‘We’ve addled us brass today’ people up in Yorkshire say (or used to) if they had had a particularly hard day at work. By this they mean ‘we have earned our money today’, with the implication that the day's wages have been especially well-deserved. Now, A’ve addled me brass today, me, and shall reward myself with a drink or three tonight after two ineffably dull evenings on the wagon.
Group C (of three) have occupied my Thursdays and Fridays since October, and they have made but scant progress. Attendance is patchy, and the excuses they come up with for lateness or absence wear ever thinner with frequent use. Never has a group of overseas students been so beset with visa problems, landlord problems, council tax problems, digestive problems, sick child problems, you-bloody-name-it problems. I have tried every approach known to pedagogy over the last seven months and got hardly anywhere, so I accept no blame for this: I’m sowing stony ground, leading hydrophobic horses to water, charged with educating people who have neither aptitude for, nor very great interest in, what I have to teach them. It happens sometimes.
After the Easter break only four students have returned, and today only three showed up. The course director decided to come in and upbraid them for this general lack of spunk, grit and house-spirit. She has at her disposal a headmistressy, Widdicomesque persona for use on such occasions, one which can reduce any susceptible adult to a tongue-tied ten-year old. I nearly said ‘any susceptible Arab’ then, but checked myself just in time not to appear racist. In my experience it is the case that Arab men, while they can be intolerably patronising to younger women, are easily brought to heel by women of maternal generation. Sarah’s little performance in W.I. / Oxfam Volunteer / Barbara Woodhouse mode left the two blokes and one woman feeling well and truly told off: a pity really, when you think about it, because it was aimed at the students who weren’t there, rather than those who had braved a sunny Spring morning to struggle in.
'You weren't here on Tuesday, Shaden, now why was that?'
'My husband was have headache.'
Sarah shook her head and tut-tutted over that one, but later in the morning Shaden's husband turned up to ask me about her progress, and I felt some sympathy for her. He was in smart casual and she, seated between us, a pair of doe eyes peering from a slit in a dome of heavy black cloth. While recommending ways to improve her English outside class, I deliberately broke eye-contact with him to address Shaden directly, otherwise we would have been discussing her literally over her head, as if assessing the prognosis of an anaesthetised patient.
'She's got lots of responsibilities,' the husband said. 'House, two kids, me.'
I bet his headaches occupy all Shaden's time while they last.
If you teach English, it is your job to get people communicating. Obviously, this is hard work with people who have very limited vocabulary. You can bottle out and just give them grammar exercises, which in many cases is what the students expect you to do, but these are of very limited value, like painting by numbers. So I spent all day feeding in vocabulary about travel and tourism, engaging the students in conversation that would encourage them to use that vocabulary, guiding them through a text on the topic, encouraging them to deduce the meaning of vocabulary items from the text and elicting their opinions and experiences, over and over. And over.
The text was about the difference between tourists and travellers, and I managed a fairly good start with some photos of flabby tourists in silly hats and loud aloha shirts, and some lean, studenty types with backpacks and boots, and elicited possible differences in destination and outlook between the two types. The text contained the term ‘tourist trap’. To encourage the students to deduce its meaning, I drew a mousetrap and a cartoon mouse on the whiteboard, elicited how the thing operated, then referred them back to the text and asked what they thought a tourist trap might be. I have no idea what images flashed through their minds – volcanic ash, tsunamis, terrorist outrages, a meteorite flattening Benidorm – but my mousetrap cartoon did not set up anything approaching the right vibrations, so I had to resort to asking why a cup of coffee is so much more expensive in Brighton than here in the Milands. We got there in the end. Similar problems arose with ‘armchair traveller’, which they interpreted to mean someone who never travelled without his armchair. I began to wonder if they really imagined that the traveller type, whom we had already profiled, would have some sort of E-Z-Karry La-Z Boy recliner in his backpack… we are still processing everything bottom-up here, it seems, despite the combined efforts of five teachers over seven months to encourage a smidge of top-down to go with it.
‘Steve!’ I am summoned to the side of Mustafa, the marvellous boy, lustrous of hair, angelic Twink of Tripoli, he of the eye-lashes, rubious of lip, he who shakes his head in perplexity. ‘Ferry deffackelt, this teckest. Deffackelt, ferry.’
So I sat with him and talked through the task for a few minutes until he felt more confident. ‘Is that OK now?’ I asked.
‘Yeah. Cheers, mate,’ he replied, most unexpectedly.
The text mentioned Thomas Cook:
Travel is an age-old phenomenon, but tourism is a relatively recent invention. Thomas Cook is often described as the first travel agent because he arranged the first ‘package tour’; a 19-kilometre trip for 500 people, in 1841.
‘What ‘Thomas’?’ Mustafa wanted to know, then, gesturing vaguely downwards, ‘this, for eat, no?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s stomach.’ Despite my best efforts, it’s obvious once again that top-down processing and logical deduction are not running the show here. Stomach Cook, the well-known tripe chain.
I mentioned that Cook had begun operations in this town and that a statue of him stands outside the railway station. Mustafa has seen this statue.
‘Yeah! Is died now, huh?’
Well spotted, son – he’d have to be over 170 years old if he were still with us. Still, Cook is indeed dead, and while Mustafa had obviously failed to spot the capital letters on the proper noun ‘Thomas Cook’, at least he didn’t suppose that Cook’s package tour left at just turned twenty to seven yesterday evening.
Right! Khalas! (Arabic: ‘enough!’) I want a shower and then a sherry. There’s a nice Fino in the fridge and some green olives that are dying to accompany it. No more ELT for the next 48 hours.