Delightful tales of the English Subjunctive

By Posted on Location: 3min read
Just before leaving Spain I begged the Spaniard to take me to the hill where Jesus stood. He told me it was midday and too hot, but I pouted and he took me anyway. This is a photo from that hill. It’s got nothing to do with the subjunctive.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019

When Rapunzel came to visit the other week, I greeted her off the train in Spanish. She doesn’t speak Spanish, so she replied in French and we flicked through the three languages as if it were a game we were playing.

As we settled back into English – it’s our only common language – the chap following us up into the station gave us both a very perplexed look. Our British accents, neither local to the area, didn’t fit with the flurry of foreign words we’d been giggling through.

But language can be a lot of fun

Yesterday, for example, I looked up Chilean Spanish.

“I’ve spent the last few months learning the Spanish future, to discover they don’t use it in Chile,” I messaged Rapunzel.

“No me gusta,” she replied in Spanish.

“Exactamente.”

We played with language for a few lines, discussing an article that’s relevant to Rapunzel printed in a Spanish newspaper. Then I asked her the question that was on my mind.

“Do you do subjunctives?”

“Je ne pense pas que ce soit necessaire.”

If you want to get a Spaniard to roll their eyes, you ask about the subjunctive

They seem to think that it’s obvious where it ought to be used. And that there’s nothing strange with the present subjunctive having two forms with identical meaning. As far as I can tell, the only purpose of this is to add poetical value of the word within its sentence.

The Spaniards are much fonder of using the subjunctive than us English speakers

Although I’ve never met anyone who’s persuaded me why. I mean, I understand that we do have such a form in English. Chances are, you use it without knowing. It’s a bit like how you know to use a noun and a verb before you learn the labels ‘noun’ and ‘verb’. But how does anyone know where to use it? It’s a mystery.

Our English subjunctive feels quite posh

And because it’s not so obvious and I didn’t know it, here it is:

In the present

It is necessary we be on time tomorrow.

I recommend he leave now.

In the past

If he were here.

If I were you.

I’m not convinced that I use the present subjunctive in my speech

Unless I was caricaturing someone posh. If anyone catches me doing so, can you please point it out to me? I’m curious to know.

Whereas I’m certain that I do use the past subjunctive

It’s simpler to identify than the present subjunctive because it always involves the word ‘were’. In the first- and third-person ‘were’ replaces ‘was’.

If I were you…

If you were nicer…

If he were here…

If we were happy…

If you all were intelligent…

If they were mad…

Here again, it gets complicated by my dialect

In Yorkshire, you may say ‘when I were there yesterday’ meaning ‘when I was there yesterday’. And in the town where I went to school, it’s also common to replace ‘were’ with ‘was’ as in ‘we was eating chocolate’. In standard English, this would be ‘we were eating chocolate’.

Thus, if someone were to say ‘If I was you’, I’m not sure I’d notice that they were in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive. Would you? Or am I blinded by my non-standard English?

Did you notice the ‘if someone were’ in the previous sentence is the past subjunctive?

This doesn’t help me understand how to use the subjunctive in Spanish

And Rapunzel is right. On an everyday basis, it is not necessary. You can get by alright without it. Even if the locals might despair of your ignorance.

But so much of language is not necessary, it doesn’t mean it’s not wondrous. Plus, the idea of conjugating a word for its poetic flavour makes me smile.

Jesus.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (when you don’t know your grammar )

By Posted on Location: 7min read
TEFL
The centre of Murica.
Río Segura, Murica, Spain, May 2019

No message.

There was a signal, so I sent a message announcing my arrival at the bus station in Murcia, in Spanish, a language I knew some words of but had never spoken.

“Yo soy aqui”

I intended to say, “I am here”. Translated it does mean “I am here” but, as any Spanish speaker knows, it should have been “Yo estoy aqui.” As it’s the verb estar (to be) nor the verb ser (to be) in such situations.

In ‘Spanish time’ my host arrived and waved me to her car

She spoke some broken phrases of English. More than I spoke of Spanish but that first day, neither of us could construct a sentence.

If you have since met the Casera, the rolling English you heard was not what I experienced that first day. You heard her speaking after months of living with a native English speaker in her apartment.

Therefore, we couldn’t say much, yet we somehow conversed for the next twenty minutes.

This was a swift education. When it comes to conversation, the most important thing is to have faith.

Very soon, I’m going to meet a Chilean man at a Chilean airport

I will have to open my mouth and speak.

Butterflies swarm in my stomach to think of it. We have two common languages, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From his writing, I assume he speaks beautiful English since his style of composition made me smile with some admiration. I speak Spanish, more or less.

He speaks Chilean Spanish; I speak Yorkshire English. Hiding behind the Andes, Chilean Spanish has developed its unique forms. Yorkshire is well, Yorkshire. I’m told my accent is lovely, but at least for the first week, unintelligible.

I speak non-rhotically, which is a pain when it comes to learning Spanish

Rhotic being a technical term meaning I drop my ‘r’. In Spanish this is a problem as every infinitive verb ends in a vowel followed by an ‘r’ and in many forms of British English (non-rhotic English) such ‘r’ sounds are abandoned.

Take the word ‘car’, which I pronounce ‘cah’.

And then apply this to the Spanish ‘hablar’ (to speak) and get ‘hablah’ which more or less is ‘habla’. I.e. he speaks.

You may wonder, ‘what the hell are you on about Catherine?’

Which is understandable. I wouldn’t have known any of this phonetic vocabulary, if I hadn’t spent quite so much of the last year searching to discover what this annoying letter ‘r’ is.

Despite hours trying, I have never been able to trill an r

But even the single r in Spanish is a harder sound than any r in my English. My pronunciation of ‘Gracias’ is wrong, not because I fumble over whether it’s a c or a th sound in the middle, but because my first syllable is fluffily soft.

From the feedback I have surmised from my students, I imagine my Spanish accent would work if you were casting the little sister of a Disney princess. It’s not the sound I was hoping for.

We take speaking for granted

When I speak in Spanish in front of my parents, I expect them to understand. They should understand me. They are my parents. When my mum stares at me as if I am speaking gobbled-gook, I wonder why. It takes me a cognitive churn to understand that she doesn’t get what I’m saying.

When I speak in half-formed mumbled English, they seem to know what I mean. If I mime, they tend to get it. They know me, they know my voice. So, I find it bewildering how when I’m speaking Spanish are there so many blank looks?

But we also take for granted our knowledge of our language

We instinctively know what feels right. Or, to invert that idea, we know what sounds wrong. We feel that someone is speaking our language as a second tongue before we know how they’re mis-forming the grammar or before we can identify where the pronunciation mimics their native language.

My Spanish students stumble at the difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘v’ sounds. A Finnish friend has a wider spoken vocabulary than me but speaks with an odd ‘v’, which gives her foreignness away.

As children, we absorb this language knowledge without realising we’re doing it

Grammar especially. Later, at school, some English teacher tries to explain what a noun, a verb and an adjective are, by which point we’ve been using them for years.

Then we start to study a foreign language. I did French and German at school. At this point, lots more grammar descriptors come into play, like verbal tenses and moods, and we become very confused.

French, German and English might have much in common, but their structure differs.

Learning German was not a success

Despite having had approximately 110 classes in the subject, I can’t say anything useful whatsoever. When I’m in Germany itself, I recognise some words but not much else. I don’t have any innate feeling about German and so, to me, it’s random sound.

When you don’t have any feeling about what is right or wrong in a language, you’re reliant on rules

You use your first language as a basis for the language you’re learning. Then, rather than learning the new language from scratch, you adapt the rules you know to the new language. My Spanish students ‘cook my mother’ because such grammar makes sense in Spanish.

I would say that my job requires some awareness of this grammatical web.

As an English language assistant, they tell you all you need is to be able to speak English

Which sounded like a wonderful way for me to teach and avoid my lack of formal grammar education. The marketing chaps stress how your role is to conduct conversations and focus on speaking skills.

While it’s true that from a feeling we know when a student says something we wouldn’t, it’s insufficient for answering why.

And the best students ask, “Why?”

At first, I figured I must be able to work it out. I’d think of a few examples and the student would nod. A few hours later I would be in the grocery store or cooking dinner and an exception to my supposed rule would pop up.

At which point, I had to hope I remembered which student in which class had asked the question. Then I’d need to admit I’d made a mistake, and then from somewhere work out a satisfactory explanation or the grammar.

After a few such incidences, I took the better line, “I don’t know. Let me check.”

Teaching English is a constant lesson in humility.

The English grammar experts were all around me

They were the teachers, whose English was sometimes odd in its form, but who had learnt grammar first, conversation second. And hence, they knew the rules inside out.

But this is not my only linguistic challenge as a language assistant.

Most native speakers don’t speak standard English

I don’t. When I’m teaching, I try to speak with clarity and standard grammar, but I refuse to adopt my ‘a’ or my ‘u’ into anything but what it is. My ‘r’, as I’ve said, is a hopeless case. I could not fake an accent, even if I wanted to.

It is only through learning grammar though that I can differentiate between my Yorkshire (my idiolect) and Standard English. This is important. I mustn’t trust my feelings. To say ‘I am sat on the sofa’ feels right but it’s not standard. Furthermore, I have no problem with double negatives or double contractions, although I try not to use them.

When a child uses a double negative, which is a common mistake for native Spanish speakers, I smile and tell them they sound like they’re from Yorkshire. I show them their mistake ask them to use Standard English for school. I couldn’t tell them they’re speaking wrong when it’s the same quirk as we have at home in England.

It’s not infrequent that I screw up

And I’ve given classes where I’ve caught myself speaking with non-standard grammar. At this point, I pause the class and wave my arms about a bit.

“You know how here you say ‘estamos’ as ‘etamo’ because it’s your dialect? When I said ‘I am sat on the sofa’ it was because of my dialect. It’s not standard English. Please do not do this in your exams. We should say, ‘I am sitting on the sofa’ as it’s the gerund here.”

But it’s important to recall what is correct varies depending on who you ask

I met one (Australian) English teacher who thought it was abominable to teach children to use contractions in their writing. I bit back the urge to say, ‘You shou’n’t never do what?’.

If a child put some double contractions into a piece of dialogue, I’d give them bonus marks.

I love beautiful language

Books with intricate sentences which wind stylistically in directions you didn’t suppose possible enchant me. Yet, what’s most impressive about language to me is how we can mangle it and still communicate. For eight months the Casera and I lived together. Neither of us fluent in the other’s language, we used whatever language allowed us to communicate. So what if we broke all the grammar rules and pronounced the impossible imperfectly, we conversed.

It all depends on faith.

Afónica: How I taught English conversation without speaking

By Posted on Location: 8min read
Communication without speaking - pilgrimage route
John Francis not only stopped speaking but he also stopped riding in motorised vehicles. So I thought I’d choose one of my own photos from the Via Francigena pilgrimage route through Italy.
May 2018

The environmentalist, Dr John Francis, didn’t speak for 17 years. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, it was that he’d got sick of arguing with everyone. To tackle this, he decided to not speak for one day. That one day proved a bit of a shock. What took him by surprise was how much he learnt about listening. And so, the next day, he didn’t speak either.

This continued for 17 years.

I thought about John Francis the other morning when I woke up unable to speak. A silence they call ‘afónica’ in Spanish. A curse that teachers, who depend on their voices, are susceptible to. It was not that I felt unwell. As far as I could tell, the rest of me was fine.

Yet when I opened my mouth there was no sound

Since my job is to teach conversation this presented a unique challenge. And, like for John Francis, not speaking proved educational.

I discovered that:

  1. I hadn’t been aware of how frequently I’m speaking
  2. The students help each other more when I’m not getting in their way
  3. It’s not hard to give corrections on paper, but effective praise is always difficult

Luckily, my first class was of twelve-year-olds

It’s a good class and the students and I have a nice rapport. They don’t have an expansive vocabulary and grammatically they’re just learning the past tense, yet, due to their less aggressive hormones, they have more freedom of expression than some of the older students.

They’re all different from one another

And I’ve become rather attached to them all. One child responds to every question by exclaiming ‘oh my god’ (in Spanish), before collecting himself and answering the question. They make me laugh.

The morning’s task was a role-play about an ice-cream shop

They take it seriously as it’s preparation for their exam. The work in pairs. One child has some question prompts whilst the other holds an information leaflet. This is partly a reading comprehension exercise, but I focus on their ability to construct questions. Most errors are derived from incorrect word order or missing auxiliary verbs (do/does, am/are/is, can).

Unable to speak, I listened and jotted down corrections in my notebook

The pages filled with scrawl as the children spoke. Unless they stopped and looked at me, unable to continue without a prompt, I didn’t interrupt. I waited until they’d completed the task before sharing my notes.

Normally once they have finished, I go over the questions out loud. The children tend to lean forward in their seats to see the paper and to watch my lips. I trace over the relevant points on the paper with my fingertip. This systematic reading, after correcting for their mistakes, allows the children to hear everything joined together. It’s the point where it’s easiest to identify between those who are genuinely engaged and those who are bored. I read through the role-play at natural pace letting them feel the language in action.

But this was impossible without a voice. Instead, I used the prompts I’d scribbled down to help the children themselves find the correct phrases. Correcting pronunciation took some creativity, but somehow we managed.

Surprisingly, they needed fewer prompts than I’d supposed

Which made me question how much of my speaking is for them and how much it is for me. The truth is, I enjoy speaking. I like telling stories. But what about them? Their eyes light up when I’m telling a story, but their eyes also light up when they’re the ones with the tale to tell.

When they laugh, giggle and share their own eccentric ideas I know they’re enjoying themselves. Part of this confidence comes from my own story-telling – I make the unconventional permissible. But perhaps I’ve not been taking this far enough?

Now, I find myself wondering how can I shift back and forth between them and me in a more balanced fashion?

My second discovery was that I get in the way of them helping each other

Knowing I wasn’t going to leap in, there were a few students who started taking more responsibility for their partner’s learning.

This is something I believe to be valuable but I have been struggling to encourage.

I’ve tried mixing up the pairs of students

I was hoping to find pairs who are willing to challenge each other and push each other a little further. This is more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the intention is there, the students want to help one another, but they do so in Spanish which isn’t helpful. Other times their kind advice becomes telling. Occasionally it takes a stronger tone and comes across as posturing.But then, there are some stunning partnerships where the peer support is wonderful to see.

And although I’ve thought about all this before, I’ve been rather blind

Because having not spoken for a day, it’s obvious that one of the biggest reasons why one child doesn’t speak up and help their partner, is me.

I’m getting in the way of the children helping one another

As without a voice, I was unable to make instantaneous corrections, they leapt in to explain things to one another. And in English. My inability made them act as if they were me. They momentarily took on my role.

It seems I need to think this over. The children are able to help one another out but often don’t. What is it they lack? Is it a sense of responsibility to their partner? Is it something to do with permission? I know I’m getting in the way here, so what is it that I need to do differently?

On reflection though, I’m proud of them and how they handled themselves.

Which brings me onto my third point, praise.

Regardless of what you do, criticism is easier than constructive praise

Constructive praise is difficult. As the conversations progressed, I took notes of the incorrect grammar, the misused vocabulary or the pronunciation errors. These mistakes stand out to me as if they were painted in vivid colours.

Praise-worthy constructions don’t flash so boldly in my awareness

Since when we’re thinking about praise, we’re thinking about incremental improvement. Especially when it comes to language acquisition. The changes from one week to the next are tiny. And yet, it’s this progress that needs to be praised. It’s the journey of continuous learning, which is so hard to stick at, that deserves commendation.

Ideally, I like to give specific praise

It is more memorable for the student. Sometimes using a phrase on the paper allowed me to do this, but I found that without a voice it was tricky.

General praise can be given through body language

Although… I already tend to smile a lot.

Excessively it has been said. And I guess in the back of my mind I have the image of a ‘cool’ person who doesn’t grin like a mad cat at everyone shouldn’t be. I’m not that person. When I’m happy it’s impossible for me to hide my smile.

Once upon a time, I worked as an au-pair

My own advice to new au-pairs, who would despair at the children they had to somehow care for, was don’t force the children to like you. We all want to be liked, but it’s important that we also respect not everyone is going to like us. When we try to be likeable, we are doing so because we’re driven by fear. We present something fake and are therefore being dishonest.

Trying to get everyone to like you is the surest way to screw-up

Already, working with teenagers I worry that they think I try too hard to make them like me because of my wild grin. Losing my voice made me more conscious of my facial expressions. I didn’t have much else to communicate praise with.

What reassured me though were the questions I’d asked earlier in the week

A teacher hadn’t turned up, so I’d taken the opportunity to ask the students for feedback. They wrote down some thoughts and suggestions.

We don’t like speaking in English but, when we have to speak with [Catherine] we feel so comfortable because she is always smiling.

[Catherine] smiles a lot and I feel safe when I talk with [her] in class.

Maybe all my worry had been for nothing

And when my voice disappeared knowing that my smile had been regarded positively gave me a bit more confidence. Which meant, that on occasion, I went further and beamed with a thumbs up at times to make my point clear.

They are all remarkable individuals.

I remember when I was reading The Ragged Edge of Silence

That’s the book John Francis wrote on his experience of being silent. He describes teaching a discussion class without speaking. It seems so contrary to my own university experience where all my teachers at university did was speak. It lodged in my mind as remarkable. In his TED talk he says:

“Now this was a discussion class and we were having a discussion. I just backed out of that, you know, and I just kind of kept the fists from flying. But what I learned was that sometimes I would make a sign and they said things that I absolutely did not mean, but I should have. And so what came to me is, if you were a teacher and you were teaching, if you weren’t learning you probably weren’t teaching very well.”

Dr John Francis

If you aren’t learning you probably aren’t teaching very well… Leaving space and silence for the students to develop their own voices shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be part of what it means to teach.

Moving onwards, what I can focus on here is:

  1. Varying how much I am contributing to the conversation
  2. Staying quiet and letting the students correct each other
  3. Investigating what is important about praise

And I can smile plenty.

Not being able to speak didn’t prove to be much of a problem

My job is one where speaking is taken for granted. But being ‘afónica’ for the day was a good lesson in the importance of speaking less.

Here’s the TED talk, if you want to watch it…

What I feel when faced with my sleep-deprived teenagers (not to mention their teachers)

By Posted on Location: 8min read
The sun had set and so we hurtled down the mountain at great speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t click this shot.

When I was in Sicily I read a book about siestas1 and discovered that the siesta was, in the author’s opinion, the ideal time for either having sex or catching up on literature. It so happens that I once read a claim, in a Spanish newspaper, that the average Spaniard has more sex than the average Brit.

Maybe there’s some truth in the ‘more sex’ claim. After all, apparently 40% of Spaniards don’t read books and 35% only read one book a year,2 and yet many (at least here in the south) still do have some form of a siesta. Are they genuinely asleep, or maybe just watching day-time television? I wouldn’t want you to think that I was at all being scientific here. I’m not.

But some people are a bit more scientific about sleep than me

When he came to visit a few weeks back DeepThought brought with him a book entitled ‘Why We Sleep’ written by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker.3 DeepThought has not been taking enough siestas recently, or at least he hasn’t been reading during them, because last year when I saw him, he had the same book in his hands.

You’d be wrong to deduct from this that the book is a bore

It’s not. However, if you are one of the many who don’t get enough sleep you might find it a horror.

DeepThought and I did a deal. I think he was feeling guilty for reading so slowly. In exchange for being allowed to read the book before he had finished it himself, I would summarise my learning for him. Perhaps a mistake on his part. I’m not sure if he started regretting lending me the book before or after I informed him that not getting his eight hours a night would shrink his testicles.

This article however is less about facts and more about feelings

Here I’ll combine a few thoughts on how I feel about sleep:

  1. The tiredness in school: teachers and students alike
  2. The anxiety connection – a spiral
  3. The sadness of ignorance and the hope of awareness

Monday morning arrives and I head to school

Teachers reluctantly gather in the staffroom bemoaning the coming of a new week. Supposedly in the morning we are taller than at night, but at 8:25 am they seem shorter, as if moving with a slight stoop, their limbs longing to lay back down.

They wanted, it seems, to stretch their weekend out into the last moment – those Saturday and Sunday moments with family and friends are so precious compared to the chore of the week. I remind myself that this career that they’ve chosen wasn’t forced upon them but was something that they spent many years training for. They’ve sat through countless exams to be allowed this opportunity to teach, and yet they are going to start their week wishing they didn’t have to.

It would seem surreal perhaps if it wasn’t so normalised

Last Monday morning one of the teachers I assist didn’t turn up, so I took the opportunity to sate my personal curiosity. I quizzed the class on their sleeping habits. I discovered that at the grand old age of seventeen, out of twenty-five or so students, only two had managed to get eight hours sleep the night before.

I wonder if I’m the only person in the school with a fresh memory of what maintaining 8 hours a night of sleep feels like. When was the last time many of these kids woke up fresh faced? Last summer perhaps, when they reportedly sleep a good proportion of the day.

I reassured them that it wasn’t their fault that they were sleepy at half past eight in the morning, that it was just their circadian rhythm being out of sync with the city’s Department of Education. And then I apologised for informing them that if they weren’t getting 8 hours of sleep a night then they’d have to study a whole lot more because their memories were leaking like a patched-up bucket and their creativity was as strong as soggy cardboard.

They stared at me as if this was the first time anyone had said anything positive about our biological need for sleep. In other words, like I was mad.

They understand, I think, that sleep has some value – they do apologise to me, from time to time, when their brains fail them mid-conversation. They explain that they are sleepy. Some days some of them look like they’re going to slump over my desk. And yet, they wouldn’t consider their sleeping patterns to be abnormal. They don’t recognise the value of applying some change.

The teachers have an inkling that their biology demands more

When they talk about sleep, they at least talk from a perspective that they know they need to get more of it. The rhetoric is there even if there’s no follow up action. Societal norms call.

The students however are sceptical of sleep. Another girl described sleep as boring, as if the challenge was in fact to minimise the amount of sleep one could get by on because watching television or scrolling through Instagram is so much more exciting. One girl I asked talked about sleep being pointless because she wasn’t going to sleep anyway, she is too anxious to sleep.

Frankly, such attitudes terrify me

Being anxious, not sleeping enough, being more anxious, not sleeping enough… this is an interconnected spiral, and fighting this spiral becomes the central theme in some peoples’ lives. Bad sleep habits become ingrained and so freedom from anxiety, freedom to breathe easy, enjoy life and be creative is strangled.

If you are stuck in this spiral, then I feel for you.

And I feel helpless standing in front of the class knowing that sleep deprivation is so tightly linked to their mental health. These children are from a neighbourhood where the main industry is seasonal citrus picking, they are not privileged like me and their parents are not necessarily going to be able to fund their therapy and their recovery when tragedy occurs.

Bless their little cotton (or polyester) socks, because they’ve no idea what lays ahead

I am forever making mistakes when it comes to my mental health. Just this week I found myself fighting with an old friend and having to apologise for a badly worded comment to my sister. The friend was anxious and sleep-deprived, my sister was fretting, and I have been having nightmares.

Nightmares. And why, because I haven’t been honest enough with myself, because I haven’t been paying enough attention to my own emotional needs and in my own quickly spiralling way this of course meant that I wasn’t sleeping sufficiently which was making me grumpy and…

My body responds with a barrage of defences. I survive wonderfully, fighting down my foes, strategizing, analysing, making myself busy. And then I have a moment of realisation of what I’m doing to myself.

At this point I know I need to open up and slow down

I need to talk, and probably cry, and then I need to make the journey from my castle wall and back to my bed. I need to get my mind to somewhere safe where I can fall asleep and stay asleep because it’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can apply its magic. It’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can finally process how I’m feeling.

If that means I need a two-hour bedtime routine, so be it.

Nowadays I am slow to realise, but in the past I was totally ignorant of my needs

In the past I didn’t make the connection.

All suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction

The Dalai Lama

If I had been inflicting pain on others for my own happiness that would be a rather selfish and unkind way to be living, but the truth is that when I am ignorantly barraging myself against the world I’m not getting anywhere near happy. I’m occupied, busy, surviving, but happy… no.

Happiness comes from my moments of humility and generosity (to myself and to others) and depends on me having a gentle perspective of my state of being. There is no happiness when I am working from a place of defence.

And nothing makes me defensive as quickly as not sleeping properly

However, I am learning more and more about how my body and my mind are intricately woven together each day. This opportunity to be a little less ignorant and a little more responsible for my words actions is a gift.

And hence, when I see the students being led by tired teachers to a belief that sleep is almost an enemy of a good life, I feel helpless and afraid for them. They joke about their sleep-deprivation, but I can’t bring myself to laugh.

Yet, I can make sure that when I turn up on a Monday morning, I am awake

And sometimes, when someone is tired, I can say something gentle with the hope it might one day sink in. When the teacher didn’t turn up the class decided that I would have to teach them instead. Thankfully I’d got a good night’s sleep and was feeling suitably creative so I set about improvising a class.

After quizzing everyone on their sleep I asked if anyone could remember dreaming the previous night. Two hands shot into the air. I smiled, took a deep breath and surmised that it was interesting that the two people in the class who had slept their eight hours had also remembered having dreams. A coincidence perhaps, or…

But that’s another article.

So, just to summarise what I’ve written here

  1. Sleepiness pervades society, making us all a little more stupid.
  2. The teenagers I teach are sleep-deprived and don’t see the connection with their own mental health.
  3. I am luckier, my luck is the gift of awareness. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I can recognise my unkindness as stemming from too few hours steadily sleeping.

The book ‘Why We Sleep’ is surprisingly non-lecturing

It’s sometimes even apologetic about the truths it breaks. It’s not one of these books that’s repetitive and fluffy. The author has a scientific way with words, being clear about causation and correlation and although the information he shares is sometimes horrifying, it doesn’t come across as sensationalist.

At the back of the book Matthew Walker includes a reprint of this list of tips for a better night’s sleep.4 You might want to check them out. After all, would you be happier if you got a little more sleep?

More information

  1. The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot (Translated from French). I apparently only rated it 3 stars on Goodreads so don’t consider this as a recommendation.
  2. An article on how the Spanish don’t read (in Spanish) I tried searching Google in English but only got results about Brexit…
  3. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
  4. Tips on Sleep

How to teach a child public speaking (without pretense)

By Posted on Location: 7min read
Poetry and flowers… I’m getting soppy.

She wasn’t one of my students

I generally teach the ‘bilingual’* half of the school and so we hadn’t met before. She tried speaking to me in Spanish, and I explained, in slow English, that I don’t speak Spanish. This is now a lie. I just don’t speak Spanish at school.

She nodded. She didn’t really speak English and yet, for whatever reason, she had decided that she needed to tell me that she was feeling nervous. The funny thing was that I was nervous too. I often feel nervous before standing up and speaking.

With the aid of some creative gestures and the assistance of another student we managed to communicate a little. But soon we were ushered towards the front of the hall, the seats were filling up and so we found ourself a place at the front facing our audience. I was given a seat, and the nervous girl and the student of mine who had asked me to partake in the event stood behind me. Both were visibly nervous.

In this short article I’m going to write about fear.

The group of students smelt of fear

This isn’t a smell I used to notice. I mean, I guess my body noticed, but cognitively I didn’t. They smelt something like the queue at airport security, but freshly so. Annoyingly my body was syncing up with theirs. Before entering the hall I hadn’t particularly been bothered about reading a poem. In fact I jokingly offered to do it in Spanish if my student read theirs in English.

However the tension of the students around me started getting to me. I smiled at them, told them to breathe deep. I took some deep breaths myself, sitting abnormally rigid in my seat, trying to pay attention to my fascinating body.

The poetry reading began

A microphone was handed to the first boy and he began his reading. After he finished I turned to the student who had asked me to read a poem in English for them and told her that I didn’t want to use the microphone. She gave me the look that said ‘it seems we’re using the microphone’.
I didn’t want to use the microphone.

The nervous girl was shaking. The microphone was passed to the next reader.

I contemplated the microphone

I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t trust it. Student after student lifted it to their mouths and spoke softly into it.

Then came the announcement that a poem would be read in English and Spanish. The student’s class and full name was read, and then my name, simply Catherine.

I took the microphone with a smile

As a rule I try to do all such things with a smile. Then I stepped into the centre of the stage and looked up at the students who were amassed in front of me. I knew the names of many of the faces. Every chair was taken and there was a gathering of teachers huddled at the back. I smiled at the students, gave a quick, but visible, playful frown at the microphone and held it out at a distance so it would be sure to not pick up my voice. Then I read the poem.

Slowly. Annunciating each word and throwing the sounds out to the very back of the hall, interrupting the whispered hisses of the teaching staff. The students listened. It wasn’t a beautiful reading, but it was purposeful. It commanded silence and it got it. When I looked up at the children, seated in their rows, I was surprised to see that they were grinning back. Rows and rows of them. I was so stunned they were paying attention I nearly forgot the last line.

When I took my seat, to a round of applause, my student who was reading the Spanish translation read her part. It was her second reading, but this was twice as loud as the first.

My work however was not yet complete

The nervous girl touched my shoulder and I turned to her amid the clapping.

“Look,” I said. And I held out my hand.

It was shaking

She stared at me amazed and I smiled at her. Her eyes widened with the sudden recognition of what I was trying to show her.

And then she took to the stage and gave the best reading of us all.

At this point, having told my story, I want to bring your attention to three specific factors:

1) I have an informal relationship with my students
2) This means I can be vulnerable around them
3) I’m teaching them how to overcome fear by demonstrating it myself

I wear jeans and a t-shirt for school

The children call me by my first name. Apart from the teacher who introduced the speakers, I was the only adult involved. I sat with the students and before and after the reading it was with the students that I chatted.

Generally the students know more about me than any of their other teachers, because rather than standing at the front of the class and giving instructions which they are then expected to follow, I engage them in a two way conversation.

One of the exam questions is, “Would you like to have a small or large family in the future?”

I’m expected to ask this personal question to a class of sixteen-year-olds, and they have no option but answer. Lying in a foreign language you don’t speak very well is surprisingly difficult. It’s a double translation. I regularly give them permission to lie to me, but I also try to respect that I have to earn the truth.

So while I ask questions, I also give example answers talking about myself. This is how I know the girls who write fan-fiction and the boy who plays in chess tournaments at the weekends, and they know I paint and write and take photos.

And that unlike my ancestors I’m not going to be having fourteen children. I’m already much too old.

I’m willing to show the children that I haven’t got everything in my life straightened out

Sometimes I ask students about their plans for the future, and they admit to worrying because they’re not certain. So I share that although I’m twice their age, I feel the same. I’m not certain where I’ll be a year from now, let alone five years from now, certainly not for the rest of my life.

When I showed the nervous girl my shaking hand I was telling her that she was not alone. Nerves are not something you necessarily grow out of, but you can change how you think about them. Many of these children have significant anxiety issues. They don’t have the skills to handle the constant internal fear they are generating.

So often we view our bodies as betraying us, letting us down

It’s easy to get angry at a shaking hand. Yes, my voice trembles sometimes. Sometimes my heartbeat is so forceful in my chest that I think other people must be able to see my rib cage reverberating. When I’m stood at the front of the class I have to take off a few layers because my body is wound up hot.

I used to see these behaviours of my body as a tremendous weakness

My body would overreact to ridiculous things. When my body would slam into panic attack mode I wasn’t exactly grateful. But then I recall that how my body has used these troublesome reactions to protect me, and I am grateful.

When I felt my hand shaking I didn’t see it as something that was going to stop me reading the poem I’d been asked to read. I saw it as a curiosity. I had a commitment to my students to fulfill but when I felt my shaking hand and I realised that this visible quiver could be an incredible teaching tool.
Without needing words, I said I see your fear, I know your fear, and I have faith in your ability to do stand up there and read your poem like it was written to be read.

And without needing words, the student simply said, I see your fear, and I believe you.

Which makes my informal, gentle approach, where I’m willing to open up a little and be realistic about my own uncertainty, worthwhile.

Which brings me to a final question

Why is such a simple approach remarkable?

I invite you to now read the poem I read by Rupi Kaur chosen by my students:

https://www.instagram.com/p/8mLHuSnAyM/

*The children are separated into bilingual and non-bilingual classes, based on a mixture of how good their grades are and how demanding their parents are willing to be. They all study English, but the bilingual students study an additional subject in English as well.

Reducing phone dependence (and not getting stabbed)

By Posted on Location: 6min read
Imagine the conversations that happen here. Greece, 2016.

It is not unusual to hear that there has been some sort of problem with a child at school. These students weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They aren’t hand-held. They are discovering how to get on within society by trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.

Occasionally though, a story you hear doesn’t seem to fit.

One morning I found myself sitting chatting with a teenager, practising exam questions. Her English was smooth, her answers grammatically intact, she had a clean face, her hair neatly brushed. The sort of student you don’t worry about.

But behind the scenes I knew that her story was more complex

That week she’d brandished a kitchen knife at her mother.

Because?

Because her mother had tried to take her phone away from her.

At first I couldn’t believe it

But then I began noticing how frequently the students were touching their phones in class. How when they were straining to find the vocabulary to speak with me, beneath the desk they were caressing their phones like a comfort blanket.

In our heads we might think, how can a child be addicted to her phone, but in our hearts we know a deeper truth. As a society we’re more dependent on our phones than we would like.

When we’re happy, when life is going well, this phone-reliance doesn’t necessarily strike us as a problem

It might strike us as annoying when conversations with friends get derailed by a bleep or a flash, and sometimes we find that more time has slid by than we intended, but by and large we’re just doing as everyone else around us seems to be. It all seems pretty normal.

But life isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. There are days when the phone feels like an anchor, and we are terrified of drifting away. Fingers flick across the screen as if it were an activity as necessary as breathing. We’re seeking out notifications, a moment of acknowledgment of our existence, and a balm for the discomfort of reality.

This article will talk about two techniques I started using when I was in therapy, and one used by my sister.

I love writing and so writing was always going to be a big part of my therapy

Recording how I was feeling, finding words to express the inexpressible, pounding the keys and seeing the words appear on the screen, all this gave me a sense of being me again. But it was touch and go at one point, because beside my keyboard I would place my phone.

My desk is one of those beautiful green-leather topped creations

I rescued it from a junk shop in Wales, telling the man that if he could fit it in my car I would buy it from him. He grinned. Of course the desk would fit. The two legs, thick blocks of ornate wooden drawers detach from the surface, making it easy to slide straight into my car.

It was these drawers, the top ones which are lockable, which I turned to when my mind was a mess. My technique was not complex. All I did was move my phone from resting on the green leather surface to laying in a drawer amongst my papers.

This created a barrier

And the barrier made me think, it made me realize how frequently I was reaching out to my phone. It didn’t stop me looking, but it made me more aware of how often I actually did so. Which made me see how ridiculous I was being, and so, slowly, I stopped.

And began to write more.

But not everyone is trying to create more writing space

My sister doesn’t write in the same obsessive manner as I do. And so the technique she has taken up is slightly different. I visited her for Christmas and was astounded to see a large ball of white wool squished between the sofa cushions.

“My psychotherapist suggested I find something to do with my hands,” she explained

I could understand this. She’s always been a fidgeter, tapping surfaces, wobbling tables, tearing serviettes into tiny pieces. And touching her phone had taken a similar role. Like drumming her fingers on the dining-room table, her constant phone use had become rather anti-social, but unlike tapping her fingers, her phone was just making her feel more and more anxious, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more addictive.

Knitting seems to have stepped into this role

At Christmas, she was simply working on white squares. White was the colour wool she’d found, a remnant of when the Nonna taught us both to knit as children, but since then the Mother has provided her with different colours, and my sister has developed her squares to include different stitches.

It’s a simple way that she keeps her hands busy in the evenings. She doesn’t, after all, want to lose count.

But what do we do about the bleeping screams of our phones?

My second technique (the third in this article), and the one that felt more ruthless, involved saying no to notifications. At first this felt like something rather rude. As my life is moving from solely revolving around being my mother’s poorly child to an independent adult I am having to be a little more lenient in some respects, but in general I don’t have a half-hearted approach for notifications.

I want to choose when you’re allowed to interrupt me.

So I went into the app notifications part of my phone settings and turned off everything

If an email arrives, nothing happens. If someone comments on an Instagram post, the first I will know about it is when I open up Instagram. And if you have me on WhatsApp, unless I would consider myself one of your emergency contacts (i.e. you are my sister), you can assume that you are muted.

Basically, the only people likely to ever get an instantaneous response are my parents and my sister. If we have plans in the next day or two I might unmute you, temporarily. But otherwise my phone behaves as if I had no friends whatsoever.

Now I have a boss and a few clients, I occasionally make a few additional exceptions. When a lesson is cancelled I do want to know. But in general I still stick to my approach of limiting instantaneousness to the moments when I’m the one choosing to chat.

Maybe this lack of availability strikes you as crazy or selfish

Or worse, like I’m avoiding life, running away from people who just want to chat. But this is not the case. This technique allows me to have bigger, substantial chunks of time which I can dedicate to the people I love in a meaningful manner. Instead of a constant pattering back and forth I tend to invite my friends to come visit me, schedule video calls and write longer more in-depth emails.

I have many friends at home with whom I want to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship, but I don’t need to know what they’re doing today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I need to clear time in my diary for them, and then I need to live my life so that when we do talk, I have something worthwhile to say.

You might imagine that ignoring people upsets them

But I actually get more people apologizing for pestering me than complaining that I’m ignoring them. And those people who do complain that I’m ignoring them, or not being a very good friend… well I start to question how healthy our relationship actually is.

These are just three tiny techniques

But by using an array of tiny techniques we can start to build a better relationship with our phones.

But where does that leave our knife wielding teenager?

We can’t know. I cross my fingers and hope that someone in her life will demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with technology to her, and in the meantime, her dependence will be treated with kindness and as the serious addiction, the illness, that it has become.

So what can you do today?

Get mindful about who’s watching how you use your phone. Are you setting a good example, or do you need to experiment with some of these techniques?