Lessons Learned

I think some of the parents at the school think of me as Mean Old Mrs. Waterfall. I give too much homework. I’m expecting too much of their children. I push these students too hard. My standards are too high. I’m entirely too stingy with A’s when I give out grades.

Maybe these things are true. I’ve asked the administration to tell me when I go too far, and no one’s said anything yet—except that it might do to ease up on the homework a bit. So I have. Just a bit.

For essays, I always require a draft and a final. The draft doesn’t count, gradewise, toward the final; their draft grade is a “dummy grade,” an indicator of where their essay stands so far. I bleed a red pen all over the draft—all instructions, observations, and suggestions for them to consider for their revision. Students who take those red-inked comments to heart and use them end up with A’s and B’s (and no, I’m not that stingy with A’s … on revisions, at least). Students who don’t consider them, or who don’t revise at all, end up with the same grade, or a lower grade than the draft.

It is a hard job, particularly now that I’ve come to love my students. I hate giving anything lower than a B. It pains me, literally (though they would never believe this!). I particularly hate giving the really bad grades. I handed back a D-minus paper yesterday, and the look on the kid’s face made me want to go scratch out the “D-” and replace it with a big “B+” and a smiley face.

I don’t like to see anyone suffer, but at the same time … their revisions are always so much better than their drafts. Usually. I’ve also found that, if a student really makes an effort, they’ll find that they’re capable of getting a good grade out of Mean Old Mrs. Waterfall.

For some reason, all of this reminds me of a tech writing job I once had. My assignment was to work with a bunch of retired Army guys on a literature review for some important department in the U.S. Government, like the Department of Defense. The literature review was supposed to cover a very specific aspect of U.S. military readiness. These HOOAH-shouting military guys researched everything under the sun, from secret military documents to The Hot Zone and, in the end, had looked at several hundred documents, most of them written within the previous ten years.

Their job, then, was to group them according to general topic, and to rank them according to importance to present to the DoD, or whoever. My job was to take all of their data, organize it, and put it into a clear, easy-to-read document that named each report researched, summarized it briefly, and later indicated its importance in the great scheme of military-readiness literature out there.

We had a guy working on MS Access who was supposed to somehow rank, based on into the HOOAH guys gave him, that importance of each document and category through some big statistical algorithm thing. I don’t know if he screwed up or if MS Access ended up to be the wrong tool, but, at the last and worst possible moment, this rank approach failed.

Panic ensued. This was nearly ten years ago; the company was small and resources were limited. How could we work out this ranking thing?

They asked me to see if I could figure out a way to do it in MS Word using forms or something.

I know. Word? Word may be great for word-processing, but big ole algorithms? They were trying other approaches, too. Word was a harebrained idea, but they asked me to seriously consider it and see what I could come up with. It was urgent. We had a deadline looming.

So I did what all exhausted, overtaxed tech writers do on PMS. I went to my car and drove around town, bawling and feeling overwhelmed while playing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at full blast. Then I went to a coffee shop and drowned my sorrows in a latte. Then I went back to the car and cried all the way back to work.

Then … a miracle. I somehow came up with exactly what they needed. In Microsoft Word, of all things. We were up for probably 16 hours, putting the information in, but it worked. We did what we needed to do, I incorporated all of the new info into a polished final report, and we submitted it to the government.

The report got much praise. Of course, no one said, “Wow, that must be one heck of a tech writer who wrote this report!” No, it was the HOOAH guys that got all the glory. But the HOOAH guys made it clear that I’d played a vital role in the report’s success.

If they hadn’t challenged me to do the impossible, I never would have spent nearly an hour in my car, crying in a blind panic and drowning my groans in ear-splitting music. But I also never would have met the challenge—something I didn’t at first know I could do.

It was an amazingly good feeling—though unbelievably painful at the time—to be pushed beyond what I knew to be my limits. Also, once I'd met that challenge, my confidence and capabilities seemed to go through the roof. And that is the point of this story. The other point is that I want to push these kids just a tad beyond what they think they can do. Even those kids who have been labeled “learning disabled” may find that they’re more capable than they thought they were. And the ones who are smart may find that they’re capable of any challenge they put their mind to, as long as they’re willing to push themselves.

Maybe I am pushing them too hard. But I know one thing: my students are learning and improving. And that’s what was hired to help them do.


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