Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Results are Out...

.... and the first correct answer to be opened was Cat's, (see previous post) 'teachers understand the students' areas of weakness'. As the kids I taught in Kavala in 1985 always said to the one who got top marks in a test: 'κέρδισες ενα μανταλάκι', 'you've won a clothes peg'.

Yours to download and keep.

When I asked why they always exclaimed this to the victor, they explained that a clothes peg was the most trivial, useless object they could think of as a prize.

Most of you got it faster than I did, but you weren't chasing round a bloody classroom untangling a whole series of such attempts, were you, eh?

Report writing continues to occupy much of our classroom time. Yesterday we had this task:
You have a part-time job in a museum. The director has asked you to submit a report with recommendations for making the museum more appealing to children.
Sometimes you look at a task and think, yeah, well.... this requires imagination. Call me all the racist, stereotyping bastards you like, but imagination is not a quality I associate with Saudi Arabian students in an educational context - they seem to have been trained to deposit their creativity at the reception desk prior to entering the classroom, and it takes a while to persuade them to bring it in with them instead. So before getting stuck into the writing task, we spent the morning looking round a very kid-friendly local museum. Here, in place of what the students were expecting - a succession of echoing rooms, hoary odds and sods in glass cabinets, timidly susurating conversation - there were imaginatively themed sections with atmospheric lighting, buttons to press, images projected onto the walls, microscopes to squint down, stuff to handle, tasksheets to complete, humongous cockroaches in tanks, tarantulas, meteorites and a room full of tables heaped with crayons and pictures to colour in. About thirty ten year-olds in school uniform were running purposefully about, filling in questionnaires. I spent a fair while looking around the Ancient Egypt section, and suddenly realised I was standing alone in a dimly lit alcove in the presence of two open coffins and their dun-bandaged occupants. It creeped me out. Great stuff.

After lunch, we got down to the writing task. OK, I said, so how can we make museums more interesting for kids? Silence. What did you see this morning? How can we make it interesting for kids? For kids? Interesting? Yeah?

'Put sign,' Mohammed said. 'Put sign, 'No Touch'.'

Brilliant, Mo, that's the way to pack 'em in. I tried again.

'Teacher,' Zara suggested.

They see teachers every bloody day - for most kids, teachers fall decisively into the 'not interesting' category. So any advance on teachers and don't touch for spicing up museums?

Well, eventually we got started, but as usual it took some prompting, and as so often, I think they missed the point I had been at such pains to underline. I've decided that they probably did not connect what they saw in the museum with education, and so were wondering what the hell I was on about. The kids were milling about and crayoning, not sitting at desks and pretending to listen to a teacher, so where was the learning? I suspect now that some of them actually disapproved, and supposed that the idea was to propose ways of stopping all that laxity and license. In fact, I now see it was pretty dumb of me not to have anticipated that reaction. Ah, well. I liked the museum, and at least I got paid for a morning off.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

An Invitation

On my return to England in 2005 I saw for the first time how very attached overseas students have become to those little electronic dictionaries. Up to then, I had been used to trying to stop students rifling through matchbox-size 'Little Gem' dictionaries in the vain hope of finding the likes of 'flocculent' or 'indigitate' or 'prognathous', and then pronouncing the word non-existent. Nowadays you can get dictionaries with 24,000 headwords on a ghizmo no bigger than a quaint old pocket dictionary, and since it has a keypad and screen, it exerts the same fascination over users as do computers and mobile phones. Students place their e-dictionaries open in front of them on the desk as an earnest of their earnestness, and are forever stabbing at the bloody things. In my lessons they are now strengst verboten, unless I give express permission for their principled use.

Even though colleagues and I spend ages instructing students on the correct use of the dictionary, when they go home they revert to type and, lacking an English word they need for an essay, they key the Arabic equivalent into their electronic dictionary, come up with ten or so English words and go for the one at the head of the list. This might be the right word, or - fuck it - might not, but the teacher gets paid to alter it if necessary, so why sweat?

Group C, whose company I enjoy twice weekly, are practising writing reports. These are trifling 200 word affairs, but with an introduction, conclusion and three or so intervening sections with headings. The students are organising written language for the first time, and you would think I was requiring them to plait sawdust, such is the helplessness many of them evince when faced with the task. Today they had to imagine that they had been requested... ('it means asked politely, put the dictionary away, I'm explaining the word, dammit, and you aren't listening') ...been requested to write a report for a school in another country on the teaching and facilities in our centre. With, help of his dictionary, Abdulgader came up with this pronouncement on the teaching:

'Teachers felt lacks student'

No matter how I tried to lasso the words together, I couldn't parse it. I don't feel I lack students (not until after Easter, anyway) nor do I possess any studentless thing made of felt: an untenanted yurt, perhaps. So I had to ask Abdulgader to paraphrase, and it turned out this was a valiant effort to convey his meaning. So I am going to leave it open for the interpretation of ye who read this. Post your suggestion below, and a winning entry will earn you the warm glow of knowing you were right.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Come Again?

Language teachers spend a lot of time persuading accuracy-obsessed students that it is not only OK, but very important, to resort to paraphrase when the exact English word for their purpose is unknown or temporarily eluding them. Many students, used to being slapped down for the slightest inaccuracy, need some persuasion that a little circumlocution is perfectly acceptable. A friend from Cambridge has just e-mailed me a brave attempt:

Here is a nice paraphrase from one of my oriental ladies: unable to recall the word “vacuum-cleaner”, she said “She has a machine in her house for sucking dirty things.”

Do please contribute any more such valiant efforts you have heard.


From my nephew, who's about to start a Ph.D. in Hard Sums & Joined-Up Writing , comes this report written by a group of Chinese scientists who have developed the copper nanotube, for which no doubt we should all be grateful. Scan the pdf and see by what unfortunate term they have elected to designate (repeatedly) their copper (Cu) nanotubes (NTs) . To be fair, in the name of scientific objectivity, a spade a spade and all, I think they are stuck with it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Communication Breakdown III

I'm in Athens until Saturday.

I went to see an old friend yesterday evening. Artemis is intensely verbal and intensely intense, with strong opinions on absolutely everything. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival, she had given me a précis of all the books she has on the go, some observations on Mahler’s 4th Symphony which was playing on Mezzo TV, and brought me up to date on her daughter in Holland and her ex-husband in Colombia. It was like being confined in a box-room with a hurricane, and the language circuits of my brain were blown to buggery in no time. Damn it, I'm always going to need thinking time in Greek. If only everyone here communicated exclusively by Yahoo messenger, I'd have no problems. However, that would kill the Greek conversational habit, which has rubbed off on me to a certain extent, of reliving in front of one’s interlocutor those events one is relating, one’s tone of voice, intensity of delivery and choice of language reflecting their hilarity, tragedy or capacity to infuriate. Righteous indignation is especially apt to inspire the full range of Hellenic gesture and invective. By the time Artemis had got onto the subject of immigrants, her delivery was at gale force and anyone within earshot (most of the residents of the building) who saw me enter her flat must have been thinking, Christ, she’s not half tearing strips off that poor sod. In fact, she was entertaining me most decorously to tea and excellent home-made cake and preserves.


There has always been a shortage of public information in Greece: you have to ask. Street signs, house numbers, bus timetables, announcements – they are frequently absent, out of date or otherwise not to be trusted. The new train station at Corinth has electronic departure boards and signs asking us to listen out for station announcements, but none of the boards works, there are no anouncements ever, and the clocks are permanently at 12.00. Years ago I had to go to Koropi, a small town outside Athens. After a suspiciously long ride, the bus reached a terminus by the sea. Everybody got off except me.

‘Is this Koropi?’ I asked the driver, not holding out much hope.

‘Popopopopopo!’ he said, making a circular motion with an upright palm. This is Greek for ‘you what? You’re bloody miles out.’

‘It does say Koropi on the side of the bus,’ I pointed out.

‘So it does,’ he allowed, leaning out of the window. ‘But you should always ask.’

So yesterday at the Aegaleo metro station I asked a bloke if the train now standing went to Syntagma. He seemed offended by my ignorance.

‘Can’t you read? We’re here,’ he sneered, indicating a map I couldn’t see because I was wearing the wrong specs. ‘So ‘course it goes to Syntagma.’ Then ‘you’re not Greek are you?’


‘Are you sure?”

Of course I’m fucking sure, you stupid twat.

‘You’ve got the best metro system in the world in London and you can’t work out…’

By now I’d walked to the other end of the carriage to get away from the pillock. You should always ask, indeed.


I was once asked by OUP Greece to do a seminar at a big private school in Athens. The teachers were convened in a large room when I arrived but it turned out that none of them had been informed about why they were there, or that I was coming, or who I was or what I had been invited to rabbit on about. The director of studies simply hadn’t thought it necessary to fill them in, so they had no questions prepared, no issues to discuss, no reason they could see to be present at all, and I was initially perceived as nothing more than a time-waster. The last question on our end of course questionnaires in the nineties was ‘is there anything that you think we should change?’ Course participants would frequently answer this with ‘general things’ and leave it at that. It’s not so much suspiciousness and costiveness with information as an inability to see why it is being solicited or, solicited, how it might be of use. A colleague from Athens is leaving this Friday for a near- eastern country where she is doing a seminar about… well, there’s the thing. She had compiled and sent to the convener of the group of teachers a very detailed questionnaire to ascertain the level of awareness, needs and interests of the participants:

‘What kind of training have participants had? Please tick: Introductory methodology, publishers' seminars, TKT, CELTA, ICELT, DELTA, Trinity Certificate, Trinity Diploma, MA Applied Linguistics, MA TEFL...’

It should be obvious to someone experienced in the business of teaching communication that some pretty detailed info is being requested here, but the convener replied simply, uselessly, ‘mixed.’ To the question as to what content the teachers would most like in the seminar, the answer was ‘something about English language teaching methodology.’ It’s as if a chef had been invited to present ‘something to do with cooking.’

Why? Why this infuriating vagueness? Why did my Saudi and Libyan MA in TEFL teachers present me with lesson plans so non-committal and vague that they were completely opaque as to what the teacher was proposing to teach, and how or why? I suspect that it’s because people in this part of the world (Greece, Turkey, Near East and Middle East) simultaneously revere and ignore teachers. They are seen as, well, august windbags, people with degrees and doctorates in whose presence one is lucky to have dozed, whose signature on a certificate one may show off to one’s employers, and it really doesn’t matter a fart what they actually said. To be fair, many a teacher round these parts entirely lacks a sense of audience - give him (especially if it's a him) a platform, and he won't know when to stop pontificating. Those of us who do not lecture at people, but encourage participation and exchange, get so dispirited by students who expect to creep into the back row and snooze for an hour or so. It’s amazing how seminar participants here can be most deeply impressed by those seminar leaders whose lectures go right over their heads.

Works both ways, though. If you want to get a teaching contract with a company out here, interlard your proposal with abstruse terminology, e-mail your inscrutable attachment to the managing director and wait for the offer. A Greek man can’t admit to anybody that he hasn’t got a bloody clue what you are on about, and he’ll have to conclude that you must be quite the pointy-headed brainiac, so you’re in.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Piss-Head Primates

Just found this whilst piddling about on You Tube. Interesting that the booziest monkeys are also the most popular among their peers, a fact that rather reminds me of Fitzwilliam College Cambridge in my first year there, 1978.  I am lying on a big bed at a friend's place in Athens with a purring fat cat draped over my feet and a glass of scotch to hand, feeling torch-bearing runners illuminating my inner passages and alleyways with whisky's smoky firelight. The barren touched in this holy chase / shake off their sterile curse, and man, that feels better. I have the toper's genes, no getting away from it. These are monkeys after my own heart, except that they don't write purple prose when tipsy.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin