Saturday, 6 August 2011

Composition From Hell

A few days ago I brought home a large number of student essays on traumatizing past experiences. I finished marking almost all of them except for Student X's.

In many ways, Student X is a model student. She's a sweet girl: bubbly, conscientious, friendly, and hard-working. If I had a whole class full of Student Xs, I would consider myself very lucky -- except for one thing. Student X is a God-awful writer.

There's really no excuse for it. I went over the procedure in class, in great detail. We did a similar writing activity together and I talked everybody through every single step. Moreover, I made sure they had a model they could follow when they wrote their own compositions. I told them not to worry about plagiarizing just this once, that I wanted them to follow the sample text, subsitituting their own experiences in certain key areas. This may not be a brilliant way to learn how to write, but these students still struggle with grammar -- and it's the way I learned how to write Japanese when I was at their stage.

As luck would have it, when I opened my folder of papers, the first composition I saw was Student X's. It was so bad, my head swam. Forget a topic sentence (which she most certainly had), there was no opening paragraph -- in fact, there were no paragraphs at all. Student X had not double-spaced, she had not used her dictionary to check spellings or her grammar book to check irregular past tenses. She had ruled her own paper, in pencil, and she had written her composition in pencil too -- a pencil which she hadn't bothered to keep sharp. And she must not have had an eraser either: she'd scribbled out her changes. Messily. If you took Faulkner, gave him a pencil, and turned him into a low-level EFL student, you'd have what Student X turned in: long, surreal run-on sentences, bewildering turns of phrase, words whose meanings I could only guess at.

I felt like crying, but I went and read a book instead. Later, I opened up my notebook again, putting Student X's paper on the bottom of the pile. I worked through the entire pile, vastly relieved to find that the rest of the class had gotten the idea and more or less followed my instructions. There were misspellings, of course, subject-verb disagreement, and problems with tenses, word forms, etc., but nothing was as bad as Student X's and I was able to work through the lot. The next day I gave the corrected compositions back to my students. I told Student X that I would soon have hers finished. I explained that she hadn't double-spaced and that I was having difficulty reading her writing.

This morning, I took another look at Student X's composition. It was worse, if anything, than I remembered it. I went outside and mowed the lawn. I trimmed the hedge behind our house and weeded the vegetable beds.

Then I went back into the house and took another look at Student X's composition. It was still horrible.

So I swept under the bed. I put flowers in the bathrooms. I put away the dishes, wiped the crumbs off the counter, and fed the cats again. I translated two paragraphs of the book I'm working on and edited another paragraph of my partner's translations. I read another book. I cleaned the grass out of the lawn mower, scoured the bottom of a copper kettle, and tidied the pile of laundry in our room.

Then I took a deep breath, went back to my pile of papers -- and marked the first ten lines of Student X's so-called composition. In ten lines, there were 33 mispellings, six subject-verb disagreements, and I stopped counting the problems after that because it was too depressing. I could barely understand anything other than the fact that there had been a fire (blasing enfierno?) in her aunt's house. The only thing I didn't have to correct much of was punctuation as she'd used hardly any.

I can't do any more. On Monday, I will have to hand this back to Student X and tell her to try again, in pen, double-spaced, on proper notebook paper, with her dictionary open in front of her. I will say this kindly, but I will be firm.

At least my house is tidy, and I'm caught up on my translating. And if I ever take another Japanese composition class, I've got my traumatic experience all picked out.


Charles Gramlich said...

Making her rewrite it sounds like a blessing for you both. Wow. I've seen bad but that seems really out there.

meredith said...

I've had some pretty bad tranlations I've had to do but her paper sounds even harder to try and figure out.

MG Higgins said...

I think giving her a few corrections and asking for a rewrite is absolutely the way to go. Since you said she's a conscientious student, the second effort should be much better. Unless, of course, you need to get more chores done, in which case we'll hope for another disaster. :)

Postman said...

Ugh. This reminds me way too much of correcting my Korean students' weekly journals. I used to do the same thing, stick the rotten ones on the bottom of the pile and deal with the good kids' first to put me in a good mood. Possibly I'd slide home and have lunch before I went back and tackled the ugly stuff.

Let us know how the second draft goes, eh?

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- It won't be a blessing for her, but who cares? The feeling of sweet relief I got putting her paper away was like mainlining the hard stuff.

Meredith -- I've had those surreal translations too, where I wonder if the author has fully mastered her own language or I'm having a premature senior moment. But this composition -- gah!

MG -- Student X pays careful attention in class, doesn't even touch her cell phone, and participates in class discussions. But as soon as she picks up a pen -- or a pencil, rather -- her Mr. Hyde side comes out. And she's got to learn or there will be no rest for me. There's a limit to how much housework I can do in one day.

Postman -- You wonder just how much work the awful writers have put in. I have this theory that they're like some of the people we meet who think a writer's life is a lark -- they genuinely don't realize how much effort it takes to write something. They expect to be able to knock off a composition in 15 minutes. I have a feeling I'll be seeing fifth drafts of this one.

Falak said...

Looking at the bright side of things you at least got a lot of other work done :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
veach glines said...

I would LOVE to see this affront to learning to write. Sounds so bad it could be hilarious. Any way you could scan it and post it as if it were a photo?

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- You're right, that's definitely a silver lining. Every time I get a particularly dense piece of writing to edit, I generally get a lot of cooking and cleaning done.

Veach -- When I wrote this post, I was tempted to reproduce some of Student X's choicest sentences verbatim. When I was teaching in Cyprus, I could get away with posting the students' actual errors: the worst writing offenders in my classes didn't go near anything printed in English. I'm shy about doing this now, because these students are a different bunch: they're all fairly conscientious; if one of them found her work online, she'd be devastated. In a few months' time, though, I'll come back and deliver the goods. Promise.

Lisa Shafer said...

"If you took Faulkner, gave him a pencil, and turned him into a low-level EFL student, you'd have what Student X turned in"

*takes a deep breath*
Such a good description. :)

Pat said...

Poor you and poor Student X.
Could there be an underlying problem - eyesight, hearing, trouble at home or just general lack of intelligence?

Bish Denham said...

Is she capable at all, or simply lazy? And I agree, making her rewrite it (however many times it takes) should help. At least I hope so, for your sake. :)

Robert the Skeptic said...

I'm guessing that Student X can likely "text" better than anyone in the class.

Carole said...

Very funny. You are so productive when when students can't write. You need to be working on your own writing the next time she hands something in and you will probably write a book in a week.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anne Spollen said...

Oh boy, do I feel your pain. I grade papers in the dining room where the table is big and mostly unused. The rest of the house is dusty, but the dining room hutch surfaces sparkle...

Angela Ackerman said...

Oi, I have a headache just thinking about it. But then on the other hand, look at how this composition aided your productivity! :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Marcia said...

Oh, dear...I've seen bad writing, but I've yet to have a student rule her own paper. But if you got that much housework done, her writing has worth of a sort. :|

Mary Witzl said...

Lisa -- Thank you. Can you tell I'm not a big fan of Faulkner? :o)

Pat -- Student X's family sound wonderfully supportive, her vision is fine, and I can tell she's a reasonably bright girl. I believe her problem has more to do with not realizing how much effort is involved in putting pen to paper. Or blunt pencil, that is.

Bish -- At first, I agonized over her papers. Now I tell myself that I'm going to put in only as much as she's putting in. Which is not a whole lot.

Robert -- Oddly enough, she is the only student in the class who doesn't spend half her time clicking away on her mobile. But I'm guessing she finds texting a lot easier than she does writing compositions.

Carole -- Lately, I work on so many things at once that I've succombed to exhaustion, but when I've got a little more free time, I know I'll get a lot done: there is NOTHING like having limited writing time to whet your desire to write.

Anne -- You know how this feels, don't you? I've been marking all week long and there's hardly a weed left in my garden right now. I'll have over a dozen 500-word essays next week; the neighbors' dandelions are going to take quite a hit.

Angela -- All week long, I've been desperate to sit down and write my own stuff. I had no idea how much fun writing would be until I got crazy-busy!

Marcia -- Me neither -- and she didn't even use a ruler! But you're right: it takes a lot to get me to polish my stove top and scrub the bottoms of kettles. I'm grateful to Student X for that.