On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach a group of five 15- to 18-year-olds. They may know the language of grammar (auxiliary/modal/state verbs, adjectives, subject/object/pronoun etc), but putting the rules into practice is an entirely different matter. They’re a really entertaining group of kids, and I enjoy the lessons. However, they are experts at diverting onto subjects that they want to talk about, rather than the things that I think we should cover. Let me take you back to last night’s lesson …
I start by recapping on past continuous vs past simple, which we had covered in the previous class. I then illustrate this by playing the song ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ by Human League. (You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, when I met you. See? Genius!) They enjoy this, but as soon as the song finishes there is a flurry of Italian. This often happens, and is usually one of the weaker students trying to work out how to say something in English. (They are still very much at the stage of direct translation, which makes for some amusing sentences at times. ‘You do me? Yes?’ Er – no …) I listen in, and catch the words macchina and cimitera. Worrying! Cars and graveyards are not really two things which you want to hear linked together in a sentence. I must be pulling one heck of a face, as there are gales of laughter, and they switch to English.
‘What religious you?’ This isn’t what I was expecting at all, and the confusion must be showing on my face. They misinterpret this as me not having understood the question, and launch onto another tack.
‘The man he … er …’ (Mime of smells and bells action, along with blessing and singing.)
‘Oh, you mean priest?’ (Katja writes new word on board and students diligently copy it down.)
‘Yes! Yes – er … he can marriage?’
You have to admire their tenacity. They may not have much vocabulary, but they generally get their point across. We go on to have a short discussion of Roman Catholicism vs Church of England/Anglicanism. This is a bit of a minefield, as I’m not totally sure of the ins and outs of the various strands of Christianity either, but I manage to teach them that CofE priests are called vicars and yes, they can get married. I mentally abandon the rest of my lesson plan. Federica, the girl who is leading the discussion, usually sits silently in the corner looking terrified; English conversation on random subjects is miles better than nothing at all.
‘In classroom, you like crucifix?’ (pronounced croo-chee-FEEK-sa, and accompanied by one of the other students jumping in excitedly with ‘cross! cross!’) I’m not quite sure what they’re getting at here, and, again, clearly look mystified. She carries on. ‘Because in Italy, is big problem. Croce (cross! cross!) – er, yes, cross in classroom. Teacher no like. You like?’
Five teenage faces grin expectantly at me. I giggle nervously. ‘Er – they’re fine?’ I mumble. ‘You like?’ ‘Well, I don’t mind them …’ Is this really the moment to start trying to explain the niceties of ‘like’ vs ‘don’t mind’? Oh well – I’ve done it now. Luckily, it passes them by. Phew. They are now far more concerned with trying to establish why, if I like crosses, there isn’t one in the classroom. This is easy – I can blame it all on the boss. Hurrah! ‘But – boss Italian, no?’ Well, yes. Yes he is. ‘He teach religious at Cambridge, no?’ That’s a new one on me, but I suppose it could be possible. ‘I don’t know – maybe he did …?’ They seem pretty convinced of this fact, which is, of course, lending weight to the argument for a crucifix in the classroom. I’ve completely lost the thread by this point and am merely standing there looking confused, while they argue it out between them. Eventually they decide that it’s because this must be the way that classrooms are in England. ‘You no learn religious in England, si?’ Idiot me decides to be honest. ‘Well, actually, yes. I went to a church school …’ (At this there is an incredulous ‘Si?!’ from all of them.) ‘…and my brother’s wife is …’ At this point, Ettore, who has been unusually quiet for the last five minutes, chimes in. ‘Brother’s wife?’ Damn. Possessive ‘s’. ‘Er – yes, the wife of my brother.’ ‘Wife?’ Oh sweet lord. This is getting really complicated now. Luckily, the girls are on the ball. ‘Si! Ettore – che stupido! – Cognata!’ Ah yes! I knew I knew the word for sister-in-law – I’d just forgotten it at the crucial moment, as usual.
Having got that out of the way, I reveal that she is, in fact, a religious studies teacher. This is almost too much for them to take. Religion? In England? In SCHOOL? Mamma Mia! They are a little disappointed to find out that SIL educates children on all religions, not just fire and brimstone christianity, but clearly curiosity has now been satisfied. We can now move back to Eleonora’s favourite subject: teasing me about Alex.
A few weeks ago, again in one of the class’ distraction maneouvres, they started to ask me about myself, and discovered that Alex and I are flatmates. This resulted in a hilarious exchange, in which Eleonora asked me if I ‘wash Alex slips’? I misheard this, and thought she was asking if I watch him sleep. Confused (as ever) by this, I asked her to repeat. When I still didn’t understand what she was asking, Ettore, with a grin, flashed the waistband of his CK (of course) underwear. ‘Slips! You wash?’ Yet another occasion when I have found myself literally doubled over with laughter at the unpredictability of my students. I’m not sure they believed me when I said no; Eleonora has now taken to popping her head around the door of Alex’s classroom before lessons and saying hello to him, accompanied by a cheeky wink and storms of giggles. I think he may also get a ‘hello baby!’ at the end of the class, as I do. As ciao means both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, lower level students often get confused. I always reply with ‘bye bye!’, but the subtle hint isn’t getting through. I’m going to have to point it out soon – but it’s just so cute …
Photo by pedroprats on Flickr