How can a teacher know what a student does not know ?
What can a student be expected to know?
Last night I was in a conference with an non-traditional college student, probably about 40 years old or so. The class the student is taking is for people who bombed the grammar part of the entrance test for a community college. No, this is not whining about how people don’t know grammar.
Acorn? Oak Trees?
The assignment was to do some brainstorming/prewriting on some writing prompts, and one of the prompts was “From tiny acorns giant oaks grow.” The student is tentative, afraid of looking stupid since being out of school for many years. It’s a common concern. Figuring out how to write about this prompt was impossible.
As we talked, I realized that the student did not have a clear idea of what an acorn was, nor where they come from, or that oak trees grow from them, only that possibly, squirrels liked to eat them. I asked her to walk outside with me to a place by the parking lot where I knew there was a young oak tree and a prodigious number of acorns.
I picked up an acorn from the ground and handed it to her. I pointed at the tree and explained that it was an oak, and that its seeds were acorns. I asked if the student’s child had ever grown a lima bean for a science project, where they could watch the root come out and the leaves come up. I said that it works the same way.
We walked back into the adjunct office. The student stared at the acorn in wonderment. The acorn I picked up was very dry, and probably would not sprout even if it were planted and tended, but that was not the idea I was trying to implant.
Tree. Acorn. Dirt. Grow.
I talked about how children grow, not just from tiny babies but from invisible cells, and that their potential could grow too, if the conditions were right. We talked about how the acorn wouldn’t sprout without water and fertilizer, and then I asked what kind of fertilizer the student would find in a forest, where oak trees normally grow.
“Dirt?” The student’s eyes were wide and somewhat fearful. The answer might be wrong.
“Yes,” I said, and talked a bit about how the old leaves and other stuff rotted to make dirt for the new seeds to grow in. The student smiled, and rather than the cliché of the light bulb, the whole aura of the student glowed. The brain, the student said, felt so much bigger. I told the student that once a mind is expanded, it can’t to back to where it was before–like an acorn that sprouts to grow into a giant oak.
I am not mocking the student, as I sometimes do with the funny typos and “spun” word synonyms that “clever” students use to conceal that they are copying from others.
How can an adult not know where acorns come from? What huge crack opened up to let this student fall through? What other morass of ignorance–not stupidity–are other students drowning in, not even knowing that they are drowning?