A Prayer for Jennifer

I will call her Jennifer. I was thinking about her a couple of days ago when I fixed up a neglected corner of my garage, a corner where my children and their friends had penciled in their names and some attempts at adolescent humor. “Jennifer was here” was written next to a heart.

My wife and I met Jennifer soon after our younger son entered high school and needed a ride for his first date. My wife was their chauffeur, and she told me that Jennifer was a wonderful, sweet girl from a very nice family. Their dating relationship, like so many at that age, did not last all that long, but they remained very good friends. She was frequently among those who hung around our house, which for some reason was the place to be for that group. She was a friend to both my sons, and we were always glad to see her.

But gradually she drifted away. It had been several years since we had seen her when she appeared unexpectedly at our door one evening. She had heard that our sons had returned home for the holidays, and she wondered if they were in. They were. They were both surprised to see her, for they had not heard from her in a long time. They later told me that it seemed as if she were trying to get back in touch with old friends and renew old relationships. She seemed to be in a strange mood. I happened to be by the front door hours later when she left, and we talked for a few minutes. I told her how good it was to see her again.

From everything I learned later, that was the last conversation she had before her boyfriend, a drug dealer who was apparently very high himself, tied her up, tortured her, and shot her in the back of the head with a large caliber hand gun. She was dead less than a half hour after we talked.

Jennifer’s life path had taken a different direction from when we had known her.

When I was done with the garage, I returned to work on the design of an online education course in marine science. I was trying to add the usual motivational and engaging elements, but the memory of my last conversation with Jennifer kept interrupting my work. I wondered what kind of engaging elements I could add that would capture the imagination of students whose life paths had taken such intense directions. I thought of all the high school students who had failed in classes I had taught or in schools I had administered. I could not think of any who truly failed for reasons related to ability. All had failed because they had not been engaged with their learning. All had decided, whether they knew it or not, that something else in their lives was more important than the time and effort needed for academic success.

High schools struggle to get failing students graduated so that they can meet state-mandated graduation rates. Colleges and universities carefully select applicants to be sure that they have the ability to succeed at that school, and yet they frequently graduate only half or less of those capable students. College dropouts rarely leave because the work was too hard for them. It is almost always because something in their private lives has intruded into their academic world.

The question I ask myself is, To what degree should we in education be concerned with this?

Some argue it is not our concern. A teacher with a high failure rate was asked what she was doing for the students who were failing her class, and she said, “I barely have enough time to help the students who are here to learn. I don’t have any time left for those who aren’t.” She was talking to the parent of a failing student at a parent-teacher conference. A friend of mine who was on the accreditation visiting team for the school at which this teacher taught said this teacher’s views were the norm there. He said the school’s motto should be, “A school for the academically gifted, self-directed student, and the rest of you can just plain go to Hell.”

Other educators differ, believing it is our job to do all we can to motivate and engage the students who will fail without that motivation and engagement. We hear such people talk of educating the whole child. The title of my column reflects this belief.

I have mentioned in the past that Dr. Clayton Christensen has predicted that the technology associated with online learning will “disrupt” traditional education because it will soon be able to provide individualization to meet the learning needs of each student. He is talking about the learning needs of students who are trying to learn and will learn if only the instruction were properly designed. I wonder if technology can go beyond that and help re-engage those whose lives have twisted them away from education almost entirely. I am sure many of these students would like to renew their old relationship with education, and they could do so with the right help and encouragement. Can technology provide that sort of help? Can technology engage such a student the way Christensen sees it adapting to learning styles?

As I painted my garage, the hardest part was covering over “Jennifer was here.” Yes, Jennifer, you were here. And now you’re gone. Is there something my sons or I could have said or done that night to save you? Were you asking for help, and did we miss your call? That question has haunted me for years.

And how about all the Jennifers in our classes? Are we missing their calls? Is it our job to hear it? And, if so, how can we help?

4 Responses

  1. John*, this article moved me more than any other that we’ve published in ETC. As educators, I think we’re all going to be moved to recall all the students who slipped through our fingers because we “didn’t make the time” to engage them. I think most of us will feel defensive, arguing “That’s not our job!” But the argument will pale in light of the reality that our educational system, K-16, ultimately fails those who need it most. I hope this article will serve as a catalyst for a genuine discussion on how we can use technology to overcome the obstacles that prevent traditional systems from responding to those issues that create the Jennifers in our schools and colleges. Thank you. -Jim S
    (* This message was originally emailed to John. I decided to post a copy here, too. -js)

    • John,

      I think your article touches on many issues that are relevant to teacher education in today’s world and the culture of high-stakes testing and standardization and education as business.

      I teach students who are studying to be teachers and one of the things I tell them is that they are not going to be teaching Engilsh or science or whatever; they are going to be teaching children and young people. It takes many of them aback. Like the teacher you quoted, they do not have that perspective of what it means to be an educator.

      While I am an advocate of technology inside and outside the classroom, I do not believe it is the panacea for all the ills of education. However, I think that it can be used more effectively to help engage all students in different ways than they are being engaged now. A teacher should use many tools, and I think that technology has the potential for being one among many.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Lynn

  2. Lynn, I agree. Technology is not the answer to all of the woes in education. And technology alone isn’t going to be enough to engage the alienated.

    But I believe it’s a tool that opens possibilities that aren’t available in solely in-person approaches.

    For example, if the cause for alienation is a lack of engagement with college peers in and out of the classroom, then a student services department could consider a system of online peer engagement groups (PEGs) led by specially trained student advisors. The advisors could serve on a voluntary basis (for service-learning credit) or with part-time pay.

    All incoming students could be assigned to a peer advisor (PA), and each PA could work with, say, 30 students. The PAs could remain with the program even after they transfer to 4-year or grad institutions since all interactions would be managed via the web.

    If all students were required to develop and maintain online electronic portfolios in a blog medium, they could make these accessible to their PEGs and their PAs. This way, they could share their progress and problems as well as personal concerns with a “home” group that will gradually bond.

    With the help of these online “friends” available 24/7 via asynchronous discussion forums, perhaps students in crisis would be better able to cope with their personal emergencies. When need arises, a small group could meet in a synchronous chat room to talk through a problem.

    The PAs could serve as facilitators rather than sages, and in their training, they could be taught to identify students who need assistance beyond the expertise and capabilities of the group.

    With the PEG system in place, the college’s professional counselors (PCs) could be freed from a chunk of time traditionally devoted to monitoring students. The PEG portfolios could also be designed to automatically generate electronic reports and summaries to be evaluated and overseen by PCs.

    The PEGs could serve as a kind of triage system. They would free PCs to work, one-on-one, with students who really need their attention. These meetings could be F2F or electronic, depending on the need.

    Teachers who are on the frontlines could also feed into the PEG system by sharing their classroom-generated concerns with PAs and PCs, who would, in turn, work with the target student.

    I can imagine PEG members using cell phones to assist one another. Some might even form in-person subgroups that would add another layer of bonding.

    By helping others or observing how others are able to work through personal issues, others in the group could learn invaluable skills that are applicable to their own conditions.

    The PEG net could be expanded even further, involving parents and professionals in the community, but, of course, these would have to be well planned.

    The PEGs could also serve academic functions, but their primary purpose would be to provide friendships that would sustain and heal.

    In some cases, colleges might consider avatars and pseudonyms to protect the privacy of students in PEGs, but the rules for these could be flexible, allowing for F2F meetings when appropriate.

    This is an imaginary scenario, a vision of how technology might be used to create a wide network to support the psycho-social health of all students. It’s a model of how technology, in tandem with peers and professionals, could be used to address the potential Jennifers on our campuses.

    These PEGs would more than likely need to be adjusted for K-12 students. But different versions for these age groups could be just as effective.

    -Jim S

    • I really like some of the thoughts here. Years ago, long before technology gave me an alternative such as you describe, I used to have students keep journals, telling me that “nearly) anything they wrote in it was between them and me. (Exceptions awee crimes and what I am about to describe.)

      One weekend I took the journals home to read, and for some reason I delved into them on a Saturday evening. (That should tell you something about my social life.) I was reading one girl’s final entry before she turned it in, and it said something like this, “I hope you don’t read this before Sunday, because by then I will be dead.”

      Not having any access to an address, I called the school principal, who quickly got me a home phone number. I called and talked to the father, who acted immediately and was able to stop a planned suicide. Her entry said she hoped I would not read it before Sunday, but I am sure she meant the opposite. Her entry was a hope that I would indeed read it in time to stop her, and it was just by chance that I did.

      For a few years the area in which I worked led the nation in successful teen suicides. During that time I had a surprisingly large number of students take similar subtle steps to get my attention. For example, one very bright student I had previously had in an advanced literature class took a seat near me and read Hamlet, a play we had studied. Only he never turned the page. And then he got up and took a walk, leaving the book open to that page. I took it as a signal and looked at it, seeing he was reading the “To be or not to be” soliloquy over and over again,. (That passage is a contemplation of suicide.) He clearly wanted me to see it., and in the aftermath I learned that he had already bought the gun with which he was planning to kill his entire family when they visited his newly quadriplegic brother in the hospital that afternoon. His subtle clue was his way of begging me to stop him.

      If we can find a good way to provide this sort of systematic support for people who desperately want us to bring them back, I think it will be great.

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