In the midst of Wonder

boot camp

Good morning from my office,

It has been some time since I wrote and while I have another blog posting drafted and quite a bit done on it, there has been something come to the fore in the past couple of days and so I am going in that direction. As has been the case most summers, I have taught a Foundations of College Writing course for a group of students who are conditionally admitted to the university. Their ability to remain as a student in the fall and beyond is dependent on their summer performance and grades. While there has been some issues with the decisions made to allow the student to matriculate or leave, what is most evident to me as I have worked with many of them is how under-prepared they are when they get to Bloomsburg.

First of all, let me note some things about the university where I work. Bloomsburg is an open enrollment university, which means if you apply here and you have a high school diploma and a modicum of ability, you will probably be accepted. The other day I was speaking with a colleague and I think the percentage of persons accepted was above 85%. That does not mean that there are not good professors, or demanding professors, or professors who are strongly versed in their fields and expect students to step up and do their work. What it does mean, however, often in the areas of math and writing, many students might need some remedial work before they are ready for that first college level course. However, that being said, the students I have in the summer are enrolled in the first level college writing course. Second, I should note that some of the most industrious and brightest students I have had in my 6+ years here came out of those summer classes. During the summer program students are required to follow a seriously regimented schedule, which is probably necessary for them to manage cramming a 14 week schedule into 6, but during the fall, there is a significant difference. They are required to meet with a mentor on a regular basis, but some of those mentors are students (which can be a substantive problem if they need some serious academic guidance) and they are required to do a mere two hours of tutoring a week. From what I can tell, there are not any other really demanding hoops through which they must jump.

As we are now into the 12th week of the semester, there are significant problems for some of them. They believe that their lack of creating priorities and discipline to manage those priorities is catching up with them. The more important issue is that they do not know how to study. Even when they sit down to try to manage their work, they have little idea how to do it effectively or efficiently. Most of them have only  12 credits and many of them have a remedial class, but they cannot seem to manage the expectations and requirements of what I would call a relatively easy semester. Again, I am well aware that what I consider to be easy and what they believe to be easy can quite different. One student in particular spent so much time working a job early in the semester and then got a second job (not two at the same time), but is now scrambling to manage the end of the semester. Others take 3 hour naps a couple of times a day. Going to that early class and then going back to the room and sleeping until lunch is not a optimum schedule when it comes to managing your work. I told all of them they would need to plan to spend 40-50 hours a week in class or studying, but I am not sure they believed me. Consequently most of them are getting kicked. What I am realizing is this; in spite of great intentions, I am not sure we are offering the support they need to manage after their summer classes. They are not able to manage the requirements because they do not have the discipline and they certainly do not have the study skills. Most have good intentions, but they have little sense of what it takes to actually manage what they are being asked to do. This is the consequence of their public education.

What I am wondering is what is happening at in their middle school and high school classes. There is also an issue of determining what support they have at home for their studies. Even though I have noted things about my own public school education in earlier blogs, what I know now is my parents just expected me to do my work. There was little actually support for doing it and I think I had a more stable home than many of my students currently have. I once got a failing grade in chemistry when I was a junior in high school. That was the one time it really hit the fan with my father. He was not usually the disciplinarian in the house and he grounded me for nine weeks. When I tried to argue that punishment with him he actually grounded me to my room for nine weeks. It was probably a precursor to Marine Corps boot camp, which reminds me: today is the 240th anniversary of the Marine Corps. 1775 at Tun Tavern near Philadelphia was the founding of this branch of the service. It is also the 532nd birthday of Martin Lutheran and the 40th commemoration of the loss of the ore carrier the Edmund Fitzgerald. Each year for extra credit I give my students a chance at extra credit to come up with these three things that are related to me. I do not think a single student has every gotten all three.

What are the expectations of parents today when it comes to their children’s education? This is an long-reaching question. From before they enter kindergarten until they have made it through college, parents have a responsibility to help their sons and daughters manage their education. For me this does not mean they do it for them, but they support their success. It means when a student (a child) is not doing well, there is some intervention, and not blaming the school or the teacher, but trying to figure out what is needed as a team to raise the possibility of success. The farther the child goes into the system the more significant the consequences. Yet, if there is no strong foundation by the time the student gets into college, they are in remedial classes. Recently, I was speaking with a person who is back teaching after sometime away from the classroom. I will not reveal the location or the grade, but it is in early elementary school. I was told that they are required to give lessons to these young students on how to tie their shoes!! Are you kidding me? How the hell did that become the public school system’s job. Since when did it become the teachers job to teach how to dress or how to manage hygiene or how to behave with some sense of decorum (teach basis manners)? That is a parent’s role and responsibility. I know these statements are troublesome, but when I grew up, my parents would have paddled my butt for misbehaving at school when I was small. I would have gotten grounded as I grew older. I would have lost privileges eventually. I was grounded to my room as I noted earlier. My father did call my chemistry teacher, but not to chastise him for my grade. He called to get an honest picture because I was not as forthcoming as I needed to be. I did not want to take responsibility, accountability, for my lack of work.

For many of my summer students, navigating the pond of financial aid, scheduling, studying, and merely living away from home is more than most of them can handle. I have already noted the issues with studying and managing time (which is a phrase I hate), but the issue of learning to schedule and follow through with appointments and managing the finances of college costs is like speaking a foreign language to most of them. It is not that they do not ask the questions, it is they do not know what question to ask? That is a very different issue. I was a little older when I actually started college, so I had already learned to manage my life, at least to some extent. As I have noted at other times, I flunked out the first time I went. I was not a bad high school student (with the exception of the one quarter of chemistry). I was a typical high school student. I did enough to get by. I will say they did not hand out As or Bs as they do now. I got more Cs than I wish I might have. I graduated from high school with around a 2.8. Nothing amazing. Going to the service was a shock for a 17 year old little naïve and squirrely NW Iowa kid. It was a nothing short of a total frickin’ wake up call. I actually put my head under my pillow the first two nights in boot camp at MCRD in San Diego. There were times throughout the entire 80 days I was not sure I could make it. I was above average there, but barely. There was a lot more growing up yet to do. That is life. It is a continual growing process. It is a continual kick of accountability. I am now into that sexagenarian decade and it has not changed. The difference is I am no longer surprised when I get kicked. I am no longer ready to first blame someone else for my problems. I will admit that even at this age it is not enjoyable to be accountable, but that is the way the world works. It is always difficult to hear that. When I note for students that their investment of 100K and a piece of paper guarantees nothing, the look on their faces is one of shock, one of wonder. I remember a student a few years ago when I noted the reality of this asking why I wanted to depress him.

What are the answers to some of these questions? Are there answers or more appropriately, are there solutions? I believe the answer, as it usually is, is complicated. While I feel I am sounding old, it seems the loss of family support, or a nuclear family (an unfortunate term) creates a significant piece of this issue. When we are opening the doors of the university to students dramatically underprepared, we need to consider carefully how we best support them. I am not saying opportunities should not be offered, but throwing someone into a pool and forcing them to swim is brutal . . . and the failure rate can be tragic. So it is here with our students. I am sad for them because I believe we hurt them more than help them. There are so many considerations and it takes a lot more than merely a room, some food, and a list of classes if they are going to thrive in this foreign environment. There have been times this semester when I try to assist student that their hearts are certainly in the right place, but they look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language, and to them, and I am. Again, it is much like why we hire attorneys when we are considering needing to work in the legal system. We have neither the expertise nor the language to navigate this unfamiliar terrain. I was no different on one level, but I was 24 years old when I began my studies in earnest at Dana College. I had a GI Bill that was also helpful. It was also different to be among so many who were typical small liberal arts types. I had been around a lot more than them. Even though I questioned my academic ability at the time, I was able to navigate most of the rest of the requirements. I learned that I was capable, but I had an amazing support system at that small Nebraska college. I had outstanding professors who took a personal interest. I had a group of friends who cared about me and I cared about them. To this day, I am still learning how much Dana College did to prepare me for the life I now have.

As I have worked through helping almost 100 advisees or summer freshmen just this semester I am blessed, but a bit overwhelmed. I want students to success. I am in the midst of wondering how we got to this place. I am both blessed, but frightened as I work on this. Well, back to some other projects. To give you an idea of how small, young and naïve Pvt. Martin was, I have included my boot camp picture. Somehow it seems appropriate on this Veteran’s Day. Smiles, laughs, or snickers allowed and understood.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

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