The Puglia Diaries

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


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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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The Total Teaching Experience

These past couple of weeks at school have been quite turbulent, for several reasons. Last week, I worked a total of twenty hours to get Friday off to go to Rome, including a trip to the theatre and parents’ evening. This week, I have been diligently trying to put in my 12 hours with no clue what is going on.

So last week’s themes were ‘Homes from the Future’ and Parkour. Extreme sports seemed to capture the interest of even the most reluctant students, and before I knew it I was listening to a full account of what happened when someone’s friend rollerbladed across a motorway. The following lesson, one of the students showed me a video of him jumping and crashing. None of this made me want to try Parkour. This is the video I showed them, which I can now recite word perfect.

On Wednesday, I turned up to school and saw five coaches waiting outside. That morning, a mass exodus of 12 classes was planned: a trip to the theatre in a nearby town. I was told that I could go along with one of the classes, and so ended up half-chaperoning them onto a bus. I sat among the students, chatting to them about my university and listening to their throwback choice of music (it was Whamtastic). Not entirely sure if I was supposed to be the responsible adult, I tried to keep track of my students but kept being distracted by a load of my other students who seemed pleased to see me there. Sandwiched between students from the 5th Scientific and 4th IT class, I prepared myself for the show, which would be about safety in the workplace. The promising title ‘Broken Lives’ did not disappoint: a series of scenes followed where characters told their stories of a normal day of work, which ended in an accident and death. Just as I was starting to feel mournful, the scenes in dialect began. I don’t know if it was the dialect of Bari or Naples, but trust me, it was a whole other language. The students to my left and right asked if I understood and told me not to worry because it was difficult for them to understand too. My cluelessness seemed to be quite amusing for them: after the show, I was asked ten times if I had followed the action. Nope. The tragedy was lost on me but I came away with this written version of the play: I’ll read it if I ever want to gain awareness of potential accidents or feel depressed.

Photo on 2013-12-13 at 19.35 #3

Cheerful reading

Thursday evening offered a new perspective of the teaching job: parents’ evening. This event is when a teacher can feel like a celebrity. Whereas in the daytime the students couldn’t really care less about seeing you, on this one evening, people queue outside the door for a chance to talk to you for 5 minutes. To be honest, next to the actual English teacher, I didn’t really bring anything to the table. I shook about fifty parental hands and watched some of my students squirm under the meeting of home and school life. It was interesting to hear the teacher’s comments, to get a sense of what the students are like at home and to see how alike the parents and their children looked. I listened and nodded for three hours but only daydreamed about my dinner when parents came in for students I didn’t teach, honest. It was a chance to see the whole awkward parent-teacher conference thing from the other side. And it isn’t any less awkward.

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So if last week was packed with long mornings and extra educational input, this week has been entirely different. Because of a national uprising against the austerity government and the generally corrupt Italian politicians, there have been no students for me to teach. On Monday, I came fully prepared to give three engaging and interactive lessons about Romeo and Juliet, job interviews and climate change but was faced with rows of empty desks as all students were on strike. On Wednesday, seven came into one class, and none in another. On Thursday, I walked into a class of 5, started a lesson about CVs only to be interrupted every five seconds by the students filtering in from the crowd in front of the school. We were informed that the first two hours of school were to be dedicated to ‘discussing the situation’ of how to protest. So I sat down and listened to the harangue of the class representative and miniature heated debates about whether it was worth going to university and taxes and all the other things concerning the Italian youth of today. I chipped in about our lovely £9,000 tuition fees and they continued to ‘discuss’. In a way, I think they are right to organise a protest, to try to achieve change, but I think that some of them just want an extra couple of weeks on their Christmas holiday. The last two hours of the day could be carried out as normal; this week’s topic was street art and Banksy, which got some students interested. In fact one of the classes became so engaged that at the end of the lesson, they gathered round me in a pack and asked semi-correct questions about where I’m from, how long I’m staying, what the sea is like in England…They must have been invading my personal space because as I unconsciously backed away, one of the students said ‘Don’t crowd her!’.

Banksy-Dreams

Hoping the kids don’t feel like this :(

This morning, I moseyed off to school and soon came across a crowd of protestors. I crossed the road and carried on to the beat of drums, chants and the sounds of a horn. I got to school just in time, slipped through the gates and was told that no students had turned up. It was soon time for a full lockdown. The gates were pulled closed in front of the school and the teachers gathered in front of the doors to watch the approaching crowds. Okay, it sounds dramatic like that, but this group was flanked by police cars and waving banners and an Italian flag. I was soon able to skip out for a coffee with other teachers, come back to the staff and correct some Shakespeare essays in relative peace. Then I went home again, not having taught anyone again. Oh well, even if I didn’t spend much time in front of a class, this week has taught me new aspects of life in an Italian school. It’s all experience after all.