Friday, April 29, 2016

Make Mine Bingo

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.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Toy Cars on a Paper Road and the International Dateline

In elementary and high school, there is, at least theoretically, a level playing field. Each grade, ostensibly, builds upon the preceding one. Not only do most of my students not attend my class four nights a week, their levels of education range from third grade to post-graduate. There are only a handful of students who show up for every class. Some have been in the U.S. for a decade, others, less than a month. It seems however that most have finally mastered the present tense. In order to affirm this and gauge my own effectiveness I am administering a test next week. I have one from the workbook that accompanies their text. One section requires listening to a script but Jenny next door, who's been using the book for ages, and I are unable to locate the script in any textbook, workbook or teacher's edition so I have to make one up. I assume that the nightly regulars will glide through and the two-night-a-weekers will have a rough time.

I am loosening up a bit and just chatting, feeling a bit less constrained by rigid lesson plans. A high point this week was an explanation of the emphasis on testing and measurement. Students are tested twice a trimester to assess language development. Also there is a civics unit to be covered during each term, also followed by an exam. The topic this trimester is the DMV. I am issued a booklet with three different lessons. The first is “signs and symbols,” the second is “types of cars” and the last is “car parts.” Beth, the ESL coordinator sends me a collection of games and activities for ESL teachers, an LAUSD Adult Division undated manual. I notice the names of people I worked with thirty years ago and a unit on learning to operate a cassette player. There are also a lot of activities designed for housekeepers. Cleaning products. Cleaning tools. Cleaning pertinent verbs. Back in the day, as teachers we had enough autonomy to augment textbook activity with lessons that specifically addressed our students' needs. When I taught ESL, many of my students worked as housecleaners so the vocabulary was helpful. Then and now, I wrangle with the gray area of ESL curriculum reflecting what the students want to learn vs. expert opinions of what they should learn. Now it is ordained that it is the DMV despite the fact that half of my students have their driver's licenses and the rest are smart enough to understand international signage and don't give a rat's ass about the difference between a wagon and a sedan.

The packet of materials I am given for the DMV lessons are badly printed. As the copies are black and white it seems pointless to try to distinguish between red, green and yellow lights. Penny points out that the light illustrations depict the lights in the wrong position, adding that the placement is always consistent to assist the colorblind. There are a number of misspellings on the listless lesson plans.

I print out some color clipart of signs and signals with written descriptions of each on card stock, laminate and then cut into cards. I make a matching game so that the students connect the sign with a definition. To cover my ass I also correct the errors with a black pen and print out the funky “signs and signals” worksheet from the lesson plans I'd been given. I am embarrassed to pass these out, plus I feel a need to explain why we're taking the jarring leap from the simple present to windshields and fenders.

Making crude illustrations on the whiteboard I show that schools are funded by taxes. The government determines how taxes are applied and primary and secondary schools are a priority. I recount how adult education was nearly decimated and only recently has a bit of money started to come around again. When I taught years ago the funding was attendance based. Now, I explained, the funding is determined by test scores. I can tell that most are fascinated to consider our little school from a fiduciary standpoint.

With this, I distribute the pathetic little handout. I present a powerpoint with signs and visual explanations where necessary—a picture of a train, a cartoon about cars merging. I demonstrate “yield” with a couple of toy cars on a print-out of highway. The culmination of the lesson is matching up of my printed signs with the descriptions. I group the students and all of the definitions are matched up nearly instantly. As they return the components of the game to my labeled envelopes, Eduardo holds up one of the laminated signs and asks, “Who made this?” I admit to having printed and cut out the little signs, very touched by the attention to my efforts.

The ESL teachers assemble to see the two finalists in the running for new textbooks. Both are a huge improvement over the dated Side by Side with its tacky illustrations and lack of a digital component. The series I like the best is published by National Geographic. It has the look of a handsome magazine and is accompanied by DVDs and a robust online component. The subtitle says something about “college and career readiness.” The emphasis is on critical thinking and there are lots of infographics and Venn diagrams. I am over the moon because between textbook, teacher's materials and on-line components it is fully loaded and means I won't be agonizing about creating materials to supplement the textbook with reinforcing activities and civics lessons.

Janet is an old timer. I am surprised to learn that she lives in Northridge as I do not imagine that when I reach her age that I will still be driving at night. Or at all. She objects to the use of cell phones for the scavenger hunt. When I print out clipart pictures of animals she is confused about how this is accomplished. Janet is adamantly opposed to adapting a textbook with an essential digital component. There are a couple of younger teachers who seem directly involved with textbook selection. I'm not sure how much technology they themselves use when teaching but I know that throughout the division, a number of older teachers use none at all. I am sure that the veteran teachers have a timeworn, successful method of instruction. I hope this is fair compensation for a classroom that doesn't keep pace with the world our students actually inhabit.

We read a little article from their textbook about different languages. A chart shows the most commonly spoken languages in the world. The students find it remarkable that while Chinese is in the first position, Spanish is in second place and English is only third. I have them identify on the world map where the top ten languages are spoken. I explain the connection between language and European conquest. I point out former British holdings on the map. I write on the board, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” I realize that they have no concept of the International Dateline or timezones. Some think that I'm joking when I say that it's tomorrow in Japan.

I find a simple present lesson using the characters from the show “Family Guy” created by a British ESL teacher, which requires the student to fill in the correct form of a verb. I switch out the British “maths” and “good Day” with “math” and “hi,” thinking it will be a nice warm-up and review for the following weeks' test. I fail to realize that the students haven't really been immersed in the verb “to be” and they get screwed up with “I am” and “She is” and “I'm not” and “He isn't.” I give a cursory introduction and write the positive and negative conjugations on the board but I can tell they're frustrated. I see that I must be vigilant about assuming that they know anything that I haven't specifically taught them. And remember that none are familiar with Family Guy.

Colette, in her high heels and tight jeans continues to turn the boys' heads and perform flawlessly on every assignment. Another new student, Lydia is enrolled. We are talking about kids and I am surprised that she has four. She looks to be in her mid twenties but she's actually 34. She tells me, “My eldest is 16,” and I tell her that anyone who can say “my eldest” has no business in ESL Low 1B. She begs me to let her stay. “I'm just not confident and I don't write very well,” she explains. I assure her that she's welcome to stay.

We do a conversation game, recording movies and sports the students like.  I note that almost everyone has a physical routine. There a few soccer players, a long distance runner and many of the ladies are Zumba regulars.  I notice the confidence with which they state their likes and dislikes.  A few of the coat ladies are a little shy about speaking and stating their preferences but once a bit of energy is flowing they become engaged. Elena and Joaquin engage in some impromptu arm wrestling to determine whose regime is the most effective.  

Eduardo and Heidi share a book so, although we're not supposed to, I make copies from the workbook for one of them. Heidi is smart and diligent but doesn't pick up on things quite as easily as her MBA husband. Eduardo sometimes has to work late and Heidi comes by herself. After missing a day they both show up but Eduardo is obviously sick as a dog. He breezes through the Family Guy worksheet in about two minutes. It is the night of Prince's death and I find a Minnesota public radio station that is playing non-stop Prince. None of the students know who he is but most of them like the music. Eduardo tells me that porn-star/wrestler Chyna has also died. I don't ask in which capacity he is familiar with her.

After the too-hard Family Guy lesson I use some other recycled materials, a worksheet and powerpoint presentation about Earth Day. I don't want to start chapter eleven until they've been tested on the chapter ten. This chapter is so challenging that I've use up every activity in both the text and workbooks and complete about all of the extension activities recommended in the teacher's manual. Unless we are using something from their text, my only choices for teaching materials are those I create or those found in other textbooks or on the Internet. I have mixed results with my own materials but generally stuff I pull from elsewhere falls flat. Before class begins, and sometimes even when it's in session, I feel a panic that I'm not filling our 2 ½ hours constructively.

The Earth Day powerpoint isn't too bad. The vocabulary is pretty simple and they get the gist of it. The worksheet is ok but I realize when we're in the middle of it that it is created by PETA and there is more than a little vegetarian propaganda, which I just rush through. While we are on the subject of renewable energy I mention that we own an electric car. My more advanced students, Lydia and Eduardo are fascinated and we have a lively discussion. I realize though that a lot of the other students are completely lost.

I end the week with something fun and a snack. Even the lowest level students enjoy an Earth Day bingo game. I turn Prince back on and pass out some homemade cookies. Lydia asks for the recipe. I find it on a website, project it and a few of the girls copy it down. They promise that they'll study for the test, thank me for the sweets and wish me a nice weekend. My sixth week of teaching is complete.

Do I spend too much time chatting with the more advanced students giving the others a short shrift? Do I waste too much time getting students who don't attend every night up to speed, leaving the regulars bored and resentful? I think I've written “I like, I don't like” and “He/she/it likes, He/she/it doesn't like” on the board every night for a month.

The Family Guy worksheet and the Earth Day materials weren't so hot but I am feeling pretty comfortable about the simple present tense. The notion that politics and money actually impact their education is provocative. Getting a sense of the world and language and the results of colonialism creates some context. The International Dateline is strange and fascinating. Part of it is repetition to the point of stultification. But there are those serendipitous moments where something new just comes up and clicks. The lack of good materials is crazy-making and I've amassed many files of things I've created by myself. The new textbook will eliminate the need to design my own materials. But if my students perform poorly on mandated tests or the budget changes, I won't be offered a position in the fall. I would be heartbroken but maybe after a few weeks without the pre-class stage fright and district bullshit I'd get over it.  Or, maybe not.

Friday, April 15, 2016

No Objective

I keep thinking that the L.A. Unified School District will finally figure things out for me and I'll be free to just teach. Apparently the computerized attendance issue has been resolved but I will have to make another (unpaid) visit to the IT department in order to back enter all of my attendance. I have heard nothing however about the incorrect employee number I am issued except that I am asked to return the job offer letter I received. Why they would need the actual physical letter back (it didn't even contain an employee number, incorrect or otherwise) is another of the District's many mysteries.  

And then there's Jaime Lopez. For the record, despite readership I can count on one hand, even as an amputee, I've been changing names here, just cause. On the night I have to send half of my students to the office to re-register because another teacher's name is on their reg. slips, Jaime is absent. I actually think, because he is so far behind the rest of the students, that he really doesn't belong in my class at all, but my class size is so low that I take what I can get. The next night Jaime Lopez arrives just as we are beginning the CASAS test. After the test is done I give him a new reg. slip and tell him he needs to go to the office. “I tired teacher. I go tomorrow.” I make him promise but then the next night he doesn't show up. Then, he misses another day. The teacher adviser phones Penny next door and tells her to tell me to make sure I look in my mail box before I go home. There is a note saying that it is urgent that I get a reg. slip from Jaime Lopez. The phone number on my copy of the form isn't legible. I didn't mis-register him so I feel no obligation to stress about this. The next day I get phone call from downtown. Unless I get a reg. slip from Jaime Lopez they aren't able to credit his attendance. I suggest that in that all of his info is in the computer that they just create a new registration slip. “No!” snaps the attendance coordinator. “It's a legal document! We must have his signature. It's keeping us from closing attendance for the whole division.”

On Monday, Jaime Lopez saunters in. I mention the form he needs to turn into the office. He fishes it out of his backpack and tromps off. We are finishing a page in the workbook when he returns. I go around checking the students' work.   When I get to Jaime Lopez, who's only been back from the office for a few minutes, the page is complete. I check it and there are no errors even though Jaime is clueless on just about everything else that we do. I notice though that his workbook exercises are completed in a tidy, girly script. I realize that Jaime is using a used book but I don't embarrass him by pointing this out.

Juan, in his mechanic's uniform, never misses a class. Despite having told them a million times that my name is Layne the other students call me “Teacher.” Juan calls me “Mrs. Murphy.” Sometimes he rushes in an hour late and apologetic. He tells me that his brother lives in Ottawa. I show him where that is on the map. “I want to go there,” he tells me, “but I'm afraid.” I never mention my students' legal status but I have a clue, as they're all terrified of Donald Trump. I ask Juan if he has a passport. He does, although I presume it's from El Salvador. “I think it's easy to get into Canada,” I tell him. “The problem is, you might have real trouble getting back into the U.S.” He traces the distance from L.A. to Ottawa on the map. “It gets really cold there in the winter,” I stupidly tell him. Like this will comfort him as he's imagining how long it will be until he sees his brother again.

I've thrown in the towel on getting my students through a chapter a week. They are still stymied by do/does and don't/doesn't. I can't explain why we say “I like” and “I don't like” but “He likes” and “He doesn't like.” This, is so fundamental that I dedicate another whole week to it and find myself another chapter behind. The textbook offers the weekly schedules of athletic Jeffrey who jogs and does yoga; goody-two-shoes school girl Julie, who writes for the paper and sings in the choir; and finally the social butterflies, Mr. and Mrs Davis, who go to plays and dance and play cards. The model I use over and over again is “Does Julie babysit on Saturday?” “Yes she does.” or “No she doesn't.” Things ratchet up with the gadabout Davises. “Do they go to the museum on Tuesday? “Yes, they do.” “No they don't.” When I write the constructions on the board I realize how confounding and illogical it is.

Because Julie, Jeffrey and even the fun loving Davis couple get pretty boring after a few days. I create a new character. He yells at his kids, shoplifts candy from the Smart and Final, parks illegally in handicapped spaces and drinks tequila. I call him Donald and my Trump hating students are delighted. “Does Donald drive too fast down Soto Street on Thursday? No, he doesn't, he steals oranges from his neighbor's tree on Thursday.”

A new program is instituted at our school, designed to bring all eight ESL classes together for a group activity every other Thursday. The first Thursday there was the red word “Star Spangled Banner” game, a huge success. I suggest a school-wide scavenger hunt, with students taking pictures on their phones. The other teachers love the idea but no one volunteers to help me implement it. I make a list of items, trying to incorporate some civics curriculum. Students are expected to know the names of administrators so both of the on-site staffers are on the list. 58 cents is another item, as they're supposed to recognize money. There are about twelve other things on the school campus for them to photograph. We decide to divide the eight ESL classes into groups, with students from the advanced classes as leaders.

I print out pictures of animals. Alligators. Deer. Dolphins. I cut 240 of them up into squares which I fold and sort for the students to draw from and insure a somewhat even distribution of ESL levels in each group. The night before the hunt the other teachers decide that the groups are too large. I have to unfold all 240 little animal pictures and color code half of them red and the other half blue. Then I print big signs , also color-coded for the leaders to hold up so the students can locate their proper groups.

Early in the week I am told that Beth, the ESL coordinator will be observing my class during the week. I work hard on preparing materials anyway but this week I put in a lot of time into creating games and flashcards to augment the textbook and the torturous pursuit of present tense mastery. Juggling my real work, I spend most of Wednesday preparing materials for Thursday's scavenger hunt. By the time I arrive to teach I am bone tired. Penny, next door is usually pretty perky but she too complains about unusual fatigue. My students trickle in, particularly slowly. We use the overhead projector to languidly correct a worksheet.

I look up and see Beth, the ESL coordinator sitting in the back of my class. I am so rattled that it takes me way too long to cue up a CD for oral practice. My heart is pounding and I make a decision to leap forward to the lesson I created using Julie, Mr. and Mrs. Davis and finally Donald. I've printed out the three separate schedules and cards with a variety of questions. I divide the students into two groups and have them draw questions and take turns answering them. Beth seats herself at one of the tables and helps the students with the lesson. Unfortunately, one of the students is the dullard Jaime Lopez and she drills him on the days of the week. We are about to get into the Donald questions when Beth leaves. “Whew,” says Eduardo. “She's gone.” The students have no idea who she is but they pick up immediately that she's there to check me out. They're nervous for me. We're all relieved when Beth moves on to observe another class.

The night of the big scavenger hunt I arrive with all the accoutrements and prepare gift bags full of cheap crap for the winners. The high school, unbeknownst to the adult school, is holding open house. We had planned on starting the scavenger hunt from the cafeteria but it is in use. I rush around to notify all of the teachers that we'll start from a little eating area besides the bungalows. Class starts at six so I have an hour to teach before the big event.  I play the CD of one of the grammar raps that accompany the textbook. These are so lousy and ridiculous that the students actually get a kick out of them. There are a handful of sweet twenty-something guys who get particularly animated, clapping and mimicking and really camping it up. A statuesque, impeccably made up girl in her early twenties wafts in and hands me a reg. form. The class goes silent. Colette is poised. She shakes my hand and looks me straight in the eye. I notice a lot of Hispanic women are very shy and hesitant to make eye contact. The boys practically come to blows deciding who will share his book with Colette. The three girls who are in their age bracket are pregnant and the coat ladies are in their forties and fifties. We go around the room and students write answers on a worksheet. The boys all point to Colette. I tell them to give her a break, she's new, but she grabs the pen from me, saunters up to the overhead and writes the correct answer perfectly. It turns out that she's Mexican. All of my other students are Central American. Just like German Jews looked down their noses at Russian Jews, it seems that many Mexicans feel superior to those from further south. Maybe at least Colette will improve my young male attendance.

I let them draw their animals for the scavenger hunt and we head out. The students are excited and start grouping themselves even before the team leaders arrive. Beth, the ESL coordinator is there to observe other ESL classes. She tells me to let Penny next door watch my class for a few minutes after the scavenger hunt and come to see her in the office. The students scamper excitedly around the campus and the winning team checks in after about a half hour. Prizes are awarded and everyone returns to class.

After having pulled off a good scavenger hunt I don't think Beth will be particularly critical but I've planned a really good Donald game with name tags and funny questions printed on card stock. Plus, I always bake something for my students on Thursday and I know they'll be disappointed if I take too long. I tell Beth first thing that I'm eager to get back to class. Then, I admit that her arrival in my classroom totally flustered me. I blurt out that I hate the fucking textbook and that with its cheesy drawings and grammar “raps” it offends me aesthetically. She agrees that the book sucks and promises a new one is being selected for next year. Of course, I've spent hours creating activities to supplement the one we're using but I will be happy to move on. She asks about how I'm feeling and I tell her that I am gobsmacked by how very hard teaching a low level of ESL is and that a lot of the time I feel ineffectual. She is supportive and mainly laudatory. The lesson, she observed, was very well planned but she didn't think the students were prepared adequately before embarking on it and that the concept of “schedule” should have been better delineated. I realize the concept of a written schedule is probably not a familiar one to a lot of the students but I still wish that Jaime Lopez hadn't been sitting at her table.

Finally, she dings me on something that I expected. It became “a thing” when I was teaching thirty years ago that teachers are to clearly write the session's objectives on the board before class. I make a conscious decision not to do this, although I keep my mouth shut about it. These are adult students, many of whom don't have a lot of education and arrive at school after working a full day. If I were to write an objective on the board they either wouldn't understand it or it would sound boring. I approach each class like a performance. I like to surprise them and keep their attention. I educate by stealth. For me, writing objectives on the board would be like a comedian showing the audience the punchlines for each joke before a performance. I guess for protocol's sake I will write some innocuous bullshit on the board each night and then just continue doing what I do.

I run back to my bungalow ten minutes before the end of class. Penny is on the verge of dismissing my students when I rush in and pass out banana muffins. “Are you ok?” they ask nervously. Even though they had no idea who Beth was or why I am summoned to the office, they know something is up and are worried. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be fired and even if I were, we wouldn't starve. I realize how vulnerable they feel. They worry that their own boss will call them in. They're frightened of Donald Trump. Any sort of authority is potentially catastrophic. There really is no way for me legitimately assuage these fears. At least the Donald character makes them laugh. Maybe I can come up with some sort of dart game for next week.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

People Around the World

After spending an afternoon training to record class attendance on-line I am still unable to log-in to the Adult Division site. I am commanded to visit the IT person on another campus and arrive by four p.m., two more hours of time for which I am not paid. The IT lady is unable to accomplish anything. I am told to expect a call from downtown on Friday towards fixing the log-in but there is no communication.

The first week of teaching it is discovered that half of my Level 1B students actually belong in 1A and they are transferred to Penny, the teacher next door. This week it is determined that half of my remaining students have been assigned to the correct classroom but the incorrect teacher and they all have to go to the office and re-register, even Katrina, who's so pregnant that I seat her at a table as she doesn't fit behind a desk. Katrina and my other students are good sports about having to traipse off to the office and wait in line to register for a second time. Because these students have not been officially assigned to me, their names do not appear on the paper bubble-in attendance roster I have to complete until I am able to record online. This form is to be completed in pencil. I am told that the unlisted students are to be entered by hand with birthdays entered in ink. My form is rejected and returned to me, for resubmission, because while, I've written the students' birth dates in ink, I've misunderstood and entered their names in pencil.

While waiting for the IT people downtown to correct the problem about signing in to the attendance system, I receive a call from another office manager and am informed that I have been issued an incorrect employee number. When I'm hired, I'm confused with another teacher named Murphy which complicates my processing with the district. I'd assumed that this had been corrected but it hasn't and no one seems to know how to go about rectifying the problem.

This is the week of CASAS (Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems) testing. When I began my teaching career, if the students were happy with the results, they came back. If a non-tenured teacher's attendance was low, it was walking papers time. Now we spend a lot of time measuring accomplishment, in order to provide hard data that we are really worth our salt. The CASAS test is administered twice during each thirteen week session. There is a third test pertinent to a civics lesson. In fairness, the CASAS test addresses practical learning, completion of forms, telling time, counting money, etc. Even though I assure the students that the test is mostly an evaluation of my own effectiveness, they are very anxious.

Chapter Nine is to be completed this week. The focus is on the simple present tense. I am also informed that I have to recreate three weeks of bubble-in attendance rosters, backdating the start date for all of the students who were improperly enrolled and using ink for students names and birthdates. My class begins at 6 p.m. The students trickle in and we max out at about 6:45. For the early birds I prepare a worksheet which reviews the material we've covered the previous day. The night that the CASAS test is administered I am busy recreating the rosters and figuring out the complications of the test so instead of customizing a worksheet, I pull one from the many ESL teaching sites on the Internet. It seems perfect, and has simple questions they are to answer using the present tense. I want them to breeze through it and feel relaxed and self-confident before taking the test.

We've drilled on the present affirmative. “I like, he likes, they like..” What I don't notice is that the worksheet I've printed has a few questions that require a negative response. They are bewildered that we say “He likes” however “He doesn't like,” but, “They like” and They don't like.” I don't have time to really explain this before it's time to take the test. I've betrayed them, rattling them with something that they're really not ready for.

The bubble-in forms for the CASAS test are pre-printed. But because so many of my students were mis-registered, most of the pre-printed forms I have are for students who aren't in my class. This means that the forms have to be filled in manually. There are six different exams. The preprinted forms indicate which test to give but for the other students I have to figure it out myself , based on a chart and previous classes they've completed. In addition to lots of bubbling, the students have to indicate how many years of education they've had. I have a number who graduated high school in Guatemala or El Salvador, and Eduardo, who has the Salvadoran equivalent to an MBA. There are also a handful who attended elementary school only through fourth or fifth grade in their own countries.

The CASAS form asks if the students are Hispanic or not. I fill in “yes” for all of them. The next question is race and I am told to bubble in “white” for my students, all Central American. Oscar asks, “Teacher, I'm white?” I go through the other choices with him: “Black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.” He looks at his forearm and shrugs. “OK, teacher.” Another field asks if the student is employed. I know that a few of the ladies are homemakers so I can check “not working by choice.” For the others, I just ask, “You work, don't you?” The next question is whether the student receives public assistance. Like, employment status, this is something I'm very uncomfortable asking and I dislike being required to do so. I hope it doesn't cost the district a ton of money, but for the sake of this round of the CASAS test, none of my students are welfare recipients. Just getting the forms ready to begin the test takes over an hour. Students are to be given one hour to complete the test but by the time we finish with all of our bubbling, there's only forty-five minutes of class left. Many of them finish in about ten minutes. I know I must give the rest of them the full hour although, because the security guard leaves, we are discouraged from staying late on campus. Fortunately, all are done by 8:30.

Penny warns me that there is rampant absenteeism the day after CASAS is administered. My class is no exception. So, the lion's share of my class have missed 2 ½ hours of instruction that day the test is administered and another 2 ½ recovering from it. Post CASAS, I have only eight students. Katrina waddles in. I notice from her registration form that she is nineteen. She has been in the U.S. since she was fourteen but never attended school until adult school. She has a two year old daughter at home. My immediate reaction is sadness. This is a very smart girl, younger than Spuds. The baby is due any minute and probably by the time she returns to school she'll be back in level 1A. I struggle not to be judgmental. Most of the kids at the charter middle schools I've subbed at, despite the fancy campuses, read far below grade level. I presume that many of their parents are young, like Katrina, and haven't completed high school. Katrina's among the fastest to complete the work and I can tell by the light in her eyes that most of what I teach her registers.

In my world a girl like Katrina would be college bound. This might still be the case for her, although for a level 1 ESL student with two kids it's going to be a very long slog. At one of the charter middle schools I sub at, all of the classes are named after a prestigious college. Harvard, MIT. Princeton. My class is Yale. I ask the kids what they know about the university. They are clueless. I tell them it's in Connecticut, which to them could be Timbuktu or Narnia. There has been a large increase in college enrollment but in 2013, among Hispanics ages 25-29 only 15 percent held a bachelor's degree, or higher. Among whites the percentage is 40% and blacks and Asians, compute to 20% and 60% respectively. Nearly half of Hispanics who do enroll, attend community college. Theoretically, a two year community college program is the equivalent of freshman and sophomore years at a four year school. My friends who teach community college assure me that in reality, this is not the case. Most of the course work, despite the credits that are issued, is remedial and even with two full years completed most students would not be equipped to succeed at a competitive college. It is hard for me not to put a value judgement on this. Yet, I know that fluency in English and a college education is not a guarantee of satisfaction.

My attendance is low again on Thursday because it is raining. Eduardo has missed the CASAS test because he had to work. I put him in a corner to complete the exam by himself. He brushes me away while I try to explain the form. “Yes, teacher, I understand. Yes I know.” But, when I check back with him, he's answered the sample questions in the wrong field. We fix the form but his sense of frustration and humiliation is palpable. The truth is, some of the nineteen year old kids who have only a 5th grade education but have lived in L.A. for a couple of years are way more fluent than Eduardo, who's only been here a couple of months. Despite his MBA, he works stocking grocery shelves at a Korean market. Eduardo and wife Heidi have a seven year old son. And I'm pretty sure Heidi is pregnant.

While Eduardo completes the CASAS test, we play the amnesia game to work on second person present. Students draw names, places and activities from slips I've put into envelopes. I pretend to boink each on of them on the head and he or she then asks “What's my name? Where do I live? What do I do?” and the others answer “Your name is George. You live in Istanbul, You drive a bus.”

The district wifi blocks everything so I connect using my phone. I've discovered, on YouTube, a video series that accompanies the textbook I'm using. The production budget was likely fifty cents but I know that the little five minute film “People Around the World,” which is designed like a TV interview show, will help cement the chapter for them. The context for teaching the simple present is “Where do you live? What language do you speak? and What do you do?” They are amused to see a video presentation of their lessons.

Then I give them cards with pictures of people from different places and they rehearse answering questions. “Our names are Yoko and Kenji. We live in Tokyo. We play tennis and ride bicycles."  I've made a little sign that says “Layne's ESL Class presents 'People around the World.” I make them stand in front of the world map and give one student an eraser to use as a microphone to conduct the interviews, which I film. They do a great job and it's a lot of fun. But, when I upload the videos onto my laptop it seems like, using my new phone, I've screwed up the video and turned the camera on when I thought it was off. So, the videos are mostly me bossing them around. “Stand in front of the map.  Get closer. Wait until I say 'action.” Still I can tell that they like using the camera. I tell them I feel bad for screwing up the recording. Oscar pipes up, “Don't worry about it. You're a wonderful teacher.”

I'm not really a wonderful teacher. I pass out worksheets that are too advanced. I cannot operate a camera. I am secretly not happy about their pregnancies. I don't stick to the curriculum. I moan and groan about the comically dysfunctional school district instead of appreciating the huge gamble taken in hiring someone who hasn't taught ESL in over 30 years. Boyle Heights, in the thirty years since I taught there has changed but is still far less gentrified than Echo Park or Highland Park. There are a few houses that have been tarted up but I don't see a lot of white people walking little dogs. None of the bodegas sell diet soda and when I stop at the Dollar Store to buy the coffee candies my students like, the cashier speaks in Spanish. Los Angeles is nearly 50% Hispanic and it is quite easy to navigate life and work in Boyle Heights without speaking English. Despite this, my students drag themselves to class and struggle to understand the difference between “there,” “their” and “they're.” When I show them on the map where Connecticut is, they pay attention. Maybe a handful of my students will actually make it through college. But perhaps most of their kids will. Certainly, the universe outside of Boyle Heights will be less daunting. And having the gumption to strive for this is what's wonderful.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Red Word Game

I attend another mandatory (and unpaid) L.A. Unified Schools training session. I shell out $7 to park in order to learn about computerized attendance keeping. Until now I have kept attendance with a pencil on a bubble-in form. Most of my students are not listed on this form but there are a dozen names of students I have never seen and have no enrollment records for. Perhaps, this will be straightened out when I am able to enter nightly attendance via computer. There is however some glitch with my assignment and my e-mail has yet to be entered into the attendance system. I am told that I am to begin keeping attendance via computer next week, but the other new teacher from my school and I, unlike all of the other teachers at the training, are unable to access our classes. No one is quite sure how to remedy the problem. The system requires three separate log-ins, each with unique passwords. I could have learned the actual process in about thirty seconds online. But then I would not have received a ten page color printed explanation booklet or a certificate of completion. I have another certificate for having completed an online course pertaining to the mandatory reporting of child abuse. I am completely baffled by the certificate thing. It turns out that the useless laptop that I am issued will be actually necessary to report attendance. The district has a firewall and can only be accessed from the fifteen year old laptop, via modem, on the school campus. We are advised that we should turn on the computer before we start teaching and two and a half hours later, when class is done, it should be fully booted up and ready for recording attendance.

When the training is over it takes me forty-five minutes in heavy downtown traffic to arrive at my regular teaching assignment. I am frazzled near tears and within half an hour I misplace a box of pens, the keys to my classroom and a folder of tests. Penny, the teacher next door points out that I've spelled “surprize” instead of “surprise” on the key to a worksheet I've made. Then she finds the missing tests on a table in the center of the room with my teaching materials. She cautions me that all tests must be kept under lock and key. I dutifully transfer them to a filing cabinet, even though they're not exactly SAT or the California Bar. Who would steal a placement test in order to be assigned to ESL 1B instead of 1A.?

I prepare a lesson about Cesar Chavez as, the school is one block from Cesar Chavez Avenue, and my students have no idea who he is. The day after the holiday honoring him I start with vocabulary like “strike,” “boycott,” “social justice” “farmworker”and show them photos. I simplify the biography and show them a bit of footage of Chavez speaking. I accidentally click out of the Powerpoint presentation a couple times and a photo of Jerry, my cat, flashes huge on the whiteboard. The students stumble through the vocabulary and watch the strikes and speeches but there is no demonstration of pride or fraternity. Just because he had brown skin I cannot foist Cesar Chavez upon my students as a hero.

My goal for the week is to complete chapter 9 of the textbook. The focus is the simple present tense but the author definitely has a more international student body in mind. There are pages of drills. “ I speak Japanese. I live in Moscow. He speaks Arabic. They live in Lima.” All of my students speak Spanish. “I speak Spanish. You speak Spanish. He speaks Spanish. She speaks Spanish. They speak Spanish. We speak Spanish.” Having a class comprised entirely of Spanish speakers in a way is easier. They often have the same trouble spots. I've been working on the addition of an “e” sound to an “s” I e-see. You e-speak. We e-sit. We e-spend a lot of time e-studying this. I have them use their phones to record and playback conversations and it really seems to help when they can actually hear themselves.

Oscar is at about the same level as all of the other students but for some reason he repeats every word
without any accent. When we work on “hour,” “our,” and “are,” he nails it. My other students, no matter how much I over-enunciate, cannot hear the difference. On a hunch, I ask Oscar if he likes music. It turns out that he does, passionately, preferring American rock to video games and television. My gut tells me that there's more to it than simply being able to imitate American singers. In This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explores the connection between music and intellectual evolution. Being music lover myself, I have always had a sense that perhaps my audio perception is particularly keen.

The week is short and I am nervous about getting the chapter done. On Wednesday, already way behind, I am told to dismiss a half hour early for a teachers meeting. A new policy, it is announced, is being instituted and every other Thursday there will be a “mixer” for all ESL students, levels 1-6 in order to practice speaking English. We will take turns planning them. Tim, a rather shaggy and really affable younger teacher has invented a game for the first one. Numbered blanks are printed on a sheet of paper. Each individual sheet has a single word written in red ink. The objective is that participants ask each other for their red words until all 76 of the words that comprise the first verse of “The Star Spangled Banner,” are collected.

Penny next door and I both have lower level classes, she is 1A and I am 1B. We both know that our students are going to be completely baffled. I make up a mini-red word game and print copies. Penny, spelling “surprise” correctly, writes in the red words. The message is “No test tonight. We have a surprise in the cafeteria.” We combine our two classes for a practice round, before we send them to the compete against levels 5 and 6 at the main event. Penny's section contains an older couple, the type of students that in my previous teaching iteration, we referred to, hopefully, as “pre-literate.” Our school has no place for non-readers and they are just stuck into level 1A. Gloria uses a cane and speaks in a gravelly, Mercedes McCambridge-ish voice. Penny reports that Gloria is a bit ornery. Her husband's posture is stooped. He wears a ranchero hat. Both are usually more than a little lubricated. Gloria is annoyed at being dragged to the cafeteria for the Red Word game. As I lock the classroom door behind her, she rasps in Spanish, “Oh Paco. What are we going to do? We can't read. We can't write. Why don't they just make us wait in the bathroom?”

I notice the other students help Gloria and Paco write down red words. Most of the teachers participate too. There are some particular challenges, like “ramparts” and “twilight” and many of the words have to be spelled out. I notice that even the advanced students have trouble with certain different letters. “A” is often confused with “E” and “G” and “J.” While, I'm of the hippy “This Land is Your Land' should be the national anthem," ilk, Red Word gets all of the students and teachers speaking English together for an hour and everyone, even perhaps Gloria and Paco, has a lot of fun.

There's about forty-five minutes of class after the Red Word. Tim, the event planner, offers me a CD of the “Star Spangled Banner.” He's burned one for each of the teachers. I decline, telling him that I have a powerpoint. Which I now realize sounds like I'm a total asshole. I tell my class that I don't sing. “You don't want to sing, do you?” They shake their heads timidly and I don't know if they're simply differing to me or based on words like “twilight” and “ramparts,” they don't give a rat's ass about singing the friggin' song.

“The Star-Spangled Banner is our national anthem,” I begin. “National” a cognate but I know “anthem” has them at sea “Our national song. Do you have a national song, a patriotic song from your country?” “Patriot” is another cognate. There are three middle-aged women who wear parka-like jackets zipped up to their chins for the duration of the class. I imagine the room temperature is about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the coat ladies starts trying to explain something like three branches. Or three something. She gesticulates and struggles, as I've commanded her, to only speak English. I don't understand a damn thing she's saying but I love how hard she's trying and how easy it would be for her to slip into Spanish. I smile and nod.

I show the class a little educational film about Francis Scott Key and the battle that inspired the song.  They get the gist of it I think.  Big battle.  Flag survives.  Rah rah rah.  I can't find a "Bouncing Ball."  Instead I select a seventies film where a choir of kids in red, white and blue sequined vests sing the song, holding hands and walking around in a circle while the words roll across the screen.  This is intercut with the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, The Lincoln Memorial and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.  Rah rah rah.  

From three bungalows away we hear Tim, the creator of the Red Word game singing along with the cassette and demonstrating considerable more gusto than talent.  I ask my students again, "You really don't want to sing, do you?"Hearing the teacher three bungalows away, they shake their heads "no," and this time I have no doubt about their sincerity. Certain now that they are happy not to sing the Star Spangled Banner, I show a third clip.  This is of Lady Gaga singing the national anthem at the Superbowl.  The students bolt upright, entranced.  Poor Cesar Chavez. I can't stand the song but despite the intercutting of bawling football players and troops in Afghanistan standing at attention, Gaga is pure gold.  With the volume turned up all the way we can still her Tim, soldiering on and trying to hit the high notes on "land of the free..." 

The Red Word game for over 200 students must have taken days of preparation.  And then the new bitch teacher with the fancy powerpoint is too good for the CDs he's burned.  The repeated enthusiastic singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" must be exhausting.  The final clip on my presentation is the infamous one of Roseanne at the opening of a Padres game, warbling the anthem like Alfalfa in Our Gang and scratching her crotch.  I don't play it.  Instead, I write "A E I O U" on the whiteboard. "You guys really need to practice your vowels.  I point to the "A" and I notice that after playing the Red Word game for an hour there is quite a bit less hesitation.  I tell them that they still need to work on the alphabet and that next week we absolutely (cognate) positively (cognate) have to finish Chapter 9.