Friday, May 6, 2016

So Do I

It's been about a decade since I started posting here about every week. Once in a while I play hooky but usually something eventually comes together. Still, on many a Friday when I open the blank page I get a sinking feeling that no words will come. I am anxious about failure, even though writing weekly is a commitment I make only to myself. Now, faced with preparing a 2 ½ hour lesson four nights a week I sometimes find the performance anxiety overwhelming, particularly now that I've grown more than a little fond of my students. I realize how confounding my mother tongue is to a beginner and how very little experience I have teaching low level ESL.

It is the week of civics testing. There are four separate lessons pertinent to the DMV and the AB 60 bill which enables the undocumented to apply for drivers licenses. The students are sick of my traffic sign PowerPoint but most of them know when to watch out for school children and where not to make a U-Turn. The second component is the recognition of different types of vehicles and I think now that most of them can differentiate between a compact car and a garbage truck. Penny next door labels her own car in order to teach car parts for the third civics section. I am embarrassed by how filthy my car is with jacaranda sap and bird crap so we just use a chart. Finally, students need to understand the process of applying for a license under AB 60. We study the requirements and I give them a bunch of statements printed on little cards and leave them to determine which are true and which are false.

A lot of the students who haven't had a lot of education in their home countries develop an understanding of grammar and fluency in conversation without a lot of struggle. The major difference between the students who have at least a secondary education is the facility to think critically. The less educated students have trouble sussing out what the AB 60 information sheet DOESN'T say. Similarly, I ask questions about some conversations from their text. Marla is a movie star and lives in Hollywood. Dan is a scientist who works in a lab doing experiments. When I ask if Marla does experiments, some of the students are stymied because the book doesn't say this explicitly. They do fine at rote learning but the actual processing of information is very difficult.

My estimate is that about five hours of class time goes into preparing for the DMV test. Unfortunately I'm not really sure how the results of the EL Civics test correlate with the funding of adult education, which if I'd thought to check out, would have likely have a bearing on the amount of time we spend. My students have already endured one mandated test and one I created myself. This week is civics, and then before the trimester ends in June, they will be subjected to a battery of promotional tests and another one that is state mandated. No matter how much I assure them that the tests are more big picture than a measure of their individual diligence, they are totally stressed out. We all believe there could be more effective uses of our time.

I spend about an hour before the test reviewing all four different components. The actual tests requires the students to identify ten different traffic signs, four different types of vehicles and the hood and bumpers of a car. Finally, there is a page about AB 60 from which they are to extrapolate three of the dozen or so requirements for getting a license. I don't spend a lot of time on this because they'll have all of the license information on a separate page and all they need to do is copy a couple of items from a list. While it's not mentioned on the handout, I tell them that it costs $33 to apply for a license. I glance at the tests when they're handed in. Most do well on the first three sections but are all over the map on the license requirements. I realize that there is so much unfamiliar text on the page that many are unable to locate the indented list. Every single student however, lists “pay $33” although this is not one of the requirements listed on their handout.

Because it's cost the students $40, I try to use the tacky textbook as much as possible. There are always a couple who are bored and some who are utterly lost. We're working this week on the verb “have” and comparisons. I have brown hair but my sister has blonde hair. I explain that they should describe their own eye color as brown and not black. We make a chart on the board for them to compare themselves to a sibling. Lydia, our only only child, uses her son. It's starting to gel but we're still not there yet. I print out a bunch of wanted posters from the FBI website. I screen out all of the child abusers and make sure that the collection is ethnically diverse. Each student gets a wanted poster and is assigned to compare her or himself to the criminal. Eduardo gets one of the few Central American offenders. “Look, he's a hacker. He's smart!,” he notes with pride. A couple of them think it's weird but most of them get into it. Amalia, one of the coat ladies, projects her wanted poster and informs the class, “He is 6' tall. I am 5' 2. He is missing the second toe on his left foot. I have ten toes. He has a skull tattoo on his shoulder. I have no tattoos. He is a murderer. I am not an murderer. He is armed and dangerous. I am not armed and dangerous.”

A couple of the coat ladies have been in the U.S. forever and understand just about everything. They breeze through the written assignments but when it's time to speak aloud, they seize up and are barely audible. Heidi and Lydia are about ten years younger than the coat ladies. Heidi has abysmal pronunciation but she is unabashed and cheerful. I still don't know if she's pregnant although when she compares herself to her wanted poster (her criminal is 6'3” and weighs 200 lbs) she reveals that she is “tall fi-two, wey one sixdee-tree.” But maybe it's just all those Jolly Ranchers she gnaws on.

Ordered through Zulily, I put on a new cardigan. I notice that it has a row of tiny pearl buttons on the cuff, a nice detail for an inexpensive garment. While passing out some papers I see that Heidi's cardigan has the same little buttons. We check the labels and realize that we have exactly the same sweaters, mine red and hers navy. “Twelve dollar,” she reports. She grabs my cuff and demands “How much?” Mine is also twelve dollars. We do a bargain hunter fist bump.

Lydia is also confident and assertive. She is always perfectly made up and coiffed, usually keeping with a theme. Librarian in a wool suit, hair in a bun, round glasses. Biker chick in tight jeans and a leather jacket. Pigtailed cowgirl in a plaid shirt and boots. Hipster in cat glasses, short skirt and funky shoes. I think about sending her off to a higher level but I see that a lot of her proficiency hinges on being very tightly wrapped.

I go through everything we've learned for the last six weeks and make a PowerPoint with grammar and vocabulary questions. I call it ESL Smackdown and illustrate it with some Lucha Libre pictures. I divide the class into two teams. Lydia is fiercely competitive and often gets rattled and flubs some pretty easy questions. As most of the clues require one word answers, the coat ladies ace it and smile in quiet satisfaction. I penalize the teams one point for speaking Spanish and am impressed with their ability to argue about that in English.

I play some American music as the students arrive. They like Pearl Jam and Duke Ellington. In honor of Cinco de Mayo I put on some Corridas. Juan, who works as a cleaner in a Vernon factory, is usually the first to arrive. I make him crossword puzzles to work on while the other students trickle in and get caught up. Juan is always eager for me to check his work. He slaps his forehead in disgust when he misses a question and goes out of his way, more than most of the other students, to make conversation with me in English. Puzzled by the Mexican music, he points to the speakers. I note that it's Cinco de Mayo. “It's Karl Marx' birthday,” he tells me. “Born in 1818.” I verify this on Wikipedia. “I like politics,” Juan tells me. “So do I.” “Trump?” he asks and laughs when I pantomime barfing.

Ricardo is the same age as Number One Son. He's only completed elementary school in El Salvador but is whip smart and usually catches on more readily than the other students. He enters to the raucous Mexican music and before he has the chance to protest I remind him that it's Cinco de Mayo. This has no resonance at all and he insists that I switch over to Adele singing “Set Fire to the Rain.” Except for “Hello” which blared constantly the whole time we were in Europe, I haven't heard much of her work. “Set Fire to the Rain” is actually a beautiful song and she has a gorgeous voice. Eduardo has some evening shifts and misses a couple of nights. It takes him only a few minutes to get caught up and he sits back and takes in Adele. “I really like the music you play.” So do I.

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