Saturday, June 4, 2016

O Canada!

I have yet to tell the brunt of my students that they are not being promoted and will have to repeat ESL 1B when they return to class in August. I feel partially responsible for this, not having recognized that often the nods and gestures that indicate understanding are offered in politeness. The students take note of how hard I work and some feel obligated to acknowledge this even if the teaching is ineffectual. Another reason that many will not be promoted is that their class attendance has been erratic. This is often attributable to work obligations or fatigue but as I ponder my own lack of “stick-to-it-edness” I imagine that sometimes absence is due only to laziness.

Nevertheless, for the most part my students and I have given it our all. Certain obstacles have been, except for a handful of well educated students who enter the class with a higher degree of English mastery, insurmountable. The school district is remarkably dysfunctional. The adult school budget was gutted for many years and the division is just starting to get back on track but the lack of communication is extraordinary. I do not see the four promotional tests I am to administer until about a week before testing. The other new teacher is issued the complicated tests on the night he is expected to administer them. It is immediately apparent that the test itself has little correlation with the materials in the textbook. Even if the promotional exams were based strictly on the content of the text, a lot of my class time is devoted to teaching and testing a civics component . I frequently dismiss early for mandatory meetings with instructions that could be effectively imparted in a two-sentence e-mail.

I receive a call from a clerical worker at the main campus requesting my e-mail address. As a member of the staff it is astounding to me that this is not on file. Penny next door tells me that a form to record promotions and retentions is being e-mailed to me. I do not receive it. I email the clerk and administrator in charge of these reportings and receive no response. Apparently the operations administrator of the school sites is unfamiliar with the process of e-mail and other teachers advise me to communicate with him by phone or fax.

Even though the promotional testing is a done deal there are still two weeks of class. I soldier on with the awful textbook, trying to liven things up with games and taking video of them acting out job interview conversations. Juan is usually arrives first. Often he walks in full of determination and goes to the white board and writes down something he doesn't understand like the difference between “job” and “employment” or “whole” and “hole.” He marches in and scrawls “Vive La Casa.” I suggest maybe he means “Causa” but he shakes me off and says “Buffalo.” A Google search reveals that this is an agency in New York that assists the undocumented in relocating to Canada. Juan has a brother in Ottawa. “Are you moving?” I ask. “Trump,” he responds.

Cesar, a physical therapist, newly arrived from Mexico announces that he's returning home. He plans to perfect his English online and apply for schools in Canada and settle there. I think about how ludicrous it must have seemed to the assimilated Jews of 1930s Germany to consider packing it up and going in search of a more hospitable country.

We are advised that there are no classes on Thursday as the high school graduation for the East L.A. skills and vocational programs is being held on our Roosevelt campus. Teachers are expected to work at the ceremony and I sign up to man the volunteer table. There is no list of volunteer duties, just fancy badges that say “volunteer” so I try to make myself useful distributing programs. I am informed by another teacher that as it's not the students' fault they're not in school we are expected to submit our on-line attendance. This can be done only by using the district modem from the laptop in my classroom. Not submitting attendance on time is about as verboten as dropping acid with underage students. I have to track down the office manager to get a key to my room, wait for the dial up connection and falsely report that my students are there in the classroom pouring over their lousy textbooks.

The auditorium is jam packed with friends and families bearing babies and huge bouquets. Some of the graduates have decorated their caps with flowers and glitter. One spells out “Better Late Than Never.” A professional singer belts out the national anthem and a troop of mariachis serenade. Huge floral arrangements cover the stage and outdoor tables and a giant garland of balloons billows. There are mortar-board cookies and huge baskets of pan dulce for the grads and buttonaires for all of the VIPs. It's wonderful to make this occasion special for the graduates but given the financial realities of the division it seems excessive. I doubt if any of the grads would feel slighted if there were a single floral arrangement rather than the whole shop.

School Board president Steve Zimmer is the first speaker. Himself grumbles about how Trump is inculcated into just about every conversation of late. But having spent considerable time in an immigrant community, dare I say “the belly of the beast,” I understand the genuine fear and sadness the candidate's ascendancy has created. Zimmer eloquently posits that education is the anecdote for this ignorance and xenophobia. He recalls that his grandmother, a single mother who worked as a seamstress in New York's Lower Eastside, marched into an adult school to complete her diploma on the day that she retired. City Council member Gil Cedillo is the next speaker. He is a graduate of Roosevelt High. He doesn't understand that the celebration is for adult students from a variety of locations throughout the Eastside. He thinks that it's the high school and stops sporadically during his rambling self-promoting speech to shout “Go Riders!” (as in “The Theodore Roosevelt High School Roughriders”) to the utter befuddlement of all the assembled.

A handsome young man confidently takes the mike. At age thirteen he sells drugs to help his single mom pay the rent. Breaking a cardinal Dealer 101 rule, he samples his own wares and is expelled from middle school after OD'ing on campus. At 16 he enrolls in the AEWC credit recovery program, under the aegis of the adult school division. He earns a high school diploma, attends East L.A. College, and transfers to Cal State L.A. Recently he completes an MSW program at USC where he is elected student body president and graduates with highest honors.

One graduate drops out of high school at age 15, after her father is deported and she has help support her family. She has four children who she states are conceived when she is drug dependent, supporting her habit in ways she describes as “shameful. High School diploma now in hand, she wins a college scholarship. Other scholarship recipients plan to complete vocational programs or attend community college or university.

Half of the other ESL teachers attend the ceremony with me although most duck out early. The others, having performed their required duties, huddle in the office until it's time to sign out. 

The last adult school graduation I attend, over 30 years ago, is also at Roosevelt. I employ and befriend a former student. After about eight years of night coursework he completes his diploma and the whole office staff attends the ceremony in a rented van. He has three daughters and a bunch of of grandchildren now. His daughters all serve in the armed forces. He owns a home and to his wife's chagrin about a dozen cars that he tinkers with.

The road from ESL Level 1 though to high school diploma is a long slog for an adult. Perhaps the other ESL teachers feel so far removed from this accomplishment that they have no burning desire to observe the ceremony. Maybe they're just weary of it all. Even for an experienced teacher there is a large amount of preparation for each lesson, particularly at the lower levels, ESL. The tests we are required to use are illegible, illogical and impractical. My salary is $3 an hour more than it was in 1993.

While I have to augment the requirements of my supposedly lifetime teaching credential by verifying some college transcripts I don't actually think it qualifies me to teach. Because I am into it, I bone up on current techniques and scour the web and public library for teaching materials. But this is only because I am able to commit the time. There is however little motivation for the old-timers who teach in stifling classrooms with crappy textbooks and stagnant wages to put in one more second than necessary.

Classroom technology was very primitive when I quit teaching in the 90s. Unfortunately, although there are a limited number of iPads to be available on campus next year, the availability of classroom technology this term has been a huge disappointment. So much rote learning can be done at the student's own pace freeing up the teacher to focus on conversation and addressing subjects that are important to the students. It's way past time to abandon Scan-trons and dog-eared, badly photocopied test booklets. I suspect that the expenditures for the graduation ceremony could have purchased a few dozen iPads.

In a number of the countries that outrank the U.S. in quality of education, teacher salaries are commensurate with other professionals, physicians, attorneys and high level management. Educator schedules allow for preparation and professional development. I often regret having chosen the business over the classroom years ago. As ineffectual a teacher as I am now I wonder that the results of toiling away for the district for twenty five years would have been. Would I too hide out in the office during graduation?

I do not believe that Donald Trump will be president although I'm gobsmacked by how far he's gotten. Trump, I hope will eventually be a blip on the radar but that a con man is able to make so many Americans swallow that much bullshit telling. This epidemic of ignorance is an indictment of a nation that, for the most part, spends more on prisons than public colleges. The country is teeming with short attention-spanned, reality tv loving morons. Much on this can be blamed on a society that ceased to value education and failed to instill values or model critical thinking. A lot of people thought that the (in hindsight comparatively mild and harmless) Reagan would never be president so my prediction might well be wrong. If indeed our country buys into hateful invective and snake oil, I guess at least it will be Canada's gain.

1 comment:

RR said...

Incredibly well written series; devastating to read, actually. I feel when reading them all that someone in the educational system there needs to involve a major newspapers in a major "spotlight" series about what you are observing. Love, XX