Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Adventures from the classroom 27

Best Friend Forever

I have a new BFF, and it's a company car.

Our beautiful 1999 Peugeot 406 sports a 'BFF' number plate and carries me between classes with moderate speed and only minor clutch issues.

I never thought I would be driving again, but Navarra demands it. It's a state that has a lot of medium sized companies outside of the capital, and these business want English. Cue me and my car.

I travel twice a day to different places to teach a class - one company makes plastic coatings, one is a freight and logistics company, and one is an NGO which consults for local businesses.

Companies can often write off the expense of language classes with some clever tax trickery, so there's a huge demand for English and German (VW factory) in the area.

Everyone is a winner right?

Well, kind of. Most companies ask employees to attend before work or during their lunch break, so this means my classes start early or you have to eat later.

Thankfully, companies aren't too focused on archaic Business English books, so classes are tailored to the students' interests and consist of conversation, games and bad jokes. Keeping the clients happy shouldn't be too hard, although getting them to do any homework is going to be a challenge.

View of Pamplona from Cordovilla offices


Face time:

In addition to business and exam preparation classes, I have several one-to-one classes each week. Many adults are happy to pay for more personal focus, allowing more time for feedback, questions and explanations.

90 minutes can sometimes feel like a long time with one student, and without group discussion conversation can run a little dry. However, by taking a keen interest in their lives and bringing a few prompts or activities to class usually solves the problem.

One of the classes is with my landlord, so we can always talk about the broken socket, of pick a new colour for the walls. Another class is conducted over Skype, so we waste a good 15 minutes fixing technical problems and repeating ourselves.

Some people want to be scolded and corrected at every mistake, and some need a lot of coaxing to express themselves in detail and not just utter the bare minimum. Many are working towards Cambridge exams and we only have time for practice questions and strategy.

One thing I try to get across to my students, is that to progress, they have to fit English in to their lifestyles. The four hours of book work you pencil in for Sunday evening, won't happen. Developing daily habits and blocking out short periods make English less daunting and more of a reality. Even if you don't live abroad, seeing real application for the language you are learning is easier than you think - radio, TV, social networks, application, news. You have to just develop those habits.

A typical exam preparation class at the academy


Etymological salubrity

Vocabulary is one of the easiest takeaways for students. If they learn six new words and practice them, they can walk out of class feeling like they got what they paid for.

As language teachers we often have to simplify our language for such long periods that our own vocabulary suffers. I'd like to give a special mention to a colleague Andrew who is so determined to maintain his lexical variety that he told me he wouldn't be going out for a drink as he was at a 'temporarily impecunious juncture within the calendar'.

After asking him what the hell he meant, he clarified that he was broke.

A lot of my students have a B2 level or higher, so they really gobble up idioms and slang phrases that they haven't encountered before. As a native speaker, this is what I can bring to the table. Student books often contain rather dry, scholastic language so using some real life expressions can breathe a bit of fresh air into the class.

The Cambridge exams are almost exclusively a test of your vocabulary and ability to recognise synonyms, so the more we practice using alternatives, the better.

To be honest, vocab outside of texts or listenings isn't something I have focused on before but I am making a real effort this year. I nag my students to display their vocab sheets on the fridge or below the TV - somewhere unavoidable in your eye line. To successfully acquire new words you have to revise, practice and produce them, so copying them and leaving the sheet in a folder won't help. I had another suggestion to add them as a calendar appointment online, giving you an email reminder to look again.

I like to think on my feet, so I scribble words on the board throughout the class explaining as I go. At the end of class, the students copy the list and test each other through one of the following methods:

  • Which word . . . ?
  • Synonyms / Antonyms
  • Translation
  • Example sentences / questions
  • definition
  • Spelling
  • Mime
  • Parts of speech

So the theory goes anyway. I'll keep you updated with the development of my students' lexical prowess.


Warming the cockles

Pamplona is indeed one of the coldest places in Spain, but this is not this kind of heat I speak of. One particular foible of teaching adults rather than kids is that they like to offer the bare minimum and downplay the events in their life.

"How's it going?"
"Fine . . ."
"Have you got any news since the last class?"
"Not really."

"OK. Turn to page 37 please."

You need to 'warmer' activities to put the little grey cells to work and switch the brain to 'active mode'.

The vocab test exercise works well for this, but it can be a bit repetitive so I've come up with a few other ideas.

Recently, I've been using drinking games to get things going - 21, 5s, fuzzy duck (although I have yet to think of a suitable punishment for losing). We also have some card games like Taboo and Card against humanity which work well if you have more time.

One thing I like to do to break the constricted 'grown up' pattern of thought is get them to solve a problem or make a decision.

"Think of 5 creative uses for paper clips"
"Create a rule that the class has to follow today"

and my personal favourite "What do you know about . . ."

The other day I brought a potato to class and made everyone produce 'potato facts'. It really breaks the linear pattern of thought.

"Yes we know it is a potato. Tell me about the appearance, history, growing conditions, origin, importance, and uses for it."

The winner of best spud fact won the potato as a prize (who says I never buy anything for the students?)


The Twain train

Another part of my quest to guide learners towards authentic English is to work through a book during the year.

I chose the Adventures of Tom Sawyer as it has some fairly simple allegorical concepts, some simplistic characters and is available for free online.

I get the students to read two short chapters per week and complete a short task (summary, order the events, review, character sketch, T/F questions etc.) It is easy to see if they've done the homework anyway!

It is going well enough at the moment and provides a good 30 minute break from the coursebook. However, I am starting to realise that I have really set myself the homework of reading it cover to cover too as the teacher needs to know the text inside out.

End of chapter 27.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Passage to Pamplona

In this year of great change I have finally come to stationary in Northern Spain. 

I found Andalucía an inspiring place, but it wasn't not somewhere that I really connected with. I moved to Spain to get back to the 'normality' of city life - socialising, amenities, business, and have finally accomplished my goal of actually being in a city!

I moved here to work in an academy with adults (just when I was getting the hang of teaching ten year olds). So far all is well, classes are small, mostly exam preparation, and the academy is 5 minutes from my front door - although I'm sure working with adults will have its pitfalls too!

I am sharing a flat with Javier - a secondary school teacher from Zaragoza with a love of whiskey, rock music, mullets and Wales for some reason. It's good to live with a Spanish speaker, I hope it gives me the impetus to improve - maybe we'll find a third amigo too.

City of parks - just two minutes from my front door

Pamplona really is the polar opposite of Andalucía. It's the coldest place in Spain and rainy too. It's a city with one foot in Spain, and one foot in the Basque country, I actually flew to France to get here!

The people are tall, with Gallic noses and a penchant for rowing, rugby and cycling. It's a place of business (Basque tax breaks), and a place of study (two big Universities).

It's green and high rise all at once.

And it has just as many weird traditions as anywhere else in Spain, such as Saint's days (next weekend is San Fermín Chiqui - a practice run and mini version of Pamplona's main festival). I have already seen a cardboard bull dance with drums and a brass band second line a la New Orleans.


Pamplona facts:

  • Pamplona is capital of Navarra province, one of the smallest and least know regions of Spain.
  • The St. James way - or Camino de Santiago runs through the centre of the city. This means you see a lot of North Face clad oldies, cycle enthusiasts and pilgrims - all with their Camino de Santiago booklets open, ready to get the Pamplona stamp.

  • Ideas Peregrinos (pilgrim ideas) is an expression which means to be stupid here in Pamplona.
  • Pamplona was a birthplace of the disposable nappy with worldwide brand Pampers naming its product of the site of the invention. Exactly where the baby diapers where designed remains a bone of contention with residents of nearby Logroño claiming the invention. When Proctor & Gamble bought naming rights to Pamplona's Stadium, Logroño began a permanent boycott of their products leading to it being known by the nickname of Huggies.
  • Every Thursday bars in the old town run a promotion where a drink and snack together cost two Euros. Juevintxo (a mixture of the words for Thursday and Snack foods) brings all the punters to the city centre (especially the students) resulting in a pub crawl atmosphere. With all that food getting eaten, it's a lot less drunken though.
Pintxos in Pamplona
  • Patron saint of Pamplona, San Fermín was known as protector of cattle and was dead against Bull Fighting. During the festival given in his honour, city restaurants take any beef dishes off the menu and one bull is saved from the sword and named as king of the city for one day (crown included).
  • Ben Affleck gained inspiration for his Oscar winning screenplay Argo, whilst on holiday in Spain when he took a barge down the river of the same name which flows through Pamplona.
  • Blocks are known as manzanas here and are built as estates with a central space for gardens, sports pitches or seats.
  • Pamplona's premier football team Osasuna are one of five Basque teams now in La Liga. The word means 'health' in Basque, although they currently reside in the sickly position of 18th in the table.
Disclaimer - more than one of these facts may not in fact be factually correct.


Pamplona is a multi layered city in more ways than one.

San Jorge and Rochapea, lie to the north of the river, in the lower part of Pamplona. The city walls and difference in altitude give pretty impressive views when you look to the north, and make it easy to navigate. In fact the city is small enough to walk around, which is quite an achievement for a place that is so green, and has almost 200,000 residents.

Well, that's my introduction to this rather complex city in which I now reside. I'll bring you more titbits (or pintxos) as I receive them.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A journey in words

This year I have decided to focus on my writing and it's already been quite an adventure. I have always had a creative outlet through music and blogging, but to be honest, before this year, I had not devoted any serious time to writing. So what's changed?

Well, moving to Spain in January allowed me to take stock and appreciate that I have the lifestyle that allows for a more time consuming (and hopefully rewarding) hobby. There is no right time to start writing, no shortcuts to learning, and no magic formula for success, so really the sooner you get started, the better.

It takes plenty of time effort to improve your writing, and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. One has to be realistic.

"Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay."                                                             Christopher Hitchens

With the rise of the Internet, the eBook and self publishing, anyone can do it, but with great opportunity, comes a lesser reward. Forget the glamorous book tours, as an author you are more likely to be scrabbling around for the pennies on Amazon and shouting about your book for 12 hours a day on Twitter.

I'm not going to lie, 'being a writer' holds a certain allure, I too post writing quotes on Twitter and drink too much coffee, but I have reached the point where I am willing to embrace the grind, and just write in order to improve my efforts.


The write plan:

Christopher Hitchens need not worry, I'm not planning on rushing out a novel just yet. That would be a bit like taking up boxing to keep fit and being thrown in with Mike Tyson for three rounds of heavy sparring.

These things take time, and so I have a rough plan:

Year one - Write one story per month, improve work through feedback, submit my best work, and take an online writing course.

Year two - Take a 'live' writing course or attend a writing festival, achieve publication for short story, and join stable writing circle.

Year three - Develop a professional network, consider a qualification, and start writing longer works of fiction.

This is not just writing about being a writer, it gives me something to work towards. If I do end up doing this professionally (or even semi-professionally), I will probably look back on this naive learning phase with fond memories.


Learning to write:

So what have I actually done to learn my craft?

1. Seeking technical advice

There are a thousands of books and websites to help budding authors, too many in fact. The industry is insular - writers writing about how to be a writer, and writers reading other writers' efforts. Learning the trade whilst remembering that a world outside of literature exists is a surprisingly difficult task.

Being the impatient fellow that I am, I am now subscribed to newsletters, forums and writing magazines galore to make sure that I am given a kick every day to pick up a pen or at least read something constructive.

2. Connecting with writers

Living abroad makes meeting other English language writers a challenge. I have tried to connect with writers online, through Twitter, Reddit and Critique Circle (a place to get opinion and improve your work). The number of novice writers out there can make finding trusted and valuable connections difficult. There are too many people shouting, and not enough listening. I plan to keep using Critique Circle to sharpen my stories although you need to subscribe to really get the best out of the site.

3. Reading reading reading

My Kindle has been on fire this year, burning through book after book. Short Stories are much undervalued in my opinion and should be more popular. We only have 30 minutes to read on a busy commuter train, or a quarter of an hour before sleep, so why aren't we gorging on bite-sized fiction?

For those with an e-reader, Instapaper offers a great way to store web pages for later reading. A quick Internet search will throw up hundreds of great shorts to get started with. Added to that, many classic collections are available for free on Project Gutenberg and competition compendiums usually cost just a few pounds.

4. Going back to school

I had the good fortune to win a place on a short fiction course through entering a competition. The PWA runs a 16 week course with 6 units of online learning, group discussion of work, and the tutor feedback. I'm halfway through the course and loving it.

On completion of this course I plan to whizz through a free course offered offered by the Open University on the excellent Future Learn platform.


Get writing!

Enough talk. It's important to get cracking and start creating. The end goal after all, is for others to enjoy your stories. While some of my work remains under wraps as it's submitted for publication or to competitions, I regularly post my poems and stories for the world to see.

For this I use Scriggler - a writing, blogging and debating platform. It's a place where you can share all types of writing from opinion or research to stories and poetry.

Essentially it's a free and simple way to publish your work on the web, but most importantly it's a place where others will find it and read. If you have ever wondered what people would think of your high-school love poem collection or your idea for a children's story, this is place to find out!

Most writers use Scriggler as place to build a portfolio of their work, some use it to jot down thoughts and ideas. You can add pictures, videos, widgets, audio, searchable tags, and have posts promoted through Scriggler's Twitter feeds (which are around 200,000 followers strong).

As you post your scribblings, it's quite normal to wrack up a couple of hundred reads in the days after publication. Popular posts run into the thousands. This might not sound like much, but it's quite exciting that hundreds of other writers have chosen to take a look at your work. You can even find out who your readers are, as the platform provides in depth stats on your readership.

Scriggler clubs are interest groups (e.g. flash fiction, horror writing) where you can interact with others using the site. These groups give you the chance to follow and connect with authors of similar styles and genres.

Although you can search for the most popular pieces, the platform has a points based system to keep everybody coming back - even the 'small timers'. The points are based on the number of publications, comments and likes you submit and receive. This rewards the most active users with a better chance of being promoted in the site's news letters and highlighted content.

The platform is not an all in one solution for writers. It's not the ideal place to construct your prose or to receive detailed critiques. However, it has so many plus points that it's a wonder more authors aren't using it as a way to publish promote and connect. It's free, has no annoying adverts, and comments are moderated to ensure that it remains a positive environment for authors.

In addition, creator Dmitry Selemir is seemingly always on hand to answer questions and help authors get the best out of Scriggler by publishing research, and streamlined 'how-to' articles.

I will be continuing to 'Scriggle' and hope to get the best out of it in the future.


Taking the plunge:

While I accept that I am no Hemingway or Chekhov quite yet, my progress is still something to shout about. If work remains locked in a box (or more likely on a server), you're never going to be proud of it. It's not finished until you press send, so, it's important to enter competitions and submit your work where you can. How else are you going to get published?

This year I have entered competitions with Henshaw Press, The Bath Short Story Award, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Writer's Forum magazine, Writing Magazine, The Short Story, and submitted poetry and prose to a host of small publications.

If you would like to see some examples of my work, click on the link to my Scriggler page on the right of the screen, or follow my Twitter feed for updates.
You'll be the first to know when my name is in print!

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