Summer School Follies

First of all, I like summer school. Its compacted time frame forces it to be rigorous, disciplined, and serious. Tardies and absences get hammered pretty quickly, daily quizzes and grade updates keep the kids on top of their game, and the fact that they (or their parents) had to pay for it creates an immediate investment that improves their own efforts. These kids may have messed up, but their desperation now brings out the best in them.


However, this summer I’ve noticed that too many kids come into summer school in an entirely wrong state of mind.


And I don’t just mean the stoner who asked to go to the bathroom about an hour and a half into the first day of school, and who never came back.


One boy just this morning looked at his failing grades in my class and rattled off his list of excuses, clearly a well prepared and rehearsed litany that he’s used comfortably for years. I can only surmise that he started this class, as he may start all of his classes, intending to “see what happens,” and fall back on his excuses if and when he fails. I just can’t get people like this to be more proactive, to overcome the fatalism that got deeply instilled in them somewhere along the line.


In June, a girl with special ed problems gave me two papers that had been due the week before, both very poorly done, and without any discussion with me about it first. She wanted to know if it would bring up her grade. I was as polite as possible, but felt I had to be honest with her: I explained that two late assignments aren’t going to make much of a dent when you’re missing eighteen out of twenty five assignments.


The failure on many students’ part to picture where they are along that percentile continuum represents a failure to grasp basic math (in this case, that adding perhaps ten points to your existing forty points will not bring you to passing—at least 60%–when five hundred points have been possible).


That’s true at the opposite end of the spectrum as well. I’ve told a few students over the years that, as they would be going into my final exam with well over 90% for the semester and I only grade my exams as 10% of the final grade, they could conceivably skip the exam and suffer no harm—their A in the class was locked in. Even the brightest students are surprised to hear this. Rarely have I seen one who figured this out on their own.


Then, of course, there are those students who are by far the most baffling: those who come in with, obviously, no intention at all of doing any work, much less passing. They’ll put their heads down and sleep on the first day. They’ll keep coming to class even after countless gentle and not-so-gentle nudges from the teacher to get to work have proven futile, and their grade is well past the point of no return—the point at which it is no longer mathematically possible to get credit for the class, when the remaining points possible to be earned would not be enough to bring their total above even 60%.


What confuses me so much about these “students” is that they show up at all. If I knew that there was no chance that I’d be paid for a day of work, I wouldn’t come. Why do these kids come and sit through the boring drudgery of school (as they must see it), if they won’t be getting anything out of it? Couldn’t they be sleeping in, or at a friend’s house, if they’ve made up their mind not to work and pass? I figure they must either be going through the motions of showing up because their parents check up on them or (and this really saddens me) they’re either so clueless or spineless that they show up for lack of thinking of any alternative.


This isn’t to say that they’re all hopeless or thugs or dopeheads—far from it! (Although I did have one boy who got kicked out a few weeks ago and who, while leaving the room, stepped into me and knocked into me with his shoulder. Another disruptive student refused to go to the office until I called security to come escort her.) It would be easy to accept their failure if they were. That’s what makes rampant failure even more disheartening—the sure knowledge that it could be avoided. What is it that makes so many kids internalize apathy and even hostility to education? Even after a decade teaching, I feel totally powerless to change that worldview.


One other girl I worked with this summer also had major special ed needs. Why so many kids who couldn’t pass in a normal classroom environment over four months think they can do it with fewer resources and all packed into three weeks is beyond me, but this girl was so nice it was especially heartbreaking. She tried to do most every assignment, even when no amount of explanation or adaptation made any sense to her, and she never once got discouraged or had a bad attitude. Her optimism was pure. When I made a passing reference to UFC fights in a joke to the class, she passed me a note that said, “Dear Mr. Huston, I heard you say that you like UFC. I’ll be meeting some of them soon. Would you like me to get you an autograph?” She signed the note with her full name and underneath that, “from in your summer school English class.”


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