Friday, March 18, 2016

St. Patrick's Day in Boyle Heights

After two weeks of adult school teaching I have a one week vacation. I am relieved but concerned about my stamina when I return for a ten week stretch. I discover that I am likely not eligible to teach summer school and am not grief stricken. I am trying to be good-natured and focus on the students but worrying about planning effective lessons and witnessing the district's ineptitude and the squandering of resources I spend much of the time outside of the classroom in a petulant, irritated state.

I am out of the loop timeline-wise but I know that California pretty much decimated adult education and many schools were closed. Then, there was a reorganization. Instead of individually administered schools, the division has been divided into ten service areas each with a single principal. A service area operates a number of schools and satellite classes. I teach at Roosevelt Adult School, which is on the campus of Roosevelt High. The school is administered by the East Los Angeles Service Area. Also under the aegis of this service area are the Eastside Learning Center, The East Los Angeles Occupational Center and the East Los Angeles Skill Center.

As a native English speaker and long time Internet user the Service Area website is confounding and in a microscopic font. It takes me far more time that it should to locate the street addresses for these three unique East-side facilities. The reason that I need find these individual branches is that there is a form that I must sign in person at one school. I ask if perhaps a scan might be acceptable or if the form can be sent to me at my school location but there is no flexibility. The teacher's edition for my textbook is at another one of the Easts. I am eager for it so I brave rush hour traffic to fetch it and arrive at my own class winded, with just seconds to spare. As it turns out, the teacher's edition provides almost no enrichment for the coursework. Finally, I am issued a district laptop from the third facility. Unfortunately, the processor is about fifteen years old so it's useless.

Students are issued a five part carbonized forms when they register. I am to collect the blue (bottom) copy when the students arrive at my class, although the forms are all illegible. These are the student copies and I am to receive a different copy at some point and return the blue copies to the students. The first week I just have the students sign in on a blank sheet of paper and record the total number in the office before leaving the school.

The second week I am issued a printed bubble-in attendance sheet with several pages of instructions. In two weeks I am to attend a workshop, crosstown, to be trained to complete computerized attendance. As it turns out, about half of my students, including sweet Maria who helps me clean up and hugs me every night after class, are enrolled incorrectly. My roll sheet, I learn has one seven digit number that represents level 1A and a different for 1B. The other teachers are annoyed that I haven't noticed this error, despite having had the attendance sheet for only a day and being completely unfamiliar with this coding process. The counselor comes in and tells me to send about half of my class to the office. I note that one woman is quite advanced and has no trouble keeping up with the best students but I am told that she will not be able to advance without taking a test.

Part of my processing at the district, even though I will be working only with adults, consists of watching a video about mandatory child abuse reporting. As soon as I receive my district e-mail address, I am notified that I must also complete an additional online course on child abuse reporting, which I do and am issued a certificate for. On Tuesday I am informed that there is a mandatory meeting the following day. I dismiss class early and go to one of the Easts (Occupational Center, I think). We are handed sheaths of color printed copies. The exact material is also on a Powerpoint presentation which is read aloud. There is a group discussion. We are given different scenarios and are to discuss whether the situation merits mandatory reporting. Unfortunately, the scenarios lack salient details, like the ages of the kids involved, so it most cases it is impossible to make determinations. The assistant principal moderating the session is wishy washy and non-committal.

After the child abuse section is complete, there is a safety presentation. Again, there's a big stack of color printed (and illegible) copies accompanied by an identical Powerpoint presentation and again, we read aloud from the screen. We are instructed about the dangers of slipping on ice or standing on the top rung of a ladder. I understand that the district has a legal obligation to provide mandatory child abuse and safety training but I am disgusted by the amount of wasted manpower and paper. I think how much easier and effectively these requirements could be fulfilled online with a video presentation followed by a series of questions.

The actual teaching is hit and miss. I've struggled with the disparate level of ability, not realizing that about half of my students have been in too advanced a class for the last two weeks. The text and workbooks offend me aesthetically but the coverage of basic concepts isn't bad. The accompanying audio CD has singing exercises, called “Grammar Rap,” that I could live without. This week we work on “this/that” and “these/those.” My Hispanic students struggle with the “th” sound and it often comes out sounding like a “d”. I get right down in their faces and show them where my tongue hits my teeth and this results in an improvement and obligates me to purchase of breath mints in Costco quantities.

I listen to Spanish language radio. I try to avoid using Spanish while teaching but before and after class there are questions that are too complicated for my students to express with their limited English. Spanish talk radio also gives me an insight into the priorities of the L.A. Hispanic community. Despite my first grade Spanish, it is clear, even on ostensibly neutral newscasts, that there is widespread fear and hatred of Trump. I try to break down the complicated election and I can tell by the body language that I've engaged the class. The next night I print out a schedule of state primaries and caucuses and delegate numbers. This proves to be too much information and they are confused and bored.

It's hard to figure out what's going to work and what isn't. Some of the lessons to augment the textbook that I spend hours creating, bomb. One of the best sessions is spent pretty much just using the textbook. More than anything, I want a document projector that I can connect to my laptop. When hired for the position I am informed that my classroom is equipped with this but it isn't the case. I am told by various functionaries that there are none, they are all being repaired or that I'd have to requisition one, which would take about a year. I am about to purchase my own on Ebay. There is yet another form to sign at one of the Easts. I recognize an assistant principal I'd met before and she informs me that there is a document presenter and projector with my name on it at another of the Easts.

I pick up the equipment, and being more than a little technologically challenged, I bring it to my office for instruction. My employees painstakingly label and number all of the connections and I practice again and again putting everything together, operating it and then breaking it down to go back in the case.

I wait for the connector for my Macbook and I use just the projector in the classroom to project pages from the textbook, writing the correct answers on a transparency. Unfortunately, the only markers I have are super thick so I project the page from the book covered with thick black illegible blobs. There are only thick pens in the office. And when I inquire about cleaning the used transparencies I am told to use baby wipes. So, as is the case with much of the material needed to use in the classroom, I buy my own.

The last night before vacation is St. Patrick's Day. I tell all of the students to wear green. I bake a batch of shamrock cookies and feel superior when I notice that the teacher next door has purchased hers from the Ralph's. A little party the night before spring vacation seems entirely appropriate but all that my students know about St. Pats is that people get drunk. There are a lot of teaching materials on the net but the low level reading stuff is juvenile and the more sophisticated material is way beyond their grasp. I've never done a Powerpoint presentation but I cobble one together that emphasizes the experiences of Irish immigrants to America. I find videos and images and music, figuring that we'll devote the last hour of class to this presentation. Number One Son, realistically appraising my technological retardedness, suggests I not attempt to embed any video into the presentation and instead, just stream it from the cloud.

Having no faith in my electronic capabilities, I prepare some worksheets about St. Pat's, just in case the Powerpoint won't play. As I get ready to leave, I spill a whole glass of iced coffee all over the lessons and have to rush to reprint them. Un-caffinated, I hurry off to school. I will add that the iced coffee ruins the remote, a huge annoyance, despite my curtailed TV watching.

I have not used my laptop in conjunction with the projector. I arrive at school and am told that there is indeed wifi but that there's only one teacher who can successfully input the password. I carry my laptop to him and he, from memory, enters a string of about 30 characters, and voila! I am online. Unfortunately, the district wifi blocks my access to the cloud. I figure out however how to use my phone as a hotspot.

The students enjoy the presentation. Irish dancing, not particularly my cup of tea, is a huge hit and they're astounded to see the Chicago River dyed green for St. Pats. The tour of the Guinness Factory is received with particular enthusiasm.  Later in the class, as vocabulary proves challenging I am able to pull up Google images of fairies, monasteries and ribbons. Chatting with another teacher, he reveals that there's been a projector and document reader in his class all year, but he doesn't use them. Having mastered the projector, I can't imagine not having Internet access in the classroom.

Attendance was hugely important during my previous teaching stint. If your class attendance dipped below fifteen, you were out. This is no longer the focus. What's important now are how the students fare on a series of tests. The curriculum states the objectives and even indicates how much class time should be devoted to each skill. The textbook contains only a portion of the material that the students are expected to master. It concerns me, as a virtual neophyte, that the supplemental materials I provide are effective. And, as the teacher's manual for my text is quite spartan, I worry too that I am using the textbook to optimum advantage.

I'm sure I'm more apprehensive about the testing process than the students are. Use of the computer and projector will likely increase my effectiveness but I still feel very green. Three decades ago when I began teaching, I was told that for all intents and purposes, a first year teacher is useless. Due to the sea change in adult education this is the equivalent, I guess, of a first year. Most of my students come straight from work, some still in uniform. The $40 cost of the textbook is a hardship for many. I know that my lack of recent experience is a huge impediment and it will break my heart if anyone in my class isn't advanced to the next level. Maria tells me that she's going to study as hard as she can in order to pass the test to qualify for my class. We both have our work cut out for us.

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