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.

No comments: