Saturday, October 7, 2017

Danto Disgust

A number of ESL teachers at my school teach a three hour morning course that starts at 8 AM and then return at 6 PM and teach for another three hours. I only teach ten hours a week and perform my day job on automatic pilot. By the time Thursday night rolls around I sit in the parked car for a few minutes before mustering the energy to drag myself into the house. I am on my feet and animated for three hours, four nights a week, having spent nearly twice as long assembling lessons. Often something that I spend hours assembling falls 100% flat and I have to move on and plow through materials meant to last a week. This week we're stuck on adverbs of frequency and what I plan as a one hour review drags on for days.

Student demand the game Kahoot! at the end of class which they play on their phones. I compose multiple choice questions and add illustrations. It takes about an hour to make one but every night they chant “Kahoot! Kahoot! Kahoot!” It would probably be a good idea to tell them that “Kahoot!” is a made up word. I can imagine someone asking on a job interview if there is a pre-employment “Kahoot!” One of my students, a sweet man, seven years older than myself, has loaded the App to his phone and plays along good-naturedly holding his phone inches from his face and gazing through thick glasses. The question flashes for only 20 seconds. Things like, pick the correct sentence:
A. The girls always walks to school.
B. The girls they always walk to school.
  1. The girls walk to school
  1. The girls walking to school.

Students struggle with this stuff in class lessons. But amazingly, there are often a number of them who have difficulty with speaking and writing but zip through the Kahoots!, never missing a question. They input the answers much faster than I'm able to when I try a practice game. A little competitive adrenaline rush and they're geniuses.

Many students attend only sporadically so their language acquisition is catch-as-catch can. For a lot of them it is impossible to attend four nights a week so they show up when they're able. Terminal Level Ones. This is the best that they can do. I try each night to present something self contained, and requiring no scaffolding. One night I explain rent control. Another, I show them Craigslist except for the personals section. We talk the American Labor movement. I tell them about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the Triangle Fire. I explain the star ratings on YELP. We talk about how in other countries people get free medical care and six weeks a year of paid vacation and don't seem to mind paying a lot more in taxes.

Inevitably, either the more sophisticated students are bored or the less advanced ones stare blankly. One night the projector and speakers in my classroom go on the fritz and it's just me and the white board. On the fly, I jot down some simple sentences. “I walk to school every night. He walks to school every night. I am walking to school now. He is walking to school now.” After a stultifying number of repetitions, and switching out verbs and pronouns, it's starting to dawn on them. But, I give them a worksheet to review the following night, a disappointing number of them write “I walks to school now.”

Most teachers prefer to teach the higher levels of English. These students are easier to communicate with and have demonstrated perseverance. The higher levels intimidate me because don't trust myself to explain more complicated grammar and my spelling is bad. I'm good with the simple present and present progressive. I'm nervous that we won't get to the simple past tense because it shows up in a single question on the promotional test.

My students come and go. A handful of them attend religiously and will do well on the promotional exam. There is also a handful of stalwarts who apparently are in level 1B by virtue of social promotion and are hopelessly destined to fail. I will make them fancy attendance certificates. I divide the students into ability groups named after animals. The Lions are the lowest level. I spend the most time with them. We practice conversations. I tell them “My husband washes the dishes every day.” And they tell me that I'm pretty lucky. We copy sentences. “I live in Los Angeles.” I help them form letters and to start a sentence with a capital letter and end it with a period. I use as many cognates as I can with the Lions. The simple present and not the present progressive... “FRE-QUEN-CY, FRE-QUEN-CY,” wild eyed frenzied nodding. The spark! A Lion blurts “Frequencia!” I exhale loudly and pump my fist.

The Pandas is the largest group. All male. It is easiest to elicit conversation from an all female group. There's the ease that women have with each other. In a mixed group some of the guys puff out their chests and speak with bravado. “I drives my motorcycle to school.” The all-male Pandas just sit there. They glower at each other until I screech and wave my arms. “Speak! Speak English! That is why you're here!” When I get really annoyed with them, I remind them that as taxpayers, they pay my salary and it is wasteful not to capitalize on their investment.

The Butterflies are slightly more advanced than the Pandas. For many, their language skills exceed their reading and writing abilities. The Butterflies also lack a female member. They're men in their twenties and thirties. They aren't thrilled being referred to as Butterflies. The Lions are mostly women. I'm not sure how this happened. Note to self: No more cutesy animal names.

The women are divided between the super high and super low groups. The Lions are the students I euphemistically consider “pre-literate.
The Bees are the most sophisticated group, pretty much half men and half women. I toss them their assignment and leave them to it. They have to talk about a picture with a woman holding an overflowing basket of laundry. The floor is littered with toys. She has a kerchief on her head. She grimaces. Her name is Anika. Her husband is Izaak which is maybe Russian because he has on a tacky tracksuit. Izaak is happily walking out the door, waving goodbye. How can Anika revenge herself? Make him do yard-work? Insist that they go out to dinner and drink a lot of expensive wine? Wash all of the clothes in the laundry hamper except his?

After they ponder the fate of Izaak and Anika they are assigned some research. They are to find local restaurants that serve wine, laundromats and marriage counselors. My class is 100% Hispanic and about 60% male. When I glance over at The Bees I notice how the women are conspicuously in charge. The men are almost differential. The lady Bees are very self confident.

Most of the Butterflies and all of the Bees will pass the promotional test and move on to the next level. The Pandas are a crapshoot. I think all of them are capable of passing the battery of tests but regular attendance is going to be the determiner.

I am embarrassed at the first school meeting of the year when I ask where in the textbook I should start for my 1B class. I am told, with officiousness that we “do not follow the textbook, we follow the curriculum.” Nevertheless, the students are required to fork out $36 for a textbook and workbook. I like for them to feel that they're getting their money's worth. Even if the book completely dovetailed with the several single spaced pages of objectives, the list of expected accomplishments is insanely unrealistic.

Beyond the curriculum there are a series of life skills lessons that must be completed each trimester. Our task is health but the objective is very narrow. Students are expected to identify various services offered by health clinics and fill out a very rudimentary medical history form. I spend about a week getting them ready for this test. While this certainly isn't the case for many ESL classes, my students are all Hispanic. Given their largely Spanish speaking alternative universe, information and forms are nearly always available in Spanish. Honing the ability to communicate with a child's teacher, or manage a job interview, I suspect would be of greater value.

It's all about accountability. My students have already been subjected to two different tests. They will take one more test to assess their progress after ten weeks. Then, in order to qualify for promotion they will have to pass a ten-minute speaking test, a listening test and finally, a writing test. I am the first to admit that I'm green and anxious and often don't know what I'm doing. But I am pretty certain that the a number of the objectives are unrealistic, irrelevant and/or obsolete for a class of mostly digital natives. There is too much emphasis on testing. Apparently the objectives are being reconsidered but when I participate in a group tasked with evaluating possible changes, the meeting is commandeered aggressively and with an eye for not staying on campus for one more minute than necessary. I am unable to contribute any input at all.

Ironically, when students first enter the class, we are to question them about their personal goals and motivation for studying English although there's virtually no wiggle room to customize instruction. Perhaps when we leave the stone age we'll have students create digital portfolios to showcase their accomplishments instead of ceaselessly testing them. A pretest indicates that 72% of my students are unable to interpret information from a phone message. 70% are unable to decipher a question pertaining to medical insurance. There is a post-test in a couple of weeks and it is very much to the schools' benefit if scores improve. I am frantically getting them ready for the promotional tests. I don't have the time to present units on phone messages and insurance. Perhaps this information would be of value to my students, but given the paucity of phone messages these days and the fact that very few of them have, or are eligible for, insurance without giving them the exact question I have no choice but to stoop and teach for the test.

While I bristle at the bureaucracy of the district and some of the wheel spinning that takes place on my own campus, the support I get is excellent. Copies are made. I've had a few things laminated. There is a library of materials I can help myself to. When either of the two computers in my room malfunction, tech support responds immediately. At my former school I brought my laptop from home and used my phone to hotspot. I love being able to instantly access an image in response to their questions. A student from Honduras talks about the “dantos” at home. I look up “danto” and get images of tapirs. The Honduran dantos are particularly hideous and I turn up my nose. “We eat them,” he tells me. “Ick!” I scoff. He whips out his cellphone and shows me a picture of his brother standing with a proudly hunted deer being disemboweled. “Oh my God!” I recoil involuntarily and then feel like a venal princess, flaunting the luxury of being fussy about what I will or will not eat.

There are only about five more weeks of actual teaching. I will try to make a bit more headway with the textbook but mostly we'll be preparing for the tests. I'm going to have the Bees make a video to help their fellow students with the commands section of the speaking test. The Butterflies will make a Powerpoint with some conversations and questions. The Pandas will caption some illustrations that we'll post on the walls. I'll sit with the Lions and copy short sentences and ask them simple questions. I hope I can make it genial and meaningful for them to return to me for the next trimester while most of their classmates move on.

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