Worthy of unlocking

LAST term my colleague Larry, who has an advanced degree in days off and off-campus conferences, bested the rest of us on the standardized exams we administer to our students. Larry had the highest number of passes. This was a surprise to Larry. It was also a surprise to half his students, who have declared majors in Larry's area of expertise, avoiding class. On the other hand, which is often pointed above my head these days where the bulb used to be, nothing I do seems to make a decided difference in my freshmen's ability to retain instruction long enough for it to be measured in my favor on the standardized exams.

A recent practice test was particularly telling. Very few students passed. Marina, who did make it, a lovely woman who has a child and a job, comes to class fitfully. ``Don't worry,'' she says comfortingly, ``I'll be all right.'' Two other students who passed also appear to be beneficiaries of benign neglect.

Stanley, who visits class on inconstant wing, suggested the other day that I no longer call him Frank. It was the first clear sound from him since the start of the term, when he left the room suddenly just after signing in. On the last practice test, Stanley wrote a thoughtful response to the question ``Should college teachers take attendance?'' He argued that they should on the ground that if they did not, the students would conclude that the teachers didn't care. The rest of the class, many of whom receive letters when they are absent for a stretch or run a streak of poor grades, argued to the contrary, citing ``maturity'' (spelled in various approximations).

The other candidate for passing is Georgio, whose last name I originally thought was a sentence and who recently went from speaking English as a remote second language to reasonably correct written expression. A sweet young man, Georgio has politely refused all offers of tutoring and extra exercises: ``I have job.'' Coincident with his breakthrough, he announced that his hours at work have changed and that he will therefore have to miss the review sessions (``I must doing it'').

On the other side, there is earnest Troy, who plugs away incessantly: He has been having trouble with the passive voice, and we spend conference time discussing it. At the next class, he presents exercises he's done on his own. They are without error. Unfortunately, they are also without relevance, since they are on the possessive, not the passive. Troy shrugs: Both subjects begin with ``p'' and besides, he adds happily, it's a perfect paper. I agree. It's one of the better days, anyway.

Stanley-Frank has shown up and is helping me out with instruction. This he does by loudly chiding the rest of his row about their mistakes. Georgio responds, and it is clear that he has mastered some rough American idioms. Later on, my chairman listens to my account of teaching effectiveness and suggests that he knows how the college can help ease its budget crunch.

Certainly there seems to be an oddity here: After almost 20 years of teaching required composition, several spent directing a composition program, and with a record of having tried various recommended teaching techniques, procedures, and materials, I have a success rate that seems to be totally unaffected by my experience and dedication. Of course, there are simple, comforting explanations that take the burden off me and put it on the students, admissions policies, or the exams. And in truth, each of these factors can be made to account for difficulty. The admission of underprepared students to college under a policy of opening doors makes teaching composition difficult to effect in one semester. The habits of a lifetime, let alone social conditions, cannot be ameliorated in a few classroom hours.

Still, I comfort myself that something, somewhere, must be working. Charlton feels moved to leave his seat, interrupt my explanation of demonstrative pronouns to declare, arm around my shoulder, that if he fails, it is his intention ``to take these class again.'' Stanley guffaws and tells Charlton to sit down. Marina asks Georgio for help with her revision. Stanley walks out. Troy ignores my lesson on subject-verb agreement and turns in a perfect paper on passives. Stanley returns.

Tests do measure something, but not the larger, subtle acquisitions that pay off only later on - attitude, attendance, a sense of belonging to an enterprise. If doors are opened, it does not follow that there were keys. If there were keys, it does not mean there is a master key. I don't know what works. I don't know what doesn't work. Maybe it's not important. What is, is that open doors lead to rooms that admit not just light but warmth. My students test out well on this one.

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