Archive for the ‘ESL/EFL’ Category

Vague (What was that film with that guy?)

I used to watch MAD TV back in Canada, and one of my favourite sketches was of the game show Vague. (Check it out. It’s very funny.)

Q: Who was that guy who did that thing?
A: The guy with the hair.
Q: That’s correct!

I remembered it recently when I got a composition from a student of mine. They were supposed to write a review of a film. I have corrected the grammatical errors.

The film is full of action and suspense. It is a mystery story with many strange things. The actors in the film, who are the French woman and the man, are searching for something very interesting and strange. But they are not alone in the story. The police are searching for them because they believe that they are the people who killed the person in the museum. Moreover, these two people are being followed by others who want the same strange thing, because it is interesting to them.

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Talking to myself

Inevitably there comes a time in any teacher’s life when they feel that they’re talking to a bunch of people who aren’t listening.

Last weekend I was on a bus to Kallithea and I saw a student I had two or three years ago. His name was Kostas and he worked, if I remember correctly, in a bank. He was one of those people who lack any talent whatsoever at learning a foreign language. (I’m probably one of them myself. I’ve known Greek and English my whole life.) He was well aware that the problem lay with him and not with the school, and he was a loyal customer, coming back year after year for more lessons. He had been at this school since it opened thirteen years before, and it had taken him ten or eleven years just to get the First Certificate. The year I was there he was planning to take both the Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency exams, as well the Michigan Proficiency exam. It’s the scatter-shot approach: aim everywhere and you might hit something.

The problem was that Kostas would come to class already exhausted after a day’s work. He often nodded off in class.

Once, he raised his hand and asked me to explain something. I had not finished even the first sentence of my explanation when his eyelids slowly closed and he started to sleep right there as he sat upright in class. It amazes me to this day that he could pass out mere seconds after asking a question. Within seconds his tired mind had strayed, had forgotten his question, and the fact that I was speaking to him and answering his question, and he dipped into unconsciousness. The other students didn’t notice, and I didn’t know how to react. Should I call out and wake him up? Should I tell the others,”Hey, look! He’s fallen asleep.”? Instead I pretended he was still awake and kept talking. The answer didn’t concern anyone else, so there I was, standing before a small room full of people, talking to myself.

I said hello to Kostas on the bus, but that was it. I thought of asking if he’d managed to hit any of the exams he’d been aiming at, but I was afraid of any possible embarrassment.

When I got to my stop, I shot a glance back at him. Once again, he was nodding off.

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A little over a year ago, I wrote about a blogger who was getting strange comments from people who thought he could pimp their ride. (When the comments reached 200, he closed the post to more comments.) Strangely enough, a year later, I got two elegant cries for help too. (See comments at the bottom.)


Back in May, I wrote about a student who had gone nuts and was spooking me out. I forgot to update about him. I never saw him again. Neither he nor the girl he was smitten with came back. He did drop by one day to say goodbye to the staff, when I wasn’t there, and said he had received his transfer to Thessaloniki. That’s a relief. I later learned that the girl had brought some of his letters to school to show the secretary, and in one of them he had scrawled that he was either going to kill himself or someone else. This man works in vice and carries a service revolver.


I’m finally taking driving lessons. I still can’t get used to the idea that I’ll be steering a huge piece of machinery around the road. I was speaking to a British colleague and he said he had recently got his license. “Athens is the best place to learn,” he said. “Straight into the deep end.”


Tomorrow I’ll be taking a little trip with N. and my parents, who arrived here a couple of weeks ago. We’re not sure yet where we’re going, but Meteora is definitely one of them, because N.’s never been there. I’ll be taking lots of pictures and notes. I plan to write here more often. I got some very kind words from E.J. Knapp, which have made my thoughts turn more often to this blog.

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A Troubled Student

Yesterday I had one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult lessons I've ever had. I have a student, A., who's very quiet, sits at the back of the room and hardly ever speaks. In the first lesson, when we were introducing ourselves, I asked him what he did for a living, and he refused to answer. I found out later from one of the secretaries that he's a cop.

He seemed to get along well with everyone in the class, which wasn't really difficult, because everyone in that group got along well. They're a friendly bunch of people, ranging from about 20 to 36 years old. Occasionally he would refuse to answer a question, even if it was multiple choice. I'd say, "Come on, you have a 25% chance of getting it right," but he would shrug his shoulders helplessly. (This is not uncommon. I've seen people do this when there were only two choices.) But apart from that, he participated when asked to. He wrote a lot of compositions, too, in a large, messy script. Once we had a composition about what job we had or wanted to have, and he wrote the whole thing without ever stating what he actually did.

One thing that sticks out in my mind as atypical of what I imagine cops to be like is that he liked Rimbaud and Baudelaire a lot.

Sometimes he came to class without his books. I thought that maybe the course was being paid for by some sort of work-related programme, and he simply had to put in the hours. I still don't know if this was the case. At any rate, I've seen this sort of thing many, many times, and I thought nothing of it. After the Easter break, though, he started to get very strange. He'd sit in class with these huge sunglasses that made him look like a fly. At the school where I work, we share classes with another teacher. For example, I teach this class on Tuesdays, and the other teacher on Thursdays. The other teacher told me that A. had said some strange things in class. He'd raised his hand and started talking about music and radio, when it had nothing to do with what the class was discussing. He left after only an hour. He'd left early in my class too, but had not spoken.

Yesterday I saw him sitting at his desk at the back, without the huge sunglasses this time, with a pack of Marlboros and a CPE textbook on his desk. But it was the wrong book. We don't use that one. In a joking sort of tone, I asked him what he was doing with that one.

"I prefer this one," he said, in broken English. (He usually responds to English with Greek.) "I think it's a very good book."

I told him that the author of it produces good stuff.

"But actually at the moment I'm not interested in Cambridge or Michigan. I listen to the radio. [He may have said something about Eurovision.] And I'm smoking a lot."

Before you joke about what he's smoking, let me make it clear that I immediately understood this as a sign that he was under stress of some kind, and was smoking the way some people drink when things are difficult. I don't remember people resorting to cigarettes so much in Canada at times like that, although I know they do. But it seems they do it even more here in Greece.

Anyway, the lesson got under way. I knew better than to ask him any questions, since he didn't have the book, and I knew he wasn't interested enough. I didn't ask him to sit with someone who had the book. The first hour was fine. I don't remember him doing or saying anything. In the teacher's room during the break, I was telling the others about the little exchange we'd had about the book when one of the secretaries came in and said, "You wouldn't happen to have a student who's acting a little strangely today?" I said I did. He told me that A. had been saying strange things things to some students in the waiting room before class had started, and had alarmed them. I learned from the secretary that he had told one of the girls in the class that he wanted her to be the mother of his children.

In the second hour, the situation became clearer to me. A. was in love with the girl whose children he said he wanted to father. After the first break, he began to talk more in class, and things became awkward. I hoped he would leave again, but he didn't. He didn't even leave the room to smoke — he stood at the window at the back of the classroom.

In the second hour, he took out a blank sheet of paper from somewhere and began to write quickly. In only a few minutes he'd written a page and a half. He seemed inspired. Later, he started tearing up paper in small squares, about 3×3 inches, and writing on those. When the hour was over, and I was leaving the room, he asked me a question. It started out having to do with English, but in mid-sentence was about Madonna and a few other things. "You know?" he said at the end of it, and I just said, "No." Some people laughed.

In the third hour, he was much more talkative, and I spent it dreading every time he opened his mouth or raised his hands. The rest of the class were trying very hard to be conscientious about the lesson, and keep up the appearance of order.

"Have you seen the video clip for 'November Rain'?" he asked me at one point, although it had nothing to do with anything. I told him I hadn't, and he shrugged, disappointed, and remarked that I was obviously clueless then.

At one point he suddenly spoke up and said he was dying for a cigarette. I told him he could go out and have one if he wanted to. He started saying things I couldn't understand, although the others in the class realised he was talking about the girl who was ignoring his advances. The oldest student, who is my age, and who sits at the front of the class, told him to give it a rest. I gathered that he'd talked about it before. Then she said quietly, so that only those around her could her, "He's not well."

There were moments of lucidity, though. He raised his hand and proposed that, since the course is ending, I tell them how I thought they had done in things like their compositions, if I was disappointed with them in any way, or give them any last bits of advice. I made a few brief comments and moved on. Another time, he raised his hand and asked a question that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, and then, realising his mistake, said, "Don't mind me — I'm raving."

The verb defect came up, and I was explaining what it meant. The oldest student, who is often the only one to pick up on the cultural references that I make in class, mentioned Baryshnikov, whom the others didn't even know. She wondered if Nureyev had defected. I mentioned Solzhenitsyn, but jokingly, since I knew that if they hadn't heard of the other two, they would have a clue who he was. A. raised his hand and said there was also Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and that the latter was a philhellene.

"But they lived before the formation of the USSR," I said.

"And then there's Lorca, who said he was going to burn the Parthenon," he quickly added. He made some remark to the effect that this is the kind of stuff we Greeks have to deal with.

Finally, the last hour came to an end. I knew the girl he was in love with was not going to leave alone. She went to the secretary, who's a much bigger guy than A., and some of the students waited for her, I believe. (I know they went as a group and complained.) I had to get ready for the next class. (I have a weird one in that class too, probably on medication, but I'll take ten of him before A.) When A. was leaving, he passed the drinking fountain and slammed his book on it, and left it there. Later in the evening, I looked at it in the secretary's office. It was new, untouched, except for the indentations his writing had made on the cover when he was writing on the paper.

I dread to think what he'll be like next time, if he comes back. I hope he doesn't. I dread the thought of him becoming violent, if it comes to that. It's tough when you know that, should it come to that, you'll have to do something. If he does something to bother the girl, you'll have to step in, even though he may be able to send you flying.

And I hope he's not working. I can't imagine him staying at work (let alone carrying a gun) in that state. I hope he's on some kind of disability leave. They say he was being transferred to Thessaloniki and wasn't going to register for the rest of the course. But who knows now.


Tonight I said to my boss, "I guess you heard about the incident with A." Not only had she heard, but she knew much more than I did. She told me that A. had given a letter to the girl saying that he was either going to kill somebody or kill himself, or both. Her parents called the school and said that they were going to take legal action against him.

Unfortunately, the administration's attitude has been to wait and see. They don't want to do anything about it because there are only three more lessons, and he's not going to come back anyway when the course ends. Meanwhile, we teachers (not to mention the girl, if she decides to come again) have to go into a classroom with a disturbed policeman who has threatened to kill "someone".

The next class for that group is tomorrow night (18 May). Then there are two more lessons next week. I hope the girl doesn't come. She's a sweet kid, but she should stay home. She'll continue the course when he's gone anyway. (Unless her parents decide — quite logically, in my opinion — to put her somewhere he won't be able to find her.) 

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Adventures in EFL-Land

I’m working in a school that promises students they can get the First Certificate in English in one year, even if they don’t know a word of the language when they begin. For most people this is impossible, but they want to believe it, so the promise works well. The majority of them will fail, but they’ll be back again next year, paying their hard-earned euros for lessons. In the mean time, we teachers bang our heads against the wall.

Some of the students don’t have a clue what’s going on in class. Even at the best of times. Anyone who has taught, at least here in Greece, will be familiar with the following scene.

You’re looking at the Michigan exam, which is all multiple choice, except for the composition. One of the questions reads:

I’ve had enough of this magazine. I’m going to _______ my subscription.

A quit
B remove
C resign
D cancel

A student raises her hand and says, “D.”

Yes, you say. It’s “D”, and you write the word on the board. You also tell them what “subscription” means, and what the whole collocation means. For good measure, you explain the three distractors and give them collocations for those too.

And just when you think everything is clear and you’ve done a good job covering it all, someone looks around the classroom and says, “So what’s the answer?”

Sometimes they ask you the most stunning questions. You stand before them, swaying from the force of the blow, trying to think of a way to approach it and find an answer.N. was telling me last week that she was doing a passage in a Proficiency class which mentioned malaria. She made sure everyone understood what malaria was. In this passage, it was mentioned that the disease had got as far as Rome. One young student raised his hand and asked, “How did malaria get to Rome?”

N. had done her best to explain that it was a disease. You hope that your students have lived in the world long enough to have acquired some basic facts, such as how diseases get around.

“It took the train,” she told him.

Tonight, the weakest student in my class — who nevertheless seems to be trying her hardest — wanted to ask some questions about the writing part of the exam they’ll be taking this weekend. Writing skills are hard to teach in a classroom, especially when you have the students for two three-hour lessons a week. You need to give them individual attention to do a good job of it. With my private students, I correct the paper in front of them, showing them when they’ve written something redundant or convoluted. After a while, they can recognise it right away. Then they stop doing it.

But in a class, it’s generally hopeless. I knew there was nothing I could tell them this late in the day that would be of any help, but I tried. I told them, if you can’t walk very well, don’t try to dance. Keep it simple and you’ll make fewer mistakes.

She looked at me with a desperately earnest expression and asked, “What tense should we use in our compositions?”

I stood there trying to think of an insightful way to say, “That depends.”

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