I had been warned about Eulises Estrada before he even entered my class and he stuck out as a problem student the first day of class. Eulises was well-known by everyone from the counselors to the computer lab teaching assistants for his "hyper" behavior and inability to stay on task. Even though he could be tiring to a teacher, I liked Eulises from the first day of class. Although he seemed a little like a "wild child", I did not detect any of the sneakiness or malevolence that some students had. Also, in contrast to other difficult students I felt like I could modify his problem behavior with some time and effort.
Eulises thinks he was born (he tells me he is not sure) on approximately March 24, 1982. Up until almost two years ago he lived in the small town of Allutra in the state of Guerrero in Mexico. His father Martin Estrada immigrated to the United States illegally when Eulises was very small and his mother Maximina Salinas followed later when he was nine years old. Consequently, Eulises was raised between the ages of nine and twelve almost entirely by his grandparents and uncles. He saw neither his mother nor father (estranged from the family) once during those years. Finally, his mother sent for Eulises, his older sister Martha, and younger siblings Manuel and Xenia to join her in Los Angeles. They have all been students in the Los Angeles Unified School District for the two years since they arrived. Eulises is currently thirteen years old.
Eulises and his family currently live in a three bedroom apartment in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles not far from the school. There are in total ten people living in this apartment. Eulises and his brother share a bed because of the lack of space and others sleep on the floor. Mrs. Salinas works Monday through Friday in the afternoons around the local elementary schools selling candy from a portable stand. Eulises' dad lives only a couple of blocks away and also has sells food from his own mobile booth which he pushes around. Eulises dislikes the "stray dogs in the street" in Los Angeles and the "trash in the streets" in his native Allutra. He says there are gunshots in his neighborhood about every other night. Yet Eulises says he is happy to be back living with his mom. I was later to meet Mrs. Salinas and I was impressed with both her manner and attitude towards her children. I was later to have Eulises' younger brother Manuel in my class the next semester and there was an instant rapport between us because I knew both his mom and older brother.
Academically speaking, Eulises went to school in Mexico only about "every other day." When I asked him incredulously why he didn't go to school every single day, he told me that he "had to help his grandparents clean" and that sometimes he "worked in the fields." Eulises didn't like going to "La Villa" (the Spanish name of his school in Mexico) because "they hit you if you don't know how to read." In Mexico there is no automatic "social promotion" and Eulises never progressed past the second-grade in his own country. However, when Eulises arrived in Los Angeles he was placed in the sixth-grade because of his age. He says school is different in the United States, although the teachers yell at the students in both countries. Eulises claims to like learning English. However, Eulises is almost totally illiterate both in Spanish and English as he graduates from Berendo Middle School.
I had Eulises in my "Beginning ESL" class and it was his second year at this same level. And at the end of the our one semester together, I held him back for yet another year of Beginning ESL. The counselors told me they had already tested him for special education and that he did not qualify. One teacher told me he thought Eulises was "retarded"; I also at the beginning thought perhaps there was something physiologically wrong with him. But towards the end of the semester I also talked with another teacher that had had Eulises as a student from the beginning in special "LAPL" classes for students illiterate in their own language. In that class, students first learn basic reading and writing skills in Spanish before they can move into ESL classes. This particular teacher told me that when Eulises first arrived in his class all he could do was scribble long unintelligible sentences with no spaces between the words. As he left my class, there were spaces between the words but the writing was still more or less gibberish. This whole class of Beginning ESL was very low-skilled and we did basic reading exercises in which I could see Eulises improve on. For example, every day I put the date and a few words about the day's activities which students would copy and then read out loud. Eulises was eventually able to read much of this type of English. Eulises did learn in my class, but the progress was very slow. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been happy that he learned as much as he did considering his education in early childhood.
Eulises was the type of student that just could not sit down for more than a few minutes in his seat. I think this a powerful combination of the fact that he was not effectively socialized into appropriate school behavior as a child and being a kinesthetic learner by nature. At the beginning of the semester I had continual problems with Eulises violating class rules with respect to talking without first raising his hand and getting out of his seat without permission. Additionally, he would sometimes enter the classroom running and often yelling. Eulises always seemed to be disturbing the other students with his high-pitched voice clamoring shrilly and small-frame running around the classroom. He also occasionally got into loud disagreements with a select few other problem students. Eulises was a student that tested the patience of a teacher. Yet over the weeks I developed a rapport with Eulises and sometimes a simple "don't push it - I am getting mad" look cast in his direction would suffice to calm him down. At the beginning of the semester I would punish his violations of class rules by keeping him in during lunch when all the other students left five minutes early. However, this did not prove efficacious in changing his behavior. In direct contrast to the other students, Eulises did not seem to mind staying in during lunch as he energetically collected stay books or straightened the wayward desks. Furthermore, as I let him go to lunch he never seemed able to recall why he was being punished! He was contrite and humble, but he truly could not recall what he had done wrong. This attempt to weaken his behavior by punishing him simply did not work.
Therefore, I tried a different tactic that had garnered some success with similar students in the past. I immediately moved Eulises into a seat directly in front of me and attempted to put all Eulises' energy to some good use. Whenever papers, books, or materials needed to be passed out Eulises did it. Whenever something needed to be moved or cleaned, Eulises took care of it. By keeping him much occupied with his hands he was much less of a problem. It seemed like if he could get up once in awhile he was happier staying seated later on. In fact, Eulises was never happier in my room than when he was sweeping the floor. We would go to the computer lab every Wednesday and Eulises would beg me to let him sweep the floor. And if Eulises would give me an heartfelt attempt to read in English, I would usually let him. On the one hand, he got out of a lot of work in this way. However, he was much less disruptive and I still got some work out of him. This class had thirty-eight students of whom many others were equally if not more problematic and I did not have all the time in the world to spend with Eulises. And when he was so low-skilled a reader, I could see that it took considerable effort to make even small steps. All things considered, I doubt he was willing to make much more of an effort past these first few steps. For example, on the days I would make him sit in his seat and attempt to do all the classwork he would sit there lost and do nothing. For whatever reason, Eulises was one of those non-reading students whom at the middle school level have made the decision that learning how to read is not worth the effort that it requires.
I still got angry with Eulises from time to time. However, things were much better than at the beginning of the semester and I never sent him out of the room. When I could see that Eulises was about to lose his temper with someone else I would make a little signal to him that only we both knew. This was his cue to take a step back and get control of himself. When I did this, I could see him acknowledge my sign and start thinking. Eulises participated with the class during group and oral activities and worked during most quiet work time. Still, Eulises failed to qualify to go through graduation and the associated dances, lunches, etc. at the end of the year and I felt genuinely sorry for him. When all the other eighth-graders attended a special lunch and he was stuck with the other "ineligibles" he even cried.
As a teacher, I did what I could with him. Since he was practically incapable of sitting quietly in front of a computer for a whole hour, I would call him over to read and pronounce the English sounds of words with him one-on-one. I had the class listen to some Beetles music and Eulises asked me to make him a tape. Pretty soon I would hear Eulises singing to himself in his seat "...here come the sun little darling." Eulises at least could speak a little more English than he could read, and I now regret speaking with him so much in Spanish and not forcing him to speak more in English. He always claimed to like learning English. He learned, but it happened so slowly. Eulises left my class (and Berendo Middle School) a better reader and writer. That does not mean he is even very close to being a successful reader or writer. As a person, I felt very good about Eulises and his character. As a teacher and adult, I felt very sorry for the situation Eulises found himself in.
In deciding to try and intervene and modify Eulises' behavior, I understood early on that I was basically on my own. I knew Eulises' mother and she would scold Eulises' like I did in the beginning and he would just not learn this way. The counselors were already ultra-busy with the plethora of other problem kids and a student who was not ditching school, bringing weapons to class, stealing, threatening or attacking his/her classmates was not going to rate very high on their list of priorities. And what were they going to do with him that they hadn't already done to him anyway? The one (and last) time I sent Eulises to the counseling office the counselor dutifully came to my room and explained that of all his teachers I was the one who had the least problems with him. I knew from the beginning I was going to have to develop some way to peacefully coexist with this student for one semester.
I feel I was only moderately successful. Eulises was in no way a model student who did all his work and obeyed the class rules at the end of the semester. He still had his good and bad days. From time to time I had enough of him. However, I think considering the circumstances I did the best I could with him. I experimented with management skills until I found some that seemed to work. Eulises did not emerge from my class fluent in English - in fact, he will spend yet another year in Beginning ESL. It seems plain to me that Eulises will probably never have enough education to get anything beyond menial/non-skilled jobs such as his parents have. Frankly, I did not become a teacher to teach this kind of student. I have always wanted to work with motivated students who have aspirations of going to college and earn advanced degrees. I could never think about Eulises and the disadvantages he has had in his academic life without becoming very sad. A thirteen-year old who cannot read or write! However, he was my student and I did the best I could with what I had. Moreover, I was an adult in the life of this young person and I hope I was able to exert a positive influence in Eulises' development. In touching his life in this way I was perhaps able to do more good in the long-term than simply teaching him some beginning English grammar.