What To Do With Students Who Are Way Too Smart For School?


OrtizBy Jenny Ortiz

Smart-ass. Too harsh? We’v all had the wise guy, the smart aleck, the know it all in the class who spends more time disrupting the class than learning. They’re smart but they end up either failing the course or passing by the skin of their teeth because they’re too smart for the class.

Every professor has experienced this kind of student, but as a Freeway Flyer, I’ve discovered that I experience these students more often than most. For example, last semester I had three of them. Surprisingly, getting them motivated is quite simple but I did have to put in extra time and effort. The know it all, the smart aleck, and the smart ass became terms of pride not of frustration.

Before I can explain how I went about helping my three students last semester, I have to explain the first student I met who was far more intelligent than the class. We met at LaGuardia Community College in an English remedial course. From the first day, it was obvious that this student was well read, and his writing was superb.  It was obvious he would pass the ACT exam, but he was so bored with the material that he was sure to fail the class if I didn’t do something. Before class, I began engaging him in conversations  about books, even recommending him my favorite authors.

Soon, he handed in every assignment and rather than make snarky remarks in class was helping me with the material. My simple interest in his reading habits changed his attitude. There was someone who wanted him to succeed and who was interested in his intelligence. I wasn’t trying to pigeonhole him; rather I wanted him to explore his intelligence via the material I was presenting in class.

My experience with this student helped me immensely when I encountered three of his kind in one semester. All three were smart, and wanted to learn but were in the wrong class. The problem was they had to take the course in order to fulfill their requirement.

At Adelphi, my student was a breath of fresh air; she had a remark for all my jokes and all my examples. Her writing was not only original and smart, but there was a easy sense of humor that made her writing enjoyable to read. She did all the assignments required but I could see she wanted to be challenged.

For the last assignment, when I heard she was doing her essay on war movies, I asked her if she wanted to interview some war veterans. That one suggestion grabbed her attention. For the first time I saw her outside her element and it made her passionate about what she was creating. She asked questions, and she worried about how to interview each veteran. This is a student that always had thoughtful essays and responses, but this assignment had  her work hard and dedicate herself to the writing she was doing.

The next student I encountered that semester was at St. John’s. Once again, I had a student with a large vocabulary,well read and who had a beautiful sense of written creativity. Of course he did! He took all his classes backwards. Rather than take my 1100 class first, he took it last in his academic career. What to do? He enjoyed the readings I gave in class, but he would’ve found the class a joke had I not accepted his request. A fan of Davide Foster Wallace, he asked if we could read him in class. I agreed and from that moment, he saw me as an ally, not a professor he had to suffer with. His essays became more than simple responses he could do in twenty minutes before class. He was careful with his language, and pulled references from other literature. In his writing was that desire to challenge me and in doing so, he had to challenge himself.

Finally, my favorite student of the semester was a student at LaGuardia, a non traditional, ex marine who was ready to learn but once again was placed in the wrong class. From the very beginning, I knew if I didn’t keep his attention, he’d disappear into his outside responsibilities and though he’d passed the CATW, he’d leave without learning something and be quite disillusioned with school.

He wanted me to have his attention; he wanted to learn, but unlike my other two smart alecks, he had a family and had experienced more of the world than most, which gave him good excuses to walk out of class, to make smart remarks in class, and to believe if I didn’t teach him something than he would have to do it on his own.

Our breakthrough was when I became interested in his creative writing. Through his creative writing, I was able to teach him the basic writing skills I needed to teach him, while also challenging him. Something changed in him. He wanted to write. He wanted to read. Though I’d always had his respect, he began seeing me as a teacher who he didn’t have to school but rather would take something from.

All three of these students could have failed the class. Had I took their need for challenge as disrespect, my experience as well as theirs would have been awful. They would have passed by the skin of their teeth and I would’ve left frustrated. Everyone involved would’ve failed, however, by seeing their need to learn, I made the experience something enjoyable.

As always, what are your thoughts? Have you ever experienced this kind of student and how did you handle it?

About the Freeway Flyer:Jenny Ortiz is a quite serious 23 year old New Yorker, except when unicorns (specifically chubby unicorns) are involved. When she isn’t pleading with Kurt Sutter via Twitter to be her mentor, she is teaching at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and LaGuardia Community College (see, quite serious). When she isn’t teaching, she’s hanging out with her friends showing off  earth and water bending skills (not serious, but super fun).  When she is alone and it’s raining, she likes to read Haruki Murakami, or listen to the Broken Bells and daydream.  If you want to be a fan, you can read Jenny’s work on fictionatwork.com, Blink-ink.com, Jersey Devil Press, dogeatcrow.com, Eighty Percent Magazine and InkSpill Magazine…or you can follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/jnylynn.

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