Saturday, June 07, 2008

Excuses that don't work

One of my students gave me two wonderful moments today. Depressing, but wonderful. Moments that made me want to laugh, cry, and scream, all at the same time.

He arrived at class on time (for a change) to fail yet another five question test I had given the answers for the week before. After the test, I announced that I would collect homework. This caused a general panic, but when I got to him, he told me, smugly,

"I was absent last week."

(Why do students think that being absent releases them from the requirement that they do homework?)

"Don't worry," I said kindly. "There was no homework last week. This is the homework I gave you two weeks ago."

He jumped. Then he clutched at his textbook and turned to the student beside him.

"What homework?" he whispered, urgently.

A piece of paper fell out of his textbook, and I picked it up and handed it to him. It was the homework assignment I'd given him two weeks ago, with the due date written at the top in his own handwriting. He had not even started it.

That was the first wonderful and depressing moment that student gave me today.

I wish I could say he is unusual, but unfortunately he is not. In that class of thirty students, three students had remembered the homework.

(Not all my classes are like this. It is just that one department at one university. The other departments are not great, but at least it's generally a minority of students who do not hand in homework on time. I wish I did not have to end the week with these particular classes, feeling like a total failure as a teacher.)

At the end of class, the same student stayed behind and wanted to know what the numbers were that I had written on the back of his name card. Because he was absent last week he had missed my explanation.

I told him that the 4/34 meant that he had so far managed to score a total of four points out of thirty-four on the tests.

He stared at the card. He also stared at the dates that were written there with numbers beside them. The numbers represented how late he had come to each class, and were mostly 15, 20, or 35. He did not ask me what they meant. He already knows, because every time he comes late I check the time and write the number of minutes before handing him the card, so he knows that particular routine. He is one of the few students in those classes who is failing the tests because he doesn't arrive in time for them. (Most of the others are failing the tests because they think that being there for them is enough, and that remembering the answers I gave them the week before is unnecessarily hard work.)

He then asked me how much of the final grade the tests were worth. (He asked all his questions in Japanese, and I answered them all in English.) I told him that the information was written on the handout I had given everybody on the first day of class.

He told me, somewhat triumphantly, that he had lost the handout. Instantly, I gave him another one. I have learned to keep a supply handy.

"Please read it," I said, and added, optimistically, "Again."

I always give the students ten minutes to read the handout on the first day, and they always gaze obediently at it, but I have always wondered whether they are actually reading it.

He stared at the handout for a few minutes, frowning, as I packed up my things. Then, when he saw that I was about to leave, he looked at me and made his second mistake of the day. He whined (in Japanese),

"But I can't understand English." He waved the handout at me. It was clear that I was supposed to accept that his not understanding the handout was a valid reason for failing tests. How was he supposed to know what was important if he couldn't understand the course information? How unreasonable!

"Are you sure?" I asked. "Did you REALLY TRY?" I am afraid I may have injected a little sarcasm into my voice as I heaved my bag over my shoulder, and I think he noticed.

"Yes!" he said, indignantly. "I just can't understand this! I don't know what it says! How was I supposed to know about the tests?"

"Why don't you try again?" I suggested, and when he opened his mouth to protest I started to walk past him to leave the room. But then I stopped to look him right in the eye and add, quietly,

"And this time, try HARDER. It's written in Japanese."

And that was the second wonderful and depressing moment that student gave me today.


fallensnow said...

The second excuse was hilarious! He might say that he can't read japanese next.. lol~

Hebron said...

You, my dear, are a saint.
I would have harsh words for him at best!
This is why I am not a teacher. Short fuse, tendency to resort to violence.

I think the kid needs help. Who spends so much time coming up with flimsy excuses that their own senses fail them? Seriously? Couldn't read it while thinking of something?
Sheesh. Its kinda like me coming in and saying "Oh, I'm sorry teach. I couldn't hand in the assignment because I don't have fingers. I lost them. In 'Nam."

Keera Ann Fox said...