Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Ladder

I report happily that after a week of normalcy, it appears that miraculously, Jerry the cat has made a full recovery. He is off of the fresh turkey and back on a cat food diet and has even been subjected to the dreaded squirt bottle for excessive naughtiness. My cat hating students however have had a tough time. It is the week of promotional testing. I spend a week and a half preparing and carefully creating lessons that cover the material that's on the four different sections of the test; reading, listening, speaking and writing.

I write a script that resembles the one given for the promotional test and read it while they answer a series of questions. For the speaking test we break into conversation groups and I hop from table to table listening to them talk about themselves. About half of the students have more than ten siblings. I have a rudimentary understanding of Spanish and have spent time in Mexico and Guatemala so I am not totally unfamiliar with my students' culture but the dynamics of these giant families are unfathomable to me.

I make a silly Powerpoint game with commands and divide them into teams. “Shake hands with everyone on the other team.” “Throw out the teacher's Coke Zero can.” “Erase everything on the board that's in green ink.” Some of the commands are a bit advanced for a 1B class but I am impressed by the way they collaborate and figure it all out.

In order to provide as much time for review as possible, I plan on completing all four sections of the test in one class session, on the day before the results are to be submitted. The day of the test, Penny, the teacher next door, tells me to dismiss early for a mandatory meeting. Penny has been helpful to me but she can also be a bit bossy and officious. When I suggest to her that I might be a few minutes late to the meeting she responds, “I highly suggest you not be.” I nearly blow a gasket and rush the students through as many facets of the testing as possible. When I've let them work on their tests to the last possible moment I hastily lock up my classroom and actually run to the office. Of course, I am the first to arrive. It is about fifteen minutes before the actually meeting starts and the entire content of it could have been easily disseminated in a four sentence e-mail.

The testing materials are antiquated and printed booklets look like 5th generation photocopies. Some of the questions are very confusing and the breadth of proficiency expected is impossible to cover, at least by this admittedly inexperienced teacher, in a thirteen week session. Most students are not able to attend every session and we frequently dismiss early for meetings of dubious usefulness.

Most scary for the students is a speaking test. Students, in pairs, are called to sit with me at a table. First they are presented with a drawing of a family and they take turns describing it. Then, I ask each to describe his or her own family. There is a section that covers imperatives. They are to give and follow commands. “Pick up her pencil.” “Sign your name.” The test concludes with a picture of a school which students are required to ask questions about. Even the articulate, more advanced students are sweating and trembling. No one is able to speak with the same ease they've demonstrated to me in casual conversation.

For the listening section, a 25 minute, poorly recorded, CD is required. Conversations and short stories are read and the students answer questions in a booklet. I differ on a couple of the answers and some of the illustrations are of lousy quality and difficult to make out. The reading section is equally confusing and some of the questions, including several that include the past tense, are way beyond the scope of Level 1B.

I presume that the top five students will ace all four sections of the test. Some of them are great on the speaking test but show scores on the reading and listening that are just barely passing. My impulse is to promote a couple who don't score well on the tests but have worked their butts off in the class. I realize, however that as horrible as telling them they're not being promoted will be, Level Two might prove frustrating to the point of causing students to drop out.

The widely held sentiment is that a first year teacher is virtually useless and I resemble that remark. The good is that I've figured out that a lot of learning can be accomplished when the students are having fun. Games are much more effective than endlessly repeating stultifying conversations from the textbook. I won't find out if I'm returning to teach until mid-August, just a few days before the new semester begins. If I am lucky enough to be given another chance I've figured out a number of things that I can improve on.

The class officially begins at 6 but the students straggle in. I've taken to writing the name of the first to arrive on the board and giving this student a small crappy prize. For this semester, when my students walk in they are to take a worksheet which is a review of the previous day's lesson. I know that a review is important but I think I'll assign these worksheets as homework. This will give me a chance to go over these assignments with the early arrivals and actually engage them in one-to-one communication.

For students who attend only sporadically, there's very little that can be accomplished beyond a couple vocabulary words. Of the core group of regulars I realize that I've let the more advanced students dictate the flow. If I do return in August there will be iPads available every couple of weeks and a new textbook with a digital component. I think having the students work at their own pace digitally for reading, grammar and civics lessons will be incredibly effective. Even though we'll only have the iPads once in a while, there will be much more opportunity for reinforcement and expansion for students on their cellphones or home computers. Given the huge disparities in educational background, English proficiency and class attendance I think I can do the most for the most if I were able to focus more on conversation than grammar drills.

Lydia is back after being gone a few weeks. Even after an absence she is still one of the top five. One night she's decked out in a skin tight day-glo Lululemon sort of workout outfit. Another evening she is sort of a goth school girl in a plaid skirt, tights full of runs and black knee boots decorated with heavy silver buckles. She is nervous about the tests and when I assure her that she's passed she freaks out and says she's afraid to go on to Level 2 and prefers to stay in Level 1B. Lydia knows in her heart that she is ready to move on but she finds it more satisfying to be the best rather than possibly flounder in a more level playing field. I try hard not to demonstrate favoritism but I relate particularly to Lydia, the only only child in the class, too invested in and micromanaging how others perceive her.

Heidi, as expected, completely sucks at the speaking test. And I'm still not sure if she's pregnant. She scores ok on the reading and listening portions and her writing isn't bad. Husband Eduardo is absent, working at his restaurant job, for most of the review days. He is so tightly wrapped that he botches the speaking test. I am surprised to see that he scores low on the listening portion while scoring nearly 100% on the reading. They are both so borderline that I agonize about promoting them. I have the opportunity to have the Level 2 teacher review my student's tests to help me decide if they're ready for next level. Therefore, I can say, almost honestly, “It's not up to me, another teacher has to sign off on your readiness.” But, as much as I hate hurting their feelings I'm going to go through test scores with the individual students to give each a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Political Juan does poorly on the reading and listening tests and like some of the other low level students doesn't show up on the night of the speaking test. Most ESL students never get beyond Level 1 and after my own struggle with Italian I get a sense of how daunting it is for an adult to learn a second language.

Most of the other teachers have taught for decades and I'm sure the students all bleed together. As I am new and have pursued the teaching for reasons of personal fulfillment I wonder if in some way I've exploited my students. Perhaps the businesslike dispassionate lifer teachers are more effective. As I've had inadequate time of focus on conversation and I worry about the students losing ground during the summer I am considering holding an informal weekly meeting at a local coffee shop where students can drop in and practice their English. But I worry that this is unprofessional and perhaps self-serving. Still, it would be nice to just sit and chat with them.

Maria Banford's new Netflix series is somewhat difficult, ala Louis CK. In one episode, Maria becomes a spokeswoman for a Target-like store and is sent to a factory in Mexico to teach ESL to the workers. There is a weird sense that white folks are inculcating Hispanics into our language and culture in order that they conform and do our bidding. When I first started teaching at Roosevelt, over thirty years ago, the inability to speak English was much more of an impediment than it is today. I hope that I am helping to open doors and that some of my students will actually slog through six levels of ESL and head on to higher education or vocational trainings. For some, a little command of English will just help with kids and homework. As our school has no literacy classes, some will be forever baffled by ESL 1 and ultimately, I imagine just give up, in frustration.

My students, for the most part, go to work but for their lives, they stay in Boyle Heights and Spanish speaking areas that are adjacent. They have different reasons for wanting to learn English but for most, there is no urgency. I guess it's arrogant of me to assume that inculcating them with my language and culture provides the keys to the kingdom. I start the semester on a low, at a time, when still in the empty nest doldrums I experience the loss of my friend Richard, the brother I never had. Perhaps my own neediness has left vulnerable to becoming overly romantic and grandiose. I suppose a few more years of teaching might toughen me up and I'll become more professional but also more cynical like most of my colleagues. Next week I box up the surprising amount of stuff I've accumulated after only thirteen weeks in my classroom. Perhaps it, like the remnants of other forgotten projects, will molder in the garage for decades. But, even with the risk of burn out, I hope I'll be schlepping all that crap back in August.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Pet Sounds and the Furry

We'd travel more if we had more time off, more money and didn't miss our pets so much. In Venice, based on a cell phone picture, we have a mask painted of our beloved tuxedo cat, Gary. When we return, the cat is ill and a few days later takes the last ride to the vet for the trip to kitty heaven. We adopt two tiny tuxedo litter mates, Jerry and Harry from the Kitty Bungalow. They arrive home and immediately perch, like their predecessor Gary, and his predecessor, Malcolm, on Himself's shoulder and nuzzle close while he works on his laptop. A few weeks after the arrival of the kittens our dear friend Richard dies suddenly. The frolicking cuddly Harry and Jerry are a balm during some very dark days. Harry's third eyelid starts to protrude and the vet diagnoses FIP, a sort of kitty AIDS, very rare, untreatable and fatal. We have the tiny fellow euthanized and watch his outgoing frisky brother Jerry grow.

I notice that Jerry is listless and eating less. I am told that it is extremely unusual for litter mates to both be afflicted with FIP. I contact the Kitty Bungalow and am informed that the other three kittens in the litter have also contracted FIP. A number of veterinarians who specialize in shelter medicine scratch their heads. Jerry is eating although only fresh chicken, torn into tiny bits and fed to him by hand. He moves through the house and jumps up on the counter but, once the most playful cat we have ever owned, he no longer plays. Cold, as the systems apparently start to shut down, he sleeps on top of the cable box all day. I don't know how much longer he has and I don't know what to wish for.

As my students trickle in I have some American music playing. It is the 50th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds so I play that one night. Bob Dylan is turning 75 so the next day I put on Blonde on Blonde. It strikes me how impossibly young these songs are. In the minutes before my students begin to wander in, the old familiar records evoke a brutal reminder of time and mortality,When I first heard this music, Dylan warbling on state-of-the-art monaural Fedco record player, lying in the ballerina bedroom on Fulton Avenue, I never imagined that fifty years later I'd be in a classroom in East Los Angeles, streaming music and thinking about death,

There are only three more weeks of school left. I have no summer assignment. I receive notice that my contract has expired. The e-mails I send inquiring about the possibility of a fall assignment are unanswered. I don't know if this is the end or the beginning. Since starting in March, I have run my little business and prepared lessons and not much else. Statistics show that the biggest predictor of student success, is not class size, but instead the amount of time teachers have outside of class to prepare and consult with other educators. I have tried to compensate for not being up to date on the latest pedagogic technique by throwing every waking hour of free time I have into planning lessons and paying careful attention to what works and what doesn't. I would not trade the experience for anything but for all of the time expended I earn, I believe, far less than the minimum wage. If I didn't have a very flexible day job, I suspect that lack of time for preparation would render me an extremely ineffectual instructor.

This is the week of the CASAS test, which ostensibly provides confirmation to the taxpayers that they are getting their money's worth on the investment in adult education. The test form asks about work and legal status and other measures of “good citizenship.” I have to teach my students to write a check. None of them have checking accounts. My own children wouldn't know how to write a check with a gun to their heads. I only write two or three a year myself. Yet, we practice with payees and writing out dollar amounts.

The difference between gross and net income on a check stub is another lesson. They are all paid in cash. I subtract withheld taxes from the gross on a sample pay-stub. Heidi points out that my math is incorrect. She worked in a bank in El Salvador. I still don't know if she's pregnant. When the students see how much is typically withheld for taxes they realize that maybe it isn't so bad to be reliant on an underground economy. But, when I explain about social security benefits, many of them think again. We practice filling out employment and rental applications. In a city where Spanish speakers outnumber English speakers it is unlikely that any of my students will ever encounter a non-bilingual form. Then, there is a big emphasis on traffic signage. Students who are licensed drivers recognize all of the signs. The pedestrians know what's pertinent to them and are bored and befuddled by “merge” or “yield.”

Some of the required materials are of use. They like restaurant menus, but all of us find the “one size fits all” assumption inherent in standardized testing tedious and wasteful of the short 13 week session that we have. Plus, the materials I am given to use are crappy and filled with typos. I create from scratch power plan lessons, worksheets and games to make the often irrelevant materials more palatable.

Cesar has only been in the class for three weeks. He is newly here from Mexico but confesses to a Netflix addiction to which he attributes his good spoken English. He's a big fan of Etta James and Nina Simone. When I remark that Blonde on Blonde was recorded in 1967, he can't believe it. One night after class he tells me that he is on a visitor's visa. “I really want to work,” he tells me. “I want to learn English and get a job.” He's a licensed physical therapist, from Matamoros, a town on the Texas border. “Everyone else in the class works. How do they do it?” I tell him that I don't know and that I assume that most of the other students are undocumented, but that I avoid delving into this. Boyle Heights, I tell him, is quite politically active and I print out information about a few immigrant rights organizations. As an educated professional he might be able to get a temporary worker visa. It is a mystery to me however that so many unskilled people, with limited education, are able to survive and support themselves completely off the books. I tell Cesar to watch the film “A Day Without a Mexican” in which the Hispanic community suddenly vanishes and the city of Los Angeles comes to a standstill. He doesn't realize that I'm only half kidding when I suggest that he just find an American to marry.

Ricardo's brother Antonio has been absent for about four weeks. He doesn't live with Ricardo and his girlfriend is expecting a baby at any moment. Antonio, reports brother Ricardo, is very stressed out and working a lot of extra hours. Ricardo and Antonio, like my boys are about three years apart and they look the same, but different, in the same way that my boys do. Ricardo struggles with his writing but he shows up nightly and works very hard. He is, at 23, the youngest student to have stuck with the class since March. On the night of the CASAS test, Antonio wanders in. I know that the test will be challenging for him. Younger brother Ricardo is obviously delighted to see him and they sit in the back row cracking each other up. Antonio looks through the test. I know that some of it will be baffling to him. Younger brother Ricardo knows this too. I give Ricardo a dirty look when I see him, rather indiscreetly helping Antonio. Ricardo shrugs and makes cow eyes. “He's my brother.”

After the tension of the CASAS test we play charades. The coat ladies are mortified but rise to the occasion and manage to get the opposing team to guess “flower” and “fat.” It's Eduardo, our class clown's turn. He stands, clears his throat officiously and stomps his foot. The students guess “teacher” instantaneously. Seldom have so many laughed so hard.

I have a dilemma. One student in each class is awarded at the end of the year for outstanding accomplishment and receives free textbooks for the next semester. Older Juan, who works as a custodian in a Vernon factory and has memorized Das Kapital, attends regularly and works very hard. He's just a few years younger than I am and I sympathize with how difficult it can be to learn new things. Estella never misses a class and studies by herself at home. She is patient and helps the less advanced students and perhaps demonstrates the most marked improvement in written and spoken English. Young Ricardo, while still a bit pokey on the written stuff is fearless and speaks intelligibly and has perhaps the best understanding of any of the student. Heidi, has improved her atrocious pronunciation a lot and is a great sport about being corrected. She never misses a night and her written work has improved enormously. The truth is, there are a couple of students who only attend rarely and haven't accomplished much, but I wish I could give each one of the others the prize.

There is an Adult Ed workshop with training to use a new online CASAS preparation program designed for iPad that will be used in the Fall. Even though I have no idea whether the budget will allow for hiring non-tenured teachers and my superiors have ignored my queries about reinstatement, I am curious. We are given iPads. I have never used one but I am able to figure it out. The teacher next to me has subbed at my school. He is about ten years younger than I am and in the school parking lot puts a canvas cover over his car for the duration of his two hour teaching session. He struggles with the iPad and I help him turn it on and get to the correct application. Even though I have a bit of trouble switching between applications, myself, I am successfully able to help him a number of other times. Later I explain FTP sites to another younger male teacher. I feel smug and superior.

The online program is perfect. It would have saved me many hours of preparing my own materials and gives the teacher feedback on the progress and strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. There are carts of iPads now for every campus although enough only for each class to use them for about a week each trimester. But enrolled students will have access to the program themselves to operate on home computers and phones. I know that a strong digital component would result for me in much more effective teaching and that the L.A. Adult's schools ESL instruction is about to take a huge leap.

I return home from the training, sad that there's a good chance I'll never get to work with iPads in a classroom and ready to try to hand feed Jerry, like a baby bird, microscopic pieces of chicken. He eats more enthusiastically than he has in ages, batting my hand away and gobbling from the saucer himself. Later, he finds his favorite pink puff ball and bats it around. He digs his claws, with great gusto, into every piece of upholstered furniture in the house. He chases the dog's tail and then falls asleep on top, straddling her as if atop a little pony.

Sometimes I guess there is a brief rally preceding a rapid decline. Still, it is totally swell to have the pesky thing back in action, even if it's only temporary. After thirteen consummately satisfying weeks I likely will not be asked again to teach. Happiness, like life, is never more than temporary. Too temporary to waste time with old music maudlin. Still, I might never find out if Heidi's pregnant.

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.

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.