– Kathleen A. Welsch
Horses and students are a lot alike. To the average individual that may seem a strange comparison, but it’s one I learned to recognize from working with my thoroughbred, Casey, and one that has contributed to my effectiveness as a teacher. Let me explain.
When I met Casey, he was the craziest lesson horse I had ever seen. He did everything wrong: his pace was too fast, his balance off, his head too high, his posture stiff. “Who would want to ride a horse like that?” I thought, as I watched riders struggle with him. Then one day, my riding instructor told me I needed the challenge of riding that horse. Initially, I approached him as other riders had: as a recalcitrant horse that needed strong handling. Yet despite the difficulties we encountered when I was in the saddle, we had great chemistry on the ground – so much so that I decided we’d benefit from a trainer teaching us to communicate better and work as partners. As training began to unravel our difficulties, I began to perceive the parallels between Casey and my students.
Lesson 1: History Shapes What Happens in the Classroom
Before being demoted to the lowly position of a lesson horse, Casey had been a show horse trained in various disciplines. Yet in spite of his years of show experience, there were elements of equitation that didn’t come easily for him and which he truly hadn’t mastered. When asked to do something he wasn’t particular good at, he would get so anxious about making the mistake that he’d make the mistake. “Now that,” the trainer said, “tells a story about his previous training.”
Just as Casey brought a history of lessons, instructors, riders, successes and failures prior to the moment I climbed into the saddle, students arrive in classrooms with a variety of previous experiences. Of course, I “know” that, but I’d never considered its effect on students in the present moment in my classes. College students, we hope, arrive with a foundation of skills and knowledge they will build on in their college courses. While they may possess a sound grounding in some areas, deficits may exist in others and mis-learning in still others. It’s not surprising then that some courses are easier for some students than for others and that some courses are downright frightening.
As someone who teaches first-year writing courses, I’m well aware that students perceive writing courses as very scary. (Math courses, I think, also fall into this category.) It’s the rare student who says they like writing and is eager to begin. More likely, students describe themselves as terrible writers, incapable of organizing their thoughts, having anything to say, or mastering the accuracy of grammar and punctuation. When people say: “I don’t know how you teach those classes!” I hear myself thinking: “Who would want to ride a horse like that?”
Students are surely smarter and more capable than most of them imagine; it’s the history about themselves as learners that creates such doubts and shapes their approach to learning. In a first-year writing class, they are skittish, anxious, fearful of failure and looking stupid. At those moments, they remind me of Casey. I don’t know the details of their history and they don’t know me. Yet I am climbing into the metaphorical saddle with them and asking them to trust me as I encourage them to let go of negative histories and their grip on the high school five-paragraph essay. They’re not sure what it means to use their thinking to define the shape and length of an essay. “Try a new approach,” I say. “Go slower, plan, be more methodical and the result just might surprise you.”
Revising a history of learning experience is not only a challenge for students, but also one for the teacher. After years of classroom experience, we’ve learned to trust our professional judgment as we size up situations and categorize students quickly. And yet that history can lead us in the wrong direction, too. Quite a few years ago, I identified a student as recalcitrant. No matter what instruction I gave, he refused to follow it. His essays appeared to have no rhyme or reason to them. By the time I returned his second essay with a failing grade, we were at an impasse. He thought I was just unreasonable and because he was a little older than a traditional college student, male, and from a Middle Eastern country, I thought he was resisting a female teacher. When we finally sat down for an extended conversation, I learned that he was a successful writer in his native language and was following the patterns of thought valued by his culture. Those patterns, however, didn’t translate into a successful, linear American essay. Once we established the difference in expectations, he was the kind of talented writer who could shift his pattern of thinking to achieve a different kind of success. I, too, had had to shift my pattern of thinking. Where I had thought he needed strong handling, what he needed was my attention to his history.
Lesson 2: Fear of Admonishment Can Produce Mistakes
As a lesson horse, Casey had been continuously ridden by riders with any range of experience: from inexperienced ones banging around on his back and yanking at his mouth to experienced ones who used force to make him comply. Because the methods and demands shifted from one rider to the next, expectations regarding his performance also shifted. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that some of his equitation skills didn’t reflect his level of experience. As I watched Casey struggle to relearn certain basic skills, I realized that it required him to trust that he wouldn’t receive the same admonishments he had in the past – that he needn’t be anxious – that a mistake merely meant let’s try again.
Students, too, have encountered a range of methods and instructors that can result in confused learning and insecurity in basic skills. When you’re a college student, knowing you’re weak in skills everyone assumes you should have developed long before arriving in college – writing, reading, study skills, math computation – is particularly painful and humiliating. Fear of being discovered, embarrassed in front of peers, or punished, and producing low/failing grades are all too real – even for strong students. So rather than seek out the professor during office hours or use support resources offered by the institution, they struggle alone, cheat, stop attending class, or drop out. Like Casey, they produce the negative outcome they were so fearful of creating.
In my first-year writing classes, students have regular, short writing assignments before tackling an essay. This allows me to learn who they are as writers, identify and address weaknesses, and encourage them to repeat specific successes. In this way they are also practicing and developing skills needed in an extended essay. During one fall semester, a student whom I knew not to be a strong writer turned in an essay that didn’t reflect the voice or skill level demonstrated in daily homework. When I pointed out the discrepancy to him, he sheepishly admitted that his girlfriend (who was very good in English) had “helped” him – only help in this case was clearly a case of collusion.
I could have punished the student severely, but his attempts to complete daily assignments to the best of his ability and his willingness to own the truth of the essay’s composition were not evidence of a cheater. He was embarrassed by his lack of skill, fearful of failing, and – now – worried about the repercussions of his actions. As with Casey, rather than punishment, we proceeded by trying again. For the rest of the semester, instead of going to his girlfriend, he met with me several times in the planning and drafting stages of writing essays. In the process, he developed both skill and confidence. He wasn’t a great writer, but he’d become a competent one.
Lesson 3: Willingness to Try an Alternative Approach
Since Casey never knew who was going to be climbing on his back in a lesson or what would be expected of him, he developed the habit of grinding his teeth on the bit as soon as it was put in his mouth. He did this for years, even after he had become mine and I was his sole rider. What could I do to relieve him of that anxiety? Doing some research, I discovered a “bitless” bridle. Instead of giving commands through a metal bit in his mouth, this bridle applied gentle pressure to his cheeks for specific cues. It did the work of a bit but in a more soothing manner.
Students, too, develop anxieties regarding any number of academic demands, and how we choose to approach them can make all the difference. Early in my career, I viewed first-year writing courses as “gate-keeping” classes: if students couldn’t pass a college-level writing course, then they shouldn’t be in college. It was my equivalent of using a harsh bit on students. What I came to see, though, from work with Casey was that I can be demanding and hold students to high standards without taking a harsh approach.
Over the years, I’ve shifted my perspective of entry level courses from gate-keeping to gateway. I imagine myself holding a large ring of keys, each of which – once mastered – allows students to open the door to the next level and so on. It’s up to the students to decide whether they will master them. If they don’t, they don’t move forward but I have done my best to show them the way. Some might think this a simple trick of semantics, but it’s more than that when it shifts how you see students and think about the best ways to teach them.
This same shift has helped me address testing in content area courses I teach. Without a doubt, test anxiety ranks high among students so what alternatives are possible? One that I use is the open book/notebook test. Because the questions require students to apply their understanding of key concepts, they won’t find answers in their notes. However, permitting them to refer to course materials to construct responses is still an academic challenge and alleviates test anxiety. Another alternative I sometimes use (this one learned from retired Sociology professor Bob Girvan) is giving the students the option of taking a test individually or with a partner. In this scenario, students receive a list of test questions ahead of time. They may create a set of notes to bring to class with them for reference. What they don’t know, however, is which of the questions they will be asked to address at test time. This means they have to be prepared for all of them. I admit I was skeptical about this approach at first, but watching it in action convinced me it was a productive review and learning experience. It also alleviated test anxiety as students felt they had a degree of control and didn’t need to cram.
Lesson 4: Observation
Anyone who has ever had the care of an animal knows the value of observation since animals can’t tell us in words what we need to know. Unlike small animals, you can’t just run your horse to a veterinarian and farm calls are expensive. The key to caring for Casey was daily observation and remembering similar situations or behaviors and how they were dealt with so that if they appeared again I knew what to do. In some instances, Casey conveyed very clearly what a problem was, like dropping his head and waggling a sore foot at me or drawing himself up to his full height as I approached with a bottle of fly spray that irritated him (but which I hadn’t yet noticed), and staring pointedly at it and then at the hives on his flank.
Teaching, too, requires careful observation of student behavior, and just like Casey, sometimes students let us know outright what they need and other times not so clearly. Looking out into a sea of faces daily and noticing facial expressions and body language tells me whether someone is paying attention, drifting and needs to be brought back into focus, is confused and requires further clarification, or has a response and needs to be called on even though their hand isn’t raised. I can ignore the student who is in her seat on time but tearful, or I can approach her before class begins to make sure she’s okay or needs to be excused for the day. I can ignore the student who never hands in homework – after all, it’s his grade, or I can take him aside to address the issue.
For life-long academics, the world of the university is familiar terrain where we take much for granted. For a great number of Clarion students who are first-generation in college, however, it is foreign territory they haven’t yet learned to navigate. Asking for assistance by raising a hand in class or going to a professor’s office hours may feel daunting because, just by being here, they assume that everyone else assumes they know what they’re doing. This is college so they need to appear smart – whether that means fumbling about without guidance or attempting to look smart in classes in bumbling ways.
I see the latter a great deal in first-year writing courses: students writing in what they imagine to be an academic voice and inaccurately employing unfamiliar vocabulary. I could simply be critical of these efforts and grade them harshly, or recognize them for what they are: insecure writers attempting to produce what they imagine as university language. I had a discussion once with a student about the need to trust his own voice when he wrote rather than trying to write “fancy.” He was so relieved that he could use his own words that, for the rest of the semester, he joked about how he’d try to write “all fancy.” When students attempt to “do” college in the myriad ways they do, we can best help by remembering that this is new terrain for them and observing the cues their attempts reveal about what they need in the way of assistance.
Lesson 5: Compassion
Casey, like all animals, lived in the present moment, which challenged me to be in that moment with him. And since he, like all horses, could recognize and respond to facial expression and voice tones just as humans do, it meant letting go of the day’s baggage and seeing the world simply as it was when we were together.
Maybe in Plato’s perfect classroom it’s possible to teach in the moment free of the crush of deadlines, professional and daily living demands, and the messiness that is human behavior, but in reality we, students, and the space of the classroom are anything but perfect. On any given day, all we can do is our best and extend that same understanding to students, who try our patience, make dumb choices, and are juggling a range of responsibilities of their own. How we choose to present and extend ourselves to students shapes the type of relationship we have with them.
Casey and I never achieved perfection either, but we did learn to work together as partners because I chose not to see him as a “dumb” animal that needed to accept my authority. In my 41st year in the classroom, he’s still very much alive in the lessons he taught me about students and teaching.
Kathleen Welsch is a professor of English at Clarion University and also teaches in the Women & Gender Studies Program. She challenges students in all her classes to consider issues of power of language, gender, and class. Her areas of specialty are composition-rhetoric and women’s and working-class literature. She has edited the book Those Winter Sundays: Female Academics and Their Working-Class Parents. The passions in her life include teaching, writing, and life with equines and felines.