The single most memorable line we read this year came from an essay by Carolina Sosa, who lives in Centreville, Va., and will attend Georgetown University. In writing about her father’s search for a job, she described the man named Dave who turned him away.
“Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it’s almost impossible,” she wrote. “Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother’s grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family.”
Vanessa J. Krebs, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, who reads about 1,400 essays year, told me that when she first received my interview request, the phrase “the Daves” immediately jumped out of her memory bank.
Though Ms. Sosa might easily have become embittered by her encounters with the Daves, Ms. Krebs said that she was moved by the fact that the essay concluded with the desire to pursue a career in public service, even if she wasn’t exactly sure where that desire would take her.
“This is a starting point, and she is still figuring that out,” Ms. Krebs said. “A lot of people think they need to have all the answers already. Or they feel like they do have it all figured out.”
Other memorable moments emerged in an essay by Martina Piñeiros, a Chicago resident who will be attending Northwestern University.
“Fatigue and two jobs had ruined who both my parents used to be, and I began to value the little time I had with my mother more than ever before,” she wrote. “This little time could not make up for the time I spent alone, however, nor could it assuage the envy I had of the little girl my mother looked after. She, though not my mother’s daughter, had the privilege of having my mother and her delicious cooking all to herself; I would always get the leftovers. She also had the privilege of having my mother pin her silky blonde hair into a pretty bun before ballet classes while my dad wrestled with the hairbrush to pull my thick brown hair into two lopsided ponytails before dropping me off at the bus stop. But I couldn’t blame the girl for depriving me of my mother; her parents had also been consumed by their jobs.”
It is rare that any teenagers write well about what it is like to have more money than average. Most don’t even try, for fear of being marked as privileged in a world where some people resent those who have it or are clueless about it. Yorana Wu, who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., and will attend the University of Chicago, wrote about her father, who spends much of the year in China, where he opened a canned fruit factory when Ms. Wu was 8 years old.
“That was the first year a seat at the dinner table remained empty and a car in the garage sat untouched,” she wrote. “Every dollar comes at the expense of his physical distance.”
While she has her tennis and music lessons (and expresses mixed feelings about the affluence that allows for them), she speaks to him in five-minute phone segments when he is away.
“He is living the American dream by working elsewhere,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims, my fellow reader, observed. “There is a cost to this choice.”
We published a pair of essays about what it means to navigate two worlds simultaneously. One, by Annabel La Riva, who is also the subject of a video feature, discusses the distance (in more ways than one) between her Brooklyn home and her Manhattan church choir, where her love for singing began.
In another, Jon Carlo Dominguez of North Bergen, N.J., discusses his choice to turn right out his front door, toward the prep school he attends, instead of left, toward his neighborhood school. When the two schools meet on the football field, he writes, some of his classmates shout, “That’s all right, that’s O.K., you’ll be working for us someday.” His response is to tutor his local friends with his used test-preparation books, share guides to lucid dreaming and pass on tips he learned from Dale Carnegie.
“Every single day he is making a choice, and he is conscious of the costs and the benefits on both sides,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “The way that he addresses it is beautiful. He’s trying to bridge that world and be that bridge.”
One of the 10 or so essays that Mr. Lanser, the associate dean of admission for Wesleyan, read about work this year was set at a Domino’s Pizza store in Forestdale, Ala. Adriane Tharp, who will attend the university in the fall, is the author, and her rendering of the lineup of fellow misfits who were her colleagues there is something to behold.
There is the pizza maker from Pakistan who looks like Bob Dylan and sings folk songs from his homeland; the part-time preacher who also delivers pies; and Richard, the walking “Star Wars” encyclopedia. One woman has worked for pizzerias for over 25 years and is about to apply to college.
“The point of the essay is not to tell us that she needs work or doesn’t,” Mr. Lanser said. “What she wants us to learn from this is that she is able to embrace difference and learn quite a bit from those differences.”
I offered him the opportunity to disabuse overeager parents of the notion that admissions officers at competitive colleges devalue work experience, and he laughed. “We think there are valuable life skills and people skills to be gained in the workplace,” he said, adding that he personally believes that everyone should work in the service industry at some point in their lives.
Rob Henderson’s service was to his country, and his essay was ultimately about what the United States Air Force did for him.
Of his time as a foster child, he wrote, “I was compelled to develop social skills to receive care from distracted foster parents.” He was finally adopted, but his parents quickly divorced (the adoption came up in arguments before his father cut off ties) and eventually found stability with his mother and her partner, at least until her partner was shot. An insurance settlement led to a home purchase, which ended in foreclosure.
After high school, he enlisted. Eight years later, he’s still deciding where he’ll attend college in the fall. “I’ve accomplished much over the last seven years because the Air Force provides an organized setting that contrasts with the chaos of my upbringing,” he wrote.
Ms. Lythcott-Haims felt herself rooting for him, and she added that his essay was a good reminder that the United States military is a beacon for many young adults, even with the high risks that may come with their service. “This is one way you make a life in America,” she said. “It’s more common than we realize. And he is self-made.”Continue reading the main story
The deadline for a project or paper is fast approaching and as we wait eagerly for our inboxes to fill, we are hopefully optimist that those one or two students who don't turn work in on time chronically will get it right THIS time.
After all, I had a conference or two with the child and we made a time management strategy and I may have even spoken to his/her parents already.
Then finally, the day is here...
32 out of 34 submitted. Sigh.
So what do we do now?
My old inclination would have been to dock the students points for every day the paper or project was late resulting in a zero at some point. Or the zero would be issued in the grade book until the work was submitted, (you know as a motivating carrot to force them to do the work). If work was submitted too late, the zero was never removed. (Which creates all kinds of other issues with averages and the like).
Both of these older methods of punishing students for their late work were never very successful and ultimately only created a discrepancy in communicating mastery. After all, some of my brightest students were the ones that didn't do the work.
"Why?" I keep asking myself. Is it my work? Is it the expectation? What?
Over time, I've realized that there must be something bigger at work here. For example, I have one very bright student in my AP literature class who can't meet deadlines but when he turns the work in, it is brilliantly written. I spoke with he and his mother on portfolio night and the way I chose to frame it was to call him deliberate, not slow which is the word his mom used at first. Slow has a negative connotation where deliberate sounds more intentional and could be positive. After all, if more of my students were deliberate there would be less carelessness committed.
But there is more to the story. As I've gotten to know the student, he is deathly afraid of not turning something in that is perfect. He toils over words: the way they are put together, the specific diction of his choices and then the depth in which they convey meaning. Ultimately, he is doing exactly what I want him to be doing, it just takes him longer than other students.
As I have moved away from grades, one things I've noticed is that learning takes time and for different children, it takes different amounts of time. Doesn't mean they aren't learning. Doesn't even mean they are purposely not working. It just means they have a different process. Students like this require more time and there is no reason not to give it to them. The goal is by the end of the year that he will have achieved mastery in the skills and standards of the class. Not necessarily right now when the teacher determines it should be ready.
Of course there are other kids who will directly tell you they are "lazy" or that they just didn't feel like doing something. I've spoken at length to a few of my students like this and we've tried to work around. Some are afraid to look stupid. Some don't see the value. Some just can't get organized. It's our job to first figure out what we're dealing with, dig deeper.
So here are some ways to deal with the late work conundrum:
- Evaluate the situation. Is the student a chronic situation or is this one time thing? Because the answer to this question really will determine where you go next. If the student is going through something right now that you may not be aware of, make sure to talk to the student before you start making accusations.
- Evaluate the quality of the work assigned. I know teachers don't like to think that what they are doing can be part of the problem, but perhaps there's just too much or it isn't worth the time. Sometimes, we can do more quality than quantity and the students get more out of it. Either way, there are solutions that can help every student be successful. Know what and why you are assigning work and be flexible with some students.
- Don't think in terms of fairness. Justice isn't a part of mastery. Every child needs something different to be successful and we need to provide each child with what he or she needs to find achievement. It's called differentiation.
- It's important to teach students about deadlines and being responsible but at what expense? We can teach these lessons in a multitude of ways. We shouldn't punish students or penalize them if it takes them longer. We need to work with them to find out why and then help them make a plan to correct it.
- Some students are extremely disorganized and what we need to do it teach them to manage their time better. Perhaps asking them to check in weekly for a while can be one way to ensure they are staying on track. One student this year, who has had a track record of not doing work has turned it around because I took the time to call him in, tell him I noticed and then recommend that we make a weekly date to check in. It wasn't a punishment but rather an accountability check in. He just had to stop by to tell me what he was working on and if he felt inclined to ask for help, he knew it would be there.
- Do NOT give zeros or take points off when students don't do work. This will put them in a hole that will ultimately make things worse, not better. What does it really prove to give a zero anyway? (As a recovering penalizer, I can empathize, but we need to let this control go.)
- Offer multiple opportunities for success. Students may just need a little push and a teacher who believes in them. Sometimes a negotiation is in order. We do what we have to do.
At the root of every challenge we face with students of all ages is a story. Our job as teachers to figure out what the story is. Some students will be an open book and others we will need to be detectives to figure stuff out. Don't give up on the kids. Giving a zero is giving up and almost expecting them to do the same.
Late work is always symptomatic of something bigger. So let's fix the bigger problem and cut it off before it ruins students' experiences in school and in life to the point where they start labeling themselves in negative ways.
How can we work with students and their families to ensure learning is happening at a pace that is conducive to optimal success? Please share