. It’s up to you to decide what the purpose is. Make sure you know what the hell is going on, I told them again.

And there is that wonderful little axiom, months later, staring up at me again. I should write it down myself. It’s a good one to remember.

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