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.