education · teaching · writing

The Subject-Verb Disagreement

They can’t write.

This symptom manifests itself in different variations at the university tutoring center where I spend my afternoons. I tutor mostly freshmen and the rare upperclassmen in writing. As the high school teacher made famous for packing on the writing assignments, students and teachers alike complimented my relentless drive to ensure that my students could write.

It sounds easy enough. How hard is it to write a cause and effect essay? Or to write an essay comparing literature? Or to answer an essay question of mild complexity? The assignments aren’t that difficult but the students I tutor aren’t just struggling, they’re drowning.

I have to fill out a sheet for every student I tutor that lists what we worked on together. Today, after four one-hour sessions with four different students (three of which were working on the same assignment), I realized that the writing was getting worst. And sadly, each student was left wanting more after our one-hour session was cut short by the next student.

They can’t write essays. They can’t write paragraphs. They have trouble with topic sentences and struggle over summary sentences. They do away with conclusions. They don’t know how to use MLA or APA citations. They’ve never heard of a in-text citation or a preposition. The classic five-paragraph essay model has them stumped. College writing has made them feeling utterly inept and lost.

I spend a great deal of time writing (with my little arthritic fingers) out explanations. This is the recipe for a paragraph. This is the recipe for a conclusion. This is what an introduction should look like. Citing evidence shouldn’t turn into a rant. And if they spend the five minutes to plan an essay, I promise them that I won’t have to spend one minute using my red pen to cross out most of what they managed to cobble together.

My first paper in college came back to me with a big fat, red C+ at the top. I was horrified. How had I gone from straight-As in English to being an “average” writer. I hadn’t gone anywhere. I was still the same straight-A student from high school but I wasn’t prepared for college. In my high school, grade inflation was what happened when a student like me got an instant-A for an assignment because the teacher had to worry about the the students that couldn’t write at all, not the students who just couldn’t write well.

When I taught eleventh grade, my husband looked at some of the writing. This is fifth grade work, he said ,of a good deal of the essays. I didn’t disagree. In eleventh grade, I was teaching my students writing tools they should have learned in elementary school. I thought that my students were an anamoly, though. After years of poor writing education, the system had failed them, me and maybe a few others. I mean, it couldn’t be failing everyone, could it?

No Child Left Behind, the thorn in every teacher and administrator’s side, is supposed to be catching students before they fall. It’s supposed to ensure that everyone’s on the same page. And everyone is, but at the top of the page, there’s a big red F.

Students from different backgrounds–public school, private school, parochial school, rich and poor alike–are suffering. They’re getting their high school education in college after getting their junior high school education in the halls of their high schools. And when they can’t keep up, they’re dropping out or being kicked out of colleges that don’t have the time to make up for students that have been left behind.

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