Students of the Week

Eleven days since my last post?  How can that be?  What did I do with eleven days?

Well, a quick glance at the calendar tells me I’ve done a lot with eleven days.  We spent three of those days traveling to see a grand baby.  Two days were spent hosting our daughter and her boyfriend for a quick visit.  And the rest of the days?  Well, friends, I’ve seen a lot of students.  Wanna meet some of them?

Let’s see, maybe we’ll start with the youngest.  About six weeks ago, a mother contacted me and asked if I would work with her two daughters on writing; they are in the the third and fifth grades.  I told the mother that I typically only work with older students — as in high school and college — but she persisted.  So, I met these two little Chinese girls who I could easily carry around in my pockets with me, and I fell in love.  They are precocious — the fifth grader’s writing is laced with sarcasm and hyperbole; the third grader is wise and obedient, wishing that all of her classmates would see the error of their ways and comply with her teacher’s wishes as she does.  We work on writing and grammar and I try to absorb some of the academic pressure that their hardworking parents are piling on top of them.

Next in terms of age is a student that I have had almost from the beginning.  She is a a seventh grader who works closer to eleventh grade level.  The pressure from her Indian immigrant parents to do better/work harder is palpable, but she is able to resiliently shrug off what she can’t carry.  She steps to her own beat.  She wants to please her parents, of course, but she also knows what she does and doesn’t like.  Our challenge this past week was ignoring her deep ‘need’ to change the wallpaper on her laptop so that we could work on test prep exercises.  Yes, the seventh grader in her shines through.

I have another sister pair.  They are the fifth grade and eighth grade daughters of  a Taiwanese mother and an American father.  They have lived in China, Chicago, and little old Northville, Michigan.  They are bilingual, as are many of my students.  They are also quite bright.  Their parents, like so many others I have met this year, want their children to succeed academically, which means they will need supplemental instruction in Standard English, not because they don’t speak it very clearly, but because their parents don’t consistently model Standard English structures.  This seemingly small factor, can impact standardized test scores and hinder clear written communication.

I know; I started by saying I don’t typically work with younger students, then I introduced you to five.

I’ve got a couple of high school boys that I see weekly — same scenario as above — bright guys with international parents who need additional work in English.  These boys are taking honors classes, playing sports, and participating in myriad other pursuits, then sitting with me for an hour doing test prep, writing essays, and talking about sentence construction.  I don’t think I had this kind of work ethic in high school!

I also have adults.  I must say I love my adults.

The first is a twenty-year old whose first language is Farsi and second language is English.  He has struggled his whole life with reading and comprehension, so we are meeting twice a week to work on these skills.  He hopes to be one day be successful in college.

Then there is the thirty year old Brazilian woman living in California.  She and I meet online once a week to improve her writing.  She already has an American MBA, but she wants to become a blogger to promote her startup and to discuss issues of marketing.  Yes, as you can see, all of my students are slackers.

My other thirty year old is from Romania.  After twelve years in the country, she decided to become a nurse.  We spent four months preparing her for the pre-nursing exam. She passed the test and was accepted into a program. She’ll start in January, so we are meeting weekly to continue to improve her English skills.

My personal favorite at the moment is a young woman from Saudi Arabia.  She is here on the government’s dime to get a degree in English literature so that she can return to her country and teach in a university.  She’s taking three graduate level classes — Romanticism, Literature of the Holocaust, and 21st Century African American literature.  She reads, thinks, and writes about these very different topics.  I get to talk her through some of her ideas and make sure that her writing reflects what she is thinking.

This week I will meet a Hispanic man who is about to graduate from the University of Michigan.  He needs some support preparing for the Michigan teacher certification test, you know, since English is his second language.

Guys, I get to do this.  Each week I get to sit across the table from (or in front of the screen with) a person who I never would have come into contact with if I didn’t have a degree in English, years of teaching experience, and an online profile.

I am learning from each of them, perhaps more than they are learning from me.

Just a part of my life in this next chapter — way more than I could have ever hoped for.

Ephesians 3:20-21

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Reviewing Observations

Last June I resigned my full-time teaching/school administrator position to relocate to Michigan from Missouri.  I did this because a) I love my husband; and  b) I have a life-style changing auto-immune disease. I took six months off from work and have been gradually introducing more and more work into my life since January. I’m almost a year into this grand experiment, and  I’m eady to review some of my observations.

After the initial dust settled from our cross-country move, I spent a significant amount of time on the couch watching Netflix, in my bed resting, at the gym exercising, and on my computer blogging.  I really needed that time to recover after over 20 years of parenting, schooling, and working at or above my human capacity.  It was lovely — I had time to make friends, I began to listen to my body, I reconnected with my love for writing. It was healing physically, yes, and also emotionally.  For the first time in twenty-two years, my husband and I were living alone, enjoying a slower pace, and sucking up every minute of it.

But, I couldn’t quite rest easily because I didn’t have any students in my life. I know, I know –over the past umpteen years I have fussed and fumed about the menagerie of kids that have sat across the table from me — they are egocentric, they don’t meet deadlines, and, indeed, they smell bad.  But, you know, I love them. I can’t seem to get enough of them.  Something magical exists within each of us — an innate ability to learn, to process, to interact and be changed — that will never cease to take my breath away.  I had to have students back in my life.

It started with just one guy — a graduate student who needed help on his dissertation.  What a joy that was!  I got to have a text-based conversation with him about educational practices and how they impact learning!  That taste just whetted my appetite, so I moved onto a retired writing instructor who had written a novel and just wanted a final proof for grammar and punctuation errors.  That led me to set up a profile on an online service connecting teachers with students for one-on-one assistance.  In six months I have logged over 120 hours with almost twenty different students ranging from sixth graders to graduate students.  I’ve worked on research papers, vocabulary lessons, dissertations, speeches, and test preparation.  Each lesson is different, each student a challenge.

So why didn’t I stop there?  While tutoring independently, I could still maintain my exercise regimen, still build friendships, still find time to rest.  Why did I have to push the limits and take on a job that will soon be at forty hours a week for the duration of the summer? Because I had to know. I had to know if I was imagining my limitations or if they were real.  Maybe I was just burnt out from teaching and sorely in need of a vacation.  Maybe I had imagined all my symptoms.  Surely I didn’t have that much pain, that much fatigue, that much stiffness.  How could a regular job be too difficult for me?

Because it is.  This week I worked thirty-two hours at the agency and an additional seven hours tutoring.  Not quite 40 hours, but it was a bit too much.  Yesterday, at the end of an eight-hour shift, I met some friends for drinks and dinner.  I called one of my friends by the wrong name — twice!  This is a friend I have known since the fall! I was mortified. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but I was home before nine and crawled straight into bed — no reading, no television, no nothing.  I was entirely depleted.

This morning I woke up crabbily.  I can feel the inflammation through my body like an electric current.  It is as if I am electric blanket that has been turned up to ‘high’ —   I can feel all the wires as they heat up.  My lips are dry and tingling. My back and hips ache.  My eyes are screaming, “If you think you are going to put those contacts in, think again!”

Yup, it’s too much.  And, just to be sure, I am going to push it a little further.  This week will be a little lighter because of a trip I am taking for the second half of the week, but then I am certain I will be working over forty hours a week for the duration of the summer.  Why don’t I just walk away now?  Because I know me.  If I walk away right now, I will rest up for a few weeks then start thinking that perhaps I was imagining my fatigue, maybe I didn’t really have all that pain, maybe my symptoms weren’t real.

Nope, I’m not going to walk away right now.  I am going to finish the experiment all the way to the end to be sure I come to all the right conclusions. My hypothesis is that I am going to be utterly exhausted and ready to slow back down, but I’ve got to complete this experiment to be sure.

Psalm 103:8

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Let me introduce you!

Wanna meet some of my kids?  Not my children. My students.  And, oh yeah, they aren’t all kids.

The first student I tutored here in Ann Arbor we’ll call Krista.  Her mom reached out to me around Christmas.  Krista is a freshman with ADHD.  For those of you who know freshmen, that last sentence is a little redundant.  Krista and I initially met to study for her first high school final exams, and we have continued to meet to study and to write papers.   In fact, we recently spent several hours writing an essay comparing loss in Maus  and Night. We followed her teacher’s rubric, we got her thesis approved, we outlined, drafted, revised, and edited.  Then came the email from her mother.  “Krista got a D on her paper.  Thoughts?”  D? Are you kidding me?  I am an experienced teacher, a former English department chair, a former curriculum coordinator!  I walked with her through that paper, holding her hand!  She got a D?! For a moment I thought I had lost Krista as a client.  For over a week her mother didn’t reply to my emails other than one-word responses.  I understood.  She had hired me to help her child do better in English, not to help her earn a D!!  Yesterday, finally, she reached out and asked if I could help Krista with her next paper.  I was so relieved to get another chance!

About a month ago I was sitting on my couch in the evening when I received a tutoring request that went something like this, “I am a high school freshman.  I could use help in my English class.  Would you be willing to work with me.”  A freshman?  Sending his own email? Asking for help? We exchanged a half dozen emails and I met him that weekend.  He is the son of parents who immigrated from India.  In fact, last year, they went back to India for a year so that Saj (fictional name) could study there and experience the culture.  He is very bright.  Our first assignment was preparing a recitation and analytical speech about Oedipus.  We worked for a couple hours on this project –first planning, then writing and practicing.  Yesterday we spent an hour getting familiar with the new PSAT and SAT since Michigan just adopted these assessments after years of using the ACT.  He asked me for homework so that he can practice before I see him next week.

About six weeks ago a mother contacted me.  Her daughter is only in sixth grade, but she is very advanced and has always had an English tutor.  Would I be willing to write a curriculum for her — reading comprehension, writing, analysis, vocabulary, and grammar?  Well, sixth grade is a little young for me, and I would have to drive about twenty minutes to get to this student, but I agreed.  Again, she is Indian.  Her parents are highly educated, as are Saj’s.  And, I will admit, this girl is indeed, ‘very advanced’.  I show up every week with comprehension questions on the book we are reading together, The Book Thief.  I also give her questions about literary elements — irony, symbol, metaphor, narration, characterization.  I keep trying to find something she can’t answer.  I have not yet succeeded.  I’m not sure what she will study in high school — I’m using up all of my material!

I also have a couple adult students.  First is Cherise.  She is an RN who is studying to become an Advanced Practice Nurse.  She works in a pediatric clinic in Ypsilanti and is hoping to be the lead practitioner when her supervisor retires.  She has files of knowledge on nursing, but her writing skills are limited.  I wish I could videotape our sessions — she spends time explaining medical terminology to me; I spend time explaining sentence structure to her.  We are two middle aged women leaning over documents making a way to convey meaning.  She’s a quick study.  I show her parallel structure one time, she points it out in the next sentence.  I remind her that academic writing is in third person, she locates the personal pronouns she needs to delete.

My other adult is Carla.  She dropped out of high school to have a baby fourteen years ago.  She works in purchasing for a manufacturing plant in the area, but she wants a career change.  She wants to work in the criminal justice field.  A community college admitted her and she is taking a composition course online.  But she’s never written a paper before! We met to discuss her first paper, walking through sentence by sentence until she was comfortable with it.  We also discussed her next assignment — a research paper.  She lives thirty miles away, so we have only met once, but she emails me her documents and I make comments and ask questions in the margins.  I coach her — you need more research, make sure you are including your opinion, don’t forget to document your quotes.  She’s doing all this work in the evenings after working all day and while parenting a teenager.

And that’s not all.  There’s  a brother and sister I meet with weekly, a couple of students I met with just a couple of times each to do test prep, and twin sisters that I assisted with a huge research paper.  They contact me online, I meet them in libraries or at their homes.  For a moment or a season we are connected for a purpose.  Sometimes I think I am helping them, most of the time I think they are helping me.

That’s the kind of work I like to do — the kind where I feel privileged to show up and blessed when I leave.  May you have that kind of work to do, too.

Psalm 90:17

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;

establish the work of our hands for us —  yes, establish the work of our hands.