Saturday, June 13, 2015

Friday, June 05, 2015


Annnd, a good week was capped by a horrible end of day. 

My first paper was rejected, and I was told (first in writing, then in person) that I was repeatedly and profoundly wrong about 65% of the contents.  The tutor (one of three we'll have on the course) was absolutely horrified and acted like I was little better than a psychopath for submitting the illustration I did for the word "scalded".

On this assignment, we had to take two grammatical and two lexical items and figure out how best to explain them to a pre-intermediate English class. The picture for the last word I pulled from a general-circulation paper in the UK--it was of the torso of a little girl who'd spilled a teapot on herself. Her face wasn't shown. I figured not only would it burn (with steam or otherwise) the term "scalded" deep into students' brains, it would irrevocably imprint the notion that this was to be avoided.

Gosh, you'd link I'd ENDORSED scalding children. The tutor ripped me to shreds. And it didn't help that I'd totally misunderstood the assignment elsewhere (we've been using the term "context" to mean setting the stage for an activity, collection of vocabulary and the like--turns out the context wanted was to put the particular word into a dialogue or story).  Frankly, despite the real mistakes I'd made, I got the impression that she'd flipped through, seen the picture and been inspired to hunt for every other error she could find.

This tutor's the one who seemed to take a dislike to me from the first (ignoring me in the couple of classes she's led, barely rearranging her face into a mask of civility when I've asked direct questions), an impression only cemented when she took me and several others out in the hall during an exercise earlier this week and showed us some pictures we'd have to describe to the rest of the class. Mine was a picture of a woman in black with two sullen-looking white guys, one of whom was wearing heavy eyeliner. I remarked, "That guy looks like a young Marilyn Manson" (which he totally did), and she responded, "Those are my friends." Seems it was an Eighties party.  I'd presumed, (ASSumed, it seems) that she'd just use random pictures for such an exercise. And she wanted us to describe them. It was like a deliberate trap.

So, how am I spending my weekend? Rewriting the one paper in its entirety (so much was wrong with it I can't just do a few corrections--I have to basically begin again--and she told me she wouldn't consider passing it with the current "scalded" visual), preparing for the first of two lessons I will be teaching to a new class of upper-intermediate English students, and writing two other papers (one due Tuesday, the second Friday). We're allowed to flunk one paper and still conceivably pass. I'd much rather not have my graduation hang by such a slender thread. 

Ironically, the previous 4 1/2 days of this week went really well. I got positive marks on my teaching (praise God!), and I'd been optimistic that I'd not have even a couple of corrections on the paper that was to be returned today. Then, WHAM! I hate the feeling of being wobbly on a tightrope over a knife-bottomed pit. What I dislike more is that I don't know what to do to effectively get my balance.

Maybe nap? Then all will be clear... 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Weak Week One

It was a pretty thoroughly awful day, starting the moment I got to campus--8AM on the dot. The library, where the copier/printer is, wasn't open. Theoretically, it opens at 8. It didn't actually open for another 25 minutes, after a classmate of mine had run over to the main administration building and fetched a secretary who had a key. That left me with only half an hour to take all the lesson plans and the drafts of handouts for the students--I had typed these up in the "notes" feature on my phone and emailed to myself--put them into Word and reformat them, and then print out multiple copies at a machine shared by all the other time-pressed students in the area. And then I had to look up images for 10 holidays, print them out and write on each whence I'd retrieved it. I didn't get finished. 

I hoofed it to class to make sure I was there to watch my fellow aspiring teacher's lesson. I figured I'd make do without the two images I was missing, and I was fairly happy with all my prep--I felt pretty confident about the pacing and content. I wasn't going to talk too much today. I had a list of content clarification questions, and I'd spent about four of what I thought were productive hours carefully constructing the sequence of the lesson. I was shuffling my pictures, handouts and outline into a pile when I suddenly realized I didn't have the transparency I needed for the last part of the lesson.  I cut out of the room five  minutes before my predecessor finished to sprint back to the library to get it--I've got to be quick, I thought--I don't want to waste any of the 15 minutes between her and my lessons, which I'll need for setup.  

At the library, the copier wasn't working (one of those infernal worldwide copy machine issues of telling me to refill a tray that had the correct  contents). Two hours into the workday, the librarian still hadn't shown up. So, I called upon my experience as a troubleshooting office drone and turned the machine off and back on to reboot it. Even with all the delays, I managed to get the transparency done in about 5 minutes. I stopped off at the ladies' and then ran (literally) back to the classroom find, at 10:03, an English lesson already in progress, being taught by the guy who was supposed to be after me. Oh, crap.

The tutor was there, taking notes, all the students were there, and my other colleagues were sitting primly in the back, and I knew I was in deep trouble. Turns out, there wasn't to be a break between the first and second classes, only between the second and third--this was listed on the board, it just hadn't registered on my exhausted brain. Thinking about the fix I was suddenly in upset me so badly I started to shake. Tardiness is verboten, and I had worked so hard to be totally prepared.

I take neat and copious notes during all the classes, and my handwriting suddenly went to pot. In fact, I couldn't hold my pen properly. I did my best to calm down during the coffee break--I told the tutor what had happened, organized my papers close to hand, and wrote some information on the board. And then the lesson began, and it just sucked. I visibly shuddered, I couldn't get into the groove, and my nervousness played out in my talking a mile a minute--for example, instead of "tell me," I said "Will you be so kind as to tell me?" which left my pre-intermediate students staring at me in confusion. I couldn't read my typed notes, I lost track of what I was doing, and I could feel the students' attention draining away like someone had opened a manhole cover in a bathtub. It was a disaster.

If I'd known where the ladies' was in the classroom building, I would have run there and locked myself in a stall and burst into tears. As it was, I just sat down limply after the lesson and talked to a former accountant/judo champion with gold teeth who was kind enough to say in broken English that she thought it had been a nice class. I think she sensed that had I been a Japanese gentleman of the samurai school, I would have disemboweled myself in short order.

The tutor didn't have much to say in the feedback session; she agreed that it'd been  a total debacle. We got our first week's review several hours afterward: I'm barely meeting the course criteria, in large part because of this morning's screwup. But my problems run deeper: my verbal instructions aren't succinct, I repeat and rephrase what students say when I ought to leave well enough alone, and I give them definitions which I should rather elicit with leading questions. These are far from unreasonable criticisms. I have excellent models of good teaching in the tutors themselves. I just pray to God I can learn to shut up! Particularly when I'm uneasy. Otherwise, I'm at real risk of flunking the CELTA.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dog-Paddling In the Deep End

I like the CELTA philosophy of "You want to teach ESOL? Go do it!  (And then we'll tell you what you did that you should keep doing and what did that you should never do again...)", but I admit it is more than a little like tales I've heard of military basic training. You either must rise to the occasion and earn the right to be a member of the corps, or slink away, never to be seen in the company again. I've not been sent to wash the metaphorical latrines quite yet, but my face is in the mud and my boots are in a bad need of a spit-shine.

This morning, I was so keyed up about the possibility of oversleeping my alarms (I have a succession of three) that I didn't pause to consider the time when I woke up naturally at dawn and stumbled into the kitchen to fix myself a cup of strong tea. Not until I'd brewed a cuppa so dark that the teabag was invisible below the surface did I glance up at the microwave clock and register that it wasn't 7AM, but 5AM. A wee bit early, as my Irish classmate would say.  By that time, my brain was churning about all the things I had left to do before my first observed teaching session (9:15-10AM), and there was no more rest to be had.

It's not that I was expecting this course to be easy, but I think all of us nurse a secret hope that we'll find we're really untrained savants in our chosen vocations (or avocations)--all we'll have to do is to show up on stage, begin to sing, and Simon Cowell will bow down and worship. Like the indomitable Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, even if we don't say it aloud as she did, our subconscious whispers, "If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient"--except in our modern sloth, we omit the element of education, and presume that were we only given the opportunity to show off, we'd be recognized for the geniuses we are. Well, this week, I have been offered the chance, and I have not been so identified, by myself or by others. Reviews were kinder than I expected today, so there is hope I can improve, but considerable training will be required for me to reach a reasonable level of competency. Thanks to all those who prayed on my behalf. 

The Irish guy in my class spent the last 3 years in Korea working 9AM to 9PM daily. He went on the EPIK program, which is supposed to be no more than 25 hours a week... But they did pay him extra. The two Russian girls in my class taught English in Thailand. There's an American missionary, and a retired Foreign Service officer (who's an adjunct professor of Italian), plus a girl from Turkey and a young lady from the UK who had trained to be a croupier.  It's an eclectic, well-traveled and multi-lingual group, all bright, curious and friendly.  The British roulette and I are the only two without in-class TESOL experience.  We're all trying our best to imitate desiccated sponges and absorb all the considerable vitamin-rich moisture that's being poured on us--the tutors are awe-inspiring, and that they've been so patient with my uninformed questions and my awkward phrasing is to their unending credit.

In addition to the seven more lessons I've got to prepare to be judged upon during the next three weeks, there are four written assignments, and the 9AM-6PM class schedules to be followed. I'm glad the days are long this time of year, so I don't have to hike to and from the metro in the dark!  At lunch, Robert, the (extremely cute, 26-year-old) Irish guy, threw up his hands in joyful anticipation of Friday, and we girls asked him if he had special weekend plans. "Yes!" he said with a smile. "Sleep!"

Czechs are very polite on the metro--people let others get off without shoving their way on, and I've seen several men yield their seats to little old ladies. As with every big city, one must keep aware of one's purse in case of pickpockets, but the transport system is easy to figure out and runs with great efficiency--I've never had to wait more than 4 minutes for a train. There are lots of nice little food/goods vendors in and around the metro stops, including one bakery/butcher shop, where I have traded handfuls of crowns for poppyseed-centered pastries (any idea why I am not losing weight, despite all the walking?). And the cafe at the school serves quad-A food for single-A prices.

Frederica and I see one another when our hectic schedules permit, and both of us hope for rest and quiet in our off-hours.  Though I bent her ear for three hours over pizza and a bottle of wine this evening, she still seems to enjoy my company, and I love having a kindred spirit with whom to share the stories accumulated during (or triggered by association with events of) the day.  I hope I don't drive her crazy.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Arrival & Orientation, Czech

I admit to having succumbed for a few minutes Wednesday to a feeling of smug satisfaction about the packing job I did for this trip. Tuesday, when I was hauling my 50-lb suitcase up a flight of concrete stairs at the metro station, I wasn't so thrilled with my luggage, but the next morning, stepping out unencumbered into dripping rain and chill, I was so happy I'd included long-sleeved tops, a scarf, and a compact umbrella.

I was upgraded from Economy to Business Class on the Air France flight from Paris to Prague, a nice surprise! As proof of our exalted status, we had metal utensils, small glass cups, cloth napkins and tiny individual sets of salt and pepper shakers with our midday meal (I don't know how the food differed from the plebe area, but it was delicious). The tiny amenities were as good as it got--the seats were no bigger than the base section.  That said, Economy in the 747-500 on which I'd crossed the Atlantic wasn't bad at all, though of course it was impossible to sleep. People all around me were doing a good job of feigning unconsciousness (except for a group of American and Russian twenty-somethings, who were standing in front of the tail lavatories, drinking and talking), but though there was an empty aisle seat next to me (praise God! I wasn't squished like sandwich filling), no matter which way I turned, twisted or contorted myself, there was no getting into a position where I could drop off.  The dinner (not the breakfast, which consisted of unidentifiable Dole plastic tub fruit) was superb, as one would expect from the French. Good champagne, decent wine to accompany salmon pasta. And the flight attendant, a tall, handsome African-heritage Frenchman, was nice enough to pretend to assume I spoke French, bless him, though my "je voudrais" probably sounded fresh off the hick farm.

When I got to Prague, I helped several middle-aged Americans who were struggling with the airport cash-change machine and then (having eventually remembered my own PIN number) headed to the public transport kiosk, where my having extra passport pictures came in handy when I paid for a month-long pass good on metro, trams and buses. And because I took public transport from the airport, I got that and the next month's worth of transport for less than the price of the one-way taxi ride (abt. $28, as opposed to $35). I love clean, efficient public transit!

There were a few hiccups: although I was able to take an elevator down into the metro, there wasn't one at the stop where I landed, and the escalator (which moved with typical Soviet breakneck speed--you have to be quick of step to avoid falling on either end!) only went part of the way up. So I was a sight, clunking my luggage from step to step up the last flight to leave the station (and did I mention my backpack was more than 25lbs?). And my friend Frederica lives ten minutes' walk from the metro, on the second (to Americans, the third) floor of an Art Nouveau building where (again, in characteristic Eastern European fashion) the elevator opens on the landings between the floors...  Needless to say, between the length of the trip, the lack of sleep, and this final muscular effort, I was quite tired by the time I arrived (at 5pm Prague time), and could only force myself to stay awake until 8.

Frederica has a great apartment, with all the amenities, including the first dishwasher I've seen in Europe. The ceilings in the rooms are 15' tall, and the double-glassed windows make artificial illumination unnecessary all day.  And the surrounding older city is beautiful. Prague shares with other European capitals the allure of classical architecture with its fantastic details of figures, flowers, frescos, mosaics and ironwork, besides the appeal (to Americans, at least) of antiquity which our home country cannot approach.  It felt immediately familiar, given my past travels in the former Eastern Bloc, from the comforting tones of a Slavic language (some of it Russian--there are many tourists here, in addition to French, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and tons of other Americans) to the lush damp greenness of the gardens and the crumbling bits of Soviet construction in the mid-century sections of town and in the metro.  Prague is in better trim than St. Petersburg, for example, primarily because it wasn't bombed to rubble 70 years ago, and because in the last 25 years its central location has attracted tons of investment, enabling the Czechs to carefully remodel what the socialists had neglected, but not outright destroyed.  

Frederica's flat is in the Vinohrady section of the city, across from a park. I asked her if there had been any vineyards (vinohrad/vinograd--Slavic for vineyard) in the area, and she said there was still one thereabouts. Her mostly-residential neighborhood is quiet, with cobblestone streets and sidewalks, and there is paid reserved parking, neatly observed (over the last couple of days, I've noticed that the Czechs seem to be quite law-abiding when it comes to traffic rules--not only do pedestrians almost religiously observe the crossing signals, cars stop at zebra walks and I have yet to hear a commuter blowing his or her horn).  There are a lot of small shops and restaurants on the ground floor of the apartment buildings, which don't exceed 6 floors in most of the downtown area.  There's a Vietnamese, two Indian and a Japanese restaurant within a two-block radius of Frederica's flat, not to mention an antique store.  When I walked out of the metro yesterday evening, there was a Vietnamese culture festival in the square (alas, one of the few things I did not pack for this trip was the outfit Leah had custom-made for me when she went to Vietnam a decade ago!). 

Today I plan to tour the castle--I hiked there via the Metronome in the Summer Garden yesterday, just to get the lay of the land (I also attempted to walk to the language school where I will be studying, but gave up after the fourth mile and got on the metro). This afternoon, we're taking a train to Tabor for a church retreat (an appropriate spot for Protestants, the town having been founded as a Hussite fortress). Monday morning, at 8:30 AM, my CELTA class begins, and all touristy activities will be on hold (except perhaps during weekends) for a month.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Prague Tired

Presumably I will have sufficient free time and enough renewed energy at the church retreat we're going on this weekend for me to catch up on blogging about my trip to and wanderings around Prague, but given that I've walked close to twenty miles the last twenty-four hours and am still profoundly jet-lagged, I can't bring myself to do it now.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Electronics & Clutter

Apparently, good landscaping is the solution to the undead menace: my niece and nephew are addicted to a game called "Plants vs. Zombies," which I loaded on my old iPhone 4 yesterday  morning and sent off to Rhode Island via Priority Mail yesterday afternoon. I had to upgrade my electronics for Monday's departure for Prague via Paris, since my old phone wouldn't communicate with the European networks--now, I've got a short-term bundle of data, calls, and text which should keep me in touch with the stateside world even when I'm a third of the way around the globe.  This is the first time since 1995 I'm going overseas for more than a week without a laptop (except Poland 1996--there was no internet connection at the student hostel, so no point in bringing one)--my new phone is sufficiently large in size and memory (and I've ordered a Bluetooth mini keyboard), that it will act as my word processor and network link. I'm debating about whether to haul my camera along, but right now it's going as it has a great zoom lens that even this super new iPhone 6 can't incorporate.

My next door neighbor has two small asthmatic dogs she lets out late at night, and I can hear them obstreperously wheezing at mosquitoes behind the fence outside my bedroom window as I settle in for sleep.  My bedroom has become a really restful area over the last few days--all the lamp parts which had taken up some twenty square feet of floor space have been removed to a new shelf in the garage, my new chair is comfortably situated beneath the floor lamp, and my Harold Gimeno landscape painting is hung between the windows. It looks like a proper bedroom, a safe haven, instead of a storage locker and workshop.

I vacuumed the whole house and did a survey of my closets yesterday, pulling out four pairs of shoes and a bagful of dresses for donation. Most of the clothes in my closet are not practical for everyday wear--there's a lot of what I'll call quirky or unique pieces, from hand-embroidered silk robes to traditional ethnic garb from Poland to Vietnam. Still, I was amazed at how many conventional items I own, despite my general antipathy for shopping. This is partly attributable to my general antipathy for discarding, but I've arrived at the "enough already" point. I want to live a lighter life, unburdened by unnecessary things--the more not-regularly-enjoyed/employed I can sell or give away, the better I'll feel.