Fright Night

It's Halloween, so I should write about something scary. Death, monsters, mad scientists playing the organ in their castle basements - that sort of thing.

Last weekend I was talking to someone who said western cultures are all in denial about death, and we need to teach people as children to confront their own mortality.

I told her the Tibetans confront death by publicly feeding their corpses to vultures. I'm not at all sure that's true, but it's what I've been told. She was horrified and quickly changed the subject. I think she had in mind something like when parents sit their children down and tell them about "the facts of life" - but for "the facts of death".

I never had the sex-ed talk from my parents - they say they thought I'd get it all from watching David Attenborough documentaries. Actually I eventually got it from reading Desmond Morris books, before they were taken away for fear they'd corrupt my fifteen year old mind.

I'd been groping with other boys for two years by then. At the single-sex school they'd sent me to, to give me a better education than a state school could provide. The school was a shambles and a sham - I received no education and learned nothing there. Except that I liked "having fun" with the other boys, which produced vintage gothic screams of terror from my parents when they found out.

All if which is probably a bit scary.

At the STW conference, a speaker said he wasn't convinced the occupation of the middle east was really about oil. He said the neocons were all following an ideology where it made sense to bomb Iranian nuclear power stations and create multiple Chernobyls, just to make sure the middle east couldn't build nuclear weapons to use on America,

I don't think he was right - I think the point of attacking the middle east is to control it's resources and extend industry there, not to make these things impossible by making the area uninhabitable. But even so, it's a scary idea.

I've never seen a dead body.

I've been to a few anodyne funerals (without vultures), seen endless sanitised-and-glorified killings on lousy cop shows, seen hundreds of people dead and dying for real on the TV news, watched a few dozen horror movies...but I've never see a real live corpse.

In politics, the electoral left in the UK is just poised to dissolve into an orgy of splits, recriminations, allegations, defeatism and bitterness. Not that most of the country will notice.

Meanwhile the electoral right has "apologised" for allowing a grand total of 1.1M immigrants into the country, promising to make the UK more racially pure.

I don't know about you, but I find that just a little bit scary.

My October Revolution

In October 1917, a few hundred dedicated revolutionaries spent ten days shaking the world.

On the nintieth anniversary, in October 2007, I spent twenty days preparing to explore it.

In the days following the revolution, a lot of the bolsheviks discovered the extensive wine cellars of the tsar, and took the opportunity to get really really drunk in victory celebrations. Lenin, arguing that this was precisely the time revolutionaries should be most sober and cautious, arranged some trusted comrades to smash the vine vaults, to keep order.

In the evening following the final day of the course, a lot of trainees and students (and one staff member) discovered the pub down the road in end-of-course celebrations. And got smashed.

Tsarist Russia used the Julian calendar, making it out of step with most of the rest of the continent. After seizing power, the bolsheviks conformed Russia to the Gregorian calender. This means the October Revolution retroactively happened in November.

Although we finished the course on October 26th, notification of grades probably won't be sent out till early November, so although I'm as certain as I can be that I've passed, I can't put on my my CV till then. And, the grade won't be "fully" confirmed till sometime in December, when the moderators grade the gradings.

It is said that when Sergei Eisenstein filmed his re-enactment of the storming of the winter palace, there were more casualties than in the actual event.

We had one casualty, well, dropout - a businessman who basically wanted to keep busy in retirement. His multiple-day headaches and beetroot-coloured face turned out to be early indicators of shingles - probably from an immune system weakened by stress. I had bad shingles when I was fifteen, and I wouldn't wish that pain on anyone,

Apparently it can also be infectious in the early stages, and it's perversely fortunate that none of us liked him. If we had, we might have got close enough to be infected.

There are two kind of leaders. Those who know how little they know and organise because it's needed...and those who don't know how little they know and give orders because they like it. The leader who does things to get things done...and the one who does it for something to do. The authoritative philanthropist...and the grey bureaucrat. Lenin...and Stalin.

We had both kinds in our ranks. You can always tell the difference - when you're feeling depressed and self-doubting, one encourages you to succeed by drawing on your own strength, and the other by being more like them.

After the revolution, Russia was invaded by (so I'm told) armies from nineteen countries, trying to topple the new government and stabilise capitalism.

After the course, fourteen of us will join the army of TEFLers, invading the rest of the world, contributing to capitalism by teaching Business English.

Russia apparently has a shortage of English teachers.

The Weekend After

How quickly life returns to normal.

I've got into the habit of not staying up until four in the morning, but sleeping at midnight and waking at eight - meaning I'm now out of step with pretty much everyone I know, including my parents.

There was a Stop The War conference on Saturday - and seeing as (a) I was in London anyway and (b) a comrade had phoned to tell me I was going, I went.

It was mostly about Iran, with, shall we say, a variety of viewpoints expressed from the platform and floor. There was "Iran is a dictatorship but not a bad one so it doesn't really deserve to be bombed", "We've got to make the soldiers mutiny, comrades", "We want the resistance to win and British soldiers to come home in bodybags", "The neocons want to bring about the nuclear Armageddon by bombing Iranian nuclear power stations", and the old favourite "Iran has a lot of Jews so anyone who isn't antiwar is antisemitic".

Fortunately, the majority were quite sensible - "You don't change a regime by bombing its victims, and if you do want to give the Iranian people freedom you help them get it in their way for their own purposes" and "the war is about oil and control, not punishing people for living under a dictatorship".

Galloway spoke, and (this time) managed to avoid telling half the audience to "piss off, go on get out, the lot of you". There was also a painfully portentous speech from a man who couldn't have been over 25 - " is you, you who give us the strength to endure the struggle...yet how strange the worm turns...for these are the times that try men's souls...". Hmmm, yes, worms do indeed turn strangely.

So, STW may not be what it was, but it's still significant and still broadly on a reasonable track.

On Sunday a dusky sixteen year old boy begged me to taste his mayonnaise. It was rich and creamy and he made far too much for me to swallow. Okay, he is a trainee chef looking for taste-testers, and I was fixing his mum's computer at the time, but...well, anyway.

It somehow wouldn't have been fitting to return home in trains that ran on time, that weren't replace by crawlingly slow busses because the tracks were still being repaired, and didn't finally deposit me home with a half hour trudge in the rain carrying three rucksacks. So I didn't.

And it's somehow comforting to get three calls before you're even home, asking you to babysit a daughter, record some music and, yes, repair a computer ASAP please.

Day 20

Admin, quiz, goodbyes to staff, final fun teaching session with games, goodbye to some learners, pub with the rest, discuss future plans, goodbye to fellow trainees, tube, sleep.


My work in London isn't quite finished. I've been politely asked (=begged) to fix two computers before going home. The first is of my hosts - it just needs some spyware and virus scans, a slow process but not a difficult one. And then Norton or Zone Alarm installing.

Oh, and they wonder if I could just quickly fix the printer and set up a wireless network for them afterwards. No.

The second is of the cleaning lady, and needs the same delousing and protection. Though what she's really worried about is that her sixteen year old son might be using the net to view pornography - and being damaged by it in some mysterious way.

She's not worried about him being bankrupted by online gambling, swindled by scams or buying contaminated drugs. He could be reading fascist literature, or get seduced by a wacky religious cult, or he might get caught in a pyramid scheme. But no, her sole concern is that he might, possibly, be looking at pictures of people without their clothes on.

I'll give her a free netnanny, and she'll forget to use it.

And the moral of the story is: Never tell anyone you know about computers.

Day 19

I think it went pretty well.

Several people told me it wasn't a good idea to script half the lesson, or have a plan fifteen pages long, and one said I shouldn't play music in the background....but I did, I did, and I did, and it was the only lesson that I've come away from feeling good about it. Or being congratulated by co-trainees.

So, I'm happy again, and the course is effectively over. There's a load of admin tomorrow, an unobserved and improvised lesson of boardgames and "hangman" in the afternoon, and an equally improvised meal/drink/evening-out for trainees and selected learners. But nothing I'd call work.

Although I'm not quallified to teach children (or teenagers), and although I have no desire at all to be in a classroom with fifty of them, There's a good chance I'll be doing both at some point.

There's also a distinct possibility that I'll wind up teaching Business English, to people whose mindset and lifestyle I despise.

TEFL is, in most ways, a job like any other. Your collegues can annoy you, your clients can be wastes of carbon, and your superiors can be idiots.

And in some ways it's like being a prostitute. A lot of people drop in and out of it, it doesn't look like hard work but it is, and you charge GBP20 for an hour. Of oral practice and drilling.

But you do get to see the world, have a fair degree of autonomy, and solve a neverending stream of fascinating problems.

I've been taking the Kalm's after all. Actually I've been taking twice the prescribed dose, or eight pills a day. Did they help me stay calm (or Kalm) and teach confidently today? Or was it spending more hours than I can remember on the plan? Or the music, or just four weeks of practice? I don't know.

It's nearly 2100, I'm sitting in my lodgings in Hackney, and for the first time in a month there's nothing urgent or stressful that needs doing.

I'm a bit lost.

Day 18

Erm. I seem to have lost a day somewhere.

One of the odd things about rushing about on a full and strict timetable forget what days you did things.

Anyway, moving swiftly on...

Day 17

My lesson plan is now nine pages long, I've been typing it for two hours, and it's maybe one third finished. I'm just taking a break from it for a few minutes so my head doesn't start to bleed.

I've managed to lead a full and happy life (or at any rate, a life) so far without ever seeing a wedding video. Until last night, that is.

I've never quite seen the point of wedding videos. But then, I've never quite seen the point of weddings. If two people decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together, they don't need a lavish party and religious ceremony to do it - they just have to tell people they want to do it...and then try to do it. If two families in business want to invest in each other, they don't particularly need to force any of their children to live in the same house, and they don't need to look the other way when both partners have affairs - or indeed fall in love.

No, as far as I'm concerned, personal happiness is something achieved in private, with or without a partner, and business affiliation is something written up by lawyers in incomprehensible language. But, last night I watched a wedding video. An Indian wedding video, made by "O.K. Films" and entitled "Happy Wedding". It is the (four DVD) film of the matrimonial joining of a friend of my hosts, set to nonstop bollywood songs.

Indian weddings are...colourful. And expensive. And they last three or four days. And they're often multiple. First, the groom is annointed with something which looks remarkably like dahl, by the female members of his family. Indian families are often large (15 children not being unusual), and extended, with aunts, cousins and grandparents all around.

Then all the men eat. And eat some more. There's lots of food at an Indian wedding. Then the men vacate the premises and all the women eat.

Then comes the "money" ceremony. The groom (or grooms) sit on throne-like chairs, and family members (of both sexes) give them gifts of money. The gifts are essentially enormous aprons, made of rupee notes, hung around the groom's neck, while a singer with a microphone sings the names of the givers, literally singing their praises in rhyming couplets.

This goes on for...several hours. With the grooms gradually disappearing beneath dozens of layers of money. Non-money gifts are also given later. The bride(s) and groom(s) still aren't in the same building.

And then, at least in the one I saw, comes the disco. Which is men only. Perhaps the women have a disco too - I don't know. In this case, the men (and boys) gyrated and pranced with each other to 2 Unlimited and disco remixes of Asa Bhosle, on a multicoloured flashing floor that John Travolta would be at home on.

And then...I don't know, because that was the end of the first DVD.

Okay. I'm now somewhat rested, so I can get back to writing tomorrows fucking lesson plan.

Day 16b

I'm beginning to think English isn't a language at all. It's obviously impossible anyone could speak it. No, English is the nightmare of an insane Martian.

Here's what I mean. Take two sentences:
"The man lives in the shed."
"He is Spanish."

How do we glue these together into one sentence, making one a subordinate clause inside another? We chop them up like this:

"The man / lives / in the shed"
"He / is Spanish"

...and scramble them to produce:

"The man / who / lives in the shed / is Spanish"

Fairly simple, right? The verb phrase of the first sentence is glued using the word "who" to the verb phrase of the second, and the verb phrase of the first. We could also say;

"The man who is Spanish lives in the shed."

We use "who" to do this for people, but we can also use "that", to make:

"The man that lives in the shed is Spanish"

Now, when talking about objects, we use "which". For instance:

"The cheese was in the fridge"
"It has gone hard" us:

"The cheese which was in the fridge has gone hard."

And we can also use "that" instead here too.

It's a similar story for "where" (used for places), "whose" (for possessions) and "which" (for events), but we can't use "that" for the first two of these.

This is when things start to get complex. Sometimes you can miss out the special linking word (called a Relative Pronoun):

"The sausage [which/that] I was going to eat disappeared."

But for "Where" it's slightly different. You can change "This is the town where I grew up" to "This is the town I grew up in." You lose "where" but gain an "in", seemingly from nowhere! And you can use "which" or "that" but not "Who" or "what" instead of "where". Except you can use "what" in some dialects.

Now, there's a difference between "The man who I saw was a murderer" and "The man, who I saw, was a murderer". In the first I'm telling you something about the man (namely, that he was seen by me) and in the second I'm giving you some extra information about myself (namely, that I saw him).

And you can use "which" and "who" in the same ways. Except in the versions of the sentences that have the commas, you can't replace "who", "where" or "which" with "that", and you can't omit the relative pronoun at all. So these sentences are impossible:

"Bill, that breeds llamas, is a stamp collector."
"Sit on the pavement, the tramp used."
"Hamish, that frightens girls, splits atoms."

Oh yes, and sometimes you use "what" instead of "which" to refer to events. But most of the time you don't. See if you can work out why this is correct:

"What happened was a disaster."

...but this isn't:

"Everything what happend was a disaster."

(Except that it is acceptable in some dialects).

Assuming anyone's read this far, may I just note that it took me two hours to understand this much, and I've got twenty minutes to teach it in.

Day 16a

I can't teach. I'm just no good at it.

I've gambled everything on gaining one new skill, and I lost everything. My life is crap in pretty much every way - personally, professionally, politically. And because I lost, it's going to stay that way. And because I don't have the courage to end it, it's going to stay that way for a long time.


It's so difficult to stop thinking that way. I rode back here on the tube in tears - just couldn't help it.

I've done something wrong in every single lesson so far, and today's was by far the worst. Each time, I've managed to scrape together enough plus points to get a "Standard" rating, but not today.

There's four days to go - three, effectively - and it feels like I shouldn't waste everyone's time bothering.

All I've got to do is write one particularly good lesson plan, and deliver one particularly good lesson, and I'm home and dry. How difficult can it be?

It can be incredibly difficult. I know more grammar than almost any of the other trainees, but when faced with a class to explain it to, get confused. The essays are easy, but the actual near and yet so far.

I know what I've got to do. But I do it in fear that it won't be good enough.

I wrote that at the end of day 15, following a disasterous lesson. I broke down crying several times after writing it. Today, on the sixteenth day, I'm writing (and re-writing) that final lesson.

I've decided that buzzing on coffee wasn't such a good idea, so I've stopped drinking the stuff. It was making me highly awake, but prone to panic, and perhaps emotional.

My hosts have provided me with a bottle of "Kalms" - herbal antidepressants. They're supposed to be quite effective, but have the usual side effect of blunting the intellect, so I think I'll do without them.

For more about what I supposedly have to teach on Thursday, look at the next post.

Weekend 3

Apparently I'm not a student of TEFL at all. TEFL is "Teaching English as a Foreign Language", whereas what I'm studying is TESOL - "Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages". Not to be confused with TESL - "Teaching English as a Second Language".

There's also IELTS, but I can never remember what that stands for - something to do with Business English. And they're all kinds of ELT - "English Language Teaching".

[Update: I stand corrected - IELTS is an qualification in English language proficiency, not a qualification in teaching. The levels run from 1 to 9 - if you're around 7.5 (corresponding roughly to having passed an "Advanced" EFL certificate), you're judged good enough to attend university.

But there's loads of somewhat incompatible and incomparible systems of grading and testing, all with their own barrage of acronyms and abbreviations.]

For some reason, there don't seem to be qualifications for teachers of basic literacy skills - letter formation, word recognition, punctuation etc. These things tend to be taught by volunteers with TEFL qualifications. Or TESOL or TESL or IELTS.

A welcomely restful Saturday. I lay in bed after waking for two whole hours doing absolutely nothing, and enjoying every minute. Then a leisurely shower, a slow fried breakfast, and some reading on second language aquistion.

In the afternoon, my hosts took me on a sightseeing drive of London, taking in Canary Wharf (full of unoccupied luxury flats going for peppercorn rent), the streets of Wapping (scene of the printworkers strike of the 80s), Cable Street (where Oswald Mosley's fascist march was halted and his movement effectively broken by a communist-led coalition), Tower Bridge (which is blue and goes up and down), and bits of London's East End (which looks exactly like the rest of London, and not remotely like the set of Eastenders).

I've been keeping myself out of political matters, but bits of news still reach me.

The Respect party is having trouble (again) because its one MP and would-be leader George Galloway has thrown a strop (again), because he didn't get his own way (again).

An electoral alternative to New Labour (more or less, a new Old Labour) was, and is, necessary. But once again an attempt to create one has fallen to the twin idols of Ego and Opportunism.

I don't have a crystal ball for seeing the future, but here's my prediction: Galloway with his collection of small businessmen and toadies will will split from the SWP on or before the conference on November 23rd, to form his own short lived party, before he carves out a career in media. The SWP, finding there's no forces or groups to try building another party with, will concentrate on union work - and anti-war stuff if America bombs anywhere new.

So, Talk Radio will get a new voice, trade unions will get agitated, and there'll still be no genuinely left wing party to vote for in elections.

There's two ways to hate your job. One is to hate the actual job, the other is the hate yourself for doing it.

Most people who hate their jobs hate the drudgery, boredom, repetition and sheer mindlessness of the task, plus the oppressive attitudes of their superiors and misdirected anger of their colleagues.

But there's also a distinct minority who have jobs that would be satisfying, if it weren't for the way circumstances force them to do it. The youth worker who sympathises with the rebellious kids, but has to bully them into submission just to keep order. The middle manager in a similar position with workers.

Oh, and the EFL teacher who's supposed to be teaching a language, but actually has to get students ready for exams on a language that doesn't exist in the real world.

Personally, I'd much rather be in the second group than the first. It's easier to live with your ethics outraged than your dignity. It's easier to have your professional pride offended than your personal pride. At least, I think so. At least, I think I think so.

Of course, it's entirely possible to hate your job in both ways.

A morning of lesson planning, an afternoon of walking in the park, and an evening of roast dinner and conversation about drugs and prostitution. A nice way to spend a Sunday.

My hosts are treating me very well. Oh, and they've asked me to stay an extra day after the course ends so I can fix their computer.

Some things, evidently, will never change.

The final week of the course includes teaching for blocks of one hour. Now, there seem to be two approaches to stepping up from forty minute lessons to sixty minute ones.

One is to do a forty minute lesson. slowly - with more pictures, a longer lead in, more repetition and more checking of understanding.

The other is to do a forty minute lesson with extra tests. "Test" here doesn't mean "exam" - it means "activity designed to make the students use the language taught in the lesson". The textbook I'm using gives a lesson on the different senses of the word "Like", comprised of five to ten minutes of actual teaching, and seven different ways to test it.

Day 15

I recall I said last Friday, that Friday was a day for things going wrong. Well, this Friday things went wrong too.

We got assignment two back, all marked and graded...and I think every single one of us has to resubmit for one reason or another. In my case it's because I didn't define "Souvenir" with sufficient rigour and I missed out some phonetic symbols in the definition of "Sightseeing".

Of my subgroup of five, two were scheduled to teach. One called in sick with a bronchial infection - absolutely genuine I'm sure given how ill she's been. And the other's lesson relied on taped monologues. The tape managed to get twisted and play backwards - something I've only seen once before when I made it happen deliberately as an experiment at age ten.

The new coursebook we teach from is a pile of poo. The instructors know it, the trainees and learners know it. It is actually easier to design a whole sixty minute lesson from scratch than bash the provided modules into usable shape.

Us trainees are showing strain in different ways. One's had a nonstop pounding headache for two days, another breaks out in acne, a third has severe insomnia, one simply hasn't turned up, some have constant colds. I just feel like crying or shouting at odd moments, and get entranced by displacement activity, neither of which is especially helpful.

I've somehow managed to lose half a stone in weight over the last three weeks, living on sugary coffee and sandwiches stuffed with saturated fats and the cheapest ingredients. Half the others have lost similar amounts.

We are, somehow, three quarters of the way through, and there's a feeling of being on the home run. The obstacles are worse in the final week, but the end is in sight.

Day 14

A new class, a new textbook, and a whole new way to fuck up a lesson.

First, the class. Nine mid-intermediate students of various native languages and abilities

I think the babe of the class is Tomaso, who has that Italian way of being classically handsome without being pretty. But there's also the bearlike Pablo and the surprising Israel, who looks Arabic, has a middle-eastern name, but is a good catholic boy from Spain. And if puppydog eyes and motherable mole-like shyness are your thing, there's Satoru.

Oh yes, there's also five women in the class, and I promise you I do also know their names.

Now, how did I fuck it up? Well, I time my lessons on a stopwatch, so I don't overrun my twenty minute slot, and don't mess up the schedules of the trainees who follow. Today, my sense of timing told me I was overrunning badly, but I trusted the stopwatch, and desperately blathered on for an extra fifteen minutes, trying to fill up the time.

As for the textbook, it doesn't help by insisting that the sentences "I'm going to go to the shop" and "I'm going to come to your party" are actually ungrammatical. It also builds lessons around such often uttered sentences as "It'll be a nice day tomorrow", "It's a lovely story, and the acting is superb" and "We're going to get married next year".

A part of the course is at least six hours of "watching expert teachers teach". I did two of those hours today, watching James. James, with his lack of surname, long hair and goatee, languid style, and soul music playing in the background through most of the lesson, has got to be the most laid back teacher I've ever seen.

I think I'm going to try having music in the background of my lessons. Seeing as people keep telling me I need to relax more when teaching. Not drinking quite so much coffee might help too.

He also mentioned (while defining the phrasal verb "let up") that the leader of the Liberal Democrats resigned two days ago - an event in politics which completely passed me by.

On the way home, I encountered a Stop The War Coalition stall. Well, a Socialist Worker paper sale with Stop The War posters and slogans.

I buttonholed a paper seller and discussed the current situation in STW and Respect. Here's a synopsis of our respective positions:

Me: Anti-war feeling in the public is very strong, but anti-war protest is weak, and getting weaker. There's a culture of apathetic anger.

Him: Things go up and down. You've just got to keep working at building protests, and keep recruiting people to whichever group suits them.

Me: The Respect project is doing badly because (a) the predicted defection from Labour didn't happen (b) anti-war protesters were more interested in (briefly) joining the SWP and (c) George Galloway is a creepy power-hungry slimeball.

Him: The Respect project is doing well because (a) there were significant defections from Labour, (b) new SWP recruits from anti-war protests are active in Respect and (c) George Galloway is a popular public figure.

Me: Respect can't survive as just an SWP front which stands in elections. It's got to be it's own party, with the SWP as it's left wing. That was the intention set out at the founding meeting we were both at.

Him: Respect was always intended as a broad coalition led by the SWP - one which stands in elections. This was set out at the founding meeting we were both at.

Me: Respect has lost credibility with it's own members in the recent internal fighting. The article published attempting to smooth things over was a fudge.

Him: There was no real infighting, and the article is a clear statement of intent to fix minor problems.

Me: Respect is losing votes in all but a few areas.

Him: Respect is holding ground in areas where it got 9% or more of the votes in the last two elections. It's losing ground in it's weaker areas because it's members there haven't been trying hard enough to recruit.

Me: Galloway is a Muslim Communalist and Respect only does well (relatively speaking) in Muslim areas.

Him: George is a good socialist and there's some non-muslim areas Respect does well it.

So there you have it. Two people without any real political difference between them, disagreeing about everything. Or nothing, according to your point of view.

Day 13

What happened to day 13? It was a wednesday, I wrote something about it, I put it on a memory stick...and then I lost the memory stick.

So, I've no idea what happened on Day 13.

According to my schedule, I taught something. It may have been something to do with phrasal verbs.

Day 12

I discussed lingustics this morning. With the cleaning lady. She did most of the talking.

My hosts (socialist, self-educated, kindhearted and moderately untidy) employ a woman (socialist, self-educated, kindhearted and in need of cash) to come and clean up once a week. She and I spent a happy half hour speaking of regional accents, their associated snobbery, and varieties of immigrant English.

I thought the course would get easier (at least subjectively) after the halfway mark. Sometimes it seems it is, and sometimes just the opposite.

There's a kind of exhaustion that sets in after a period of studying or doing just one thing intensively. It's not that we're physically exhausted, or mentally - it's emotional exhaustion.

We can (and have to) be bodily active, and use our intellects constantly to learn and apply what we've learned. That's not the problem. It's like we have to constantly apply willpower, as though to break an addiction, and it's the reserves of will that are getting drained.

There is of course another word for emotional exhaustion - depression.

London can be quite Kafkaesque sometimes.

At 1900, I left the school and walked to Covent Garden tube station. Which had been closed off by the police, who were directing traffic because the traffic lights weren't working. Rail staff were standing outside, directing commuters to alternative stations, but refusing to say why their station was closed.

Bomb scare? Why would that affect the traffic lights? And why the secrecy?

So I took the ten minute walk to Holborn station, which was likewise closed. But the rail staff there said I should get on a number eight bus to Oxford Circus, and travel from there.

So I got on a number eight bus, which took twenty minutes to travel halfway back up the road I'd just walked down, before stopping with the announcement that the final stop had been reached. Humph.

So I decided to walk to Oxford Circus. Not that I was entirely sure where Oxford Circus was, but there were plenty of quarter-full busses, refusing to take on new passengers, headed there. So I followed them. And sometimes overtook them.

Half an hour later, having found Oxford Street in the increasing rain, I was starting to wonder just how long the street was. Then suddenly there was Oxford Circus tube station. With a newspaper stall outside displaying headlines like "Maddy: McCanns Kept Body in Car" and "Menezes Cop Weeps in Court".

Suitably informed of world events, I took the tube to my lodgings, catching one more headline: "Fake Condoms Trigger Sex Disease Fears".

And now, vaguely pondering what a fake condom might be, I'm going to write a lesson plan incorporating as much detail as humanly possible about the difference between "I have studied English for two years now" and "I have been studying English for two years now".

Day 11

Halfway through. And sometimes I'm not sure what to make of this course.

For instance, today I had a fairly simple lesson to teach - give students exercises to practice the various forms used to refer to the future. The idea is that there are four types of future-predicting sentence, each with it's own special uses.

"The concert starts at midnight" is in the present-simple, which is used for timetabled or "inevitable" events. The same form is used for "eternal truths", e.g "The moon goes round the earth".

With me so far? "I'll visit my grandmother tomorrow" is future-simple, used for decisions just taken, and also those instantly acted upon. "I'm washing my hair tonight" is present-continuous, which is used for intentions. And "I'm going to wash my hair" is present-simple with "going to", used for less definite intentions.

Okay, so I'm giving a couple of practice exercises to students in pairs, and they're helping each other out, when suddenly I realise they're correctly using a lot of future-simple forms. Specifically, forms which break the rules I'm teaching them.

So I have to ask myself...what's the point of me teach rules to students who (a) only use them when answering the tests I give and (b) have grasped the real rules quite well without my help?

I mean. "We're going to crash!" doesn't express an intention or plan, "I'll pay you when I have the cash" isn't an instantaneous decision, and "I resign in a month" isn't an event timetabled by someone else.

But then, I'm not too sure about some of us taking the course either. One insists that "walk on" in "To walk on water" is a phrasal verb because it's a verb followed by something that isn't a noun. One who tries to be friends with each and every student. And one who's very fluent in spoken English (as a second language) but can barely put together a coherent written sentence.

And there's me of course, who talks like a book and writes like transcribed speech.

As for the school itself, there is on the one hand a lot of lip service paid to "native speaker" habits as the touchstone of good English, but on the other hand, in practice an emphasis on teaching set phrases which can be bolted together into sentences.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "I really love it" in real life, but I've seen half a dozen learners drilled to say it with exactly the right enthusiastic intonation.

Fragments like "It's a good idea to...", " the heart of..." and "In my view..." do exist, but as overused cliches. I'm being trained to teach students to speak in cliches.

Weekend 2

Quite a restful weekend. A miniature holiday back with family and comrades, the former giving me food, the latter buying me drinks.

The journey back to London wasn't quite so restful. A delayed train, a replacement bus driving at mad speeds along narrow roads in the fog at midnight, another delayed train, a tube service that was closed by the time I got to London, and the creatively inaccurate nightbus timetables of London Bridge.

But, in the middle of all that, I got to meet a gang of drunken Chinese students, who were highly impressed that I knew three words of Mandarin. One decided he was so happy about something that he wanted to hug and kiss someone...and I didn't exactly resist. I'm not sure it's usual to put your tongue in the ear of someone you've just met - not on a train station anyway - but he didn't seem to mind.

Day 10b

On the tube to the train station that would take me home. There was a man in his early 20s, looking undernourished and begging with a cardboard cup. He apologised for asking, saying he genuinely needed twelve pounds for...something or other. At first no one gave, then I put some coins from my pocket into the cup, then a woman sitting opposite followed suit, and a few others.

He and I got off at the same stop, and I saw him board the train going in the opposite direction, as though he were travelling backwards and forwards until we gave him enough.

On the next train, there were two men standing a metre away from me, smiling like they were delighted simply to be in each other's company, casually hugging and kissing. One was a tall nordic looking man of about fourty, the other a shorter, slim, mousey man of around twenty - oriental, probably Japanese. They looked like they were in the first flushes of love.

There was a woman begging in the corridor leading to Waterloo station. I'd seen her before - thin and haggared, with long grey hair that looked two decades older than her face, staring into space while holding a cardboard sign saying "Hungry and homeless".

I gave her the other half of the coins in my pocket, and she thanked me fulsomely in a Scottish accent. Sometimes beggars who sit really are beggars, and sometimes they're part of London's drug distribition network, accepting a "donation" of GBP20 in return for a small bag of powder passed by slight of hand. Which was she? I'm not sure.

On the escalator, there was a couple - a man and a woman, both in their late twenties, dressed in conservative business suits, engaged in a long kiss, eyes closed and oblivious as the moving stairs carried them down.

Day 10a

Friday. A day for everything to go wrong.

I wake up, shower, eat breakfast, make sandwiches for lunch and start to pack my shoulderbag with everything I'll need for the day. At which point I find I've lost the USB memory stick and the rubrick for assignment 2.

Sigh. So I transfer all the files I need to my "backup memory stick" (mp3 player), make a backup backup onto CDR, and head into central London. Taking the tube train going the wrong way at first.

Once in the IH library, I photocopy another student's rubrick (which sounds rude for some reason), before finding I needn't have bothered. I then make a series of duplicated cards for the afternoon's lesson - or would have done if the photocopier hadn't suddenly broken down.

However, fear not for there is a second photocopier. All you need to do to make five copies is (a) press "copy", (b) wait for the machinery inside to stop whirring around, (c) open up the machine, (d) search around inside to find your card sheet, (e) work it out from between two rollers and (f) close up the machine again. Oh, and do it five times.

I've discovered a quiet alleyway in Covent Garden (an area of London with lots of steets called "Something Gardens" and no actual gardens) where I can eat lunch and cogitate in peace. So I go there...and find I fogot to pack my lunch. It's still sitting on the kitchen table in Finsbury Park (which actual does have a park).

So, after paying GBP2 for an astonishingly flavourless "spicy chicken sandwich" which didn't so much satisfy hunger as take up space in the abdomen, I went back to work.

To my relief, the mp3 player worked fine as a memory stick. And then I managed to lose it. Oh the blessed relief of another student finding it for me - I was so pleased I offered to kiss him. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

In the second half of the afternoon, I got to teach a class of ten students (three of who turned up). Now, there's a very common "shape" of lesson called "Test-Teach-Test", which involves giving the students some task to find out how much they know, then teaching them about the bits they got wrong, and finally giving them another task to see how much they've learned.

The "teach" stage (also called "clarification" by professionals who like misleading terminology) shouldn't last longer than ten minutes, and shouldn't consist mainly of the teacher lecturing.

My task was to teach a dozen vocabulary items related in some way to humour - "to get a joke", "to have the last laugh", "sitcom", "standup comedy" etc. It took over twenty minutes, I spent most of it engaged in vaguely Wittgensteinian analysis...and there was no time for the second test. The worst lesson I've given so far.

A load of other things went tits up (which I think is a very British kind of idiom), but it would take too long to go through them. Anyway, today was also the day for going back to Portsmouth for the weekend.

Day 9

A hundred years ago, linguists knew exactly what was Correct English. Now they're not so sure. This is progress, of a sort.

Back then, correct English was whichever utterances followed a set of arbitrary rules, which may or may not have anything to do with the language as actually spoken. Now, correctness is defined in terms of "Appropriacy" or "Acceptability" - more or less "the way native speakers usually put things".

Or at least "the way the native speakers known to or specifically studied by the linguist usually put things".

Once, the notion of correctness was precise, if sometimes useless and absurd. Now the answer to the question "What is correct English" has become vaguer, because the question has become vaguer. "Correctness" is now a rather hazy notion.

Once, it was entirely rationalistic. Now it's entirely empirical.

So, how am I supposed to decide whether my students are speaking good English or not? In practice, I think the old division between Right and Wrong has been replaced by a threshold on a scale from "completely native" to "completely alien"

It's as though there is an imaginary hard core of language which is totally acceptable to all native speakers, and beyond that a very large nebulous region of increasing unacceptability, taking in the language of Finnigans Wake near its outer reaches, and perhaps some forms of aphasia at its edge, if indeed it has a defined edge.

The threshold between "good" and "bad" is differently placed by different teachers, and it can be movable and inconsistent. The important thing though is that there is a threshold.

The sentence "Mary looked at herself in the mirror" is within the core. The fictitious passive form "Herself was looked at in the mirror by Mary" is, I suggest, grammatically impeccable, but massively unlikely to be uttered by someone raised with sentences like the former, and thus far beyond the threshold.

"I like music very much" is okay, but it's not clear where "Very much I like music" should go.To some it would be obviously wrong, simply on the grounds that they could never imagine themselves saying it. To others it might just slip through because a small number of native speakers might (or do) spontaneously say it.

Now, I don't think there really is a hard cord of absolutely correct utterances, and I don't think a threshold can be meaningfully drawn. For me, there is no unimpeachable centre of the cloud, but I do think there is the cloud.

You might say a line has to be drawn somewhere. Actually, I think the moment you draw such a line, you are plunged into a neverending series of ad hoc rules and arbitrary exceptions, of a kind which is not qualitatively different from that of the grammarians of a hundred years ago.

Unfortunately, on my TEFL course and in my intended professional life, I have to behave as though the threshold model is not only meaningful but self evident and usable.

Day 8

Teachers sometimes get it wrong. There is probably no situation other than teaching a class of pre-intermediate students that I'd get confused between "Town Hall" and "Council House".

Where else but a classroom would I consistently misteach the intonation of the bizarrely appropriate sentence "You're doing it wrong"? And be corrected by the student-teacher who usually comes to me for advice?

And sometimes teachers contradict each other. Today there were five of us teaching the same class for twenty minutes each about phrasal verbs. I taught that couples or friends who "fall out" break off contact with each other, one that "a falling out" is just an argument, and one that "to fall out" suggested a severing of communications, but didn't absolutely entail it.

Strangely, although most of the ten learners had trouble with "get on with", they all already knew the meaning of "get off with". Hmmm.

Three things I've learned recently:

(1) Sitting and staring at a computer screen while exhausted, trying to force your brain to switch back on and write a lesson plan...doesn't work. And doing it for three hours doesn't work either.

(2) Going to bed before midnight and sleeping six hours, on the other hand, is a good way to get it done in half an hour.

(3) Strong coffee makes me wide awake in that twitchy way that makes people think I'm on cocaine. Coffee is really useful right now.

How many words can you write analysing fragments like "have to show" and "out of season"?

I'll let you know when I've written them.

Day 7

There is something worse than having too much to do. Namely having too much to do but not having the tools to do it with.

In my case, that means sitting in my room staring at assignments, unable to do much of each because I don't have the right textbooks with me. And the reason for that is, the IH library allows me to borrow only two books over one night.

And the part of the reason for this seems to be...the library of the oldest and possibly most respected language school in Britain, is run entirely on paper.

The database of which student has which books out is...a spread of post-it notes on the librarian's desk. The videotape library is...a cupboard stacked with unsorted videotapes. The security is...nonexistant.

Teaching is slowly getting easier. Writing lesson plans remains a painful chore

Some of us students are admitting to having second thoughts about a career in teaching. I admit I've experienced the momentary temptation several times to give up and go home.

Of course I'm not going to - there would be nothing to go home to except a crushing sense of failure, no prospects and everyone I know being disappointed in me. Oh, and quite a lot of debt too.

I'm not the only one on this course who's sunk all their cash into it, and simply can't afford to give up.

If I did drop out - or fail - I'd climb into a hot bath and open my wrists into it. Melodramatic? Maybe. Anyway, it's not going to happen. If the choice is between an end or a new beginning, it's a no-brainer.

Speaking of blood though, my gums are bleeding, and I'm getting a cold. Looks like the less-than-optimal diet that Londoners seem to subsist on is having an effect.

I can't do my work tonight, so I'll sleep now (2230) and get up absurdly early (0600?) tomorrow, and be in the library by 0730 to read all the books and write all the words I need.

So, night night.

Update: The library opens at 0830. Gah.

Day 6

There is something worse than being crammed like a sardine in a tube train that's going in the wrong directions.

Namely, getting off at the next stop and taking the reverse journey, only to find it takes you in a different wrong direction.

And then getting off at another stop...which isn't on the map.

Anyway, I always get lost once on the tube system whenever I visit London, and today was it.

I now how two reputations among staff and students. The first is "the one who can make the technical things work". If the tape machine isn't playing, the powerpoint presentation isn't displaying properly, or the gee-wizz hi-tech electronic whiteboard won't switch on, eyes swivel in my direction.

My other reputation is as "the one who's pretty good with phonemics". Just because I read a few books on it a decade and a half ago. To help me design artificial human languages while pretending to be a computing student.

I'm not sure where I got the idea from that teaching was seven days a week - perhaps from the (accurate) assurance that study and perparation continues more-or-less full time at weekends.

Weekend 1

Is this a sentence in English?

Will they not have been being seen?

Well, yes it is. It's a Past Perfect Progressive Negative Interrogative sentence.

Start off with the Present Simple sentence "They see". Put it into the future - "They will see". Now make it negative - "They will not see". And switch over to the passive voice - "They will not be seen".

Change from the Simple aspect to the Perfect aspect - "They will not have been seen". And (the difficult bit) make it a progressive perfect aspect - "They will not have been being seen". This is the passive voice version of "They will not have been seeing".

Now swap around the subject with the future auxiliary verb ("Will" to his friends), to turn the statement into a question, and you get "Will they not have been being seen?"

Good eh? As you may have guessed, I've spent my Saturday looking at verbs, or rather their tenses, aspects, moods and inflexions.

I wonder if "I hadding been seen" or "I wasing Beed" might be incomprehensible forms created when aliens landed on earth and tried to translate their own language into English. I'm sure there's a short story in there.

My old friends haven't forgotten me. Nice texts from Gareth E and Paul T, and calls from John M (saying he'd be standing for Respect if there was a snap general election) and Simon M (saying Gordon Brown had decided not to call an election after all).

H invited me to a party next friday - I could just about go to it, taking a detour on to way to visiting my parents next weekend, but it's not really feasible. Unfortunate, because it was his advice that finally got me to sign up for this course.

Sunday has become my day of rest - relatively speaking. A nice lie in bed till 10:30 (during which I dreamed I was taking part in a bank heist with the pope driving the getaway car - not sure what that means), followed by leasurely shower and breakfast, and a casual read about learner testing typology while munching chocolate from Lidl.

I think I know how they make it one third the price of most supermarkets - it has the same rich taste and melt-in-the-mouth quality as the cardboard wrapping.

Sunday lunch with my hosts and their friend Carol, psychiatric nurse and christian socialist. That is, someone who believes that someday enough people will open up their lives to God, and in doing so eradicate capitalism (by slightly unclear means).

There's a lot of people who (IMO correctly) identify the values of the best socialists with those of the best christians, but instead of jettisoning their faith, try to make it the bedrock of their politics. But they can only do this by jettisoning all theology, leaving behind only a sense of "being infused with something undefinable".

After lunch, a pleasant walk in the park with my hosts. There was a large family of hasidic jews there, all the men with broad brimmed hats or skullcaps, and curly locks hanging from their temples. All this, combined with ordinary casual clothes, and riding around laughing on BMX bikes.

Big cities give you juxtapositions like that, and London seems to give many.

I'm not exactly homesick - home is only on the other end of a phoneline - but there is that odd sadness that comes from being in a place that is comfortable and has become familliar, but which you would never think of calling home.

People who spend their lives traveling between conferences and hotel rooms must feel this way a lot.

I don't miss TV, though I look forward to the large pile of DVD recordings (mostly science fiction) waiting for me when I get home. I don't especially miss a constant internet connection, though it would be very useful for research.

I miss my parents (or, to be honest, my mother), and the dogs (though not the parrots). I miss my comrades (and their entanglements). I miss C (who is on his own life-changing course).

Day 5

Basically, we were all exhausted. We sat through a 90 minute DVD of a "architypal teaching lesson" with glazed eyes, before giving our own slightly less architypal lessons to our foreign learner groups, and staggering home.

One started talking morosely about burnout, one said she was so tired she almost fell asleep several times, and two didn't turn up at all for the day.

I wonder if all the Friday's will be like this?

Day 4

I'm well settled in. I know the names of all those I teach, but only three or four of those I study with.
There's John - a retired German speaking English businessman who wants to teach Business English so he'll have a challenge in his later years

Jo - a bubbly young lady who connects instantly with learners and somehow speaks with them in a way that's both natural and highly simplified

...and Monika - a Polish twentysomething woman, fluent in Spanish, French and German, one of those people who have competence coming out of their ears, combined with a terrible fear of not being good enough.

Apparantly I have logical lesson plans and speak in language understandable to learners. And apparantly I need to speak louder and spend at least some of the lesson sitting down. This is the current fashion in EFL teaching - teach sitting and not behind a desk.

We have five whole sessions timetabled for studying phonology - including phonemics, word stress, sentence stress, intonation, features of morpheme concatenation and word seperation...and I imagine some sandhi.

There's another four on "receptive skills". You don't know what they are? Me neither.

I said I'd tell you about lesson plans. Well, here goes, whether you want to know or not.

The first page has a series of headed boxes, which the teacher writes in.

Main Aim - What you want the students to be able to do, that they couldn't do before the lesson. Examples might be "To give the students a grasp of when to use the Past-simple, and when the Past-Progressive", or "By the end of the lesson the students will understand the semantic and grammatical distinctions between count and noncount nouns".

Subsidiary Aim(s) - The kind of things you touch on of achieve in passing while persuing the main aim. For instance "To give practice with adverbs of time" or "Remind class about collective nouns". Subsidiray aims are good for reinforcing main aims of previous lessons, or for doing things like building confidence or getting students to interact more.

Methodological Aim(s) - Things the teacher wants to do better in this lesson than in previous ones, such as "Project voice more clearly" and "Use more multimedia".

Or possibly "Stop staring at the demure Chinese girl's breasts". But maybe not, as other people sometimes see the plan.

Assumptions - What the students can already do. Things like "Students know all tense forms" and "Students have vocabulary related to weather"

Materials - Stuff you'll use to teach, apart from your voice, the whiteboard and your ability to mime. Photocopies, transparancies, DVDs, cassette recordings, maybe Powerpoint presentations etc. All items must be sourced, e.g. "Photocopies of 'Phrasal Verbs' by Fred Fanakapan, pp 33-34".

Anticipated Difficulties - Problems that might crop up. "Class may not have heard of Salvador Dali (who the sample reading text is about)" or "There may be confusion between progressive and perfect forms".

Solutions - Guess what? Ways around the Anticipated difficulties. The most common solution is to "Pre-teach", which is to tell the students about (say) Salvador Dali before giving out the reading material about his life.

These last two show up an odd feature of the lesson plan structure. You can list all the problems you like, so long as they all have solutions. What happens if you think of a possible problem without a solution? Simple! It doesn't go on the plan.

Result: You're not allowed to mention any of the major problems you might encounter.

And page one. And there's always at least four pages. Which might tell you why it takes three hours to plan a forty minute lesson.

The dubious joys of the other pages, typed up partly for my own clarification, after the weekend. Which I will spend writing an essay on "Student Motivation", too boring to be posted on any blog.

Day 3

Did you know that the following sentence is grammatically wrong?

I didn't used to do this

Yes, the correct form is:

I didn't use to do this

But these are grammatically correct:

I never used to do this

I used to not do this

I used not to do this

Why? Because the word "used" is actually the Past-Simple form of the auxiliary verb "use" (unrelated to the verb "to use"), and when it is modified by another auxiliary verb that is in the negative - such as "didn't" or "couldn't", it reverts to it's base form "use".

However, when "used" is modified by an adverbial of time like "never" or "three years ago", it doesn't switch to it's base form.

Now, I reckon I know how to speak English, and I've read quite a lot of grammar books - both the prescriptive and descriptive kinds - and I have never come across this rule before today. How many professional speakers or writers do you think know it? For that matter, how many grammarians or language teachers know it?

Oh, and there's one small extra detail. Unless you're speaking very precisely, the /d/ in "used" isn't pronounced anyway! So whether you say "use" or "used" makes no difference!


[Update: I checked in some grammar books, and I can confirm that (1) these rules do exist as I describe them, (b) I'm expected to teach them at some point, and (3) they're so obscure and routinely broken that I'm still inclined not to bother.]

Apart from that, I had the slightly smug experience today of watching my fellow trainees make mistakes while teaching learners, without having to demonstrate my own incompetence in return.

That happens tomorrow.

There was also more on how to write a lesson plan, and maybe I'll introduce you to that dubious pleasure tomorrow. In the meantime, I've got to write one of the damn things.

Day 2

When I left Portsmoth, I promised myself I wouldn't stay out late at night, I wouldn't get myself a reputation by flirting with straight men, and I wouldn't drink alcohol.

This is the third night, counting that of my arrival on Sunday, that someone else has got me drunk.

Tonight it was Donna S - a comrade from Portsmouth with 2.5 year old daughter Daisy in tow, up for the day trawling London's art galleries. She bought us pasta and wine in resteraunt, and we talked about art, and men. And language teaching, and men. And politics, and men.

All of which was highly welcome.

I pick up bits and pieces of what's happening in the world outside, just from headlines in newspapers, and the occasional half article surruntitiously read over someone's shoulder on the underground.

"The Metro" lead with how the police shooting of Jean Charles Demenezes was justified because, although he wasn't a terrorist, he could have been, and if he had been, he might have killed hundreds. By the same reasoning, I can kill you because one day you might kill me instead.

On the other hand, "TheLondonPaper" lead with "Iraq: 1000 Soldiers Home by Christmas" - suggesting a different aspect of the War on Terror, namely the actual war, is winding down, and the government is sure the public are behind a withdrawal. Which they have been for two years, but nevermind.

And the saga of "Madeline" drags on. Four months ago, three year old Madeline McCann disappeared from a family holiday in Portugal. For three solid months, the British gutter press blamed the Portugese police for the complete lack of progress in the investigation - not because there was no evidence, but because the police weren't briefing journalists. No, don't try to work it out.

Then the headlines briefly decided her parents had killed her, because they hadn't broken down in tears on camera, before speculating that she'd been kidnapped by slave traders. Today, the line is that she was drugged - because her grandmother says she must have been.

Precisely how a single missing child - probably dead on the day she disappeared - could make headlines almost every day for this long, I don't know. Maybe losing two wars and an approaching revolution in Burma aren't interesting enough.

But apart from all that, I spent the day being introduced to "MFP" - Meaning, Form (=Grammar) and Phonology, the three major aspects of language which, we are told, any good lesson must include in some proportion. That, and "How to Write a Lesson Plan" which, loathe as I am to admit it, is not always a bureaucratic waste of time.

Oh, and I got to teach my first class, for twenty minutes. There was Miguel (a talkative Spanish fellow), Melanie (a French lady who didn't need lessons in English), Salvador (a young Mexican man who needed lots of lessons), Clement (an unfeasibly gorgeous French lad), and others. So there was me, trying not to use any difficult words, long sentences, complex tense formations or metaphors, to a class half of who were well below the level I was teaching, and half well above.

And I get to do the same thing for twice as long on Wednesday. Hopefully this time without being nervous, stammering, forgetting what I want to say, confusing the students with too much explanation, or jabbering away too fast in broken sentences trying to get a simple meaning across without resorting to bad translations from the student's native tongue.

Day 1

Oh my god.

We began gently enough with the familliar "icebreaker" games to get the fifteen students introduced to each other. Memorising each other's names with the help of a randomly passed tennis ball, pairing up and introducing our hobbies to each other - the usual stuff I have very little patience with.

And then...a forty minute crash course in how to order drinks in Turkish, just to show how it feels to be plunged into a foreign language. Oh, and the entire lesson was delivered in Turkish.

Followed by a detailed timetable (in English), containing the moderate surprise that we will all be teaching students, for real, for twenty five minutes each. Tomorrow.

I am exhausted, and a little frightened. I expect to be exhausted and frightened every day for the next four weeks.