Thursday, November 29, 2007

Nothing but the truth

I'm finally getting better at telling students the truth. In years past, I'd often try to coddle them, stroke egos, pretend something was really good when it really wasn't. This year I've gotten to the point of just flat-out telling them they suck. Well, almost.

So, I had another student cry in my classroom after school today. At first I thought it was because I had her thinking about some painful memory. But eventually, after five minutes of using up my box of tissues, she said, "This is so frustrating!"

"This" is a personal essay she's writing for her college application. She is a student I've never even taught, just a kid who heard that I do a pretty good job of editing student work. So she dropped off an essay in the middle of the day and came back after school to see what I thought. I thought it was terrible. In fact, it wasn't even an essay, just a block of writing (no paragraphing, no structure) with very few periods or other punctuation marks. I skimmed through about half of it and had to put it down. "I like the first sentence," I said. "At least the first 15 words of it."

I launched into the same old line I give every senior about this kind of essay: It should tell a story. It should be about something other than what's already in your college application. It should reveal who you really are. Also, it should look like a story, have description and dialogue and characters. "Basically," I said. "I'd keep the very first sentence. Well, the shorter version of it. And get rid of the rest. Just cut it all and start over."

Turns out she had a first draft that was actually more along the lines of what this kind of essay should be. A story of her year of being "mom" to her younger siblings while their real mom was off in another state for her job. Why did she get rid of that and replace it with a rambling "essay" about nothing?

"My English teacher made me change all of it," she said.

"Well, did she give you a grade on this thing?" I asked.

"Uh-huh. She gave me a B."

"Well, you're lucky," I said. "I wouldn't give this a B."

"I wouldn't either," she agreed.

"Then do me a favor. Burn this thing. And start over."

She looked miserable. So I told her how revision is similar to practice in sports or art or any endeavor. "It might seem boring and repetitive," I said, "but it's how you get good. It's how you improve."

I asked her what her GPA was: 3.6--a very solid showing by anyone's standards. I asked about her ACT score: 17--not good enough to get into most universities. And I wondered which of those two numbers more closely reflected the kind of student she is. Probably the ACT score, based on her writing (plus based on the fact that she gets a B on an essay like this). But I wasn't brave enough to tell her that. I've come a long way as far as telling students the truth, but once they cry, I try to raise their spirits. I mean, I can't let her just give up.

"Admissions offices will see your ACT score and see that you're not a good test taker," I said. "And they'll see your GPA and realize that you're a hard worker. What you need is an essay that will show who you really are."

She left after about 45 minutes. And I left with a stack of ungraded papers. Maybe I'll get to them later. Maybe. More important, I need to go to the store to buy more tissue.

1 comment:

The Mom said...

I've read a few of those essays too. One essay in particular, written almost like a story, really seemed like it would develop into something. The next time I saw that student, he was writing a totally non-descript, made by the teacher version. He used words that I know he didn't even understand. His English teacher had edited and made him change his original essay. And you know who that was? NOT YOU... but another male in school who never even bothered to tell his seniors that a personal essay was required by colleges. To use your words, "I thought it was terrible!"