On Being Late

teen-late-for-school-rexI always teach at 8:00 in the morning and normally don’t have a problem with students’ coming late.  However, this quarter I have a class where more and more students are coming late.  There are usually more students not in class than in the classroom.  It has gotten out of hand.  The easiest thing to do is go the punishment route.  I know an instructor who used to lock the door at 8:00 and open it again at 8:20.  After using this technique only one time, the instructor didn’t have any more late students.  That seems harsh.  I could subtract points, humiliate the students more than I do now, or I could give a pop quiz exactly at 8:00 for extra points.

But I didn’t want to level out punishments.  I talked with the class (after everyone had arrived) and passed out a clean sheet of paper asking them to come up with a solution to the problem.  They were not to put their names on the papers, and all the papers were the same.  Before they gave their suggestions, they could discuss the topic with their partner.  They could keep the paper with them during the class.  At the end of class, I collected them.

Here is what I got:

  1. Offer coffee in class
  2. Give extra credit for coming on time
  3. Have all the students fill out a “promise” form not to be late again. If the promise is broken, s/he has to take the whole class to lunch
  4. Late students get extra homework
  5. Late students have to bring food for the whole class next time
  6. Late students can’t ask any questions for that day
  7. Rewards for coming on time
  8. If students come on time, they can miss one or two homework assignments
  9. Tell everyone that the class now starts at 7:30
  10. Give a quiz at 8:00 for extra points
  11. Late students have to dance by themselves in front of the class
  12. Start class 20 minutes after 8:00
  13. I’m so sorry

When I was a student, I wasn’t late.  I didn’t need a punishment or an incentive to be on time.  I realize that some of my students work until 1:00 a.m. and get home late.  Some students travel for 1 hour and 40 minutes each way to Foothill.  I get that.

I have another 8:00 class, and coming late is not a problem.  Why?  It can’t be the material.  Is it seeing their friends, doing a last-minute job on their homework, not wanting to lose face, making a promise to themselves, having well-established habits for being on time?  Could it be that the class has formed a community that the students enjoy?

It is at the end of the quarter, and it is probably too late for the class with the tardiness problems.  But I am wondering how I could have handled this better and how I will handle this if it appears again.

“I don’t want to work with my partner.”

img_1183Every week I put my students in pairs in all my classes based solely on their native language.  I explain to them in the very beginning that this is not a dating service, and that they cannot ask to have someone in particular to be their partner.  It’s just the roll of the dice.  There are many benefits to this partnering in my opinion.  This avoids students being left out if I were to ask students to pair up.  Each student has someone at the beginning of the week that s/he can work with for the whole week.  They know that the following week they will have someone else.  This also avoids the situation where students come into an ESL class and don’t utter one word in two hours.

But there are the downsides too.  I announced the assigned pairs some years ago, and I had a star Chinese water polo champion come up to me after class telling me he couldn’t work with the partner he had been assigned.  I asked why.  He said he could never work with a Japanese student.  Again I asked why.  He said, “Because of World War II.”  This reason was new to me.  It had never happened before.  I had had the Israeli woman and Palestinian man both from Jerusalem who didn’t like each other until they started dating each other.  I had the student with very bad breath who no one wanted to work with.  That is when I started handing out mints to anyone who wanted some for him/herself or his/her partner.  But World War II hadn’t come up.

I asked the water polo student if he really thought the young Japanese woman he was paired with was responsible for World War II.  (I had read The Rape of Nanking and even went to hear the author speak in San Francisco.  It was horrific what happened in China during World War II.)  However, are the children and grandchildren of that generation responsible for the “sins of their fathers”?  My Chinese student didn’t want to answer my question concerning the responsibility of his Japanese partner.  And yet, I thought that if he could work with this student for one week, he might gain a new experience that could change his perspective.

I told him that there were many national reasons students might have for not wanting to work with each other since countries in the past or even in the present have done or are doing terrible things to each other, but while everyone is sitting in a classroom together and trying to learn English, is it really the right time to bring in our animosities with us?  I repeated my policy of working together with a partner for just one week, and that they couldn’t choose their partners.  He didn’t like the idea, and I wish I could say that he and his partner lived happily ever after at least for a week.  But that wasn’t the case.  He reluctantly worked with the Japanese woman for the week.  He did the bare minimum that he had to but nothing else.  He liked to stare out the open door so that he didn’t have to interact with his partner.

This class had a number of Japanese and Chinese students in it, and they were inevitably going to be matched with each other.  No other student seemed to have any problem with this, but this one champion water polo playing student seemed to.  I didn’t know what to do.  I started to not want to pair him up with anyone, but I decided against it.  I paired him up with a non-Japanese student for the next week, and following week he had another Japanese woman as his partner.  I observed him to see if he was ignoring this student as well, but he seemed to treat the Japanese woman as he had the non-Japanese student, which meant in a cordial and friendly way.  It resolved itself more or less.  After that incident, I started to wonder how many other students felt the same way as my Chinese student had about some partner s/he disliked for some national or religious reason and never said a word.  Most ESL students are too polite to mention such a thing, but (I may be wrong here) I think that many students don’t even think in those terms.


i150605_190902_2407303otexttrmrmmglpict000013818696oIn getting ESL students to practice the passive voice, I give them a survey exercise, where they have to go around the class and ask whether their fellow students, “ . . .have ever  been rescued from a dangerous situation, or have ever been praised by a teacher, or have ever been humiliated by a teacher.”  The students write down their answers and when finished, they go back to their partners and report on what they have found out.  Students relate what has happened to them and then turn in their papers for me to check on the passive voice.

The idea of humiliation in the classroom brought back memories of when I was in second grade.  I was in a Catholic school in San Francisco, and at the time, there wasn’t co-education in Catholic schools.  Boys and girls were educated in separate classrooms in separate buildings.  There were 52 boys in our class, and we all wore the uniforms of the school.  Our teacher seemed to be at her wits’ end and lost her temper over and over again.  One boy in our class, Manuel, came from a family where he was very close to his sisters.  They must have always played together at home, but at school since the genders were separated from each other, he couldn’t be in class with his sisters or play with them at recess.  The playgrounds were also segregated.  However, Manuel went into the girls’ playground to play with his sisters all the time.  Every time he did it, he was told not to do it and was punished.  After multiple times, our teacher decided to punish him severely.

Manuel was removed from class, and we were told that he was going to be punished.  When he came back in the classroom, we were not to utter a word.  Manuel was led back into the classroom, and we immediately saw that he had been forced to put on a girl’s uniform, which looked a bit like a sailor suit.  The minute we saw him, all the boys in the class burst into laughter because no one had expected that this was going to be the punishment.

And yet . . . when Manuel saw that everyone was laughing at him, he started to twirl around and dance in front of the class.  He tried to get his skirt to spread out away from his body by going faster and faster.  There was a big smile on his face as danced, and the class laughed even harder making our teacher very mad.  This was obviously not the expected outcome that she had wanted.  Manuel was immediately ushered out of the room, and we were yelled at for not following orders.

In looking back on this, I think that this was the most humiliating thing I have ever seen a teacher do to a student.  That Manuel had the wherewithal to turn the tables on the teacher and make a mockery of the punishment was brilliant but way beyond his years it now seems to me.  I wonder what happened to him.

I know that this is an extreme case, and humiliation was intended, but it is also possible to “accidentally” humiliate a student in class.  With the best of intentions, I have done this.  I had a student from China whose name was Jackie.  I assumed Jackie was a boy, and when “his” partner turned in a short bio on “him,” his partner had crossed out all the pronouns from he to she.  I know that students have a problem with pronouns since they sound so much alike to their ears, so I thought that this was such a case.  I marked the pronouns and wrote on the paper to change them back to he.  The student was to rewrite the homework assignment.  I returned the paper, and Jackie and the other student came up to me after class, and Jackie said, “Mr. Morasci, I AM a girl.”  I felt very bad about this and apologized, but there was nothing I could do to undo this.

When Jackie went around the classroom for the passive voice survey and was asked if she had ever been humiliated by a teacher, she said, “Yes, when Mr. Morasci thought I was a boy.”



Where is the balance?

imagesI’m a big fan of German films, and last weekend was the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.  This festival highlights the latest films in the German language coming out of Europe.  There were two films which I was really excited about seeing, and I had waited months for their arrival.  Each film would be shown once.  But I couldn’t seem to find the time even for just one film.  I can’t seem to keep away from the political turmoil going on now, so I have become hooked on news.  Then I have students who cannot concentrate on learning English since they do not know their fate.  On top of it is the fact that I seem to give a lot of homework and then fall behind in grading, correcting, and giving feedback to the students.  Must weekends always be filled with so much work?

My question:  how can I establish a balance between work and free time?  I knew that I couldn’t solve that problem last weekend, so I created a very crazy plan.   While I was slugging away at pile after pile of homework papers that needed to get graded or corrected or you name it, I thought to myself that I could go see a movie, take public transport, and grade some homework while waiting for the streetcar and while sitting in the streetcar.  I could continue to grade while I stood in line for a ticket and while I was waiting for the film to start inside the theater.  So, I decided to go with the plan.

I didn’t have to wait for the streetcar, but inside the streetcar it was so crowded that I couldn’t look through the papers.  At the theater, I had to wait in line, but then it started to rain, and there was no shelter nearby.  I started to contemplate the benefit of being on the move with school work and no opportunity to complete it.  Inside the theater was so dark that I couldn’t really read the papers.  Fine.  There was still the ride home, which might come in handy.  And there was also the evening hours left.

I had to keep my goal in mind:  the new film, Frantz.  The film began and turned out not to disappoint.  Germany 1919 right after the end of the WWI.  Small town.  Much sadness.  Black and white film.  Haunting music.  And then suddenly a mystery appears, and at times color invades the black and white world of post WWI Germany.  Such a fascinating experience, and not once did I think about the piles of papers I had in my backpack.  It was an escape but also nutrition for my mind.  And yet I went through such a complicated plan to allow myself to leave the house.  Does it have to be that way?

What do you do?

2560The other day, my ESL class had started, and a woman was continuing to text on her phone.  I asked her to put it away, and she told me that her Iranian parents, who were planning on visiting her, were now not allowed to applied for visas.  She was so distraught.  I normally don’t talk politics in my classes, but I thought that this could not be ignored.  So, I asked the class how many people were worried about the policies coming out of Washington, and all their hands went up.  I thought I had to address it then, and later I could present a prepared lesson on what was going on.

Thinking to myself, I started to wonder what was going through the heads of my students as they attempted to learn more English grammar as these executive orders out of Washington continued to flow.  These new rules could alter the paths that these international as well as resident students were planning on taking.  How could they even begin to contemplate an adjective clause while their dreams might be disappearing?

Luckily I know my grammar book well enough to realize that a chapter on immigration was coming up, and that I could refer to it even though it was grammar that the students hadn’t learned yet.  (This is a grammar book mind you.)  The chapter looked at the waves of immigrants starting with 1848.  The reasons were given for the different groups:  the Chinese due to famine, the Italians for work, the Vietnamese to escape war, etc.  It also mentioned that the country has at times shut the door on immigration as it did in the 1920s and then reopened the door in the 1960s.  It also showed how Charlie Chaplin had been banned from entering the country in 1952 for his political ideas, and that 20 years later he was invited back to the U.S. to accept an Oscar for his lifetime achievement in films.

In doing this, I wanted to emphasize that such periods of acceptance or rejection of immigrants is temporary.  I also had seen the CBS news the night before and knew that it was available online, so I showed the news with the crowds of people at different airports protesting the new order.  I wanted to let the students know that it wasn’t the entire country that was against immigrants, and that they, the students, could witness for themselves the First Amendment in action.

It also occurred to me that the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities might also be appropriate, so I found the first page online and projected it up on the screen.  I knew that my students wouldn’t understand all of it, but surely they would understand, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  And I asked my students how that might apply to now. (Does this sound like Up the Down Staircase or what?)  I was hoping that they would be able to see that the orders may be part of the worst of times, but that the protests could be seen as the best of times.  (At least I could see it that way.)

I don’t know how successful I was.  One talk is not going to alleviate the worries growing day by day, but it seemed to me that it was worth a try.  Then Thuy’s letter was sent out, and in the following class I projected the letter on the screen and went over it point by point so that my students would understand how we at Foothill would be looking out for them.  The letter came at the right time.  Who knows what will happen next?

“We can’t take it anymore”

redjacket-1I consider myself to be culturally sensitive to my ESL students. That thought should  be examined from time to time. There has been a  shift in population among my students, but I have been unaware of it in the classroom even though I remain caught up in the news around the world. There are a couple of excellent films that I have used over the years, and I never thought about any negative reaction to them. (Perhaps there always were, but no student ever told me or wrote to me about it.)

Last quarter I showed 10 Minuta and The Red Jacket. Students were asked to summarize and interpret the films using the grammar that was being taught in the class at the time. Both films lend themselves to this activity.

For the first time, added to the summaries and interpretations were comments asking why I was requiring the students to watch films about war when some of the students had just come from battle-torn cities. I was asked if I had been aware that there were students from Ukraine in the class. They told me how traumatic it was for them to sit in a classroom and watch films that brought back horrific memories of their recent past.  They couldn’t take it anymore.

I should have known that. There seem to be more and more refugees in class now.  The whole point in showing these films originally was to remind the students about what war is. (This assumed that the students were not from countries where war being waged.) In fact, my actions repeated the filmmakers’ story lines in bringing the consequences of war back to a peaceful world away from the war. In this sense, the peaceful world is unaware of what is going on in the war zone. This thinking was meant to remind my ESL students of what was going on in other countries around the world. However, it didn’t take into consideration the students who might be from that war zone.

Here’s the dilemma. Do I not show the films anymore? Or do I show the two films to the class and alternative films to students from war-torn countries? Do I just make options? Students can choose which film they may want to see? Of course I will consult with my students in any case. But perhaps the situation has changed so drastically that i don’t have to remind students what war is .  In any case, I will discuss this with my classes this quarter before I show any film.



Ben Armerding’s Challenge


I’m going to take up Ben on his challenge to write about one of the “most prominent memories of reading and writing” in our own history as a student in higher education.

When I first went to CCSF after high school, I placed into what was called bonehead English, and it wasn’t just bonehead.  It was the lowest level bonehead (two levels below English 1A).  I accepted my fate even though I also knew that on the day I took the English placement test, my hay fever was preventing me from concentrating on the test.  So, in this class, we were looking at sentences such as, “Birds are singing.”  And we were asked, “What is the subject?  What is the verb?”  I could answer all such questions, but I realized that the other students couldn’t.  We also read novels, such as A High Wind in Jamaica, which might normally be read in high school, but I had never read them before.  I responded to the books in the same way I had written in high school, and Miss Wolf (there was no Ms. back then.) loved it.  She approached me after about two weeks and asked me why I was in that class.  I told her that I had been placed in the class.  The class was supposed to last for two semesters, and she suggested I retake the placement test to avoid taking the second half of the class.  I did and placed into English 1A.

What is strange about all this is that I never questioned my placement in the class.  I never tried to get out of taking it or to retake the placement test.  And yet, I remember that I had liked to write in high school if I liked the topic.  I once had an English teacher that used to punish students by giving out extra writing assignments if he saw you talking when you shouldn’t or doing something he didn’t like.  The only good thing is that if you did a good job with the assignment, he graded it and gave you points.  The topic of the writing punishment changed every day.  One day after Mr. Haney gave out the punishment to another student, I thought it was such an interesting topic that I purposely started talking to my neighbor so that I could be given the punishment assignment.  When I turned in the paper, he liked it so much that he read it out loud to the class.  So in college, I already knew that I didn’t have all that many writing problems.  And yet, I accepted the results of the placement test without a word of protest.

When Miss Wolf recognized that I was misplaced without my pointing it out, this reinforced my belief that I was in the right place.