Friday, May 13, 2016

Two Chocolates for Heidi

Just when I'm starting to feel less like a fraud in the classroom there's less than a month of school. We all write down our student count every night and I notice that I am not the only teacher with steadily diminishing attendance. Partially completed workbooks show me that many of my students have started ESL classes in the past. The higher level courses of ESL have far fewer students. ESL is sort of like Weight Watchers I think. I know it's good for me and when I finally get there it's always fine. But the big picture of difficulty and struggle towards minimal progress often keep me from dragging myself to a meeting. For my students it is complicated by job and childcare requirements and casual, short-term living arrangements.

I am down to a core group of about ten. Most have mastered the materials from the textbook but it's taken a long time and we are behind. I am presented this week with a large file box containing promotional testing materials. There are three separate tests-reading, listening and writing and I am to be trained in administering them. Also delivered to my classroom is an enormous stack of CASAS tests which every student is to complete next week, for the second time in the trimester.

A (lousy, in my opinion) textbook and an L.A. Unified Adult Curriculum are issued to me when I start the job. The Curriculum has a long list of grammar, practical living and civics concepts and whether to review, emphasize or expose level 1B students. The textbook does not necessarily coincide with the grammar objectives. There are a few lesson plans, none scintillating, provided for the civics components. Most of the final few weeks of the trimester will be spent testing. The promotional tests and the CASAS tests do not necessarily overlap with the textbook and curriculum I use. Even if the tests exactly mirrored what I am mandated to teach it would be impossible to cover all of the material in a 13 week session, mostly because I have to spend so much time administering tests.

Stylish smart Lydia gives me a pair of earrings and then misses class for a week. Originally she tells me that she only plans to attend a month to build confidence but I am surprised that she hasn't told me that she doesn't intend to return. I send her a note of thanks for the earrings and say I hope that she comes back. Her verbal skills are so solid and she is so quick that I know that if she stuck with it, the written language would be less bedeviling.

Juan, celebrant of Karl Marx' birthday is stolid and hard working. He is in his early 50s and pleased when my nightly musical offering is Frank Sinatra. Jorge is jocular and funny. He's in his mid-forties, handsome, a marathon runner. He brings me a vase of roses for Mother's Day. Gloria, the youngest and smartest of coat ladies, always sits between Juan and Jorge. Juan has to work Monday and first thing Tuesday he asks, “Was Gloria here yesterday?” He is pokerfaced when I tell him that she was. Gloria, I notice is volunteering to provide answers more regularly and she's always correct. And, even though the weather is a bit cooler, she's not wearing her coat. She wears pretty, form fitting t-shirts, jewelry and makeup.

In order to drill them on the simple present vs. the present progressive I make a set of cards with names, another with frequencies and another with verbs and divide the class into teams to draw three cards and make a sentence. MARIA AND HILDA+SWIM+EVERY SATURDAY. Or, KAREN+IS READING+NOW. Ricardo wins and gets a small chocolate bar. I pass out coffee candies to the rest of the class, consolation prizes. Heidi complains. “I like chocolate.” “Too bad,” I tell her. “Only winners get chocolate...” I still don't know if she's pregnant.

The climax of the chapter is a story about Mr. Blaine, the president of the Acme Internet Company. He's having a crappy day. The secretary who usually ANSWERS the phone is at the dentist so Mr. Blaine is ANSWERING it himself. The poor guy is all alone at the office. Even the custodian, who usually CLEANS, is on strike so Mr. Blaine is CLEANING himself. The teacher's manual suggests following up with some true or false questions. I make a board game. Short answer questions are on orange cards and true/false questions are violet. Some old buttons serve as markers and I bring some cheap spinners from the 99 Cent store.

The spinners don't really spin so they work out a system. The students close their eyes to force the spinner around while another student holds his or her hand. Gloria ends up on the same team as Jorge. I notice he holds her hand a few seconds longer than necessary when it's her turn to spin the dial. Juan glowers from across the room. The students insist I join the game but that I have to play in Spanish. I lose the game but have provided them with a bit of hilarity as I struggle with their language. Although when she opens her own mouth it sounds like gibberish, Heidi memorizes the story quickly and breezes through the questions. She ends up winning both games and gloats, waving her two chocolates overhead.

It's the week of Talk To Me Thursday. Every other week there is a language activity that involves all six levels of ESL. The teacher in charge of this weeks' activity is new at the adult school, having taught college level ESL previously. He finds a crossword of idiomatic phrases like “making a mountain out of a molehill,” and “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” Penny, the other level one teacher and I are mortified. Another teacher intervenes and works out a system where the more advanced students can use their cell phones and the low level students are designated to just write the answers onto the grid. I am concerned about my students even accomplishing this function. Inevitably when I say “A” the write down “E” and “Y” is often “W.” P, T, and D are usually a crapshoot. I give them a couple of dictations in advance of the big night. The first results are pretty pathetic but by the end of the week when I have them spell out “Layne Murphy is the Greatest Teacher in the World,” most of them, while not necessarily agreeing, figure it out.

Penny and I predict that the impossible puzzle will provoke rebellion but the students work diligently in their small groups, the more advanced students incredibly patient with the lower level ones. When it's time to return to class, no one has finished the puzzle but they don't seem to mind. It's amazing how complacent people are when you call an impossible task a game. Before we head back to class, a representative from the neighborhood council comes to address the students. This group stepped in when the high school tried to turn the bungalows that we use for adult school over to a charter school. They are vocal in advocating for immigrant rights, environmental issues and cultural activities. The rep passes out fliers and newspapers and explains that legal residency isn't a requirement for joining the council. Juan is glued to the little newspaper when he returns to class.

I'd like to help political Juan become more involved in the neighborhood council. Cool Ricardo, at twenty three, would like to hear about the music scene and cultural offerings. Jorge likes long distance running and cars. A couple of hours working on Heidi's impossible accent would help her more than a reading comprehension exercise. For all of them, I wish I had the time to just converse and talk about things that matter to them. But now, even though I've had so little time to actually teach them I have to test them. And then test them again.

The start of my teaching coincides with the death of a lifetime friend and the most protracted period of grief I have yet to experience in my life. Since the kids have been, in recent years, more going than coming I also endure the sporadic morass of empty nest syndrome, struggling to cobble out a new identity. Since March, I teach ten hours a week but preparing for 4 weekly two and half hour sessions is nearly always at the forefront of my consciousness. Now there are only four weeks left. Except for a few morning classes, taught by tenured teachers, there is no summer ESL program. The mail brings a letter from Human Resources informing me that my contract expires in June. I wonder if the long hot summer will prove more of a setback for my students or myself.

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

Beautifully written and poignant. Reminds me how grief is a unique journey to each individual. Take your time. Your great friendship warrants it. x