Ostrich students

(Photo from http://quotesgram.com/ostriches-quotes/)
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I don’t really know much about ostriches apart from the fact that they run really fast and they bury their small heads in the sand. I don’t even know if these are facts or myths but I know that every time I chase a non-attender, – as I call them now, we used to say ghost students before- the image of the ostrich comes to my head.

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Our university year has 24 teaching weeks with a huge Christmas break in the middle; and well not really because as we aren’t allowed to schedule continuous assessment assignments outside of teaching term, the 24 weeks are never a full 24, that and public holidays. What I’m getting at is that if you take into consideration these figures, by the time you dig your own head out of the sand, the year is over and you FAIL.

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The horror.

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I’ve said the F word.
Why am I writing like this today? Well because I’m back from maternity leave and student engagement on our first year courses has not improved, it’s actually worsened. The change from four arts subjects to three hasn’t changed the situation.  Even though, it’s not easy to discern if it’s the cause of the disheartening lack of attendance, the bold levels of plagiarism in the form of google translate copy paste and the sheer lack of language learning skills in general.

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I was going up to my office in the lift and three of my colleagues were blaming our entry points which have plummeted to bottomless pits in the last few years. I’m not sure that’s the problem either: the points I mean. I’m sure though that there’s a curricular issue and an assessment issue, stemming from secondary into college. For instance, another colleague of mine complained in the same lift – our wall of sorrows? – that he had to waste 20 minutes trying to explain why ‘we’ isn’t a verb. I can’t avoid feeling shaky to the core when I hear things like this. Basic knowledge isn’t basic any more. And differences from country to country are abysmal. Wasn’t Bologna supposed to smooth this issue? Will we ever work together with the secondary curriculum emperors to ease the transition into the university world? Or are leaving certificate papers continue condemning our students to the stereotype of repetitive parrots or paraphrasing masters?

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Twice or three times I’ve flown home with a Spanish teenager who is doing leaving cert here because “it’s easier than passing it at home and on top of that I learn English”. Spanish secondary schools rank quite low in European standards and when I had them here as Erasmus students, their background knowledge and participation and engagement in class was wider and deeper than their Irish peers. There are many questions that I’m sure they would be as equally uninformed but only a school dropout would hesitate in terms of the difference between a subject pronoun and a verb. Yes, we learn grammar, lots of it, of our own language. It does not make us better at language learning but it helps us understand how we speak and why we do it the way we do it and we do sentence analysis which teaches us how words are pieces together in our language, analytical skills I guess.

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But I don’t want this blog post to turn into a them and us kinda battle. I started writing because I’m deeply worried about two things:

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– the fear of students that disengage to come back and face the consequences and remedy the situation;

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– the lack of expectations that we (teachers, parents, institutions) have of them.

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So first, yes. I spent six weeks finding a bedroom, meeting new people, going to their parties and therefore hangover. I’ve no money for books. The wifi is not working at home and my laptop is not the fastest and by the time I open blackboard there are a million handouts and I don’t know where to start. Every time I go to class, where I know no one yet; everybody seems to know what’s going on and if I’m lost the teacher will point out that I was supposed to come prepared to class so why bother.

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This is the scenario. If I walk in their shoes, I understand. I don’t sympathise though. College is NOT supposed to be fun like social night life is. It’s supposed to be fun because you love learning and you choose what to learn. I went to college and I had fun both ways in and out of the college. I disengaged from some courses that I didn’t like. But I was prepared to pay for it and I did, repeat fees. And summer study and grinds and the time I hadn’t spent on the course before even if it was just to scrape a pass. What annoys me as a boring adult teacher is the sorryyyyy and it won’t happen again kinda email. I feel like screaming in email capitals. I don’t care. It’s your life. You can spend it in the night club for all I care but in terms of my course, your grade is still a fail, which by the way, doesn’t mean I have something against you, or that you are dumb, or that you are a failure. It simply means you have to try again because you haven’t achieved the outcomes that we expected you to, oh yeah, outcomes which are challenging. They are challenging because you are clever. Yes, you are. You are in college. You got here. Think about all those others who didn’t for one reason or another. You are here and if you want to be here, you will use that intelligence to pass my course, instead of to find an excuse of how to convince me to pass you without doing the work.

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I’m not saying there are courses in first year college that you can pass without much study, in terms of hours and effort and frustration. Language tends to need all that. Languages are not for the faint hearted.

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So my dear ostrich, let’s be friends and I’ll help you take your head out of the sand, if you are ready to do what it takes. As a first year coordinator, I can sit down with you and plan your study, even if it is for August.

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How many would you think take the offer? Not even a dozen, out of hundreds. They still rely on divine providence to come and rescue them on an examination board – and believe or not, the magic of the race for student numbers may just be the forgiving omnipotent god they need.

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On the other hand is the issue of expectations. Every time I hear someone say along the lines of “oh don’t do that to them, those concepts are too hard”, I think “how offensive!”  Have we really lost all faith of the intelligence of our students? I enjoyed the days in which my students challenged me with questions I had to spend hours trying to explain to myself before giving them a class on them. It took me three years to device better explanations or the terrifying subjunctive. I got there because the Canadian students that I taught before would not take “I’m not sure it just works that way for an answer”. Bless them. They kept my teaching muscles well exercised with their inquisitive nature.

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And even though it is not in the Irish nature to push a teacher for answers, I solemnly refuse to believe that any concept is too hard for my students. Less or more hard working, less or more creative, less or more critical, all my students are intelligent individuals and therefore there isn’t a concept that is too hard for them. A concept will only be as hard as my ability to explain it and exemplify it is. And there are two things I’m confident of their intelligence and my teaching abilities. Now what to do? What to do?

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The issue is closer to the bone now because I’m terrified of sending my daughter into a school system that believes she’s not intelligent enough to outwit us all and that will not teach her how to pick up from her own mistakes and deal with the consequences of her own actions. Those consequences may be failing a course, yes. I learnt heaps from failing my leaving cert year. It was choice. I wanted to do drama instead of honours biology, physics and maths. The following year I was ready to tackle them. And I did. And it’s one of the things that I felt more proud about: how I picked up the books that second year and learnt and found ways to understand those difficult calculus buggers to understand Newton and Kepler and all of them.

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I don’t know any more though. Sometimes I do wonder if I haven’t started to sound like my parents as I enter my forties. Maybe I’m just another old teacher fart with old fashioned ideas.

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Out with the old, and in with the new.  Sarcasm is not the best way to welcome spring.

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