Wednesday, 10 August 2016

How I survived my first Summer School

I’m coming to the end of my very first Summer School . . . and I have survived. I even managed to do this on my own, without the help of the ‘Survival Skills’ camp that is sharing the school facilities!

In case you are unfamiliar with the format of SS (Summer School), kids from 6-18 come from all over the world to stay for a couple of weeks, experience British culture and improve their English. The courses are normally based at residential private schools with the students having a mix of English classes and high energy activities and excursions to tire them out.

Information overload, 70 hour weeks and feeling institutionalised come with the territory, so five weeks has been a long stretch, but overall it’s been very rewarding. If you have ever considered working in a summer program, or you are just plain nosey, read on.


1. Irksome Induction:

The induction was made up of ten hours of presentations and talks for all of the new staff. Talk about too much information. This was in addition to several interviews and hours and hours of paperwork, just to get the job. All of this for a job that might only last two weeks!

We suffered through the first few hours of Principle's Market Statistics and 'Don't get drunk' talks and guzzled coffee after coffee in the breaks. It seemed like everyone I met was going to work at a different centre so I wouldn't see them again anyway.

A terse Welsh woman gave a disturbing presentation on child abuse and fired a series of questions at us that we had no way of knowing the answers. "Do you know who my hero is? George Alagiah. Why? Because he starts the news on time. On time at 6pm. 6pm Everyday, OK? SO DON'T BE LATE!"

We were introduced to school dinners and I quickly realised that eating what you want might be a bad idea - fish and chips, burgers, beans, bread, potatoes, and custard puddings are the staple diet.

After a day of head spinning, I was transferred to my centre, and told that I would be sleeping in a classroom on camp beds with four other staff members. At least I arrived just in time to catch the crowd headed to the village pub.


Varied visitors:

I arrived during the peak weak at a smaller centre, so although it was easy enough to get to know everyone, it was all hands to the pump. Every space, mealtime and second was occupied with students and staff bustling about.

The majority of students stay for two weeks, although some stay longer. Different centres cater for different age groups, ours were 10-14 year olds. We had kids from all over Europe, some from China, Japan and even someone from Uzbekistan.

A two week stay costs thousands including flights, excursions and that all important pocket money, so it can be no surprise that the kids come from very rich families. They are the wealthy elite, the pampered Princes and Princesses of their countries, and are used to getting their own way. I had one particularly awkward car journey with a Russian dad who booked a weekend in London just to see his child safely to the centre and insisted on showing me pictures of his collection of BMWs. "Oh . . . great," I cooed, feigning interest.

While some of the kids had their quirks (obsessions with blobfish, and incubating chicken eggs),
we didn't have any that were really badly behaved. Even the moody teenagers came around in the end. It was nice to see that through tireless enthusiasm and input from the staff, those that arrived with a face like thunder, didn't want to leave at the end.

Everything is done to empower the kids and boost their self confidence. Fun classes, tons of games and activities, excursions to cool places, and a Friday night award ceremony where the majority of them win certificates and prizes. I'm sure that many of the certificates fell into the ‘please don’t complain to your parents’ category.

Some of my highlights with the kids were the Friday class projects where we re-enacted the Battle of Hastings (my class conquered the Saxons), created Olympic presentations (gold medals for my lot) and made paper maché volcanoes for a Science Fair (where my class was robbed of first prize).


The staff:

SS staff fall into three categories: Activity Leaders (graduate P.E. teachers), English Teachers (returning for the summer payday), and Managers (experienced SS pros) - in a nutshell, the jocks, the nerds and the parents.

Whilst people come from different backgrounds, everybody is shoved in together from the start so you get to know the family pretty quickly. Living, eating and working on site means that you might spend the majority of the day in the company of another staff member.

With all of that time on the clock, talking to the kids and about the kids, it is no wonder that things can get a little weird down the pub. In a tiny Sussex town, the pub locals are overrun by thirsty Summer School staff who have just clocked off and ordered a triple round because it is closing time already. There are plenty of issues and hormones flying around between staff members too.  I've played an inordinate amount of drinking games, and even practiced a beat boxing version of Billie Jean for an hour. At least it stopped us talking about work.

I have to say I think I was pretty lucky at my centre as the my colleagues were fun and easy to get on with, but also good at their jobs.


The job:

Four classes a day doesn't sound like much, but add in the reports, the paperwork, the lesson planning, and all of the supervision duties, and it is a loooong week. Teachers also work one day of the weekend to help with airport transfers.

Lesson plans have to be signed off and lessons are observed every week, so you have to bring your A game. The benefit is that you give the most fun interactive classes you can and the kids enjoy it. All that prep and idea sharing is good for your professional development too. Yet of course, the nature of SS is that everything is done on the fly, so what you are supposed to teach is often unclear and resources scarce. This means that it can take hours just to prep one class.

We had to give three different types of lesson and taught different students in the afternoons so there wasn't much chance to repeat classes (without dramatically adjusting them).

We did some bigger project style classes which involved extra prep and work on our part, (hours spent making medals and paper maché volcanoes). I also became well acquainted with Kahoot, mafia and other new classroom games. Books, flashcards ready made games weren't readily available, but the kids could use Chromebooks in class which was a useful tool.

My other duties included break rota (pouring endless cups of water), dinner duty (no running, get back in line!) and my personal favourite - taking their mobile phones away.

One little oddity was referred to as 'Mr. Phil' at all times. The children had to call all staff Mr. or Miss “first name”. This took a while to get used to but to be honest I never got tired of the joke of referring to other staff members by their ‘SS title’ even when off site.

Tips for survival:

Ask don't assume: On arrival, gather all the information you can. Ask questions about everything . You will be expected to know about what is and isn't permitted, what everyone is supposed to be doing, and how to work effectively within days. I arrived one week after the start of school and thankfully everything was set up and running smoothly.

Daily grind: Getting into a routine isn't the problem. Meal times were 8, 12:30 and 6 on the dot. However, managing what you eat is important to keep your energy levels up. I tried to stay away from stodgy options to avoid the post meal slump. It took me a week or so to figure out how much I needed to eat though. It certainly is strange not being in control of when you eat, so you have to get it right at lunch. If you are a coffee drinker, bring your own. Sometimes 12 hour stewed Nescafe does not do the job. Exercise was another difficulty because of our limited facilities and shower times. Early morning exercise has never been too popular with me, so I ran on days off and went swimming in the time allotted for teachers.

Bring the kitchen sink: Without much control of your schedule, location, diet and clothing choice, it can feel a bit like working in an open prison. Commissary and contraband can make a huge difference! When you pack for SS, bring fewer clothes and more personal items like books, toiletries and snacks. They can make you feel a little less like a number and more like a person.

Get out of Dodge: Getting off site whenever possible is a must. Taking a trip to the shop for a drink, or going for a pint in the local pub help you to appreciate that there is a world outside of the school walls. The schools are often situated in small villages with little or no public transport. It might be tempting to stick around on your day off, but if you do you will just feel like you had a lazy day at work. I managed to grab a ride on the excursion busses headed to London and went off on my own.

Take the positives: There are many great things about Summer School. You'll have great fun and see amazing changes with the kids, you'll become a better teacher, and the money is good too (you don't need to spend anything whilst your there). You'll also make a lot of contacts and friends, always useful for the future.

Go all in: You only get out what you put in. Everyone needs time alone and personal space, but I think the more you get involved with activities and hanging out with the kids, the more you'll get back. Try to be visible and approachable at meal times and even when you are 'off duty'. This is your life for a month, so just deal with it.


Well that's it for the summer, I'll bring you more news about my move to Pamplona in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Euro Trip part 2

What a time to be and Englishman travelling in Europe.

After the referendum results, every person I speak to wants to know about bloody Brexit and smiles condescendingly at me just for being British. Brits always mock 'crazy' Americans for their aggressive foreign policy, overflowing prisons and complete lack of gun control or health care. However, I never pre-judge American people. Yes their country is different but I never assume that they hold all of their country's worst views.

In a Hostel bar a French girl completely dismissed me because I was English. She didn't even ask my name or want to say a word to me, she just loudly declared that Irish and Australians were alright, but not British.

I realise that this tiny bit of prejudice is nothing compared to the horrible racism that is becoming more open in my country, but it is a terrible insight into the future. Those who voted Leave will not be any happier with the immigration system in 2 years, 10 years or 50 years - so why make the rest of us miserable. And spare a thought for poor old Gibraltar.


The Road to Roskilde:

Waking up with a fuzzy head to discover that over half of my country are seemingly bonkers was not the best introduction to a place. Maybe Amsterdam will treat me better next time.

It was rainy and a little underwhelming although I don't think my choice of hostel helped. It was more like a huge budget hotel out of the town centre and filled with a mixture of school trips, stag dos, and displaced families. It was actually well run and effective, but Euro-hostels are just so clinical and soulless.

Amsterdam seems like an interesting place to live if you knew where to go, and what to avoid. I did all of the cliché tourist attractions (canals, red light district) and even found a Maoz, an old falafel haunt of mine in London.

I visited the Heineken experience (a kind of brewery tour in a building that isn't the brewery any more) and discovered H41 a limited edition version made with Patagonian yeast which makes it taste fresher than an Argentine glacier.

After leaving Holland, I made a stop in Bremen after having no luck finding a couch surfing host in Hamburg. In fact I had a terrible time finding couch surfing hosts the whole trip, although I know I will have an avalanche of requests to stay in Pamplona come September. Bremen is a working city and although it was a little rainy, there were various riverside festivals and classic car shows the weekend I was there.


Roskilde Festival:

After a lot of panicking about tents, and confusion over the address, I managed to get packed and arrive at the festival with a Norwegian girl who was also visiting mutual friends. We set up shop in Silent and Clean (a safe haven from huge Sound Systems and general festival filth). We hung out with a camp of her friends who were cool and mostly insisted on plying me with blue liquorice alcohol and endless beers. Here is my festival diary.

Day 1 - I arrived yesterday and immediately went to work drinking. Drinking to forget being English. I set up the tents with Maron, and we joined the bigger camp of Danes for the afternoon. Most of them arrived on Saturday and will drink for 9 days straight, it's impressive.

So many of the camps have everything - chairs, tables, gazebos, huge speakers. It is a wonder how they transport it all. They must plan all year. I was sick from Fireball whisky and Blue Demon yesterday and discussed Nordic MMA with two chaps wearing "Sons of Daiquiri" motorcycle denim jackets. We watched a feminist Icelandic hip hop collective, which was odd.

Day 2 - Woke up to a wet world this morning and trudge into the East City to get some boots, they are foot breakers, so I hope it doesn't rain again! I went to the camp at twelve and endured the usual Brexit jokes:

"We thought you left? Now you want to come back to our camp?"

We all headed in to watch Damon Albarn and the Syrian Orchestra which is a nice story. I lost everyone due to not having a Danish phone (although they spend most of the day queuing up to charging them anyway).

I saw the distinctly below par Chilli Peppers, and then headed to Slayer which was high energy and really impressive. I am still surviving on black lead bread and tinned mackerel, but it is harder to sleep without all of that whisky in you.

Day 3 - "Chairball" is like a national sport for the Danes at Roskilde. There is a real drinking culture amongst the campers, and one way to get drunk fast is chairball.

You set up four camping chairs to form a football like pitch on the walkway between camps. Then the teams take it in turns to roll a football and try to knock over the can in the middle of the 'goal' between the chairs. If the can falls, the opposition must down their drink. Games are often interrupted by rogue cans and passers by, but they always result in intoxication.

Yesterday was D-Day. D was for Daiquiris. We spent all afternoon drinking jugs of the red stuff adding our own rum. Amazingly we didn't manage to meet the Sons of Daiquiri as they we busy watching metal. I watched Grimes (Canadian electro pixie), Macklemore (tepid white guilt rap) and Birdy Nam Nam (DJ trio a bit like the Blue Man Group).

Day 4 - I feel quite fresh after my 'double day' yesterday. I went to camp at mid day, had some drinks and went to watch Anderson Paak (funky California), and then went back to my tent to reboot. When I woke up I switched to coffee and finally met up with Trine at Foals (the band BTS always wanted to be).

We watched Mac Demarco (Canadian stoner love pop), Damily (african beats) and then went to Neil Young. His band is really something, and his voice sounds exactly the same as it did fifty years ago - truly awesome.

After Tame Impala (psychedelic Aussies), I met my friends at the now ubiquitous Gringo bar and helped them polish off some vodka. It is nice that you can bring your own drinks, chairs and almost anything into the music area too. We ended up in a very polite mosh pit of some Swedish metal band.

Day 5 - This festival really has its own identity. It has been going since the 70s and the same people keep coming back. Everyone told me about the famous "Alien shagging a cow" inflatable which has been seen at every major performance at the festival.

In the Dream City area, people created themed bars, boats and houses which must have taken a week to build. On the last day, the festival winds down as people go early to avoid the rush and the destruction of the last night. I began to lose my resolve as the first few beers didn't sit very well, but I employed the double day strategy and it worked out OK.

I watched Danish 90s rockers Dizzy Miss Lizzy, saw a fantastic set from the timeless New Order, and sampled a little of the huge range of acts that played on the final evening. I can see why people come back to Roskilde. As the Danes would say 'It's been nice and cosy."


Scandinavian Bonuses:

While in Copenhagen I stayed with Eva and Trine, two housemates from my time in Buenos Aires. They have a nice flat share in a posh part of the city and extended 'hyggle' hospitality.

I also did a day trip across 'The Bridge' to Sweden humming the TV theme song the whole way.

The city of Malmo is just 30 minutes from Copenhagen and has a nice old town and a lot of parks. The shops seemed to be almost exclusively gyms, cafés, and sushi joints, along with hundreds of shops called Tiger (a famous clothing brand and a discount store).


After all of that time at the festival my legs were pretty dead, but I decided it would be a good idea to walk the whole city, then walk back from Osterport in Copenhagen too. Here are a couple more shots from Sweden's third city.

Well, the time has come to go back to work where Summer school awaits. It's the first time I have worked in the UK for five years and I hope to catch up with friends and acquaintances galore during my brief stint there. It might be another five years before I come back if things keep going like they have been.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Euro Trip part 1

It has been about ten years since I travelled around Europe, so I thought it was time to see some more of my home continent. I had almost forgotten how easy backpacking can be when public transport works like a dream and everyone speaks English. I have to say, it feels a little more familiar and a little less exciting than Latin America or Asia, but it has been fun. Here's the story so far:

With two large bags, a guitar and a ukulele I said goodbye to Baena, and took the train to Zaragoza, north east of Madrid. Yes, the train was expensive, but it's was hours quicker, way more comfortable than a bus and meant I didn't have to change stations (with all of that pesky luggage).

Zaragoza was scalding hot but surprisingly nice for a place most famous for the being the home of the Spanish inquisition.

The next stop was Pamplona which will serve as home when I start my new job there in September.

Pamplona is the capital of Navarre province in the Basque country. It is home to about 200,000 people, a newly promoted premier league football team, is on the Camino de Satiago hiking trail, and is known for the world's most famous bull running and fighting festival in July. And yes, I have read The Sun Also Rises.

I met my future coworkers for a morning glass of wine (a good sign), and blissfully dropped of some bags and musical instruments so I had less to carry.

The next day I flew business class to Brussels. Well, Ryanair business . . . which gives you a 'free checked bag' and 5cm more of leg room. Whoopee.

Brussels is the first place I have been to in a while where Spanish or English aren't the official languages so I was a little bemused by the mix of Flemish, French and English I encountered. I eventually found my hostel after mistakenly entering a nearby mosque.

Brussels was quite a lively place, especially with the start of the Euro championships. I discovered that someone from Brussels is called a Brusselois although the city seemed to be full of tourists and foreign businessmen.

After a walkabout with my new Colombian hostel pal Alejandro we were lured into a casino by pretty girls and the offer of prize draws for Euros tickets.

We left full of champagne but predictably without any winnings. An unimpressed octogenarian won the football finals tickets, and quickly resumed her place at the fruit machines.

The next day I checked out the musical instrument museum in the Belgian capital. The old building with its ten floors was almost as interesting as the thousands of 17th century mechanical organs, harpsichords, sitars and hurdy-gurdies.

My next stop was Menen (yes I had never heard of it either). I met up with Stijn, I guy who I shared a house with briefly in Buenos Aires.

He showed me around the town, which is regularly invaded by the French, who live two kilometres away, to buy cheap tobacco and petrol.

We also headed out to see Ypres (or Wipers as an old history professor used to call it) and Kortrijk which were both full of football fans. 

Stijn and his immaculate bachelor pad were both very hospitable and we even made vague plans to do the Trans Siberian railway next summer. I will have to fit that in with the 18 other trips I've got planned.

Next came Beer Bruges. I spent two days cruising the canals, eating chips and mayonnaise, and drinking an array of wine strength beers.

The hostel was full of Aussie drongos and nervy American iPhone junkies. I saw more than one traveller scraped off the floor after too many lunchtime beers, but it's to be expected in a city that is a must see for most backpackers.

After placating my hangover with more chips I had an extra day to kill and spent it in Gent. I had no expectations, but liked the place even more than Bruges! It felt like more of a real town (less tourists and more locals) and is slightly bigger too. It certainly has all of the usuals in this part of the world - canals, beer, windmills and castles. I did a cool walking tour which passed the world's biggest cannon (never fired but regularly loaded with drunken students), and ended in the most famous brothel in Flanders (now the Marriott Hotel).

I stayed in a fantastic hostel housed in one of the oldest buildings in Gent. I feel like most backpackers pass by the old Flemish capital but if you have the chance it is well worth it.

I left Belgium and took an accidental detour to south Holland (wrong train) before finally arriving in Leiden, between Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

I came to the relatively unknown 'little Amsterdam' to stay with Richard, a friend I met on the Micamale boat trip in Panama last year. He definitely deserves a mention on Tall Travels as he stands a towering two meters.

Leiden is exactly how I imagined Holland - flowers, bikes, cheese, windmills, canals and old brick houses. It's got a great market, an old university and plenty of night life too.

We went to the opening of the city festival space which turned out to be a 'beach bar' on a building site and a cabaret show about goats. I met all of Richard's mates who were cool (about 90% of Dutch people seem to wear leather jackets now).

Other than sampling Dutch beer, I have been hanging out with Gino the cross-eyed cat. He is a 14lb savage who destroyed my left hand by 'play fighting'. I also took a day trip to Rotterdam which has a nice mix of commercial buildings, maritime history and sushi restaurants. I luckily arrived the day that the city opened a hotel roof terrace to the public. Enjoy the views below.

That's all for part 1. On the final part of my Euro trip I'll be visiting Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen and going to the Roskilde music festival.

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