Saturday, October 21, 2017

Who? You.

The telephone in my classroom won't make outgoing calls but unfortunately, incoming are not a problem. I am setting up my classroom and I am summoned to the office. I rush out, expecting the worst. I am presented with a large box of candy bars that I am expected to sell for some fund raiser. “Didn't you get the notice in your mailbox?” I mutter something vaguely affirmative, as I likely did get the flyer, which along with all of the others I receive, I skim and relegate to the recycling box. “I really hate selling stuff. Can I just give you money?” “Yes, of course, give us money. And you have to sell all of these candy bars to your students...” I stick them on a shelf and forget about them. We're on a food and nutrition chapter and we watch a video about how much sugar foods contain. Having made the worst sales pitch in history, I whip out the box of candy bars. The students have a good laugh and buy about half of them. Olivia reads the label and points out that each bar contains 54 grams of sugar. We know that the average adult should consume no more than 25 grams of sugar in a day. Gilberto snaps his bar and holds out half to Olivia. She hesitates but then her resolve diminishes. “I eat no sugar tomorrow Teacher...”

-->

Once a month, we dismiss class two hours early to attend some acronym-I-forget meeting. Students are not informed that class is cut short as we need to register their attendance. Alex often texts me that he's missing class or arriving late due to his erratic work schedule. He is rushing toward the room as I am locking up. I go back to my class and record his attendance. I text the class a homework assignment which makes me feel a bit less guilty about the short class. The students won't complete it. They recognize a bill of goods.

I teach ESL Level 1B. There is a long list of objectives to be fulfilled in a thirteen week trimester. In order to ascend to the next level students must endure four separate tests; reading, listening, writing and speaking. The objectives are out of date and unrealistic. The testing instruments are badly produced and full of questions so tricky that I need to refer to an answer key myself. The good news is that the objectives and testing instruments are being revamped. Alternatives for submission to Downtown are being created by teachers at a number of different adult schools. At our own school, the morning and the evening instructors have different meetings. We meet for 90 minutes once a month. The first meeting is devoted to revising a fifteen page course outline. The second hour and a half is dedicated to re-writing a comprehensive battery of exams. I ask if we are planning a digital or paper test. Paper. Test booklets and Scantron forms. Oh well. It's not like we have the time and resources to create anyway substantive or relevant anyway.

I receive an email with the subject: Celebreate Adult Education and Family Literacy Week with Pearson ELT! They publish my textbook. I happen upon a Pearson rep at an adult ed conference that I attend. I show her how it is impossible, without transparencies or a digital component, to correct exercises in the workbook that accompanies the text, without tearing the pages out of the book. I keep my mouth shut about the clunky layout and cheapo illustration. The rep asks me how I like the digital platform. Apparently the textbook is now sold with a key for a website with exercises and games to augment the text. Our school still sells the version with an accompanying CD which no student ever has removed from the sealed envelope. CDs and Scantrons are about has high tech as we get at the Technology Center.

Some teachers have a real skill at designing educational materials but lots of teacher generated content I've seen on the Internet or my own campus sucks. It is very hard to find material that truly addresses adults. Even adult school teachers use childish crude illustrations and silly fonts. I spend an embarrassing amount of time looking for images to appropriate for writing prompts. I search for things that will suggest a story that students can tell using their limited vocabulary and that reproduces well in greyscale. Dorthea Lange. Nope. Ansel Adams. Nope. Walker Evans. Nope. Thomas Harte Benton illustrations? Nope. Edward Hopper? Nope. Reginald Marsh? David Hockney? Cindy Sherman? Nope. Nope. Nope. The search at least is very entertaining and concludes when I hit the motherlode. Norman Rockwell.

Last night, it's an old litho of Dad, bathrobe over a wife-beater, holding a breakfast tray aloft. A little girl hoists a handmade sign that says “Happy Birthday Mom,” and her two siblings beam. “The family is making breakfast for the mother's birthday. The dad is holding a tray. The children are very happy. They're smiling The family is very happy.”

Most of this week is spent on a dreadful practice test to prepare students for the genuine promotional test to taken in three weeks. The practice test is actually worse than the real test. I am embarrassed to pass the booklets around. For the real test, we've signed a proctoring oath. It is imperative that the test not be leaked. We are to confiscate the students' phones during test time. The threat of a 1B student advancing to 2A by nefarious means is apparently code red.

Donna works at the Fatburger in downtown. She is one of the “older ladies” who are mostly fifteen years younger than I am. Donna's been at the Fatburger for a while. She asks if I'd like a burger. I tell her that I don't eat meat so she offers a veggie burger. If it materializes the burger will have travelled on two rush hour buses and I will have to eat it, every bite. Donna attends erratically as her work hours fluctuate. Most of the young single guys do a lot better on written work than Donna and many of them speak more correctly. Donna, however is delightfully and completely unabashed about speaking English. “Me working late. Me no going to school the Tuesday.” She never speaks Spanish, even to the other students. She has resourcefully communicated to me that there's is a lot of turnover at the Fatburger and that a lot of the other workers are lazy morons. She works a lot of overtime. She's divorced. No kids. Rents a room. I love her so much that I hug her just about every night that she manages to make it to class. Still, I hope that she forgets about the burger.


Martina is put together. Always perfectly coiffed. She looks much more like a proper teacher than I do, with my hippie shirts and jeans and wild hair. Smart and poised, Martina is identified as a class leader right away. Her eldest daughter begins freshman year at the University of Santa Barbara which I make a big deal about. Because it is a big deal but most of her friends don't know what a big deal it is. When I ask the students who should represent them at the student council, Martina is the obvious choice. She attends the first meeting and returns and delivers the report, even using quite a bit of English. Later she takes me aside.
Martina: Why can't one of the young guys do the student council?
Teacher: Who?
Martina: They don't have kids. I do.
Teacher. OK. Who?
Martina: Really, have one of them do it.
Teacher: Who?
Martina: Bho.
Teacher: Owl.
Martina: Owl.

She's agrees to stay on for another meeting and then the trimester is over. There'd be a riot if she quit. We all like that she represents us with dignity and flare.


I have divided the class into four student groups based on level of ability. Each group is charged with teaching a component of material germane to the impending promotional test to their fellow classmates. The Lions are my non-readers. I think that they may be embarrassed by being clustered together but as it turns out they love being with others who also struggle with reading and writing. One of the ladies admits that my school is the first that she's ever attended. I help them pronounce sentences (which they're remarkably good at) and copy questions (which they're remarkably bad at—but getting better). I have a teacher texting app on their phones and I text them little recordings of English conversations to practice and make them handwriting worksheets to take home. They're very nervous about speaking before the whole class but I know they'll be fine.

The Pandas are the middle of the road group, all male and disorganized. They need to write a story about a woman doing housework but daydreaming about riding a horse up to a castle. The Pandas produce a couple of lame sentences. The lady she washing dishes. The lady she do the laundry. “Use your imagination. I-MAG-IN-ATION. It's a cognate.” I suggest that perhaps the woman is pissed off because she knows that her husband is over at his girlfriend's. They're on a roll now.

The high performing Tigers (nee Butterflies) are in full production mode. They've got a good shooting script that will teach the class imperatives. They've declined my offers of assistance, as have the top of the line Bees who busily create a lesson about ordering at a restaurant. I try to make preparing for the onerous and incessant tests as productive as possible but still the relentless testing is an obstacle to students getting what they actually want and need, which for most of them is to speak and understand.

I give them a big lecture about how it's ok to ask for clarification. I explain that even as a native speaker I often don't hear or understand what I am being told, my decrepitude tacit. We write down and practice “Excuse me?” “Please repeat that.” “I don't understand.” “I didn't hear.” “Pardon me.?” Sometimes I know that they're just humoring me and barely able to stay awake. But giving them permission to persist in exercising their right to understand seems to have resonated.


After a week of testing we play a simple speaking game. I have a Powerpoint and everyone has to say one thing about a picture. We're all relaxed and having fun and I manage to get every student to pipe up. Such a tiny thing is so exhilarating. More and more I can compartmentalize the little things that tick me off. It's sort of like a reality show where you're challenged to do your best with what you have. The administration is intimidating but as my jitters subside, my priorities are more shaped by my students and not the bureaucracy on high. With less than a month left, I'm finally getting to know most of my forty-plus students. Many of them are certain to advance to the next level. The Bees and Tigers are definitely going and most of the Pandas will squeak through. I feel bittersweet about the Lions. As a whole, they have the best attendance and work the hardest. They are respectful and appreciative. For most of them, simply being able to write a legible sentence is a huge accomplishment. I hate to tell them that their herculean efforts are inadequate for promotion, but I'm glad to keep them for another term.