Teaching ESL (one teacher’s experience)
When Trump got installed and continued his horrible tirades against immigrants and refugees, then began his daily executive orders designed to keep immigrants out of the country, I, like most sane people, was incensed and disgusted. What could I do about this?
Aside from donating money and attending immigrant rights’ protests and forums, I decided I needed to do the thing I’d been trained for—teach immigrants English. In the late 1980’s when Reagan was president, he was despicable too, except he did one good thing—he created a law that allowed amnesty for millions of people in the US who were undocumented.
It was an incredible time, the late ‘80’s—I’d just finished another year of teaching elementary school in downtown LA, when the word got out that LA Unified School District was looking for teachers for adult students seeking English classes. The answer to the dumb question of “Why don’t ‘those people’ want to learn English” was easily answered—all you had to do was look at the lines of people five blocks long, all waiting patiently to register for classes! Some schools like Evans Adult had classes all around the clock—noon, 2 pm., 4 pm., 6 pm., 8 pm., 10 pm., midnight, 2 am., 4 am., 6 am., 8 am, 10 am. THAT’S how many people wanted to learn English! And that was just at ONE school in ONE city, Los Angeles. The students had simply been waiting till it was safe to come out of the shadows. If La Migra (or ICE) is going to grab you when you try and register for school, you’re not going to do it!
Those years of teaching adults English and Civics were among my most satisfying times as an instructor. I taught Level 1 at four different schools, and after each 8 weeks of class, students could take the test—if they passed it, they’d get their green card. I don’t speak too much Spanish, so we all helped each other. We had parties for every holiday and a few amazing women taught me salsa dancing. I looked forward to every class and in spite of students working 10 and 12 hour shifts, they rarely missed a day. They were largely Spanish-speaking but there was also a tailor from Israel and a magician from Russia who once pulled a pigeon out of a hat and was about to do a trick involving fire but I knew it would set off the ceiling sprinklers so I stopped him, mid-trick! We also sang songs in English like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles.
When I first moved to Santa Fe in the early 1990’s, I taught ESL at UNM Los Alamos—often my students were the spouses of scientists who worked at the Lab. Again, my pupils were varied—this time from China and Russia and Japan, and once more, they were hard working, motivated and generous with each other.
Then for the following 25 years, I instructed young students in English composition and creative writing. Many pupils were immigrants from Mexico and Central America. And in spite of some harrowing stories of how they and their families had gotten to the US, they often were the highest achievers in the class because they were so diligent, motivated, and appreciative of education.
But back to 2017—I signed up with Literacy Volunteers at SFCC on the nights I was not teaching other classes.
I began teaching Rodrigo (not his real name) in March of 2017. I will tell you his story, though I also have instructed other ESL students since then.
Rodrigo entered the United States over 30 years ago. He’d only completed 5th or 6th grade in Mexico, so when he came here, he worked construction and basically learned English just by hearing it. “What an amazing ear for language you have!” I told him this
often. I suppose I could go to a new country by myself and learn a completely new language and culture with no real instruction, but it takes bravery, resilience—and persistence! Rodrigo has made a living here in the US, got married, had children and grandchildren, and now he has his own construction business. He also does carpentry work for a local hotel. On election day in 2016, he had two knee replacements and went back to work with a walker only three days later. He is tough.
Rodrigo took ESL classes to read English better, write English more fluently, and someday soon, become a US citizen. We laughed a lot but we also accomplished much, two nights a week. He wrote a story about how he used to save people from drowning at the beach where he swam in Puerto Angel. I am also a swimmer so that impressed me. And he often had questions for me about words like ‘fight.’ He asked, “Why is spelled that way?”
I explained that the ‘gh’ is silent and words are not always pronounced the way they are spelled. English is a combination of French, German, Latin, and the rules don’t always make sense, especially since there are many exceptions.
Obviously learning a new language—especially English–is hard, and it takes a lot of time—particularly when you are also working two jobs.
Rodrigo sometimes got frustrated but he kept coming to class. One of his goals is to help his brother, Juan, get into the US since he can’t find a job in Mexico. But as we know, now that THE WALL is the Current Occupant of the White House’s main obsession, Juan will have to wait. Plus, becoming an American citizen is not a simple task.
To become a US citizen, you have to be skilled enough in English to take a written test and an oral test besides. All your papers have to be in order, of course, and you have to know the answers to 100 questions about the US system of government and history. A few of the questions are easy, like, “How many stars are on the flag?” But many are challenging, for example, “What year was the Constitution written?” And “Who wrote the Federalist papers?” And “What territory did the US buy from France in 1803?” I have two questions: Do TRUMP VOTERS know the answers to these questions? And, could Trump pass the Citizenship test?
Rodrigo gets discouraged at times with these queries. One of my personal favorites is, “In the US, what is the rule of law?” Part of the answer to that is, “No one is above the rule of law.” Rodrigo’s response to that was, “Why I have to learn ‘Rule of Law’ when Trump do not follow rule of law?”
What can I say? I agree with him but tell him he should probably not ask the Citizenship Examiner that question if he wants to pass the test.