Every year, I fill out a form specifying which courses I want to teach and what time schedule I would like. Each September, I sit down with my department coordinator, and she calmly and methodically persuades me to do whatever she wants me to, whenever she wants me to.
Two years ago, she asked me to prep English learners for the English Regents exam. I said OK, and spent all year making the kids write until their hands were ready to fall off. Most of them passed, and for some, it was miraculous. Of course, they’re fortunate that more stress is placed on content than grammar and usage (“conventions” rates the very bottom of the grading rubric). I showed them how to write highly formulaic four-paragraph essays that minimally met the requirements.
One technique entailed copying directions and converting them to first person. Another featured repeatedly rehearsing canned literary references, many of which could be trotted out to support virtually any quote about anything. No technique, in my view, much encouraged writing habits that would prove useful in the long haul. There was no time for such things and besides, half my kids could barely communicate in English. Sadly, there was almost no time to work on that either.
English language learners should not be taking this test at all. It’s designed for native speakers. If my kid couldn’t pass this in eleventh grade, I’d be very concerned. But a kid who came from Korea two months ago needs other things — including the grammar and usage that the state test doesn’t value that much.
This notwithstanding, I’m very happy when my students pass the Regents exam. I’m also acutely aware that the only thing I’ve prepared them to do is pass an exam they will never again face in their lives. However, they cannot graduate high school without passing the exam, so I teach it if asked.
My friend Rena Sum teaches Chinese, and overheard the following exchange:
“I don’t know what to do. I’m having trouble with the English Regents.”
“Oh, you should take Goldstein’s class.”
“Is it good?”
“No, it’s awful. You write and write and write. But you’ll pass the test.”
The kid was right about how awful it is. Several times the principal walked in on me, saw me screaming at kids to write better, to write more, to write over, and walked out shaking his head.
This year, I volunteered to teach the Regents exam again, but our coordinator sat me down and explained she wanted me to teach beginners. She wanted to make sure they got a good grounding in basic English, and would I please do this even though I hadn’t asked for it?
The very first day I taught the beginners I called to tell her that class was the best part of my day. I knew in my heart that I was giving these kids a lifeline, that my course was the most important they were taking, and that I was their best friend if they wanted to thrive and be happy in the United States.
“My name is Mr. Goldstein. What’s your name?”
A blank stare. I try someone else. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Eun Sil.”
“What’s your name?”
Eventually they all get it, they ask you, and you build from there. You show them that English is a tool for communication, not simply something you take tests with (like many of them did in their home countries). You show them we use it to express love, joy, and humor. You show them that life is full of all these things. You show them that you are full of all these things, and that they can be too.
When the principal walks in to that class, the kids are walking around having conversations and taking notes.
“We’re asking questions,” you tell him. “Ask the principal a question.”
“What time do you go to sleep at night?”
“What do you do in your free time?”
“What do you do on weekends?”
The principal does his best to answer, what with questions coming from all quarters, and when he finally escapes the inquisition, you look, but don’t detect his head shaking.
More to the point the kids, rather than learning how to pass a test, acquire real communication skills they can use for the rest of their lives, whether they stay here or not. Next year, I want to teach beginners again.
I only hope my department coordinator doesn’t persuade me otherwise.