> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: Unteachable Moments

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Unteachable Moments

Do you recognize this student profile? Terry is a bright student who can do fairly well without trying. As you get to know them in class they impress you with their quick answers and pleasant nature. They submit most work on time and a superficial read of their work suggests that they are a competent writer navigating the questions with ease. Take their first big assignment, a critical essay on a poem. No obvious spelling or grammar mistakes to pounce on. No comma splices or misplaced modifiers. Plenty of nicely placed quotes. A varied vocabulary. MLA rules applied.

Dig deeper and you quite quickly hit the bottom. Their arguments are weak and you find yourself disappointed by the consistent failure to follow through on any promising lines of enquiry. They repeat themselves throughout their paper.

So… you speak to this student who comes to you angry that they have not achieved full marks. They look at you blankly when you try to point out the weaknesses in their work. They don’t understand. They did everything they usually do with other teachers. They haven’t made any errors have they?

You try to explain about the lack of depth. Eventually they admit what you have known all along. They haven’t thought about the question much at all. They didn’t know that you 'wanted them to come up with their own ideas'. But now they are mad at you. This is your fault. You are not very clear. You didn’t explain what was required. You hadn’t told them all of the things they were supposed to put in this paper. They reference the paper of another student who made ‘tons more mistakes’ in his grammar, but got the same grade. You don’t like them, they hint strongly. All their previous English teachers gave them higher marks. You try to explain that it is not to do with ‘liking them’. For what it’s worth you do like them but you want them to do better. They are slightly mollified. They promise to try harder on their next paper.

They hand the new paper in with a smile. They expect it to be an A they say confidently. Later you read over their paper and your heart sinks. It is no different than the paper they previously submitted.

When you return the paper, you include a detailed explanation of what they did well and how they could improve. They view it with a cold disdain. As they leave your classroom you hear their comment to another student. ‘She hates me.’

In the five minutes before your next class you ponder this remark. You know you don’t hate this student. Nothing would make you happier than to see them improve.

So what do you do next?


sue said...

Hello there
In primary I would find a pupil with a good example and encourage the child to read it and point out themselves in what way it was different/better than their example. We also share the marking criteria and use a checklist linked to the criteria.I don't know if this would transfer to older students but I don't see why not.
I hope you you are still enjoying the USA. Your old house in Drummore is up for sale again although you might not fancy coming back again. Sometimes I think students/pupils are the same the world over but I only have a limited experience of french schools to draw on. Anyway don't be despondent you are inspiring many I think.
Kind regards
sue (nae view)

Jemma said...

I'm no teacher but what about using peer-evaluation? Maybe allowing some of his classmates to read through his work (and his theirs) so that hopefully they will point out the same things as you have done?

The "she hates me" line sounds like he's making excuses because he doesn't really want to have to work to make it right- despite your help. I think Sue's idea sounds like a pretty effective way of helping to solve this. :)

Mrs. O'Neill's Blog said...

thanks for your comments! I do miss Drummore.

Jemma - thanks -things are improving with this student too!

Mitch Weisburgh said...

Two things that sometimes work are the writing workshop and having students work together. You can see more about these at

Also, if you have any techniques that you want to share, we'd love to have you write a short piece on The Writing Teacher.

Mrs. O'Neill's Blog said...

Thanks Mitch,
will have a look at the website!