Defining “Dumb”

October 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm 1 comment

We’re doing a rigorous but brief unit on poetry analysis with my sophomores. I’ve done everything but implant Poetry Analyzer 3.1 software directly into their little heads. I gave them step by step instructions, walked them through the process, modeled how to write a poetry analysis essay, and gave them an actual sample of an essay that demonstrated my expectation level. Then I directed them to a poem that we’d already extensively verbally analyzed in class.

“You’ve got one hour,” I said. “You can use your book, your notes, the example paper – anything but another human being, although I’ll answer certain types of questions. There’s a slide on the overhead with reminders of the requirements. Write me an analysis of this poem.”

I’ve only looked at a handful of the essays so far – we’re writing them today – but most of these kids are knocking it out of the park. It’s elementary reasoning, of course; I wasn’t expecting collegiate explications. But they’re meeting expectations and making some decent connections.

And then there’s Jimmy. Jimmy, who sits in the back of the room and declines – no, refuses – to take any notes. Jimmy, who looks at me with big doe eyes if I call him on the fact that he’s zoned out instead of listening. Jimmy, who has over the course of the last two and a half semesters earned himself a 0.5 GPA and a position in the bottom 10% of his class.

Jimmy’s not a bad kid. Jimmy’s not even an unintelligent kid. He’s just dumb. I think that’s the difference, really, between what we rudely label “stupid” and what is truly flat-out “dumb.” Dumb kids are that way because of the hair-tearingly poor decisions they make. The brightest kid in your room can be dumb as shite, and we all know it.

For this essay, I was looking for – and seem to have, for the most part, gotten – a four (minimum)-paragraph analysis of the poem. The first paragraph should focus on its physical structure and why Neruda built it the way he did. The second should shift to imagery, examining what imagery is used and what effect it has. The third paragraph should examine the sound and tone of the poem, and how Neruda created that effect. And the fourth (and subsequent) paragraph(s) should answer “so what?” – what is the poet trying to convey? What does the poet want to accomplish with this poem? What does he want us to understand?

An hour later, Jimmy submitted the following (typed exactly as presented):

In “Ode to my socks, there is a very creative speaker and he tells us the poem of a pair of knitted socks, the poem is by Pablo Neruda. It seems like there is just a meaning less point of the poem. The socks are made by MaruMori a unknown character. of the poem. She/he made them and brought them to the speaker. The socks are stripped down with 5 different colors. Im pretty sure this poem is written in its simplest form. Their is only 3-5 words in each line and every word is easy. The writer is very thoughtful about those socks.


There’s so much to say. Should I point out that Maru Mori isn’t an unknown genderless character, but rather is specifically identified as a female shepherd? Should I encourage him not to draw the socks’ description from the photograph that the book’s editors chose to include on the page? Do I point out that he used the wrong form of “their” and that he needs to spell out all numbers under 100? Do I challenge his assertion, such as it is, that the poem is meaningless?

Or do I just staple it to a copy of the example essay I provided, with a note reading, “Does your essay bear ANY resemblance to what was required?” I certainly don’t need to ask if he listened to a single word anyone said in class about this poem – words that would have refuted almost every statement in his so-called essay.

Hollywood and NCLB would like the world to believe that dumb kids can be saved from themselves – or rather, from the cruel lives that make them act so dumb – by heroic efforts on their teachers’ part. But even as a third-year teacher, I already know better. A kid who is determined to be dumb is incurable until he or she decides to knock it off. An F won’t motivate Jimmy. Pulling him into my room at lunch to rewrite it, with warm pats on the back and words of encouragement, won’t motivate Jimmy any longer than it takes him to escape back to the lunchroom.

So instead of worrying about the few bad apples, the few sour grapes, I’m going to flip past Jimmy’s paper to the very nice explications beyond it, and remember that for every kid who decides to fail himself, there are twenty kids who want to succeed. The Jimmys will either figure it out or not, and very little I do will have much impact on that. I just have to keep being as excellent teacher as possible, keep trying to hang on to the kids who want to jump off the train, and realize that leaving no child behind doesn’t factor in kids who are running hell-for-leather the opposite direction.



Transitions Allied Forces

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Gina  |  October 27, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I came over here from Teenagers Are Ridiculous, and have been reading several of your entries. I think you are right on. Some kids can be “saved from themselves” as you put it, but others just can’t. My SIL is an English teacher in an inner-city, poor, ELL community. And while most of her kids are genuinely trying, and only a few will even attempt college, there are those who just DON’T CARE. Nothing she says or does will change that. They have picked their path in life, and no amount of educational magic tricks will alter it.

    Keep up the good work, and know that there are a lot of people out there who know you are doing the best work possible.


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