Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Ladder

I report happily that after a week of normalcy, it appears that miraculously, Jerry the cat has made a full recovery. He is off of the fresh turkey and back on a cat food diet and has even been subjected to the dreaded squirt bottle for excessive naughtiness. My cat hating students however have had a tough time. It is the week of promotional testing. I spend a week and a half preparing and carefully creating lessons that cover the material that's on the four different sections of the test; reading, listening, speaking and writing.

I write a script that resembles the one given for the promotional test and read it while they answer a series of questions. For the speaking test we break into conversation groups and I hop from table to table listening to them talk about themselves. About half of the students have more than ten siblings. I have a rudimentary understanding of Spanish and have spent time in Mexico and Guatemala so I am not totally unfamiliar with my students' culture but the dynamics of these giant families are unfathomable to me.

I make a silly Powerpoint game with commands and divide them into teams. “Shake hands with everyone on the other team.” “Throw out the teacher's Coke Zero can.” “Erase everything on the board that's in green ink.” Some of the commands are a bit advanced for a 1B class but I am impressed by the way they collaborate and figure it all out.

In order to provide as much time for review as possible, I plan on completing all four sections of the test in one class session, on the day before the results are to be submitted. The day of the test, Penny, the teacher next door, tells me to dismiss early for a mandatory meeting. Penny has been helpful to me but she can also be a bit bossy and officious. When I suggest to her that I might be a few minutes late to the meeting she responds, “I highly suggest you not be.” I nearly blow a gasket and rush the students through as many facets of the testing as possible. When I've let them work on their tests to the last possible moment I hastily lock up my classroom and actually run to the office. Of course, I am the first to arrive. It is about fifteen minutes before the actually meeting starts and the entire content of it could have been easily disseminated in a four sentence e-mail.

The testing materials are antiquated and printed booklets look like 5th generation photocopies. Some of the questions are very confusing and the breadth of proficiency expected is impossible to cover, at least by this admittedly inexperienced teacher, in a thirteen week session. Most students are not able to attend every session and we frequently dismiss early for meetings of dubious usefulness.

Most scary for the students is a speaking test. Students, in pairs, are called to sit with me at a table. First they are presented with a drawing of a family and they take turns describing it. Then, I ask each to describe his or her own family. There is a section that covers imperatives. They are to give and follow commands. “Pick up her pencil.” “Sign your name.” The test concludes with a picture of a school which students are required to ask questions about. Even the articulate, more advanced students are sweating and trembling. No one is able to speak with the same ease they've demonstrated to me in casual conversation.

For the listening section, a 25 minute, poorly recorded, CD is required. Conversations and short stories are read and the students answer questions in a booklet. I differ on a couple of the answers and some of the illustrations are of lousy quality and difficult to make out. The reading section is equally confusing and some of the questions, including several that include the past tense, are way beyond the scope of Level 1B.

I presume that the top five students will ace all four sections of the test. Some of them are great on the speaking test but show scores on the reading and listening that are just barely passing. My impulse is to promote a couple who don't score well on the tests but have worked their butts off in the class. I realize, however that as horrible as telling them they're not being promoted will be, Level Two might prove frustrating to the point of causing students to drop out.

The widely held sentiment is that a first year teacher is virtually useless and I resemble that remark. The good is that I've figured out that a lot of learning can be accomplished when the students are having fun. Games are much more effective than endlessly repeating stultifying conversations from the textbook. I won't find out if I'm returning to teach until mid-August, just a few days before the new semester begins. If I am lucky enough to be given another chance I've figured out a number of things that I can improve on.

The class officially begins at 6 but the students straggle in. I've taken to writing the name of the first to arrive on the board and giving this student a small crappy prize. For this semester, when my students walk in they are to take a worksheet which is a review of the previous day's lesson. I know that a review is important but I think I'll assign these worksheets as homework. This will give me a chance to go over these assignments with the early arrivals and actually engage them in one-to-one communication.

For students who attend only sporadically, there's very little that can be accomplished beyond a couple vocabulary words. Of the core group of regulars I realize that I've let the more advanced students dictate the flow. If I do return in August there will be iPads available every couple of weeks and a new textbook with a digital component. I think having the students work at their own pace digitally for reading, grammar and civics lessons will be incredibly effective. Even though we'll only have the iPads once in a while, there will be much more opportunity for reinforcement and expansion for students on their cellphones or home computers. Given the huge disparities in educational background, English proficiency and class attendance I think I can do the most for the most if I were able to focus more on conversation than grammar drills.


Lydia is back after being gone a few weeks. Even after an absence she is still one of the top five. One night she's decked out in a skin tight day-glo Lululemon sort of workout outfit. Another evening she is sort of a goth school girl in a plaid skirt, tights full of runs and black knee boots decorated with heavy silver buckles. She is nervous about the tests and when I assure her that she's passed she freaks out and says she's afraid to go on to Level 2 and prefers to stay in Level 1B. Lydia knows in her heart that she is ready to move on but she finds it more satisfying to be the best rather than possibly flounder in a more level playing field. I try hard not to demonstrate favoritism but I relate particularly to Lydia, the only only child in the class, too invested in and micromanaging how others perceive her.

Heidi, as expected, completely sucks at the speaking test. And I'm still not sure if she's pregnant. She scores ok on the reading and listening portions and her writing isn't bad. Husband Eduardo is absent, working at his restaurant job, for most of the review days. He is so tightly wrapped that he botches the speaking test. I am surprised to see that he scores low on the listening portion while scoring nearly 100% on the reading. They are both so borderline that I agonize about promoting them. I have the opportunity to have the Level 2 teacher review my student's tests to help me decide if they're ready for next level. Therefore, I can say, almost honestly, “It's not up to me, another teacher has to sign off on your readiness.” But, as much as I hate hurting their feelings I'm going to go through test scores with the individual students to give each a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Political Juan does poorly on the reading and listening tests and like some of the other low level students doesn't show up on the night of the speaking test. Most ESL students never get beyond Level 1 and after my own struggle with Italian I get a sense of how daunting it is for an adult to learn a second language.

Most of the other teachers have taught for decades and I'm sure the students all bleed together. As I am new and have pursued the teaching for reasons of personal fulfillment I wonder if in some way I've exploited my students. Perhaps the businesslike dispassionate lifer teachers are more effective. As I've had inadequate time of focus on conversation and I worry about the students losing ground during the summer I am considering holding an informal weekly meeting at a local coffee shop where students can drop in and practice their English. But I worry that this is unprofessional and perhaps self-serving. Still, it would be nice to just sit and chat with them.

Maria Banford's new Netflix series is somewhat difficult, ala Louis CK. In one episode, Maria becomes a spokeswoman for a Target-like store and is sent to a factory in Mexico to teach ESL to the workers. There is a weird sense that white folks are inculcating Hispanics into our language and culture in order that they conform and do our bidding. When I first started teaching at Roosevelt, over thirty years ago, the inability to speak English was much more of an impediment than it is today. I hope that I am helping to open doors and that some of my students will actually slog through six levels of ESL and head on to higher education or vocational trainings. For some, a little command of English will just help with kids and homework. As our school has no literacy classes, some will be forever baffled by ESL 1 and ultimately, I imagine just give up, in frustration.

My students, for the most part, go to work but for their lives, they stay in Boyle Heights and Spanish speaking areas that are adjacent. They have different reasons for wanting to learn English but for most, there is no urgency. I guess it's arrogant of me to assume that inculcating them with my language and culture provides the keys to the kingdom. I start the semester on a low, at a time, when still in the empty nest doldrums I experience the loss of my friend Richard, the brother I never had. Perhaps my own neediness has left vulnerable to becoming overly romantic and grandiose. I suppose a few more years of teaching might toughen me up and I'll become more professional but also more cynical like most of my colleagues. Next week I box up the surprising amount of stuff I've accumulated after only thirteen weeks in my classroom. Perhaps it, like the remnants of other forgotten projects, will molder in the garage for decades. But, even with the risk of burn out, I hope I'll be schlepping all that crap back in August.