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It’s freezing cold, which has put me in a so-so mood.

The last few weeks, I’ve carefully told each class, at the beginning of class, that their number-one homework was to practice English together. Two hours of practice are absolutely crucial homework, and necessary for them to do if they want to get better than an F. This isn’t vindictiveness on my part, either; I have nothing against my students, I just have expectations of them. This is a University, after all. They are enrolled in an English class, after all.

So when I asked, “Who practiced? Did you practice?” I was a little offended when only two people responded at all, but when I saw that many of them had done the homework I’d assigned—homework that was part of their practice routine, and which they couldn’t have done alone—I realized, once again, that they simply didn’t understand the slowly-spoken question. They didn’t get what I was asking them.

That just makes me a little sad. I mean, I’ve spent time teaching them to say “Pardon me?” and “I don’t understand,” and I’ve explained what “practice” means, and yet, when I asked “Did you practice?” (which I did explicitly ask), only two people raised their hands.

So why, I asked myself, should I try force them through chapter 3 if they can’t even answer a “Did you” question (which we discussed for the last two weeks) and they cannot ask me what I mean by my question?

I’m happy with most of my classes, which makes me wonder how I can get happier with this class? Ought I to simply force these guys to become competent in the basic questions, by getting them to have some facility with “Yes/No” questions and questions using verbs like “to be” and “to do”?

I ask this because, it seems to me, if they still cannot answer a question like “Did you practice?” or even “How was your lunch?” after not only 6 years of English in the public school system, plus (and this is more of a concern to me) a full year already in the program I’m teaching in… after all that, if they cannot answer such a simple, basic question, which was, yes, asked slowly… what, then, is the purpose of my class?

Is it to be one more exercise in cramming them through a book regardless of whether they actually pick anything up? Is it really just an exercise? Or can I do more with it? Can I make the class about something more, about, say, my students actually gaining some little bit of facility with things?

But as I noted in an email the other day to someone, these are required courses. It’s not surprising that many, many students don’t practice or study outside of test-time; after all, the consequences of following their sensible priorities means that they ought to study their majors—regardless of whether they even like their majors—and let the English grade slide until the end of term.

The only real solution I can see for this—for at least manufacturing some motivation for the students to try in class, regardless of lack of interest—is to make grades mainly dependent on in-class participation, but the last person who made such a change in her classes was, I am told, almost fired. I’m hardly excited to try that, therefore.

So what should I do? What point should I choose as being the point of this class? Am I to just go through the motions that were seemingly gone through for the last two semesters with these guys? Or am I to expect more from them than all the English teachers in their lives who have come before me?

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