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.