Helen Keller at the Fountain: Student Potential and the Resistance of Insecure Students

Lara Stapleton, English

In the English department, English 095, the developmental course determining advancement to basic composition, is where differences in types of learners is most apparent. Experienced teachers can tell you stories of high achievers, students who hear and process nearly everything the instructor says, and students who are completely tuned out.  

A Sense of Self at Odds with a College Education

I’ve known students who started in 095 and ended up at Columbia, and unfortunately, I’ve known far more who fail the course not once but twice. The behavior of the tuned-out students is often hard to understand. They come and sit in class every day, but make no attempt to absorb information. Sometimes, high achievers or competent students stop coming or simply stop listening two weeks before the exam. Why would they do this?

An extreme example is a student who had a make-up in-class essay to write. She was very nervous, sat in my office and wrote a decent essay, only to begin crying just before the conclusion. “I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” she wept, and bolted out of the room. She was sure she was going to fail.  I could not find her minutes later, she never answered my calls, and when I looked at the essay, it would have been a B- if she’d only written a conclusion.

This past summer, I ran into a student who was in my English 201 course seven years ago. He had transferred to Brooklyn College, but never finished. I was surprised, as I remembered him as one of the stronger students. He had few grammar problems, wrote some A- essays,  and read with intelligent insight. I asked him why.  “I think I’m a product of my environment,” he said.

From these instances, I learned over the years that some students have a sense of self that is at odds with a college education. This happens to students from underserved communities regularly. If we can figure out how to help students dismantle such thinking, we can help them a great deal. 

Resistant Rather Than Lazy

Some may think: if students refuse to learn, why should we fight to make them? Here’s the thing: if it’s possible to help such students, why shouldn’t we? It won’t take much more time, and if we help a student have a breakthrough in one class, confidence sometimes spreads through to help in the others. Our confidence in their abilities can help them graduate.

I prefer to think of weak students as resistant, rather than lazy. I’ve often found, for example, that the students who need the most grammar work sometimes try to take a nap or go to the bathroom during grammar workshops. It can be humiliating to lack basic grammar skills at the age of eighteen or twenty-five, or forty. They know many of their classmates, and their suburban counterparts do not suffer the same fate, and many of them accept it as evidence that they’re not college material. They are so afraid they’ll never get it, that they don’t even try. 

A Quasi-Buddhist Approach

It took me some time to figure out how to relate to this. I must suffer some variation on the theme. After years of teaching, I discovered it: I have never had the sparkly home I’ve always wanted. I’m emotional about the condition of my home, and I often promise myself I’ll spend the weekend scrubbing. I end up on Facebook instead. I do it almost every week. The more I have a sense of humor about it, the more I’m able to overcome it. We can help students have the same reaction to their poor learning habits, if we advise them to be on the lookout for self-sabotage, and to gently move in the right direction. It’s a quasi-Buddhist approach. 

I have learned to feel confident about the capabilities of nearly every mind, and I mean almost every mind through a bit of reading about psychology and education.  Psychology in meditation and mindfulness is especially inspiring. If expert meditators can concentrate and feel bliss, can’t the rest of us step it up a bit? I read that people who meditate have the same brains as people who had stable childhoods, more trusting, and affectionate. If meditation helps emotional intelligence, why wouldn’t some practice help academic intelligence?

Of course it would. Studies in neuroplasticity are finding the brain capable of much larger transformation than was previously believed. Our weakest students can learn. They can.

My optimism soared after I read about a woman named Barbara Arrowsmith Young. Though diagnosed as learning disabled as a child, she was a savant. She got through school through her incredible factual memory, but she couldn’t understand abstract representation, figurative language. She couldn’t read clocks, and had trouble understanding prepositions like “to” and “from.”     

Her “recovery” was long and complicated. But at the age of twenty-eight, she began a tireless study in abstraction.  Forgoing sleep, she made flash cards of clocks and took her time reading them, often spending hours on a single card, until she got it. After this, other forms of abstraction became understandable to her. She was like Helen Keller at the fountain. This is an extreme example. But if she can do this, our sullen, disengaged students can grow.

I had a student with weak grammar. English professors know the type, insecure with capital letters, mixed up “were” and “where” and “an” with “and.” I suggested he copy a paragraph out of the newspaper every day. At the end of the semester he passed the CATW. Sometimes it all works.

Texts and Tests to Help Insecure Students

Malcolm X’s description of going from poor reader and writer to revolutionary intellectual is a common text in the English department. He couldn’t write in a straight line. When he looked up words, he didn’t understand the vocabulary of definitions. He gives our weaker students a chance to relate to the fight against the learning struggle.

I also enjoy sharing a letter written by American Book Award Winner Jimmy Santiago Baca. At the age of twenty-three, he was semi-literate. He wrote “trying to” as “trienda” and “graduate” as “gravatated.” Solitary confinement gave him years to read, and the rest is history. Students enjoy seeing how far a writer weaker than most of them went. I do what I can to dismantle the idea of fixed intelligence.

I occasionally give end-tests to see how much of the class is absorbing what I’m saying. I have found this very useful.  Early in the semester I figured out who had trouble paying attention. Using an end-test also makes students feel more obligated to absorb the information during the class.  

Advice for Struggling Students

I am experimenting with directly addressing issues of defensive behavior. I tell students, “if you tune out, you are trying harder to fail than pass, and this stems directly from embarrassment and insecurity.” I share my embarrassing, cleaning-the-apartment story. I have a sense of humor about it, suggest that it’s normal, but needs to change.

Students respond with good questions: what if it just happens, if we just tune out without noticing? What if we have these habits and we need someone else to tell us when it’s happening? I suggest they just be aware every day, and like a meditator coming back to the breath, just keep coming back until you have new habits.       

I offer five pieces of advice to struggling students:

1) If your grammar is weak, copy a paragraph out of the newspaper every day. If this was good enough for Malcolm X , who copied the dictionary, then it’s good enough for you. I am sure there is a math or science equivalent to such work. 

2) Let go of negative thinking. I dabble in Buddhism. One concept I’ve absorbed: we don’t have to believe our own thoughts. We all have negative thoughts, but we can release them, pop them like balloons. So if a student has a thought: I’m not smart, I can’t learn this, he or she can learn to let that thought go. Just think, “That’s just a thought I picked up somewhere, no big deal, onward.”

3) Break things down into smaller parts. Master more slowly, and then move on. If you want to learn to use commas, but the explanation uses the phrase “dependent clause,” don’t give up.  Look up “dependent clause,” handle some examples, get used to it before moving on.

4) Let go of shame. If you feel embarrassed because we’re talking about thesis statements, and no one in your K-12 experience taught you about thesis statements, be on the lookout for the urge to start looking out the window because it embarrasses you. A Buddhist trick to deal with negative emotions: make note of the feeling, notice how it feels, and over time, as it reoccurs, you dismantle its power over you.

5) Find discipline. We all do things we don’t want to do, every day. You’re perfectly capable of discipline. Decide you deserve the rewards. Homework is something you have to do like going in the rain to work, or showing up at Grandma’s birthday. It’s non-negotiable. And if you study you will improve, no matter how much you fear you won’t.