Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Day in the Life IV

An evening, actually. 

On Monday and Thursday evenings, I teach undergraduate language support groups. I don’t look forward to the Monday class. In a remote and cavernous classroom at the end of an unlit corridor of the nearly empty Dennis Wheatley building, I have a group of eight Chinese kids who have obviously taken a vow of silence - never a good thing in a language learner. On a dark Monday evening at half-past six, half way through our two-hour class, a chill and lonesome mood will often steal over me: fuck, what am I doing here? 

I arrive at the empty classroom at five in the evening to make sure the computer and the sound are working. The room could accommodate ice hockey, so I drag four tables to the front to make two islands close to the screen and whiteboard. The first student to arrive is Viola, a small girl who shuns all expression, facial and verbal. She does not return my greeting but sits down and begins solemnly jabbing at her smartphone. Over the next fifteen minutes more students drift in, silent as ghosts, park themselves and begin to prod their phones. I go out to the loo, then treck to the water cooler to fill my bottle of water and return at five thirty to find all eight students present, silent, intently flicking and poking their private mini-screens. Even though they are sitting in groups of four around the two tables I’ve placed close together, each seems completely alone. I’m supposed to teach them seminar skills.   

‘Right you buggers, for Christ’s sake put them fucking phones away and let’s get cracking!’ I shout. (Use the higher end of your vocal range for this, you sound friendlier that way.) We are going to do a dictation, but first I elicit phrases you can use to get someone to speak more slowly or more loudly, or spell a word for you. Or at least I try. Nobody speaks. I ask again for ways in which these functions might be realised and eventually Viola makes a suggestion. Even though I didn't hear what she said, I receive it as enthusiastically as a parent greets baby's first poo in a potty. Nobody else heard either but she will not be prevailed upon to repeat it. It's as if she expects to be billed for any word she utters. Never mind. Here are some phrases I prepared before the show, floating in on the screen:

  • Could you slow down a bit, please?
  • Could you speak up a bit, please?
  • Could you spell that for me, please?

We practise the stress and intonation and probably they are all thinking: ‘why did he spend ages trying to drag these out of us when he had them on a PowerPoint all along? Why the cat and mouse?’

So, the dictation. I make it clear that they can use the phrases on the screen should I make it necessary, and then read the whole paragraph at a rattling pace, finishing it in about ten seconds. Silence. It’s the same hermetic, solipsistic silence that accompanies the smartphone jabbing. I begin to think I may be invisible. The room gets bigger and colder. Weeks pass. Then Cassie says in a tiny, timid whisper: ‘could you slow down a bit, please?’ 

Now once they get the idea, it begins to work. Each member of four pairs is given a short text to dictate to the other and they actually start to laugh a bit as they use the formulas.  We are still a long way from seminar skills, the ten minute warmer has now lasted nearly half an hour and the speaking they are doing is one hundred percent scripted, but they are at least speaking. I suppose it’s a start.

At six thirty-ish I allow a five minute phone-poking break while I go to refill my bottle of water, and return to find the eight of them in silent, rapt communion with their screens. If there were such a thing as an e-monastery, a meditation period would be like this. The cold, lonely, far-from-home feeling visits me again: all this preparation for so little response or enthusiasm... I have this pathetic need to feel useful and appreciated and they're not making me feel either... Right, sod this. Only an hour to go and we can all get the hell out. Get a sense of proportion, you wuss. 

We watch a seminar discussion on You Tube. It’s staged by teachers and is rather too full of phrases for agreeing and disagreeing and holding the floor and what-not to sound entirely natural, but the kids manage to pick these out. I then give them a partial transcript of the discussion which they act out in their groups. They have not produced a single spontaneous utterance all evening, but they have practised a lot of useful language and done lots of pronunciation work, and next week they’ll participate in a discussion if I have to resort to water-boarding.

Seven twenty-four: sod it, let’s go. They troop out. Two even say ‘good night’. I must point out that they are nice kids. If I see them on campus they always smile and wave. It’s just that classrooms turn them into wraiths. I wait for three minutes or so, time enough for them to go along the dark corridor, round the corner and out of the building, before letting the fart I’ve been bottling since six forty-five. Instantly, the door opens and Cassie is back. I dive across the room towards her so that she might not enter the zone of befouled air, but to her I must look almost suspiciously pleased to see her. She will not be able to come next week, she tells me. Fine, fine, no problem, thanks for telling me, I gabble, almost forcing her out of the room. 

Usually I leave work in a hurry, anxious to get the earliest train possible. These Monday evenings I have nearly fifty minutes on my hands before I get the eight eighteen. I go to Sainsbury’s, there to purchase gin, a small reward to myself for not visiting GBH on anybody this evening. By half past nine I’m home. I shower, slip into something shapeless, light the candles and pour a devastating G&T. The sweetest part of any day is when you’ve shut the door on the world for the coming twelve hours.


My Thursday group  - all Chinese again - did the same lesson this evening and it went down a treat. Lots of participation, lots of spontaneity, lots of discussion. Even the most reticent of the students were drawn in and said their bit, and we all left together carrying on the conversation down three flights of stairs to the exit. I wish I knew exactly what made the difference.


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