Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Wrong Venue

“It wasn't a good idea,” you say.

You were drinking tea in the supine position. After teaching your adult ed class, you lie down in a daze listening to R.E.M. on the headphones. You can’t be bothered to sit up , and since your head is propped on a pillow, you simply lift your tea cup and swig. Cheers. Warm. Your hands are so cold. Could you have some brandy? Just joking. You cannot have brandy. Your doctor gives you pills. Alcohol doesn’t mix with pills. Remember the time you sipped some cooking wine? My God, it was salty. You thought you might pass out.

“What wasn't a good idea?” he asks.

“Teaching adult ed.”

“But I thought you enjoyed it.”


“But I hear you in the hall. You sound so relaxed and confident.”

“They don’t respect me. It’s hard to take.”

“They stay after class and talk to you!”

“Yes, but...”

He can’t possibly know. This adult ed class is a real headache. Some are good students, but some don't do the work. Some comprehend one week, but forget everything the next. Then there’s one hostile guy (the first hostile student you've ever encountered, but then you haven't taught in many years) who is always looking for a chance to denigrate you. He likes to interrupt you frequently to deliver mini-lectures on the Roman games (and that is relevant how?). Yes, you have heard it all: the Colosseum, the gladiators, the simulated naval fights on the flooded fields. Smile, smile. Some of the women encourage him. “He’s so smart,” one cooed. He, however, takes off right away after class so none of the women can talk to him. (Gay?)

And then you’re back to grammar, derivatives, and reading simple Latin stories - and the necessary six to seven worksheets you’ve made up painstakingly each week to make sure they get enough practice.

Just when you think they’re progressing - they all were enlightened about the concept of gender, number, and case and excelling on the derivative analysis - all is wiped out of their memories the next week. It’s inexplicable. Can this really be happening? Are they really spending time on it? They’re so sweet. They have their flashcards and they shuffle through them before class. They laugh about learning and relearning their vocabulary. You assure them this is a natural part of the process, but you can see that they reinforce each other in the belief that it’s unnatural to memorize. You emphasize that if they have to “prioritize” (a word you thought you’d never use), learning the vocabulary is the most important thing. But you can never make them close their books during drills because the administrator has made it clear that you must amuse them at all costs and not tax them. And you do mean costs and taxes (ha ha!). After the second week a woman who wanted a full refund after the drop-course “expiration” date complained that your were teaching grammar (and got a refund)! And how else is one to teach Latin? You were truly astonished that you were reprimanded for this. You assured the administrator that you were also teaching English derivatives (many dreary worksheets on identifying verb stems and prefixes) and bringing in culture (many poems translated by me, bits of graffiti, and some Roman culture). But why did you have to assure her of that? What is wrong with grammar? Latin teachers teach grammar. It's essential.

You have never taught a non-credit class. You are not an entertainer. This consumer-oriented approach seems foolish. It's all about making money (not for me - for the program). You're in a state of anxiety - about what? Why not just teach the language the way it should be taught?

Two have said the homework - half to one chapter a week - takes too much time - would you have had the gall to say that to a teacher? - and you try to sympathize but can you really slow down more? You planned to teach 16 chapters. You have compromised insanely. The class meets only once a week for two hours, but they are getting ample practice, as much in two hours as othe students get in their three-times-a-week classes.

Your husband says, "I feel guilty. It was my idea.”

Yes.” It was his idea. Although you both knew it was the wrong venue, there is no other venue.

The university in town has eliminated its language departments.

“It’s kind of a nightmare," you say as you drink your tea by the pound (OK, that's an exaggeration).

“Welcome to my world.”

Some have learned. Some are surprisingly good and could go much faster. (But I only hear from the ones who want to slow down.) Some have been very kind and stayed after class to say how much they have learned - that they got more out of it than they thought. “I thought I would go away with a list of English words,” one said. “It’s much more than that.”

So it is.

Some have told you their stories.

So are you exaggerating the feeling of dissatisfaction? If the majority are pleasant and learning a little - isn't that an accomplishment?

But it's such a small majority.

You should earn more money to make this worthwhile. You're not in it for the money, but you don't want to sweat over something so trivial.


Ellen said...

Well. I dreaded going to my classes today. Three of the four people who were to give talks were the kind of students who don't do the work and capable of simply not showing up. Talks are central to the way I get through some of my classes. I ask all students to get up and give 10 minute talks on the texts set for reading over the term. I have to leave 30 minutes open for this and what do I do if they don't show?

I don't have enough material for the term if I start using stuff up today as there's a limit to how much I can assign them. I hadn't finished grading all the exams; had four I hadn't done. But if I gave them back, I could use these to fill the gaps. It's not fair to give back exams to some and not all.

In the event I panicked a little at the beginning of the first class, dithered a bit to use up time, gave back the exams, but then lo and behold both students had done reasonable and one had a longish talk (15 minutes). I had barely time to cover even part of what I'd prepared, and the class appeared interested in the history of children's literature and they liked Mason's Girl Sleuth.

Buoyed up I went into the second class cheerful and the two people gave brilliant talks, especially the young man who I knew capable of this -- he taught me something. They stirred the class and wow we had real talk about ourselves, our identities for something like 15-20 minutes. I had to stop them to get a little of my lecture on Children's lit in. Then I began to laugh at what I was saying (joke about) and they laughed and the class was over.

Two of my favorite students (love to read, very smart girls) came up to talk afterwards and walked away with me.

The price of getting into the right venue is very high; the competition is stiff and keen, and there aren't many of them. So you'd have had to travel about after them. You need to be lucky (be in the right place at the right time). Right now it's necessary where I am not to have an Anglo name but men (any man) are being hired lest English become an (embarrassingly) female ghetto.

I don't underestimate the difficulty of adult ed. I've never done it. I could not manage high school, let alone junior high.

Advice nobody wants (remember Elizabeth Bennet's words on that): Somehow squash that bullying man and whatever it costs you in chits with the others make sure they know you won't take that again; you've had enough. It's late to start but you can still do it by being blunt. Many in the class have recognized what he is and what he is doing. You need to make it explicit and say you're not having it for your own and the class's sake. Then concentrate on the students who are earnest and mean it. Pay attention to them and try to shut the others out of your mind.

Early on in a term I define what I mean is a good student and they hear that: the person who does the work. If someone complains to that guy you work for, smile and let whatever happens happen. You may weather it. If you are being kept it's not a result of what is going on in the classroom but politics outside it that has nothing at all to do with you.


Ellen said...

I forgot to say: memorization is a sine qua non. When Izzy was learning latin in high school, everywhere scattered in her room were 3x5 index cards with words and families of words. I began to learn Italian when my knee was broken in a car accident and I lie for hours memorizing. When one forgets a language, what is happening is loss of this vocabulary from the neurons of the brain.

You need to say this and without qualification.


Mad Housewife said...

Ellen, this is excellent advice!
Have you ever noticed how "the squeaky wheel gets the grease?Back to that old adage, "Don't smile till Christmas."

I'm very glad your students didn't let you down. It's excellent for them to have chances to present material; I can imagine you're on tenterhooks worrying about who might not show up.

Most of the students use flashcards, like Izzy. I told them to make their own, as the writing also helps them remember, and it is a pleasure to see them looking through these "antique" non-computer-generated tools before class.