My English Class is Your 14 Year Old’s Empty Parking Lot!

Published December 14, 2011 by Susan Woodward

How many parents out there would hand their 14 year old child the car keys and say, “See ya later!  Have a good ride to Pennsylvania!”?  NONE… I hope.  Why not?  Because most kids that age don’t know how to operate a three-ton, motorized chunk of metal yet!  Most people accept this as the norm, am I correct?  God, I hope so!

Don’t most parents, when teaching their child to drive, take them to an empty parking lot somewhere to teach them the basics like:

1)  how to start the damn thing;

2) how to put it in the proper gear (or for those driving a standard, how to find the clutch);

3) where the accelerator is;

4) which pedal is the brake;

5) how to operate the turn signals;

6) how to turn on the lights…

And that’s all before even MOVING the vehicle first!  While there may be many who will pass the test of where to locate these simple necessities, there are probably more who will not… the first time.  But does that “failure” mean that there is something wrong with the kid or, God forbid, something wrong with the parent because the kid doesn’t know?  Of course not!  Both the parent AND the child take it in stride that he/she is not going to be 100% successful this first time behind the wheel.

No one in their right mind would try to teach a child to drive on the 490 right off the bat.  It has to be in a safe place where failure isn’t that much of a high risk… like an empty parking lot.

Now let’s get to accelerating.  First, it has to be in “drive”, both hands have to be on the wheel, he/she has to learn just how much pressure to put on the accelerator pedal to get it to move forward, and also just how much pressure to put on the brake to come to a smooth stop.  Most parents are white-knuckling it the first time… I know I did when I taught my five kids to drive.   And the kids’ hands were gripping the wheel for deal life.  And how DOES that first attempt at stopping a moving three-ton, motorized chunk of metal go?  Most often, it is a herky-jerky stop… and sometimes a few screeching tires are involved.  But the car does stop… hooray!  So does that mean the kid gets a gold star and is ready to go out on the 490 yet?  NO!  And most parents (and student drivers) would agree.  It was not an acceptable stop that one could do in real traffic.  Again, does that “failure” mean that there is something wrong with the kid or with the parent/instructor?  NO!

But would you give a driver’s license to the kid?  NO!  And rightly so!

Before anyone can go out and tool about the neighborhood with one hand on the wheel while simultaneously changing the radio station or taking a sip from a cup of coffee, he/she MUST go through a series of failed attempts first.  And these failures are acceptable.  No one gets angry because we want the child to be a safe driver who will not get into accidents, bringing possible harm to himself or others.  It’s natural.

So if society at large is willing to accept these small failures that ultimately lead to the successful passing of a road test and permission to navigate our roads, WHY can’t that same philosophy be applied to education?

In my experience as a ninth grade English teacher, very few students come to me with the proper writing and/or analytical skills already mastered.   I teach basic sentence structure, punctuation, and other skills that will lead to sufficient writing.   When I give my first quizzes on sentence structure or assign a short paragraph, they are more often than not riddled with errors that leave many students in the C-F range.   They simply are not exhibiting the skills required to perform the task successfully.

It’s like driving a car where they have to keep in mind a whole series of small tasks simultaneously:  “Ok, how hard to I put my foot on the accelerator?  Which way do I push the lever to turn left? How do I turn the wheel to make the car go 90 degrees to make a left hand turn?”  There are a whole litany of small tasks that go through a beginning driver’s mind.  That same idea can be applied to writing: “How do I spell ________?  What’s a complex sentence again?  Do I underline the title of the novel, or do I put it in quotation marks? How do I cite that correctly?”  There are just as many small tasks that must be completed to produce a successful paragraph.  With all those things to keep track of, it is probable that the student will not do it 100% correctly the first time.

Like driving, they are just not ready to go tooling around the block yet.  They need to stay in the parking lot a bit longer… and accept the fact that they didn’t get it perfectly on the first try.   And don’t get me started on parallel parking!

That only makes sense.  In a car, this whole concept seems logical, but not in the classroom.

WHY do I get floods of emails and phone calls from angry parents when a child gets a C on a test or quiz, or a D on a writing assignment?  WHY do I most often hear, “Well, she was a straight A student in middle school!  She couldn’t have made the honor roll or the principal’s list if she couldn’t perform!”  Right… in MIDDLE SCHOOL.  Welcome to the world of HIGH SCHOOL where students must learn to go beyond plot line and actually begin analyzing a work of literature.   They must learn to understand inferencing and how to read between the lines.  They must learn to draw logical conclusions from a text that are not spelled out for them by the author.  They must learn to understand the Writer’s Craft and how an author, like an artist, CREATES a work of literature.  And they MUST learn how to communicate that information clearly and correctly through the written and spoken word.

A handful of students can do that fairly successfully right from the get-go.  Is it perfect?  No… but some come pretty darn close.  Those are my A’s.   Those are the kids to whom I might want to say, “You know?  You did a pretty good job with that one.  Let’s do another and see if you can do it again.”   Sometimes the second try isn’t as successful… the literary work is of a different complexity than the first, or the writing assignment is measuring different skills.  That one might earn a C or a B… sometimes they get a D.  Does that make the kid a failure?  NO!  He/she is still learning!

But the phone rings.  Or the email will shortly arrive.

Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum.  MOST of the kids will fail miserably on their first writing assignment.  Most often, it is because they fail to follow directions (or the FCA’s… Focus Correction Areas).  However, THAT’S when I get the demand for parent conferences or, better yet, a request for a teacher change!  Really?  If I was teaching that same kid to drive, and he failed to put on the brake and hit a tree, would that be MY fault?  Following the above logic, it would seem to be.   He knows where the brake is… he simply failed to use it correctly.  Is he ready to go around the neighborhood yet?  NO!  He failed to stop correctly.

It’s not until the child learns to use the tools he has been given that he will know just how much pressure to put on the brake to come to a smooth stop.  Get it?  HE has to learn to use the tools… I don’t have a brake on the passenger side to stop the car for him.  And I certainly can’t drive FOR him… the driver’s seat just isn’t large enough to fit both a 14 year old and my ample body.

Parents are simply afraid to let the kids fail.  They think it’s a blow to their child’s self-esteem to see red ink all over a paper and anything less than an A or a B at the top.   And just because a kid is used to getting A’s or B’s on everything in middle school, they feel entitled to the same grades in high school.  It’s a whole new world with a whole new set of skills!  Once the students and parents begin to think of 9th grade English as an empty parking lot where it’s okay to fail now and then until they get it right, tension and performance stress will decrease.  And with the decrease of tension and stress, practice will eventually make passable.  Sometimes there will be perfections, but not every time… but they will be a lot closer to that first trip around the block than the first time they got behind the wheel.

So think of my class as the empty parking lot where failure on some tasks is expected and learned from.  Then they can move on to 10th grade and drive around the block a bit, or maybe in a lot that actually has some parked cars in it.   Once that has been mastered, it’s time for driving on the city streets among traffic in 11th grade.  After that, they can learn to drive on the 490 or the Thruway in their senior year.  THEN they will be prepared for the road test to get that ever-prized driver’s license (or diploma).

But, for now, my class is your child’s empty parking lot.

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5 comments on “My English Class is Your 14 Year Old’s Empty Parking Lot!

  • I don’t disagree with your sentiment, but the analogy doesn’t hold up. If the escapades in the empty parking lot were filmed and posted on Facebook and YouTube attributed to the student and reviewed by the state DMV prior to issuance of a license it would be a better analogy.

    I understand the shock the parents and students feel, and the attempts to get away from that shocking source. All of their previous grades were great and probably many of their current grades are great – one outstanding problem being you. Unfortunately the parents solution should be to scold the previous teachers and the other current teachers, for not holding the student up to the standard they should be meeting.

    I work in IT and in that space certifications are a way for an employee to show their ability to prospective employers. The certification has value only in that the holders of the certification have been knowledgeable and effective in the past. Certifications given out to employees that aren’t able to do their job, or complete simple tasks have no value because the product, the employee is not able to perform at an expected level. Holders of these certifications work to prevent unprepared people from gaining the certification to prevent the lessening of value that would surely follow.

    Could you imagine the high school diploma or the college degree where alumni took an active role in assessing graduates, and working with the administration to find ways to better prepare the students for the working world? Both of those documents have lost much of their value because the product, the student is no better prepared to perform than any other.

    Don’t think I don’t cringe with fear posing this to an English teachers blog, I almost want to get my Troyka English handbook and check each sentence. Keep up the good work!

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