Tuesday, 30 August 2011

'Why, Jester...

...you shouldn't have!'


Advert from 1940. I think the artist knew a few things that the target audience of bonnet and bootee knitting housewives did not supect. That jester makes Liberace look butch.

Friday, 26 August 2011

A Littelle Prique

I went down with a bug on Tuesday, a matter of mild fever, aching head, aching eyes and aching joints. I took two days off. I got up at five or so on Wednesday morning for a pee, and between bed and bathroom shivered as if it were January. I felt wretched but then thought 'I can go back to bed!!!' and gratefully did so. Sweats and aches and batty-winged fever-dreams notwithstanding, it was a voluptuous delight to sleep in until seven, and not to have to get the train, and not to have to stand in front of a class. People talk contemptuously of those who 'enjoy ill-health' but sometimes, fuck it, you might as well.

I went in early today, feeling fragile but stir-crazy after 48 hours in the house. I was not in a mood to be messed with, and Cédric, mon pauvre, you ave pique ze rongue faquinne day to play ze smarte-asse.

Now, most students at this stage are unaware that nouns or noun phrases are frequently found at the heads of sentences in academic writing as a way to avoid personal pronouns:

Lots of us think graffiti is a big problem in our city centres.

Graffiti is widely seen as a problem in city centres.

The second sounds more appropriate than the first, and highlighting the use of the passive is especially useful for Chinese students, who tend to come up with stuff like:

Graffiti, it's be big problem in city centre's people.

So the students were given a few sentences to reformulate, and applied themselves with diligence, except for Cédric, who pushed his paper to the edge of the table and flicked through his French-English grammar and phrase book.Link
'We're doing this now,' I said, pushing the paper back under his nose.

'Do we ave to?'

Do we ave to? Do we chuffin rotten ave to? What do you think this is, sunshine, bleedin Summerhill? Would you perhaps prefer to be throwing a pot or feeding the fucking gerbils? OF COURSE YOU...

'Why not?'

'I sink is not useful.'

I got him to admit that he was currently engaged in the writing of an academic essay in English, which is not his native tongue, and rested my case. If, during the reporting back, he felt picked on for every minor error, however smilingly, well, that was because I was smilingly rubbing his pointy gallic nose in it.

Later, he showed me notes from yesterday. Miss Clare ave said that in their introductions to the essay, they could use sequencing words such as first-leigh, zegond-leigh, sird-leigh and so on. Was this in fact the case?

'Yes,' I said. Why would Clare have taken the trouble to impart this information otherwise?

'In French, it is not beautiful.'

'Mais on n'est pas en France,' I said, and explained yet again that the essay is not meant to be a thing of beauty but a bog-standard advantages-disadvantages thing with ideas set out as clearly as possible.

Later, when we turned out to be one task sheet short, I saw him ostentatiously giving away his copy to the young Chinese lady who didn't have one, since he so clearly had no need of it.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Scrub that 'maybe' - I'm just being paranoid. If there's a cocky little twerp in a class, I always allow him to make me feel I'm wasting everybody's time.

'Can I ask you a question in Greek?' Voula asked me.

She wanted to know if rhetorial questions were OK in an academic essay. Personally I wouldn't have any problem, but everyone else in our place seems to discourage them, though not with the irrational vigour that some North Americans bring to persecuting the passive, whether or not they actually know what it is. So I said no, avoid them, despite being unconvinced. Then with Hellenic mock-querrulousness, which I do rather well when I'm not actually in Greece, I pointed out that two of the sentences we had fixed up on the board earlier had displayed precisely that defect, if defect it be. She seemed to take me seriously and my mock anger appeared to crush her somewhat.


'You sounded quite ill. I'm surprised you're back,' said the administrative assistant.

Yeah - I really should have made it a very long weekend.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

One day down...

...nineteen to go.

The 420 new students were convened this morning in the same lecture theatre where they were welcomed yesterday. (See below) Today they were divided into groups, and shepherded off to classrooms for the first lesson, being fifty minutes of japesome ice-breakers.

This is how it works. The centre director puts a class-list on the projector and attempts to read out the names. Most of us now know something of the pronunciation of Chinese names: ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’, ‘q’ is pronounced ‘ch’, ‘si’ sounds like ‘shirr’ (don’t quote me on any of this) and ‘zh’ sounds like the ‘s’ in ‘pleasure’. What we are totally ignorant of is how misapplied tone might alter the meaning of somebody’s name. If English speakers read out a list, their voice tends to rise in pitch on each item and fall on the last. So as the director reads off the names, he occasions the odd burst of giggles. Maybe to Chinese ears it sounds like:

'Jing Wei Chen
Ring Piece Lai
Wei Wei Li
Sick-Bag Wu
Hao Yang Tan
Ching Wei Poop...'

…and so on.

Students gathered in large numbers like this have the unsettling habit of reacting with very obvious approval or disappointment when they see who is going to be their teacher. A group is called out and then told ‘..and your teacher is X’, and if X is young, female and blonde, an undisguised ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!’ of appreciation goes up. On the other hand quite a few of our teachers are Asian or black, and sometimes elicit an irritating volley of titters from kids who have been brought up to think foreigners are funny. Oh, well. They’ll learn. There’ll be no surviving in a multi-racial city like this one if they don’t. I wasn’t aware of any particular reaction to my good self, although I have been told in the past that my appearance leads some to expect a teacher of iron strictness. It must come as a relief to know that I’m incapable of taking teaching too seriously.


After the ice-breaking shit, I gave my lot a questionnaire to complete about their academic skills in English and the degree of confidence they felt in each area. Then they had to write a short paragraph outlining their goals for the course and how they proposed to attain them. The aim of this in part was to show them that while we kick ass, we don’t wipe it, but mainly to give me half an hour’s peace. I have been suffering from pedagogue’s aphasia. I explained to the group that for the assessment, they would be writing an essay and a report and giving a presentation. I elicited what an essay is, then tried to get them to tell me how it differed from a report. Nobody knew, and suddenly I didn’t either. My brain froze like an infuriating laptop. If you’d asked me my name, I’d have had to get back to you. One student finally offered an answer, which I didn’t hear but allowed notwithstanding, and passed swiftly on. Stop me if I’ve told you this before, but I reminded myself of a trainee, Angela from Scotland, in Athens in 1992. Angela was far from the sharpest tool in the shed. One day she taught a reading lesson using a text about Einstein, and kicked off reasonably well by asking the students if they knew anything about him. A Bulgarian bloke then gave a succinct and highly informed account of the Theory of Relativity. Angela stood silently for a second as the neurone on duty at the time took this in, then said ‘aye, that’s right.’

I glanced through the students’ self assessments and paragraphs outlining their determination to succeed at all costs. I wonder, do the Chinese have a version of seppuku? It doesn't seem like a notion that so pragmatic a race would entertain, but one young lady wrote ‘last course, I got IELTS 6.0. On this course, I hope to top myself’.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Testing, testing...

'If you'll just come this way...'

After a day of invigilating and marking tests yesterday, I had hoped to have a few howlers to report to you. Well, sorry – there was nothing worth passing on. My hopes were raised on seeing ‘over the decade, figures rose shittily’, but the student had handwriting like the tracks of a sprayed cockroach in its final throes and I had to accept the word was actually ‘steadily’. Great pity, that.

Today was the testing and marking marathon of the year. Four hundred and twenty new students did placement tests for the pre-sessional, which is five weeks of academic square-bashing that overseas students are required to do as a condition of entering their chosen departments in October. The whole bunch of them was corralled into a lecture theatre for an assortment of prefatory and exhortatory speeches, and then they had to come out in groups to have their visas checked by the admin staff. For this a post-office queuing system – one queue, five desks – had been set up, differing from the post office in that all five desks were actually manned. The lady in charge had originally put a sign at the head of the queue reading ‘Please wait for a vacant administrator’ but – great pity again, sorry – thought better of it and amended it to ‘Please wait here’. This took bloody ages and meanwhile the centre director diverted the waiting multitudes with games of hangman. I really do wonder what they make of us sometimes.

At length large groups were carted off for testing, leaving three colleagues and me with fifty kids (for so they seem to me now) in the lecture theatre for the listening and grammar tests. The listening test is a bugger. On the CD you hear a hundred rapidly spoken sentences, and on your question paper you have this sort of thing:

1) Let’s go have a SIT / SHIT in the garden.

You listen to the CD and tick the word you think you hear. The sentences on the test paper are not so broadly drawn or as susceptible to a top-down interpretation as my example, but you get the idea. The whole hundred sentences are rattled off in nine minutes flat, as expressions first of horror then amused resignation pass across students’ faces. The four tutors looked at one another with raised eyebrows, and certainly none of us would have scored 100%.

As we were distributing the grammar test, the centre director showed in a late arrival from the Middle Kingdom.

‘He’s missed the listening, has he?’


‘Roit… well, maybe you can calculate his score based on his grammar test,’ he suggested enigmatically.

Calculate his listening score based on a grammar test... Maybe we could do it based on his shoe size? Or the remaining units on his mobile phone? I think not. We decided he could have his own private test after the rest of the group had gone for lunch. So the lad listened with the usual reactions as the nine-minute recording hurtled by like a very long goods train. Then he asked ‘I can examine my test?’

He sat for a good five minutes, poring over the paper, making emendations here and there, then amending the emendations.

‘What the bloody hell’s he doing?’ I communicated by eye-movements over his head to my colleague.

‘No bloody idea,’ she telepathised back.

I mean, it’s gone now, over, how do you expect to check your answers with any degree of conviction? Maybe he’s a Memory Man and can mentally play back what he’s just heard? Buggered if I can explain it otherwise.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with marking the 840 papers. The tedium of this was mitigated by the provision of a buffet lunch, and the absurdity of matching up each listening paper with the same student’s grammar papers, a kind of ‘Happy Families’ that requires people to enquire: ‘Have you got a Dong?’ ‘Anybody got a Wang?’

So the course proper starts tomorrow. Fifty more students are expected, and classrooms will be jammed. It’s gonna be a long five weeks, possibly followed by very thin times indeed, so I’m hoping for some howlers and tittersome incidents to relate, as these could be very few and far between in the next academic year.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Your Opinion Counts

Sorry. Couldn't find a relevant picture.

At the end of some (not all) courses, management at our place issues students with a questionnaire eliciting their feedback on our efforts over the preceding five weeks. These are collected and briefly snickered over before being consigned to a cardboard box in some cupboard and forgotten about. Some students regard such forms as an invitation to whinge, others as an opportunity to butter us up and thus, in their mistaken view, gain preferment. Most, of course, are perfectly happy with what they get and say so. Today someone wrote:

I learn many useful thing, for example how to book ticket online.

Not what you might hope would stay with someone after a course in academic English, but nice to know that it wasn’t a total waste of his time. One little madam in my group ticked all the boxes in the ‘satisfactory‘column then appended woundingly:

The teachers are irresponsible.

‘Perhaps she meant ‘irresistible’?’ said a colleague, helpfully.

No, it was definitely a put-down, but then responses to these questionnaires are often internally contradictory. Why chuck in that comment, after pronouncing herself satisfied with everything? Could she not have elaborated a bit? Come on, love, did we come in late after playtime? Did we laugh at your accents? Did we unapologetically spill students’ pop, pinch their sweeties, dip their plaits in the inkwell, say ‘bums’ and ‘willies’ a lot and generally display indifference to their welfare and learning? Of course we bloody didn’t. Well, no point second guessing her. I don’t want to be like one Greek school owner I knew who issued a questionnaire to his teachers requesting their totally honest feedback, anonymity guaranteed, and then spent ages worriedly trying to work out who’d written the negative comments by matching up samples of handwriting. I suspect Chini thinks Alison and I were irresponsible because we didn’t tell them exactly what to do, what to write, what to think, and generally refused to do the arse-wiping she expects from her previous learning experience. It will, in her eyes, be my fault when she discovers that she has failed on her oral presentation with its powerpoint slides nicked from some online source, and on her essay, an impenetrable verbal thicket produced by writing the thing in Chinese, then whacking it through babelfish.


On feedback forms for our 'ELT Starter' course for neophyte teachers in Athens, we had the question ‘what aspects of the course could we improve?’ Several trainees over the years answered this with:

General things.

Right. We’ll get cracking on that. In the ‘anything else you would like to say?’ section, one young lady wrote:

I’ve learned that ELT is a magic world with lots of people in it.

‘Ahhhhhhhh!’ I said, imitating Vincent Price, ‘you see them too, do you?’

A few years ago at Essex university a young man from Thailand told me in a tutorial that he liked my lessons ‘because you are not serious’. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Did he mean I was entertaining, or just a push-over in comparison with the rigorous approach of the other teachers? Teaching can make such a paranoiac of you if you let it. Today as she was leaving the classroom a young Chinese lady said ‘it was honour to be in your class’. I could put a cynical interpretation on that, especially as the results are not out and she knew we had a standardisation meeting to come this afternoon, but I won’t. I’ll accept the complement gracefully as a counterbalance to the ‘irresponsible’ bit, which has been irritating me all day like a bit of grit in my shoe.


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