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. 


Rosemary said...

Layne you are my hero. x

Anonymous said...