The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons

Lisbeth walked into my office claiming she wanted to get better at grammar. “We can help with that,” I said and ushered her over to a conference table. “What part of grammar would you like to work on first?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, casting her gaze downwards as if she might find the answer scrawled into the black surface of the table. I remained silent, knowing that she’d get more out of this if she set the agenda. When she finally figured out I wasn’t going to fill the silence, she began speaking “Well…I’m really bad at semicolons. Could we work on those?”

Her answer surprised me. I answered, “Certainly we can go over that.” But I was too curious to stop there. “But first, let me ask you a question. What makes you say you’re ‘bad at semicolons’?”

“I don’t know. I am just really bad at them. I’ve never got them.”

Her answer fascinated me for two reasons. First, understanding semicolons means understanding two rules, neither of which is very complicated. Second, Lisbeth was no stranger to using the Writing Studio. She’d been in on a handful of occasions. Yet, she never asked for anyone to teach her the rules for semicolons, nor did she bother to notice the spot on our wall where we display a brilliant comic, which provides the clearest and most creative explanations of semicolons I’ve ever read.

Lisbeth is a bright student. On top of that, she’s got enough courage to walk in and ask for help on a topic that’s challenged her sense of own intelligence. That’s admirable. However, it’s precisely these traits that make her situation so puzzling. That leads me to think that the most important question in education is this:

Why do bright, competent students make the same simple mistakes over and over again even when a teacher points out these mistakes and provides plenty of resources to help?

The easy answer would be to say laziness. That answer, however, makes a dangerous and unfounded assumption about Lisbeth’s character. It also ignores the fact that she took the initiative to come meet with me with little to gain except knowledge, yet would still believe that she is “bad at semicolons” if I had not forced her to choose her own topic.

I suspect that something more complicated was going on about how Lisbeth understood her own ability to learn. Lisbeth came to believe she was “bad at semicolons” because of failures in her educational past. Somewhere along the line, a teacher attempted to explain semicolons, she tried to use them and did so incorrectly, and then someone told her she was doing it wrong. Perhaps she tried again, perhaps she sought out an explanation and was frustrated, but at some point, she gave up. Eventually, she internalized the idea that her lack of knowledge was a lack of her potential intelligence, as if her DNA lacked the gene that controls the ability to understand semicolons. Her past failures convinced her that learning the actual rules would always be difficult, so she saw no value in attempting it herself.

Happily, Lisbeth was wrong about her self assessment, and it took her less than ten minutes to learn how to use semicolons. She left happy, proud to have conquered a topic that she’d built up into a formidable opponent. However, I feel she probably still carries around the tendency to doubt her capabilities when she faces an intellectual challenge.

Her story highlights the a precondition that must be in place before learning happens: a student must believe that learning is possible if s/he is to learn anything. It sounds simple, but it’s often the obstacle that holds us back from attempting a new task.

Without a group of students who believe they can learn, lectures cease to be instruction and mere noise. That’s not education; it’s rambling.

For these reasons, “The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons” is in my regular rotation of stories that I tell students. Not because I want the others like Lisbeth to be embarrassed, but because I want others to have the courage to question why they never learned a particular topic and to take steps to change. I want to inspire students to believe they can learn.

Sometimes this gets me in trouble since it sounds like a self-help lecture, and I imagine that the professors of the classes I teach in don’t see the immediate point. But the concept of needing to believe you can learn something before you learn it strikes me as an obvious point that somehow rarely occurs to students. Or for that matter some writing instructors.

I hear all the time about instructors who grade papers and frustratingly mark the same mistakes over and over again. Some create long lists of mistakes for which they will penalize students, hoping that a sense of self preservation kicks in and inspires proofreading with a greater sense of purpose. For some students, this approach works. These are usually the students who were simply lazy and hadn’t bothered to take enough time to proofread. However, it assumes that students weren’t proofreading because they were simply lazy or didn’t care enough about their grades in the first place.

Many times, the students that suffer most from this approach are the students like Lisbeth. These students carry the scars of past failures and use them to lower their own expectations for their own learning potential. No matter how long your list of potential mistakes to look out for is or how strict your grading schematic is, it will never get such students to buckle down and try harder unless they believe it’s possible to meet your expectations. Often, it has the opposite effect; the resulting failure becomes proof of an internal deficiency and convinces them to no longer try.

This is why I tell the story of “The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons.” I want all students to question the way they think about their own learning and to recognize that their potential is not nearly as limited as they might believe.

The implications of “The Girl Who Was Bad At Semicolons” extend beyond the lower-level writing concerns. Many of these students are also the ones that view the world as a boring place with nothing left to discover. And hence, these are the students who turn in formulaic, uninspired papers. Their attitudes towards education have robbed them of their abilities to think critically. Critical thinking depends on seeing knowledge as fluid. The best thinkers revel in complexity and see the ways in which knowledge is constructed by those who seek it. They understand that we can still “discover” things about ancient cultures because we are willing to say that perhaps the conventional way we have of understanding available evidence is wrong.

However, when students like Lisbeth see their education as a top-down process, where knowledge is something to memorize and parrot back to the teacher, they stop thinking. This attitude turns teachers into “liars” and produces books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. Of course, most teachers don’t tell lies. They present information to the best of their knowledge. However, because students rarely comprehend the limits on what we can and cannot truly “know”, they treat any contradiction as a lie. Until such students reconsider where their knowledge comes from and the ways it is formed, they’ll write papers that recite facts rather than question the origins of those facts.

Without a change in attitude and perspective, the “girl who is bad at semicolons” could never become the “girl who was bad at semicolons”. And that’d be a failure that harms more than just Lisbeth.

(Note – ‘Lisbeth’ is not meant to represent an actual student, but rather a composite of many students that I regularly see and work with. I’ve present this post in a story form to give some reality to the feelings of frustration that I see in students who incorrectly assume they can’t learn the they  can’t learn to achieve at high levels. If you find a bit of Lisbeth in yourself, I hope you’ll be inspired to learn more about whatever you felt you could never learn.)


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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