Tuesday, June 11, 2013

If It's Tuesday, Hiram Must Be Baffled By Something That Happened to Frankie.

A former colleague of mine, call him Frankie, called me up the other day to complain about his college. Frankie lives in the northeast and teaches at a decent, mid-sized community college. He doesn't complain much, so when he does I usually take it seriously:


So, Hiram, I've got this kid in my summer section of writing. First year class. He writes the diagnostic and it's barely in English. Every kind of error imaginable, but the overall feel is he's just not familiar with writing in English. In fact as the writing diagnostic was winding down, I said to him, "We need to be out of the classroom by 3 pm," to which he just sort of shrugged and shook his head as if he didn't know what I was saying.

So, I call up the pre-requisite person because I know this kid doesn't belong in the class. Turns out he's taken and passed the two developmental classes we have here. Not only that, he got Bs in both.

I see the kid a couple of days later and show him his diagnostic. He knows it's gibberish. He speaks haltingly in English, but I do understand him. I ask about his developmental classes.

"I try hard and she let me write over and over till correct."

"Do you think you're ready for this class? You know it moves faster than the other ones. Do you have confidence?"

"No confidence," he said, shaking his head. "I think I pass as favor."

He looks sad, but not suicidal. "I should speak English more. My parents don't speak good English and they don't try. We speak our own tongue home."

I've seen students like him enough to know he really just needs immersion in English more than anything else. The swift pace of my summer section, 5 academic essays in 6 weeks will never give him enough drafting and rewriting time. 

The kid tells me he'd like to retake at least one of the developmental classes, so that he could continue practicing reading and writing in English. I think it's a great idea. I call up the appropriate people. 

"No," one of them says. "He's passed those other classes; he's ready for the next step."

Another one says, "Are you saying that the class he passed did not prepare him?"

"Uh," I said, "Yeah."

"Well, that's a situation your department chair has to deal with."

And it's summer, Hi. I just wanted a smooth $4000 and minimal muss and fuss. 

I see the kid and tell him what I've learned. He tells me the registrar's office emailed him the sign up info to get in another class, THE SAME CLASS I'M TEACHING, but a different section, also a 6 week session.

He asks what I think.

I said, "I think you're not ready. You're going to take it and fail and then you'll be out the money. The developmental class is much better suited to what you need, more reading and writing, a slower pace, and an instructor with a background in your needs."

I could tell he was confused about what to do.

A day passed. Another day passed.

Yesterday I get his official drop.

Today, as I'm walking out to the parking lot, a colleague of mine who's teaching the same class as me this summer comes up and says, "Hey, Frankie. I got one of your students transferred over into my section. What's his deal?"


It's a case where the Frankie's student has done the right thing with the college. He's taken the courses they asked him to. He's passed them through some sort of effort. When he discovered that he was overmatched in the "regular" class he even agrees to go back to a developmental class for more help. But the college has failed him by setting him up to fail.

Frankie's student deserves better.


  1. Frankie and his student are facing a problem a lot of instructors see at my school. Students get passed by "someone," and the repercussions climb up the ladder or down, depending on your point of view.

    This is one of those issues where I think all instructors just have to take a stand.

    Maybe Frankie needs to go to the chair to find out why it happened with this student, and why it will surely happen again.

    1. I once had a student in a course who clearly should have been studying something else. Unfortunately, he didn't know when he was in over his head and that got me into a lot of trouble with the assistant department head.

      I was given to understand that I was required to get that student to pass because the ADH taught him the prerequisite and "got him through" it. I was, therefore, obligated to do likewise. Never mind the kid had no talent, didn't put in any effort, and expected the answers to be handed to him.

      I was eventually proven right because he failed both the final exam and the course. Apparently he failed several more and I never saw him again after that.

  2. This is definitely unfair, to the student, and to the instructors in non-ESL classes who aren't really trained to help him. It sounds like he needs a more intense, immersive English experience than the community college's developmental course (or his home environment) provides. Ideally, he'd enroll in the sort of intense language-development program that my university offers (not just a 3-credit course, but a number of them). Ideally, he'd also get out of his home environment (completely, or at least for more hours of the day) into an English-speaking one. But all of that would probably be expensive, perhaps more expensive than he or his family can afford. Alternatively, I'm thinking that even some fairly basic jobs (e.g. in a day care center or nursing home or kitchen, as long as most of the workers and clients *don't* speak his language) might provide such an experience. Given the time of year, he might be best off spending the summer working at a camp or daycare program that enrolls mostly English-speaking kids (but perhaps could use a translator for a few who are also working on their English).

    1. This would be ideal if one of those places would hire a non-native speaking student. We encounter this problem often with students who go through our sequence, the only one we offer, and still aren't prepared. No one wants to tell them: "Sorry, you haven't progressed far enough in a year." Moreover, as doesn't seem the case here, with an F1 visa, sometimes students cannot retake the same courses and have them count as part of their required full load. This student sounds like he's living in the US with his parents, so likely isn't on an F1 visa, which means he could audit or even sit in on another remedial course. Either way, a conversation with the people running the remedial courses needs to happen and a tutor found.

    2. Maybe he needs to do it the old-fashioned way: Watch a lot of American TV. And then practice on his own.

    3. That is, indeed, a time-honored method (though not without its dangers, given the range of American subcultures and dialects covered by reality shows these days. 'Twould be disturbing if he picked up the vocabulary and/or accents of, say, the casts of Jersey Shore and/or Honey Boo-Boo. I suppose one could recommend he watch the US Congress on CNN, but I'm not sure the result would be much better.)

      I suspect the real downside to this approach these days is the temptation to switch to a channel in his first language.

  3. I've seen this happen as well. It's often heartbreaking, and admini-drones never seem to take the professor's word for it.

    I KNOW when a student is in the wrong class. And as a simple proffie, I just want him/her to get in the right one. I'm not about laying blame or solving the institutional problem - I want that one thing to go right.

    Good luck, Frankie!

    1. I've had students who clearly should have been studying something else. Keeping them in my course or, for that matter, the department wasn't doing them any favours. It frustrated both them and me but the administrators disregarded my concerns, seeing the situation as failure on my part to properly teach those students.

  4. By passing Frankie's student, that ESL program has failed him. How many other alert, sad students struggling with English have met the same wall after "passing" the lower levels?

    I agree with the comments that the student immerse himself in English outside of the college, but also think that Frankie could channel his frustration and anger into following this up with the deans of counseling (Student Services?) and ESL (Humanities?) and their manager, the dean or VP of Instruction(?). A pithy, well-reasoned email explaining this case and asking a few pointed questions might get passed around quietly to the people in a position to beef up the rigor of the ESL program.

    I expect a chorus of "resistance is futile"-themed replies, but (at my college) some managers *are* passionate about students and the mission of CCs to provide educational opportunities to people who otherwise couldn't get into college. These managers, usually women in late middle age, have spent enough time in bullshit committees to know how to get things rolling behind the scenes.

  5. Frankie's student sounds like the one who flunked my final just today, except that mine is a mature head of household who has already earned an Associate's degree in his native country. The part that worries me is that "Emilio" is almost done with his new degree in -- get this -- AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL and yet cannot understand or participate in the most basic conversation in English.

    Emilio's difficulty was clear from the second day of class, when he turned in a gatekeeping assignment designed to identify situations like his. Throughout the semester he responded to prompts by selecting one of the Hamsterology vocabulary terms and defining it in nearly the exact wording of the textbook. Maybe that's how students pass in his native country, but it's not how to pass a science class here.

    Polite to the point of obsequious, he kept denying the need for any help and would not come in to office hours until he failed the second midterm. Then he showed me his Air Traffic Control program binder and an email reminding him to get his cap and gown, and pleaded with me to let him pass because this was the only class he needed to earn his degree. I confirmed that with a quick online check.

    Like many students, he needed one Life Science class and thought Hamsterology would be easier than General Biology. Also like many students, he had already attempted and failed Hamsterology. But unlike most students, he had failed to grasp a single concept from his previous attempt, probably because he just couldn't follow the lectures or textbook.

    Did I mention that this guy is getting an American certification in air traffic control? That he'll be partly responsible for lives of pilots and passengers and people on the ground? I'll grant that he may be proficient in the specialized jargon of that career. He probably can give memorized definitions of that lexicon quickly. And surely an Associate's degree isn't enough training to have responsibility in a control tower. Is it? IS IT?

    If Emilio, who seems bright enough, can't comprehend my slow questions about his background in a one-to-one conversation, clarified by drawings, how can he handle swift radio communication from multiple sources reliably?

    I'm not just concerned about the rigor of that program, I'm worried about *his* competence in particular. Both my husband and my best-colleague-friend say not to raise it, that it's out of my area and politically fraught (academic vs. vocational) to suggest that the flight department doesn't know what it's doing.

    But yikes.

    1. If that had happened in my former department, Emilio would have been allowed to graduate. The administrators would have justified it with: "After all, he's *so* close to finishing, isn't he?"

      The fact that doing something like that might affect the public welfare didn't seem to matter. It was more important that he finish, get a job, and help maintain the graduation statistics. Those statistics helped get the department "gravy" funding from the government and helped the department head in his campaign to get himself a deanship.

      If, on the other hand, he'd been in my course and failed, it would have been all my fault for not teaching him properly or motivating him to succeed or some such thing.

    2. Yet another reason I'm glad to be at my college and not at your former one. We don't get that BS, even from the athletics department. (In fact, our athletics department, which has a fantastic record of championships, makes athletes get grade checks throughout the semester and gives them a hard time if they slip below a C.)

  6. A couple years ago I had problems with students from the Middle East who barely spoke English. When I complained I found out that they'd take their English proficiency classes at a local CC, then transfer to our school. That loophole has since been closed. I still wonder why anybody would think they could take college classes in a language they didn't understand..

    1. "I still wonder why anybody would think they could take college classes in a language they didn't understand."

      Me too.

      I do admire the students who speak multiple languages passably well, since I can just get by in restaurants and on buses. Forget trying to understand directions. But a good college class challenges the language skills of *fluent* speakers and writers.

      As for transferring from a CC, that shouldn't have been a problem if the English proficiency program there was doing its job right. Which leads us back to Frankie's student.

  7. Having spoken to air traffic controllers in all parts of the US and a number of places not in the US, I'm remarkably comfortable with Emilio working the radios. The vocabulary required for exchange of information is incredibly small and the patterns of words are consistent. I have almost as much trouble understanding the tower controller in some little town in Texas as I do understanding Ankara Center.

    I'd rather encounter Emilio on the radio than at a hotel desk or a customer support help line.

    1. That's encouraging. I also have the impression that getting an air traffic control job isn't easy (an acquaintance -- actually, the son in law of an acquaintance -- waited for some time for an opening, and then, I believe, went through additional training/vetting before actually beginning the job. And he has a college degree, and English=L1 for him).

      It strikes me that another relevant question is whether the vocational degree in air traffic control really has any reasonable likelihood of leading to that job (even if it helps students fulfill at least some of the qualifications. I'm sure one could set up a "foreign service officer" program that prepared students to some degree for that test, but it's still a tough one, and there's a very competitive process of interviews and exercises that follows, as well as considerable vetting of the candidate's qualifications. While there might be some point to some sort of prep course for students who are otherwise qualified through more rigorous coursework and extracurricular experiences, such a program on its own would simply raise unrealistic hopes.)

      I sometimes wonder what some of our students with high hopes for prestigious, exciting jobs end up actually doing. Do the the criminology students who're hoping to be FBI agents (often not, in my experience, the brightest bulbs) end up as small-town (or big-city) cops, or TSA screeners, or prison guards? How many of our "pre-meds" actually go to medical school? (I'd ask how many of our aspiring sports/entertainment journalists/publicists actually get the glamorous jobs they imagine, but I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that one, though I'm not quite sure what they end up doing instead. Some sort of advertising/pr, I'd guess, but on a much smaller stage than they'd hoped for.)

    2. I agree that Alan's experience is encouraging. It's also heartening to think of qualifying exams and such (to link over to the discussion of the unqualified nursing student at the RYS flashback link).

      Cassandra, do you mean that pursuing an education and aspiring to a prestigious job can turn out badly? Are you suggesting that most students who hope to -- oh, say, become a professor -- don't actually get the intellectually rewarding jobs they imagine, but end up on a much smaller stage than they'd hoped for?

      Can you back that up with a citation? Web sites count.