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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Rounding off the First Semester

The end of January disappeared in a gust of wind this week: I am now exactly half way through my contract at Ferraris school. This means that I get to meet the other 300 pupils that I haven’t seen yet, leaving the older classes to work hard towards their exams. I’ll be chatting to younger students this term; fresh faced 16 year olds who might be more pliable than their elders. Perhaps I can inspire a love for the English language in a few of them, ever the optimist! Next week will bring a series of introduction lessons: the photos of family, friends and Leeds will come off the dark and jumbled shelf that I call my filing system.

Despite the weather getting a bit colder this week, I’ve been out and about in my free time running errands and seeing friends. It has been a busy and fulfilling week: exactly what you need in winter to avoid those evenings indoors, watching the rain against the windows and hearing the wind knock things over on the terrace above. My mood has always been influenced by the weather: in Leeds, my tendencies for homesickness would hit hardest when temperatures were sub zero or when I got soaked to the skin walking home from university. This week has been one of personal development and experience:

On Monday, I first experienced a cardio session at the gym. In my twenty years on this Earth, I had never set foot on a treadmill. It wasn’t until I had to get on one that I realised what a scary and potentially harmful experience it could be. I spent the eight minutes time on a walking setting, gripping the bar with terrified fingers and watching my feet, willing them not to stop. I imagined myself falling off in front of all the seasoned gym goers, including some of my students from school. I decided a while ago to stop being ashamed of my gym incompetence: I stick out like a scrawny sore thumb and own it.

Tuesday is a rubbish day really. It doesn’t have the fresh new week factor of Monday but neither is it remotely close to the weekend. It drifts in the beginning of the week, dull and unsatisfying; so I decided to do something about that and went to see a film in Bari with Katie. Before the show, we went to have our usual espressino (such a delightful little milky coffee) and a pasticiotto, a cute oval pastry with cream and cherry inside. We chose an Italian romantic comedy, which we both enjoyed and understood. Oh, and I have never seen such cheap popcorn: 2 euros will get you a decent sized pot. If only for that reason, I can see cinema trips becoming a more regular occurrence for combating tiresome Tuesdays.

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Wednesday was also a super fun day: I made guacamole, then me and my ‘host mum’ decided to skip the gym that evening and go to Trani to buy a present for her friend. We wandered about arm in arm, window-shopping, before reaching our destination: a handbag boutique. At the moment, some designer shops are offering a 50% sale on fancy scarves, clothes, shoes, so if you want to spend a semi-reasonable amount on an Italian made luxury item, the time is now. We browsed for a luxuriously long time. Fashionable Italian ladies do not impulse buy. They do not rush when choosing handbags. They tour the shop, ask the shop assistant’s opinion, ask the other customers’ opinion and study each one in the mirror. They assess each merit of each bag, its size, its colour, its decorative quality, the effect it would add to an outfit, if it looks youthful or distinguished and all the other qualities a handbag could have. Through this process of collaboration, we settled on a bright blue handbag with a gold chain, as well as a turquoise clutch, two scarves and a raspberry handbag for a future wedding. We chatted to the shop assistant about where to get custom shoes made, exchanged contact details to make further enquiries and left the shop with two big white bags. This was followed by more window-shopping in the wintery weather, and then on arrival back in Molfetta, another delicious ice cream. On the threshold of this favourite gelateria, I felt another sudden impulse to live in Italy in the future. These emotions occur whenever my happiness reaches a certain peak: funnily enough, it seems like going back to Leeds will be a ‘year out’ from my life here in Italy. With my parents living in Piedmont, my friends in Puglia and so much more to explore, I feel that it makes sense to return.

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Guacamole – how un-Italian of me

On Thursday, I saw turtles and fresh vegetables at the market in the morning, then tagged along on some more errands. Even though I might not have contributed much to proceedings in the bank and the travel agent, it was a pleasant outing in Molfetta once again. In the jewellers shop, picking up a repaired watch, I was approached for conversation lessons that would help with a practical aim to make airports/restaurants/hotels a bit easier to navigate. We’ll see how that pans out. Before going home, we popped into the supermarket to buy artichokes for Sunday lunch. That’s the day when families usually cook something a little different for the first course: for example pasta al forno, lasagne or cannelloni.

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Surreptitious shot of the Thursday market. I know my finger is in the way

On Friday, I attended a meeting in the afternoon between all the English teachers about language courses that needed funding. After quickly establishing common opinions, the meeting was over. All I did was read the brochure. Then it was off to the gym for more cardio but the carrot on the stick this time was a meal out in Bisceglie with two other language assistants. I took it as an opportunity to try something special: the waitress recommended the seafood antipasti, so I ordered some insalata di polpo. I was expecting a small plate to taste, but two dishes turned up with little fried squids in one and purple tentacles in the other, dressed with parsley and oil. A tasting session went down and it transpired that I was the only one who could deal with the texture. Fair enough, let’s say that the appearance of the things can easily put people off, and the different parts of the squid can be chewy or gelatinous. I’m not selling the idea too well, but with a drizzle of lemon and eaten whole, the little squids were really delicious. They didn’t leave much room for the pizza I had also ordered, I had to leave half of that after eating all the toppings. After the food, accompanied by a very reasonably priced and slightly ‘vivacious’ white wine I felt happy and sated. We also had a tasty chocolate liqueur on the house, which was like alcoholic Nesquik. With the others heading back to the station, I went to meet my friends who were in a pub just down the road. We stayed for a while listening to Oasis covers before heading back to Molfetta. One of my favourite songs was on the radio, which rounded off the evening nicely. On Saturday, we went off to Trani despite the icky February rain. It was a lovely evening, with truly good pizza in a restaurant tucked inside an arch with the region’s typical white stone and warm lighting. I was indulgent this weekend, eating out twice, but there are so many good restaurants around here to try and you only get one year abroad!

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L’Antico Granaio, Bisceglie

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Il Covo delle Chiacchiere, Trani

And that is this week’s round up. I wanted to record it because I feel that it was a perfect end to January: keeping fit, getting closer to the people around me and making the most of Italy. Roll on Part 2.


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The Italian Job (I HAD TO)

Up until now, my posts on this blog have mainly been concerned with how much fun I am having gallivanting around in a region where November is like the British summer. When I’m not meeting new people, seeing new places and eating Italian food, I do have to go to work. Even if it’s only for twelve hours a week.

I can’t really tell you what a typical week at the school is like, because there is no typical week. Because of class tests, assemblies, strikes and timetable changes, I adapt my schedule weekly. So far, I have worked with five teachers and perhaps twenty classes, meaning that I’ve encountered a fair few new faces and tasked with learning over two hundred names. I have a pretty decent memory but it has quickly become saturated, especially since some teachers call the students by their last names and others by their first. The names I remember are usually those belonging to the students that talk to me most, or alternately the ones that sound cool. Because let’s be honest, Italian names just sound nicer than English ones.

With each class, I help with a different topic. The Mechanics and the Electronics section are covering economy, globalisation and the job market. I also did a lesson yesterday about Electromagnetism, which reminded me why I hated physics so much at school. I have read texts aloud about the invention of paper, ‘supervolcanoes’, Google and more. In some of the classes, I get to help with English literature. One group is studying Shakespeare and another the Romantic period. It is slightly disconcerting that they are learning about the same things I studied in a second year university module at Leeds, but at least I know enough about the Ancient Mariner to be a credible teacher.

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My Romantic pals Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge will follow me forever.

Public speaking was never my forte but I now feel comfortable walking into the class and facing twenty-five expectant teenagers. I have mastered the art of looking grave and disappointed when they are noisy, and can deliver a reading in a decidedly frosty tone to silence them for a few minutes. Let’s just say that English isn’t their favourite subject, so especially near the end of the school day, a lot of shouting and running goes on inside the classroom. I nearly lost it one time, but generally my patience goes quite a long way.

The language lab is an especially exciting event for them. I have taken a few classes there to play songs by The Lumineers and Bob Marley. Often, the listening exercise degenerates when they figure out there is a microphone attached to their headphones, and that if they say rude words, all the others can hear them. Sigh. Today, three students explained the meaning of No Woman, No Cry to me, while the others wailed the chorus in the background.

 Every morning, I wake up a whole hour before leaving so I can slowly enjoy the best part of the morning: breakfast. I have a leisurely half hour walk to school. On Thursdays, I can weave my way through the weekly market, packed with shoes, bags, household things, clothes…Sometimes I go out for a coffee with the other teachers, other times I stay in the staff room and prepare lessons. This week, I have had actual tests to correct: having the students’ marks in my hands makes me feel like a proper teacher. I now empathise with my language teachers at school. There is that feeling of satisfaction in ticking a right answer and the desire to shake their little shoulders at the truly awful mistakes. I can feel my facial expressions altering with each different test I mark.

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This is me looking happy because BREAKFAST

All in all, this language assistantship job suits me fine. I work for two or three hours a day and never finish later than 1pm. I know where to make photocopies and how to work the coffee machine. I even got a round of applause from the students once, yay me.

 


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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