09/29/2016 03:57 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2017

I thought education was my education

A Brief: Where the Department of Education meets CUNY.

At the College of Staten Island there is a mandatory Civics class known as CORE. It was developed nearly 20 years ago as an interdisciplinary class to remediate persistent knowledge gaps emerging out of the incoming student population. The final essay of this particular class challenges students to form a thesis that incorporates an entry from their weekly journal and compares it to issues discussed during lecture.

Jalisa Kellum wrote about the education gap as she experienced it. Her essay so clearly evidences the struggles experienced by our students that I became suspicious of its authorhood. Her grammatical errors are consistent and sometimes anticipate or echo with poetic precision. I submit the following case study, her essay and my response. In which I simply aim to provoke inquiry into the spectrum of education. The following illustrates one student's fight to maintain her enthusiasm, optimism and find some context offering a path to belief and meaning.

Jalisa’s essay:

Being that I grew up in the Brownsville section Brooklyn, you had teachers who either did not care about their job and was there for the paycheck. Or you had the teachers, the good ones who actually valued education and wanted to help but the curriculum that was given us mess things up. I am now in College as a freshman, and I still struggle with the same thing I’ve struggled with since I was taught how to write an essay. On numerous of my essay’s I’ve handed in since the semester began and ended she wrote “great information, you’re a smart girl, but your grammar and punctuation, as well as confusion in your sentences; made it hard for me to understand your writing”. Even now you can probably spot out some of the errors she pointed it out now.

Seeing this now follow me in College made me a little upset because I love writing, and being that I came from Academy for Young Writers high school it really struck a nerve. This a passion of mine, even when it’s on topics I am very eager to talk about. Later on that day I talked to my mom about it and she explained to me it goes all the way back to high school, middle and elementary school. With the curriculum and how they changed up how we learned and studied and did homework affected this generation in their simple knowing of phonics.

This relates back to the world and Core because my Professor explained to us that if we weren’t born up into the riches and wealth, you aren’t guaranteed to have and/or get a great education. Certain things just did not come at your leisure. I remember long ago when I use to learn simple phonics, or even when I got a text book and had to do homework out of those textbooks. Eventually it moved to no textbooks and more worksheets, to I guess save the environment. We stopped learning the simple phonics and how to read and actually write properly. At age so young I did not realize the difference, I just thought education was my education. As I approached high school it got worse, my teachers then taught me in 12th grade an MLA format. Which I am good at using now in college. My teacher never taught me how to fully explain my evidence and reasoning. If the education system was the way it used to be, student would know how to write.

What my English teacher never taught me was the simple understanding of grammar structure, and fragments. Still till this day I am not sure what a fragment is; now in college my lack of how to write a simple essay is effecting my grades. Writing is a passion of mine, and I would feel better to know how to clearly and effectively master an essay at College level material. If we could just go back and began teaching kids from the grades of Kindergarten and 1st grade the simple phonics, as well as things they would need to fully form a proper sentence. Teachers and professors would not need to have to start from scratch; but have enough leverage to help students than form proper essays. If we go back to textbooks and more hands-on work instead of going over a unit and throwing us some worksheets. Students will be more, equipped.

Now that I am finishing my semester in college and having the best English professor that I have come across; I feel I am well educated on how to write proper sentences as well as how to write a good decent writing paper. Still not knowing what a fragment is or what sentence structure. I think I grasped the idea of it. As well as I hope that our education system gets better than what it is now. Being that high school diploma is equivalent to a degree. Our key to our success is really education. Turning in my final that I’ve recently just handed in I think I am on the path and to the key to success.

My response to Jalisa after grading:

Hi Jalisa!

Firstly, you’re going to be great. Your thoughts flow in a rich tapestry of sensitivities. Secondly, it takes years to write well, even longer when we have to overcome habits.

Clap your hands.... (I'll wait)

Ok - Which hand was dominant? Which hand was on top? Which hand is moving more?

That is the feeling of a habit.

Now, clap you're hands with your opposite hand being dominant and their position reversed.

This is what it feels like to go against a habit.

Try crossing your arms or eating with your weak hand, same effect. The more things you try with this, the more you will become aware, in your body and intellect, how the discomfort feels. Consequently, you’ll begin to develop a comfort with discomfort and what was unknown can then develop into new habits aligned with your goals and new knowledge. Growth demands change and change happens at our limits.

I commiserate with your experience of education. Public school doesn’t resemble anything like learning as I have come to know it. Vague and detached programs rooted in rote memorization benefit only a very small minority. I think you point out a key to the equation: “…more hands-on work instead of going over a unit and throwing us some worksheets…”. Students need individual attention, not drills that dismiss their curiosity and uniqueness.

I think you're right to be passionate. I think you are a writer. The energy of your thoughts comes through your words clearly and powerfully. You are also right to think that your writing needs attention and time to improve. You will have to commit to growing into yourself. This is your adventure, made out of you, by you and in the mystery specific to you alone.

There is no replacement for practice and reading. Read a lot. Read writers who excite you and whose words do things that surprise and affect you. Cultivate the joy you experience in your writing and nourish your capacity to cherish that love. Our culture rarely rewards our capacity for joy or love (it charges us for it) and as such those qualities tend to spasm and atrophy. This awareness may well be what anchors you to yourself in life’s ebb and swelling.

Writing, like life, is about revision. This is one of the examples of how education has failed us. It is also why I've emphasized how damaging apathy and blame culture can be - societal cancers. We have to learn to remake ourselves, our institutions, our communities, our thoughts and hearts. Revise. Reexamine. Dive in and revise again.

Revision means questioning. We can re-angle our emotional catchment, adjust our looking glass and broaden our empathy. Revision comes when we plop on a page, or canvas, or in an equation, something we see as ourselves so we can see ourselves from outside the comfort of our habits and twist and shape this object until we strike a new way of seeing or thinking, one that we learned in effect from peering into the looking glass.