In my English 111 literature class last semester, we were reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In preparing to discuss the historical context of the novel, I had asked the class, “So when was the Civil War?” and I languished and despaired in the silence that followed. It was a moment where I was tempted to ask myself, “What are they even teaching them these days in high school?” but then out of the silence, a woman’s voice cut through the awkwardness: “Well, which civil war?” she asked. Touchée! This particular student, who is currently putting herself and her son through college, had grown up in West Africa and abandoned her own academic ambitions to accompany her husband to the United States many decades ago. Her life-experience compelled her to challenge my own question, and she consequently sparked a discussion about the different violent conflicts that her classmates have witnessed firsthand. She reminded me in that moment that my own assumptions about students’ prior knowledge would not cut it in the Hostos classroom.
I am new here, and on the first day of classes last August, I was sitting in my office, nervous about beginning my first semester as an English professor. I heard a knock on the door and a head poked in. A familiar voice quipped “Hi Dr. Milsom! Nice office!” It was one of my high school students from last year, a member of my Advanced Placement English Literature class at Harry S. Truman High School in Co-Op City–“Uptown,” as it’s known in the Bronx. She was on the phone with one of her high school friends who was also beginning her semester at a CUNY school in Manhattan. They both wanted to reassure themselves with the sound of a familiar voice before they began the new phase of their education.
After finishing college myself, I spent three years teaching English at Truman High School, assigned mainly to seniors who had failed the English Regents exam multiple times, and who were desperate to pass so they could graduate. I eventually left New York to do a PhD in English, and upon completion, I returned and Truman’s principal welcomed me back for another year. I was given the AP English class, and to my great joy, two of students from that cohort are currently freshman here at Hostos. People will often ask me, “How do undergrads compare to high school kids?” I love to answer that by saying that “I literally have the same exact students I had before.”
Having taught in secondary and undergraduate institutions, I have heard many professionals speculate about what instructors in the other places do. Because professors and high school teachers rarely communicate with each other, we create imaginary versions of our academic counterparts, sometimes weaponizing our ideas about each other as a way to explain students’ supposed deficits. The lack of communication between the two communities of instructors is all the more shocking given the fact that sometimes only two months of summer vacation separate our pedagogical domains. As college-level instructors, rather than communicating directly with the people preparing students for college, and rather than simply even asking our freshmen detailed questions about their educational experiences, we rely on unchecked ideas about adolescent pedagogy, a habit which shortchanges our students and prevents us from being more effective instructors.
For instance, in the high school classroom, we often leveraged the exalted yet nebulous idea of “college” to our students to motivate some sort of change: “You will definitely not be able to use that strange, large font in a college paper.” Or: “In college, no one is going to call your mother when you are constantly late. The professor is just going to fail you.” At its worst, the idea of “college” became a threat, yet another emblem of a students’ academic failure: “You’ll never get into college if you don’t [insert desirable behavior here].”
Just like the high school teachers are quick to wield the idea of “college” to motivate (or punish) their students, college professors use the idea of “high school” as an all-purpose catchall for problems with their students. In my own moment of weakness in presenting the American Civil War to my Hostos freshmen, I, too preferred to attribute my class’s silence to the failure of their prior schools rather than to the limits of my own perspective in preparing the lesson.
As instructors, we need to let off steam: our jobs are difficult, we work very hard, and yet sometimes we despair that our students’ “skills” are not up to standard. We wonder what the high school teacher on the other side of the summer vacation has done to make our job so much more difficult. As a person who has heard and participated in the faculty-lounge banter common to both places, I can honestly say that if it seems like a student does not know how to do something “properly”—such as head their essay, cite their sources, or even maintain a calendar of assignments—it is definitely not because she has never been taught to do so by a teacher in the past, or, more importantly, because the student doesn’t care. I guarantee you that I told my students in high school not to put a space before a period or comma when they type, yet I also guarantee you that some of them are exasperating their current college professors with their idiosyncratic spacing. Somewhere, a professor is asking herself, “Didn’t this kid learn this in high school?” Yes, I tell you. She certainly did.
The most obvious long-term solution to this distance between the high school and college classroom is that we should find more occasions for instructors to meet, discuss, prepare, and yes, even complain together about how to help students succeed in school. To that end, I have been participating as a member of a committee called the “Collaborative Curriculum Revision Project” hosted jointly by the Early College Initiative at CUNY and GraduateNYC. Hostos professors and NYC Department of Education Teachers collaborate monthly to structure a curriculum so that a student’s transition to college is less startling.
In the short-term, however, I believe that there are some strategies we can consider as we try to help our students be successful, no matter how long ago they were in high school. As a former high-school teacher, I would like to offer a list of ways to approach our students, particularly those who are in that vulnerable transition into college. A lot of these questions require that you find time to have one-on-one conversations with a student. It can be difficult to find that amount of time, but perhaps by requiring students to attend office hours, or by scheduling one-on-one appointments during a class period—a strategy I have adopted based on Professor Cynthia Jones’s example—you can harvest a great deal of information that can stimulate your pedagogy and inspire confidence in the student:
- Ask individual students specific questions about their high schools: Where did you go to school? How many students were in your grade? What were your classrooms like? What after-school activities and clubs were there? What resources did the school have? Asking these sorts of questions enables you to help that student reflect on their own transition as well as gives you insight into their background.
- Find out how students felt about their high school experiences. They might think of themselves as “good” students or “bad” students based on success or failure as a teenager. It can be a moment to reinforce positive feelings or an opportunity to encourage a more reluctant learner to embrace a fresh start.
- Ask students about their favorite teachers. What made those teachers special to them? What was helpful about their pedagogical methods? Answers to these questions not only give you ideas for new strategies, but they also indicate the sorts of things that students actually remember about the people who had an impact on them.
- Determine whether or not a student was ever given explicit instruction in organizing herself using a calendar or using reminders on her phone. Because high schools are often quite regimented, especially in New York City, with loud bells and security guards regulating movement and schedules, the relative freedom of a college schedule can overwhelm a student used to more structure. Helping a student organize a calendar and a to do list, as simple as it seems, can transform their semester.
- If a student is not from a local school system, a conversation about her educational background can be an interesting opportunity to learn about different regional and cultural philosophies about education. Seeking out this information equips you to navigate a broader array of student expectations.
- Ask students questions about their future goals: What do you want to be when you grow up? What are your dreams? Where do you see yourself in ten years? It might be the first time a younger student has ever been addressed as an adult with these sorts of questions. For a freshman, these questions can seem new, and they might feel newly empowered, as a college student, to take concrete steps to achieve their goals. In articulating their answers, students can remind themselves about the reasons for which they challenged themselves to go to college in the first place. Hearing their answers might reinvigorate you, since you are playing a key role in escorting them towards those goals.
If you cannot find an opportunity to ask these sorts of questions one-on-one, perhaps find a few quick moments as you set up your projector before class, or while you pass out papers, or when you encounter students in the hall. Include one or two of these questions on a survey or at the end of a regular assignment. You could pitch these questions informally to the whole class once in a while, particularly at the beginning of the semester. Even if the quieter students don’t volunteer information, they perhaps will hear something familiar or relatable in what other classmates have said. By establishing common ground in this fashion, you help all members of the community feel more connected and invested in getting through the semester together.
Because it met for six hours a week last semester, my developmental English 93 course gave me ample time to develop the classroom community. Over half of the students in that class had been out of high school for only a few months when we began the semester, so it was easy to see how the transition to college was provoking stress for a lot of them. One day, one of the students in that class sighed aloud while doing a writing assignment and said, seemingly out of nowhere, “I miss high school.” I asked him what prompted this statement, and he explained that he was just noticing how quiet everyone was, doing their work. He said he missed the banter and low-level of chaos of his high school classroom–which he had left behind only a few months earlier. “It was like family,” he said.
I like to keep in mind that some of our students here at Hostos come from successful academic backgrounds (like my former AP English students) and have had positive experiences in their high school classrooms with teachers. I also know firsthand that many of our students at Hostos have not been so fortunate in their educations. Last semester, I kept passing this one student in the stairwells and hallways. He always nodded and waved cheerfully at me. I couldn’t quite place who he was, so I finally stopped him in December and asked where we had met. He explained that he had been a senior last year at Truman. He said, “I never had you, but you saw me a lot in the halls. Getting yelled at by school safety officers.” We laughed and wished each other a good holiday. It was a good reminder to me that Hostos represents a fresh start for a student who did not thrive in high school. This place represents a sort of freedom for him: the freedom to be a better student now. He might be struggling in your class because, well, he did not necessarily spend a lot of time in class consistently before. But if you were to probe him a bit with some of the questions I listed above, there is a good chance you will find that this kid who was considered “bad” in high school has higher expectations for himself than any instructor ever did. You, his professor, might not even know that he was ever considered to be a “bad” student because he’s doing a pretty good job. To put in an encouraging word at a moment like that–well, what a profound impact you would have!