There are a number of mandated tests that I'm not crazy about giving but Chapter 10 has been such a struggle that I want to gauge the students' mastery. I print out some materials for them to review over the weekend and prepare a Monday warmup worksheet that parallels the test closely. On the big night there is the lowest attendance of the term. Only the smart students show up. Eduardo, university educated but in the U.S. for only a month, does very well but his face seizes in disgust when I point out a couple of minor errors. His wife, Heidi is less successful but also less perturbed by her results. I'm still not sure if she's pregnant. Her accent is thick and her pronunciation isn't the best but she has no compunction about speaking. Sensing her strength of ego I am less hesitant to correct her and make her pronounce “Thursday” a dozen times to break her from saying “Terdsday.” Heidi assertively summons me to her desk when she's struggling with something. Eduardo peers over her work and she hisses at him, “I want to ask HER.”
The week's big hurdle “I drive the car.--I drive IT.” “She drives the car.--She drives IT.” “She drives Susie to school. She drives HER.” I run through the exercises in the book and it's still not really happening. I print sentences like “She calls her grandparents every weekend.” and “She calls them every weekend.,” on cards. I make a concentration type game where they have to match two sentences that agree. They're instructed to turn the cards face down, turn two over, and take them if they match and turn them back over if they don't. Lydia, the best student in the class, plays a couple of games but is bested by one of the coat ladies, whose level of English is quite low. The team continues to play enthusiastically but Lydia is using the translator on her phone and composing elaborate sentences in her workbook. “You don't like the game?” I ask. “I'm bored,” she claims, but I suspect she's thinking, “I totally own this stuff so what's the difference if I can't remember where the damn cards are?” The winning players do not reflect the most advanced students in the class. I realize that I would suck at Concentration and sense that this is somehow neurologically connected to why I suck at math. Some of the students, no matter how many dialogues we repeat, or examples I write on the board, don't understand the weirdness of English verbs, yet easily remember the location of the cards and match up the pronouns.
Back in elementary school, when there was a sub, we played Heads Up Seven Up by the stultifying hour. Since then I guess I've had it in my head that classroom games are fluff. But for my adult ESL students, games are probably the most effective learning tools I have. The frisson of competition insures a firm focus. Because it's all play, it's ok if you screw up. Everyone is really rooting for you. A little bit of geniality and high spirits is tonic. And if you win the teacher gives you a plastic comb from China or an Angry Birds eraser. The bit of fun conviviality helps motivate people, weary from a day's work, to drag their tired asses back to the classroom.
Students are tested on a Civics topic during every thirteen week session. Mine are to be tested on some DMV topics next week. We practice highway signs and signals. There is a limited selection of signs and signals in the Division handout. I think it thoughtless that one of the few chosen ones is the sign used near the Mexican border to warn about people running across the freeway. Another unit is about different types of vehicles. I print pictures of RVS, police cars and garbage trucks and make a powerpoint to teach the vocabulary. I show them a map of the neighborhood and drill on the points of the compass. Each student is given a map of Boyle Heights with a red arrow drawn on a different street, a picture of a type of vehicle and a phone number. I recruit Himself, Number One Son and patient friend Laura to field some calls. The pretend 911 operators are warned that these are Level ONE ESL students and to STICK TO THE SCRIPT.
Operator: Not the Police. May I help you?
Student: There's been an accident.
Operator: What is your name? (make them spell it if you don't understand them)
Student-(will practice spelling name with teacher before calling)
Operator: What's your phone number.
Student-(will practice reciting phone number before calling)
Operator-What type of vehicle?
Student-(the name of the vehicle on the picture)
Student-Going (north,south, east or west) based on the direction of the red arrow, on (the name of the street marked in red) on your map.
Operator-Thank you. Goodbye.
Student-Thank you. Goodbye.
Laura, understanding that these are students who have studied English for less than three months, sticks to script. The students are largely successful and Laura's only suggestion is that they slow down a bit on the phone numbers. Himself and the lad however decide that the script is not a realistic depiction of a 911 call. Of course it isn't. They are Level 1B LOW ESL students. When they report accidents, they speak Spanish.
The script is practiced in pairs and I listen to each of them run through it half a dozen times. The students exude acrid sweat. The prospect of speaking English to a stranger is terrifying. Jaime worries, “What if they don't understand me, Teacher? “Just say, “I'm only Level One,” nice and slow.
Eugenia, one of the coat ladies, probably has the lowest level of literacy of all my 1Bs. She shares text and workbooks with the other students until Penny next door finds some well worn copies that we slip to her. Whenever there's an assignment in the workbook she dutifully erases the page and then copies over the traces of a former student's work. I always make sure that anything we do using cellphones is a group activity. Eugenia has no phone.
The phone call exercise, like Concentration, brings out the best in a number of low level students. Heidi, licking a lollypop, speaks to Number One Son. She is chirpy, giggly and confident. Her name is transcribed by my boy as “Haiti.” Eugenia writes her responses to the questions in her raggedy printing, next to her picture of a police car. I let her use my phone and dial Himself. Eugenia is at ease and spells her name clearly. Himself hounds her about what SHE is driving although she's crisply stated “police car” when asked the type of vehicle.
It is the week of Talk to Me Thursday, a bi-weekly activity intended to engage the students from all six levels of ESL. My contribution is a scavenger hunt. This week is Make Mine Bingo. There is a grid with questions for the students to answer. I'm not crazy about the age and shoe size squares but there are some great opportunities for conversation in these big festive talk-a-thons. We work on completing the grid over a couple of days. I notice that almost all of the zumba nuts are older than I'd guessed. Cesar wants to vacation in “Atlanta Jordan.” Eugenia has 9 sisters and 5 brothers. Most have half a dozen or so siblings. Lydia is an only child.
For “What places have you been to in the U.S.?” Eduardo has only been to Los Angeles. For occupation he has filled in MBA. “That's your university Eduardo,” I say. "Occupation is your job." “I don't work in the market anymore. I work at a restaurant.” I help him write “restaurant worker.” I know it pisses him off but at least there will be more matches with the other students. Heidi licks Hot Cheeto dust from her fingers as she completes her grid. Her occupation is jewelry maker. She likes popular music. She has one son. She wants to go to San Francisco. Heidi has lightened her hair and given it a reddish tint. She shakes a big hank at me and tells me that the color is ceniceinto. She enters it on the translator and it says “ashy.” “Nah, auburn? Chestnut?” I posit. I ask her what color it says on the box.
The siren Colette tells me that she's returning to Mexico. She's an engineer and tries to telecommute but it doesn't work out so she has to go back. Fittingly, having attracted an inordinate amount of male attention, she is the grand prize winner in the night's big bingo game. I notice that despite her efforts to mask it, Colette reeks of tobacco. The young don't process mortality as a real construct. I wonder though, if fastidiously groomed Colette might be shaken off the cigs by learning that she smells. I keep my mouth shut though, except to say sincerely that I'll miss her. The boys are bereft.
Sometimes Juan has a late shift and doesn't get to class until the last hour. This week he has a different schedule and is the first to arrive a couple of times. I give a crappy little prize to the first to walk in the door each night and am running out of different crap to give Juan. I play Prince music on the night of his death and decide that it's nice to have some American music playing while they complete a worksheet summarizing the previous nights' lesson. Juan is absent the night of the test but I give him a copy to take home. He brings it to me and it is nearly perfect. He calls me Mrs. Murphy instead of “Tee-chair” and always asks about the music that's playing. He likes Springsteen and Gershwin but tells me that his favorite is classical. In his blue uniform, hunched over his desk, Juan completes his bingo sheet. “My occupation?” “Your job,” I explain. He shrugs and says, “I am a cleaner.” I show him how to spell it. I suspect, like restaurant worker Eduardo, he'll have no trouble finding matches.
Janet, the organizer of Make Mine Bingo provides candy gifts for the winners. She is hoarse from making announcements in the cavernous cafeteria. I help her keep count but mostly just hang and bitch about Bernie with another teacher. Janet says that we can play but warns that we are not eligible for prizes. I am recovering from a bit of a flu thing and opt to stay on the bench while the students dash about. “What's your favorite color?” “What did you have for breakfast?” “What street do you live on?” What's your favorite food?” Even though there is no candy, I really wish I'd played.