Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A day down the TEFL mines

Today was my first day back in the classroom in fifteen days, and what with Christmas, snow, a week in Athens and a chest infection, only the sixth day since mid-December. Yes, it’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget how to do it, but you do sometimes fail to see disaster up ahead if you are on auto-pilot. Linguistic pile-ups are OK; you can always sort them out. Culture clash is a bit harder to deal with. Once I had some Greek students who had to listen to a dialogue between a student and a prospective landlord. She was asking about renting a room in his house, and he was spelling out the house rules. The students understood the words they heard, but were utterly mystified as to what the bloody woman was doing. She wants to pay for a room in this guy’s house? What the hell for? In Greece you might do this if you were on a budget and wanted accommodation on one of the islands. You might possibly come to some arrangement of this nature if you were a street-walker looking for somewhere to turn a few tricks. But she’s a student; how come her parents are not anxiously looking round for a nice flat for her to live in, at their expense? I hadn’t anticipated this reaction, but you live and learn. Supposedly.

Today I sort of saw it coming but ploughed on anyway. I was teaching the so-called ‘third conditional’. For those of you at home who don’t have to worry about such things, here’s an example, spoken by a woman who had a heart attack 30,000 feet above Florida:

‘If those doctors hadn’t been on the plane, I would have died.’

It will readily be apparent, ladies and gentlemen, that we are concerned here with the hypothetical outcome of an actual past event, had certain conditions not obtained at that time. That those conditions did in fact obtain accounts for the happy outcome of the events under consideration. In due course we shall encounter modal verbs other than would appearing in the result clause, but these need not for the present detain us. Yes? Well, actually, this is easy enough. Everyone can understand the idea of ‘if this had happened, then that wouldn’t have’. Everybody gets legged up with the word order and the auxiliary verbs threaded along the sentence like beads on a string, but after a bit of practice it stops being confusing.

The book I’m using presents this structure via two true stories from the like of Hello magazine, one about the woman on the plane, and one about a bloke who flew from Australia to Yorkshire to surprise his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, only to discover that she had flown to Australia with the purpose of delighting him in the same manner. All this is so we can contextualise both the above example and this one: ‘If one of us had stayed at home, we would have met’. I don’t usually pay much attention to the teacher’s book, but today I noticed that it sugggested I might like to discuss good luck and bad luck as a lead-in, burbling on about horse-shoes and black cats and walking under ladders and stuff, before inevitably asking ‘what-do-people-believe-about-this-in-your-country-then?’ It was a good excuse to draw cartoons of black cats and broken mirrors on the board and do a little cultural comparison, I thought. Well, it soon became obvious that nobody could fathom what the hell I was on about. It seems that Saudi Arabians have no superstitions of this nature, or at least none they are prepared to discuss with outsiders. When I asked a Libyan lady, she just said piously, ‘effery thing come from Allah, so effery thing good.’ Thus the lead-in fell flat on its arse, and we just got stuck into the reading and grammar, probably with everyone wondering why I had bothered with all that crap about cats and horseshoes.

After this I saw that the reading text we were faced with was one of those American-style self-help articles presenting exercises to maximise your chances of meeting with good fortune. (‘Vary your routines! Think positive! Why not look on the bright side? If life hands you a bag of lemons, hey, make lemonade!’ and similar vapidities. I made that up, but you know the sort of stuff.) So, how do we lead into this? I drew two speech bubbles on the board with these statements:

1) Some people are lucky and some unlucky. That’s life.
2) It is possible to make yourself more lucky

and asked the students to decide which one they agreed with. They were unanimous in choosing number one. Fuck. I should have seen this coming, of course.Everything lies in the hands of Allah. 'Good luck, bad luck, neffer mind, coming from God’ they told me. (I long to ask, ‘is there anyone here who doesn’t swallow this shit?’ but of course I can’t.) Anyway, it should be obvious by now that the whole cheery, optimistic self-improvement message of the article fell on very stony ground indeed, and I just wrote the answers on the board and the text was shovelled up and disposed of as swiftly as was decently possible.

I had two TEFL MA students observing me. Fair dos, as I am observing them and passing judgement on their lessons the week after next. I don’t know if they spotted it, but after what proved to be a pointless lead-in, I managed to do an entire ninety minute lesson with almost no context for the language. It’s not something I’m going to let them get away with.

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