The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy


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School’s Out – Ciao Ragazzi

I’ve been on holiday for more than a month now, soaking up the sun and occasional thunderstorms, since my contract as a British Council Language Assistant ended on the 30th of May. Eight months of correcting the same mistakes, of delivering lessons and racking my brains for interesting activities came abruptly to a close. It felt like no time had passed at all since I first stepped in front of the first class, the 5°AS, to introduce myself and give a lesson about Red Nose Day.

After I got back from my weekend in Turin, the days rolled by alarmingly fast until I was into my last week as an assistant. The stage of saying goodbye to the classes was dragged out for a whole week as I announced that it would be my last lesson and that I’d be going back to the UK next year, not teaching there again. The classes all reacted differently, some totally unconcerned, some with applause (ok) and some wanting group pictures. Here are some of the results:

I did my rounds and did recaps on the material studied over the year and surprisingly enough, some things did stick with the students. Not a huge amount, but at least something went into their memory and stayed there for a few months. I corrected the last bunch of tests, thanked the teachers and closed the school door for the last time as a member of staff on Friday morning at 11, leaving the situation to degenerate into inevitable pre-summer holiday chaos.

About a week later, I went back to the school to say goodbye again, this time to the headmaster and the administration office. The custom in Italy is that if it is your birthday, saint day, leaving day, whatever, you bring the cake. So I prepared a bunch of tea biscuits. I iced them and transported them as well as I good, but even if they were a bit smudged, they were still good enough to pass around.

This was not even the final goodbye. On the 14th of June, I attended the final Saturday morning staff meeting, which was to be followed by a little buffet of croissants and panzerottini. I arrived after the boring bits, took a seat for about five minutes and was then called to the front to say my farewell into the microphone. I was told to do it in English, so with a flashback to my first hello right back in September, I spoke to the vast roomful of staff and said how fast the year had gone and how great it had been. Then, as usual, the emotion got too much for me. The retiring teachers beside me were tearful, the head teacher was looking moved and when I relinquished the microphone, it happened. I cried in front of everyone – how humiliating but in their opinion, endearing.

I made my way back to my seat, was given a squeeze by a couple of English teachers, a tissue by another and a liquorice sweet by the Italian teacher (for old time’s sake). People came to me left, right and centre to offer me somewhere to stay if I wanted to come back, to ask when I was leaving, to give me encouragement. It would have been quite heart warming if I could have stopped blubbering. I took some photos with the English teachers, which I am quite happy not to see because no doubt my face is a pink, watery blotch-fest in them. I chatted to lots of teachers and secretaries before really leaving the school for the final time, trotting off into the sunshine knowing that I’ll be back there to visit some day, no doubt. After all, my time at I.T.I.S. Galileo Ferraris has been important in shaping my career prospects and my language skills, as well as giving me much more confidence in all areas of public speaking. Presentations next year, no problem. I won’t have twenty-five pairs of probing eyes watching me explain the present perfect.

After working with 7 of 8 different teachers and encountering 700 pupils, it’s been a chance to meet lots of new people and to really see how a school works from a teacher’s point of view. Let me tell you, it’s not all fun and games and you get fewer holidays that you imagine. I’ve decided that teaching in a secondary school probably isn’t the job for me, but teaching English as a foreign language really has its interesting elements, so taking a qualification might be an option for the future. Aside from that, it’s time to use this experience for thinking about what I really want to do as a career: a bit of a daunting prospect. Perhaps if the Internet hasn’t been taken over and modified by robots yet, I will look back at this blog post in five years time and think ‘oh how things have changed, I have all my questions answered and a path planned out’. I doubt it though – different things happen and new questions always appear. Closing a chapter of working at the I.T.I.S. will lead to a new part of life, third year at university and then who knows… Wish me luck!


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Public English Educator N°1

So you may think from all my recent blog posts that I spend all my time travelling around Puglia and not doing a single day’s work. Not so. I’m still at school every morning, (admittedly not always at 8am) in front of a class, getting chalk all over myself and trying to instil phrasal verbs into 16 year olds. 16 year olds who are getting more excited for the summer holidays by the minute. Now it’s the Easter break: Italian students are generously concede 5 days of full relaxation, before going back to complete the final month. Meanwhile, I’m drawing closer and closer to the end of my placement: “finito”, 31st of May…I’ve already been promised a party and group photographs. Lately, I’ve been covering a variety of topics with the 3rd and 4th classes. My favourite thing to teach is the same old literature, including Restoration history that keeps cropping up at university every time I turn around. I’m quite happy reading poems aloud and making approximate quotes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I can easily have a chat with them about the symbolism in Geoffrey Chaucer and listen to oral presentations about the Canterbury Tales. I’ve also prepared lessons about Australia, health, school life and Easter in the UK that stimulated some sort of discussion about kangaroos, penguins and school uniforms. These lessons run quite smoothly in general and may or may not include laughter. My jokes are still being under-appreciated. Image I’ve also had to face more challenging topics due to the fact I’m in a Technical and Industrial school. My technical and industrial knowledge being close to zero, it’s not surprising that sometimes I run into trouble. Recently, I was asked to prepare a lesson about maths terms in English. My guidelines were short ‘oh, addition, multiplication, stuff like that’. Right. I dutifully wrote out some sums, fractions and then taught them how to read mathematical operations. I encouraged them to do some listening by reading out English sums and asking for the answer. It transpired that some of them were really rubbish at Maths. Also, I had to stress the difference between ‘sixteen’ and ‘sixty’ after several moments of extreme confusion. The third class seemed to appreciate this game, although I gave up scoring after things got heated. The fourth class was another matter. “How do you say | x – 1 | = – (x – 1) ? » « What about ‘x tendente a… » I stood there, stunned. I had no idea what they were talking about. When they asked me about geometry, I forgot how to say ‘radius’ and also accidentally taught them how to say ‘cosine’ etc. in French. But this maths…I had absolutely no idea. A boy came to the board and wrote all this calculus, limits, functions…In the end, I said ‘sorry mate, can’t help you. Do you want to talk about Shakespeare now?’. The look of disgust I got shows that we belong to two different fields entirely. Another aspect I’ve had to learn about is technical English: electromagnetism and more recently, machine tools. I don’t know what an upright drill is, or a lathe, but I’m there to help with pronunciation and to explain what chips and shavings are. A side project I’ve got going on at school is a film screening in Bari, due to take place on the 9th of May. I’ve had to go round the classes finding out who is interested. The main question is ‘is it in the morning or the afternoon?’ ie. ‘can we miss school?’, and with the answer that it will happen in the morning, I receive cheers and applause and a resounding yes.

All in all, I like teaching English. Having learned languages for a long time, since the age of 7 in fact, I find it interesting comparing words and structures, and explaining them to other people. I must admit that at times it is a challenge to make rules stick: sometimes correcting tests makes me want to bang my head repeatedly against a hard surface, or better yet, the head of the boy committing the horrendous grammar mistakes. But that would never do. It does take patience and commitment and a tolerance of high decibel levels. I’ve gained a lot of experience this year, no longer will I be shy doing presentations, no longer will I be fazed by people not understanding me: it’s given me confidence. Even if I don’t end up in education, at least I’ve got some skills to bulk up my weak little CV now. And I’ve had a very good time, the kids aren’t half bad.


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New Students, New Topics

Meeting a new class is an interesting experience. You are placed in front of twenty-five brand new people, with different names and faces. In the transition from my older classes to the younger ones, I’m going to have to create some more brain space to remember them all. I would try and forget useless information like how many children the Beckham family has, but that won me a quiz last night.

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Quiz Duello: the latest app craze that has got Italians shouting at each other :)

In these first lessons, my students and I spent most of the time talking about ourselves. This eased any nervousness and allowed me to discover new things about them (mostly, what football team they support and how many times a week they go to the gym). The average age of my new pupils is 16: they seem much more eager than their fifth year counterparts and with their final exam a whole two years away, they’re not feeling the pressure yet. Some of them actually had quite a good level of English so let’s hope that I can teach them something interesting. 

I’ve actually been preparing a lesson about football: all the vocabulary and phrases needed to read a match report. I have a feeling that there will be an exchange of knowledge; I don’t know what the offside rule is or the dictates of extra time. Judging by the enthusiasm that swells the room when I so much as mention Juventus or any football team for that matter, I will have an interested audience. Thank goodness for premierskills.britishcouncil.org/ 

As much as I try to spread the love for British cuisine, I can’t help conceding that Italian food is just…well, better. It seems healthier, fresher and more diverse, and I was never a fan of shepherd’s pie. My duty as an ambassador for the UK compels me however to mention the multiculturalism of food in Britain: you can have tapas, Chinese, Indian or Thai food wherever you are. Also, there are some little luxuries that I miss from the UK, like scones. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember the horrendous kitchen disaster circa October 2013 and understand my reluctance to try baking them again. But the craving for a good scone, with jam and clotted cream and a cup of tea with milk in it…it’s still here and is only partly satisfied by a good piece of tiramisu. I also explain the phenomenon of fish and chips, and do a survey of the radically differing opinions of the English breakfast.

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Outside of school, this week has been fun and full of more shopping errands. I’ve been to a fashion warehouse called ‘Business’ to browse through discounted brands of some nice and some frankly hideous clothes, I’ve helped select a new set of crockery, a cake tin and a hob. I’ve successfully fought off a cold with pig-headedness, a couple of paracetamol, getting some fresh air helping in the garden and of course, with some hot chocolate. On a side note, Cameo is the best Italian brand: it brings you instant panna cotta, psuedo-healthy chocolate cereal and this sweet deliciousness.

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The Italian Rom-Com

So this post is a little different from my usual ramblings about pizza and the sea. I do occasionally remember that I’ve been sent here to enrich my knowledge of Italian popular culture: this makes me spontaneously buy a magazine or plan a trip to the cinema. I love a good film, so what better way to improve my listening skills than to go and test my understanding by settling down in front of a real Italian movie? That way, I can also avoid the ‘out of sync’ dubbed effect that invariably makes American or British actors look like goldfish.

My genre of choice is something light and easy, essentially the romantic comedy. You can’t get lost in elaborate plot twists, the ending is basically programmed from the start and there’s usually no specialised spy/superhero/bank robber lingo to contend with. Instead of being just vacuous entertainment, watching an Italian ‘romcom’ gives me an insight into tropes of family life and relationships here. And even though sometimes I miss out on the cultural references, the comedy I’ve seen has relied more on visual humour and misunderstandings than sarcasm or wit. Let’s leave that to the British.

So far, I have seen two different romantic comedies, which were both set in Rome, involved men with beards and pretty women with wealthy lifestyles. Here are my reviews:

Stai Lontana da Me (Stay away from Me)

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I went to see this film in November with another girl, while the boys went to see Thor (such a stereotype, but I wasn’t really interested in axe throwing superheroes). Even though my friend wasn’t impressed with the film, I had a great time.

The story: Jacopo (cool name for a start) is a counsellor for sparring couples. He starts going out with an architect called Sara but soon things start to go wrong. Sara starts becoming incredibly unfortunate, falling over, embarrassing herself, setting houses on fire etc. and that’s when we find out that Jacopo was cursed by his primary school girlfriend. This ‘curse’ has made all his past girlfriends unlucky and sooner or later they have all left him. He really loves Sara so he tells her to stay away from him, for her own good (aw). The end of the story is as far-fetched as the premise: Jacopo seeks retreat from the female population on a remote Greek island, only to meet the girl who cursed him all grown up. She removes the ‘curse’, Jacopo runs back to Sara as fast as he can, they get married, have a baby, the end. The plot is ridiculous but Sara’s misfortunes were certainly entertaining to watch, especially when she accidentally showed a porn video to members of the clergy instead of a design project for a new church. Swapped discs were involved, obviously.

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Tutta Colpa di Freud (It’s all Freud’s fault)

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I went to see this film only last week in Bari. As it has only just come out, the room was full and people had taken our allocated seats: to cut a long and awkward story short, we ended up not comfortably in the second to last row, but craning our necks in the second row.

The story: Francesco is a psychologist who was left by his wife to raise three daughters alone. These three daughters are going through various hurdles in their love lives: Marta is chasing a deaf-mute guy who has stolen things from her bookshop, Sara is a lesbian who was left by her girlfriend just after she proposed to her, and 18 year old Emma is seeing a fifty year old architect called Alessandro, who is already married.

Drama ensues when Francesco tries to counsel Alessandro to concentrate on his marriage and not Emma, before finding out that Alessandro’s wife is the lady with a spaniel who he has been crushing on for ages. What a coincidence! Marta struggles to communicate with her new beau and keeps offending him, while Sara determinedly tries to go after men instead of women to see if she has more luck.

Each story has it’s own quirks and differ from the usual boy-meets-girl framework of the romcom: this film is as much about family as it is about romance. The three sisters and the father support each other, and the final scene is not a couple kissing, but a father and daughter walking off to get Mexican food together. There were some cute moments, some times when you wanted to shake the characters to their senses, especially Sara who at times acted like she didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. I must admit I fail to see why everything is being blamed on Freud. There is very little psychoanalysis involved but plenty of loving feels to fit the romantic comedy bill. 

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All in all, as well as a bit of uplifting fun and a look inside designer apartments in Rome, watching these two films made me feel good about my ability to understand Italian. By the end of each film, I had forgotten that I was hearing Italian and, instead of making language comparisons in my head, experienced the story almost as if the dialogue was in English. That is a nice feeling to have and I think I could handle more complex plots. The next challenge is understanding the political segments of the TV news: the commentary is delivered so fast and involves at least five different cabinets. I have to ask for a summarised digest to find out what the ‘thieving’ government has done now. 


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Teaching Bambini in Bisceglie

I’m definitely spreading the English love down here in Puglia. I spend my mornings at the school, doing reading and speaking activities with 16-18 year olds and saying ‘hello, hello, hello’ as I pass them all in the corridors. One of the English teachers said that she likes the way they look at me when I speak: I’m not sure whether she meant admiration or complete bewilderment.

Besides my job as a language assistant, I offer people words in English now and then as points of comparison when someone teaches me new things in Italian. It must be pretty annoying actually. I now know how to say ‘scalpel’, ‘wisdom teeth’ and a variety of vulgar expressions in Italian. I’m absorbing slang and vocabulary like a sponge.

Thursday is a particularly full day as English educating goes because I give private lessons in Bisceglie, a town I have mentioned before, just North of Molfetta. Every week, I hop on the 17.42 train for one stop, and spend an hour and a half in the company of four primary school boys who are having a sneaky bit of tuition with me on top of their official English lessons. I have been informed that their teacher is none too pleased about this but oh well. I follow their school book but also make my own worksheets

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An excuse to draw stuff.

These lessons are overall a pleasurable experience due to the sheer enthusiasm of nine year olds, in comparison to the lethargy of high school students. We’ve talked about Halloween, prepositions, the weather and time. Often, we start from a clean slate: they are always asking me for new words. Yesterday we did all types of food, including mussels and octopus. In the first lesson back in October, the boys were unexpectedly docile but now they have lost that initial shyness. As their concentration span begins to wane, the decibel levels soar. Usually, drawings and activities that they can all do together keeps things under control, but I have been caught in the middle of a paper war before now, and witnessed a full on wrestling match at the stroke of half past seven, when the lesson officially ends. Also the sentence ‘Enrico magic pig’ seems to have stuck as an insult.

As well as giving me a little extra experience and income, these lessons are a way to meet new people: I visit four different houses because they take turns hosting the lessons. Sometimes I have found myself in riotous situations, like being punched by a little brother running round with an iPad and dealing with a terrier that jumped on the table halfway through the lesson. The families are all breathless with shepherding young children around, but for the past two lessons I have been offered home made focaccia, which is my favourite type of bread ever. Sure, eating it impedes the speaking English part a little bit, and I leave with greasy photocopies, but these lessons are supposed to be friendly and fun after all. I have been told that the boys are all fond of me and proud when they know all the answers in their English lessons at school. I always leave Bisceglie happy, having done something constructive and satisfying with my otherwise quiet weekday. I go home and relax watching terrible Italian soap operas, or their version of Deal and No Deal, which bizarrely sometimes includes a box with a crocodile toy inside (I mean, what is up with this) and the weirdest song and dance interludes since the 1980s ended. Noel Edmonds, take note.

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I will not boast about the weather anymore because it’s cold and I spend the afternoon working like this.


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Twenty Italian Boys vs. 1 English girl

Today is the 1st of October, the day signalling the end of my four-month long summer holiday and the beginning of my duties as a proper paid language assistant. I can happily announce that I have survived my first encounter with a roomful of Italian teenagers and that I have found my inner shouting voice. Who knew I had one.

Last weekend, it was training time in Turin. Although it was great to meet my fellow language assistants from all over Europe, it was pretty exhausting. It entailed hours and hours of theory on how to teach English as a foreign language. Some of the ideas I will take away and use, such as cookery programmes and comic strips. Some of the more bizarre activities I will definitely not use: these included a teacher trying to make us guess her phobia of hens with a series of rather unrelated pictures and another taking us on a trippy experience of learning with our senses. We didn’t get much time to walk around and explore the city, so what I will take away from the weekend is the memory of the horrendous difficulties of travelling on Turin’s public transport. One bus driver shut the door on me and I eventually had to be led to my destination by a tiny little old lady who was as bus-savvy as they come.

Today I finally put all the theory into practice. All the trawling through language assistant handbooks and taking notes from power points finally culminated in one long awaited moment, when I was asked to lead a class for the first time. After feeling a bit nervous and almost dropping the chalk (not cool), I discovered that they actually had quite a good level. They seemed to enjoy looking at pictures of Leeds and one boy even asked to keep the Leeds University Union brochure I brought. Tough luck for the other classes, who will never find about clubs and societies.

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The second class was another experience. The teacher was absent so a supply had stepped in. Apparently, this results in total chaos in Italian school. This particular professor was as useless as a chocolate teapot. I may as well have been in the class alone, as he had very little authority and seemingly barely any English skills. All twenty students were boys, with an overriding interest in football and Playstation games. Among reasonable questions, I was asked what I thought of Berlusconi, if I smoked weed and if I had a boyfriend. One of the boys was quite unimpressed by the UK, proclaiming that people were unfriendly and that they ate potatoes every day. I tried to dispel these negative stereotypes and was unable to give a meteorological explanation when he asked me why it rained all the time.  In any case, they certainly weren’t shy and seemed fairly keen to ask me questions despite their overwhelming noise and their tendency to walk about the classroom whenever they felt like it. To be fair, when I politely yelled ‘CAN YOU SIT DOWN, PLEASE’, they complied.

So far I have only met two out of the twelve classes I am teaching this term and only heard 40 names out of the 160 I will have to learn. After this wild time of free conversation, hopefully things will settle down into more organised activities and more obedient classes. If things continue like this, I estimate that I will have lost my voice in about six days time.

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Swotting up on Phrasal-prepositional verbs


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The Student becomes the ‘Teacher’

I.T.I.S Galileo Ferraris is an industrial and technical school in Molfetta. The students are no doubt computer whizzes and electronic geniuses but they still need to learn English.

There are 44 classes in the institute: in the first part of the year I will be dealing with four or five of them. Learning all of the students’ names will certainly be a good exercise for my memory. I don’t yet know exactly what days I will be teaching but in any case, a school day in Italy runs from 8am until 1pm. So free afternoons, hurray!

Being a technical school, Galileo Ferraris’ pupils are mostly boys. I hate gender stereotypes, but that is just the way it is. The corridors were filled with a rowdy bunch of young men, gangly, stocky, short and tall. They seem friendly enough and even stood up when I came into the classroom (a welcome to teacherdom).

They were very interested in my age, though. One of the first things teachers remarked upon was my youthful appearance: I have been ascribed terms like ‘giovanissima’ and ‘piccolina’, which in my line of work may not be the best epithet. Yes, I am only a fraction older than the students I will be teaching because Italians leave school at the age of 19. Yes, I will have to dress ‘older’ because with an Eastpak, jeans and trainers I would blend into the casual school masses. If I conceal my age and the fact I speak Italian, then hopefully I will have the upper hand.

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I even bought new shoes for the occasion: which incidentally gave me blisters :(

I was shown the language lab and given books to photocopy, as well as potential instructions for conversation topics and so on. It’s quite fun actually, sitting down and imagining role-play exercises for other people to do. Poor kids – I am determined that they will speak to me and I won’t give up until I find something they like.

This afternoon I went to my first staff meeting. It was not an intimate and organised affair over tea and biscuits: the army of teachers were organised classroom style in a long room, and it was chaos.

I agreed with the teacher next to me who said ‘Italians like talking too much’ between her shushing of the other staff members. It basically resembled a small-scale political rally. I watched irate teachers argue the merits of catch-up lessons and school trip funding, with the English teacher acting as my unofficial translator and dishing the dirt on the side. I will be honest and say that I was lost for about 98% of the time, which means it came as a surprise when I was invited to the front by the principal and vice-principal to introduce myself. Apparently I can speak Italian under pressure because a short explanation of my presence somehow tumbled out of my mouth and I got a round of applause.

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Sneaky photo of the school

I am quite looking forward to actually getting in front of a class. I need to revise my English grammar because I have no clue what modal verbs are. I have been watching online video resources that range from the useful to the bizarre. I have two more days in Molfetta before I fly up to Turin to receive a bit of training before starting the job next Tuesday. Let’s hope the students don’t eat me.