This is not my first experience working for UC Berkeley’s Summerbridge program – and depending on how things shake out next year, it may not be my last, either.But before I get into that, let me give a little background on exactly what Bridge entails –
Summerbridge is a program at Cal designed to assist several hundred incoming freshmen before each fall to the expectations of academia. Some are voluntary. Some are assigned to the program as a condition of admission. Some are athletes, who simply need to be there for summer practice. As you can imagine, it draws together a wide, diverse range of students and experiences, all of whom are rushed through two college level courses over six weeks. Oh, and if that’s not enough already, they have to juggle the emotions of moving away from home early, the crippling fear that a school like Cal inspires, and all the other standard pressures of college life as well – relationships and all that.
Just typing that makes me exhausted.
You can only imagine how they feel.
Last summer, I helped lead an adjunct workshop for College Writing N2, the most introductory course for writing that Cal offers. Twice a week, I was to meet with a small cohort of 6 or 7 students and work with them for 90 minutes. What each workshop entailed…well, that was largely up to me. Some days, that would mean working on close reading. Some days, that meant talking about structure, or peer editing, or just talking about a text as a class. One of the things I did take away though was the fact that I often came to class too unstructured – feeling like I already knew enough to make things work by conversation, I didn’t always prepare activities or anything else. Didn’t always write down lesson plans, either.Not to say they didn’t learn anything…but it was definitely something I wanted to get away from for the future.
It was the first time I had been given free reign in a classroom, and I really enjoyed it – and though none of the students improved to be A level writers over the six weeks (as we sometimes would hope), I do feel as if they all took away something for the fall that they had for sure under their belts.
There was one student in particular who I saw much growth in, both in the way he understood and approached literature, and in the way he began to express his thoughts, as well. We’ll call him William.
Now, what you must understand is that the students in College Writing N2 are not usually there by choice. Usually, placement in that class meant a failure to pass out of the AWPE [Analytical Writing Placement Exam] administered a few months before admission…and as you can imagine, there was a very wide range of experience and skill level – even within the 6 students I had. As I would later find out, Will had been blind for some of his early childhood, and struggled with spelling as a result – many of his papers contained the kind of errors that more developed writers already correct in their minds; little things like misplaced letters or inability to tell certain homophones apart.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising then that Will didn’t like writing – he’d been tracked and had had intensive support in high school for such a thing, and he was acutely aware of his deficiencies. At some of our individual sessions, he would be rather shy and apologize when I would explain the difference between certain words or pairs.
One of the first texts Will encountered for CWN2 was “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”, by Gloria Anzaldua. Many students have difficulties unwrapping that text to start – it intentionally disorients you with its constant switching in topic and language. Understanding it wasn’t so much his issue, though. His viewpoint was.
Hailing from a town where it was predominantly white, Will openly questioned why people who come to America don’t just speak English – a problematic opinion, to say the least. Complicating that was the fact that my class had several students of Hispanic/Latino heritage, which could have easily been offensive to them, as well. After all, part of what makes college a great place is because it allows you to understand and interact with different viewpoints, which he wasn’t letting himself be exposed to, at least immediately. It took several meetings with him before I could get him to change his mind, or at least consider why “English only” was not a fair standard to hold people to…
But eventually, something clicked for him – I know it because he wrote it in his paper; about how he thought about how unfair it would be if he was in Mexico and everyone would force him to speak Spanish. Of course his paper had many rough edges to it still, but even just that one moment of getting him to reconsider and understand a different way of looking something…that was a success in itself. [The professor wondered openly about whether or not he was having someone write his papers though, considering how the grammatical/spelling mistakes would disappear from first to final draft. I like to think otherwise.]
I often put a lot of pressure on myself to help get students to brilliance overnight – during the school year, it sometimes frustrates me that progress doesn’t happen fast enough [for the student’s liking, or for mine. Either or.]..but thinking back on it now, there can sometimes be something incredibly valuable by doing just one thing. By opening their eyes just one time, by getting them to just pick up one tool. No one could ever argue that Will didn’t get something out of working with me. I didn’t talk about all my kids, but they all seemed to really enjoy class. Hopefully something I taught them stuck…
Fast forward a year later, though…