Goodbye to a glorious work-free month

We live in interesting times my friends, and since my last post a month ago I’ve simultaneously done loads of different things, and a whole lot of nothing.

I applied for 6 different teaching jobs, five of which were on TEFL.com and one of which I applied for on spec. I heard back from three of them, but decided not to pursue one as the application process was very complicated. I had interviews for the two other jobs and got offered both of them. I turned one down and will be sticking with a job at a really great language school near Victoria, which offers a lot of training and pays you for it. It starts… tomorrow! I’ve prepared for my first class. More or less. Gulp. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere and it’s preparation for going to Portugal.

On that front, we’ve done some painting and decorating in preparation for letting out our flat, and systematically sorting through our things and taking stuff to charity shop, chucking things out, giving things away. One of my concerns is the sheer amount of weird experimental foodstuffs we have in the cupboards and the freezer. I know everyone ends up eating some weird meals before moving house, but ours are going to be much, much weirder than most, and probably consist of seaweed, sauerkraut and a bizarre assortment of pickle and spices.

I’ve also been learning Portuguese, using a book and recordings and an amazing online app that accompanies the book called ‘memrise’. This ‘gamifies’ the memorisation of vocabulary and phrases. Essentially it’s the same thing as using flashcards and repeating it over and over, but way more fun, as you get awarded points and can climb up a leaderboard according to which learner has done the best this week. Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I love it! Memrise is kind of like wasting your time playing a game, only it’s actually useful.

I’ve also been doing some writing. I’ve finished the first draft of a sort of gothic horror story, which is about 9,000 words long. Many of those words are pretty silly and will have to be removed or chopped and changed a lot, but I think it has shape and potential. I’ve joined a meetup group for writers, so I may get them to critique it once I’ve redrafted it. The meetup was wonderfully weird. Writers are interesting, erudite, imaginative, intellectual, passionate people, who are also socially awkward and obsessive over bizarre things. It was lovely to hang out with odd people I didn’t know, talking about books, plot structure, characterization, the devaluation of currency in Zimbabwe and the history of glue and eastern European television towers. I’m definitely going to go next month, and I’ll try to go to a couple of their weekend meetups as well, where everyone goes to a café and sits in silence for 2 hours doing their own writing before having a critiquing session. I never did these kinds of things before my Arvon week, but it’s very motivational to work with other people and to have something to aim for.

I’ve sent some pitches to several history magazines, suggesting articles I could for them on various subjects, but I haven’t heard back yet. I’ll chase them up and then I’ll bombard them with a new round of ideas of try different magazines. I think that getting articles published is a numbers game and you need to be persistent. Just like applying for a job, really!

I’ve also sort of drafted an essay on Aldous Huxley, which I intend to finish, polish and send to a literary magazine that I’ve recently discovered and really liked. I fear it may be setting my sights too high, but if they don’t want it someone else might, or perhaps it will just end up on this blog and have been at least at good writing exercise. But my sister has a cookery motto ‘If you’re not in, you can’t win!’, so I might as well give it my best shot. I’m not sure if ‘if you’re not in, you can’t win’ is in fact a great cookery motto – sometimes less is more. It probably depends on what you have in the cupboard, because putting Japanese fish flakes in your ratatouille does not, in fact, improve it. You can have that lifestyle tip from me for free.

I also went on a wonderful holiday to Northern Ireland with friends. It rained the whole time, but we had a very relaxing time, did some wonderful cooking and added some more odd ingredients to the store cupboard (are you sensing a theme here?). I also enjoyed a wonderful spa day with my sister, to celebrate our birthdays.

And now my glorious month of unemployment is drawing to an end. I think it’s going to be a terrible shock getting back to work! But I’m looking forward to it, and as it’s part-time, I should have time to continue with the writing and the Portuguese as well.

All change! Learning to teach English the CELTA way

My blog has been hibernating since Christmas because I’ve been far too busy to write anything, or to do anything much interesting enough to blog about. That’s because in the the first week of January I started an English language teaching course, and am now the proud owner of the Cambridge Certificate in English Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

For the last three months I’ve been going to classes for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and four hours on Saturday mornings. The Saturday mornings were the worst. I’m not a morning person and I felt cruelly deprived of my customary Saturday snooze. It really was painful dragging myself off to class for 9.30 on a Saturday morning, every morning for 12 weeks. The course was very practical, and involved us observing experienced teachers, and teaching eight lessons ourselves, observed by an experienced teacher who then, along with all the students, pitched in to tell us where we went wrong.

A fresh crop of newly qualified teachers!

On top of this, there was a lot of homework. I completed four assignments, which I found relatively easy. They were only 1,000 words each, so once I’d done the research it took me no time at all to bash out the words. But the lesson planning was a different matter. I can’t imagine anyone ever actually plans a lesson in as much depth as we had to for the course, but it took me an average of 4 hours to plan for a 40 or 60 minute lesson. This seems crazy, but I think it really helped us rookie teachers to do such elaborate preparation before the classes. It’s all been a bit of a hard slog, and fairly stressful too, as you feel you stand or fall by the strength of each lesson. You really, really don’t want to spend 40 minutes or an hour each week humiliating yourself in front of a class of students, an experienced teacher, and your peers. So you’ve got to be prepared.

I found the course incredibly interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about about teaching methods but the key point for me is that you need to engage people’s attention and get them to do something active with what they’re learning. No one’s really sure what the best way to learn or teach a language is, so CELTA uses a mix and match of different techniques and ideas. But one thing is sure, standing in front of people and lecturing them for ages doesn’t teach them anything, or test what they know or don’t know, or help them remember anything. They’ve got to actually DO something, an exercise or activity that uses the language.

This is one of those things that is entirely obvious once it’s been pointed out to you, and that suddenly seems relevant to many areas of life. The idea was a revelation though, and I immediately applied it in my day job as an archivist and records manager. I redesigned our training session for new starters to begin with a competition to see who could build a flat-pack records box the fastest. Ice-breakers and competitions get people motivated. You’d be surprised how excited people got when promised a small prize for making a cardboard box. Then we did an exercise of getting the group to assess the contents of a box against a retention schedule, to decide what to keep and what to chuck out. Most people found this surprisingly difficult. This taught them something, but also taught us something too. Not only were these sessions far more effective for learning, they were also much more fun to teach.

Another surprising thing I learnt on the course was the theory of reading. We were taught to structure a reading lesson by giving students a short period of time to read a piece and answer a couple of quick general questions about it, to get the ‘gist’ of it. This is called ‘skimming’. Then they would have much longer to read and answer more specific questions, which is called ‘scanning’, in other words searching for specific information. At no point did they need to read every single word in the piece, read it out loud, or go through it with a dictionary. In other words, students learnt how to read a foreign language in a functional way, the way native speakers do when reading a newspaper or checking listings. They don’t learn to read in the way you might read a novel, because they’re not going to need to do that, at least not until they’re quite advanced. I found it very interesting to think about the different ways in which we read. It’s a much more complex activity than simply looking at one word at a time and understanding each of them. This will definitely change the way I attempt to read in a foreign language in the future. I’ll worry much less about understanding every single word, and just feel pleased if I can extract the information I really need.

So, why have I spent 120 hours of my free time, plus about 60 hours of homework (when I put it like that, I’m not surprised I’ve been tired), learning to be a teacher? Well, I’ve decided it’s time for a change. I’ve been working in archives for about 14 years now and I want to do something different for a while. My partner and I had talked about moving abroad before, but the problem always was, what would I do in another country? Teaching English was the obvious answer, and once we’d hit on the idea of moving to Lisbon for a while, it seemed like a good opportunity. Why Lisbon? Well, it’s hot, sunny, cheap, the food is good, there are nice beaches nearby, and I found the town impossibly romantic. It has a slightly Tom-Waits-esque air of decaying grandeur, melancholy beauty and cultural melting pot. What more could you want?

Lisbon – not bad, eh?

We plan to move to Lisbon in September, so I can get a job there at the start of the teaching year. In the meantime, I’ve actually quit my job, so I’m going to get a teaching job here in London as soon as I can. I’ll keep you updated on how it all goes!

I’m dreaming of a …. Dark Christmas

I recently watched an amazing Christmas movie. It’s called Rare Exports, and it’s in Finnish with subtitles. The film opens with some crazy Americans digging up a giant hill in Lapland, while two young boys spy on them. They’re opening up a grave. They’re looking for treasure. But the boys know who’s in that hill – it’s Santa Claus! The real Santa Claus that is. The evil one who beats children to death and boils them alive. Can they stop him from getting out and ruining Christmas?

Continue reading

Death in the Archives

Here’s another piece I wrote during my Arvon creative writing week for history writers. I’ve taken some old research and done something new with it. The aim of this piece was to be present in the text as a character, talking about myself and reflecting on my own experiences. The other aims were to fill the piece with changes of ‘texture’, as our tutor called it. It seems an odd word, but it makes sense: a piece of writing needs changes of pace, tone, point of view, etc., otherwise the reader feels it’s all too samey and they get bored. A third aim was to try to include dialogue or reported speech, though I only made a token gesture at that.

Death in the Archives Continue reading

The Forgotten Memorial

As some of you may know, I went on a creative writing course for history writers last week. One of the exercises we were set was to write about the history of the nearby village of Clun. There weren’t any books about it, so we had to get creative: visiting the place, talking to the locals, or in some cases just making up a bit of fiction. Here’s my effort. As you can probably tell I was feeling a bit fed up that day, but honestly I have nothing against Clun, it’s quite a lovely place to visit in fact!

Clun castle

The worst thing about history is that there’s just so much of it. Take the little town of Clun, for instance, nestled snugly in the Shropshire hills. Clun has a seventeenth century alms house; an ex-water mill; an ex-smithy; an ex-cottage hospital; two Churches; a war memorial; and a ruined castle, dramatically silhouetted against the low winter sun. That’s an awful lot of history for a town with only 680 inhabitants. That’s almost more heritage than people.

Continue reading

I’ve been expecting you: on James Bond

*Many, many spoilers alert*

On Wednesday I went to the very swish and very expensive PictureHouse central cinema and watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre. As a side note, the bar staff at PictureHouse didn’t know how to make a Martini, and had to look it up. The end result was predictably unpalatable. Poor effort. Everything else about the cinema is great.

PictureHouse Central cinema

Spectre starts with a terrific action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico city. Blofeld is re-introduced, along with his fluffy white cat, in a new incarnation. There’s a car chase in Rome, and a winter snow chase, involving vehicles other than the usual skis. There’s both fighting and sex on a train, and an unstoppable henchman. Continue reading

What did the Victorians drink? A guide to boozing in the 1800s

One of the things I find most delightful about history is that, while the people of the past wore funny clothes and sometimes thought about the world in a startlingly different way, many things remain the same. I like a drink, and it gives me warm and fluffy feelings to think that British people 200-ish years ago also liked a drink. Or several.

Like all aspects of Victorian culture, drinking was strictly segregated on class and gender lines, partly on account of the expense of booze, partly through custom and preference.

Working class boozers

Working class men and women partook of two beverages: beer and gin. Wines and other drinks were not widely available and were out of their price-range, as they were imported.

Beer has been brewed in Britain for centuries, and until recent times formed a vital part of the British diet. It really was a staple food. Water was unsafe to drink, especially in towns, giving people everything from an upset stomach to cholera. Since water could be deadly, everyone drank beer. This was brewed at home, by women, or in small breweries. Even as a commercial concern, brewing was traditionally one of the few professions open to women. Typical beer had a low alcohol content – maybe 2 percent – and was drunk all day long from breakfast to bed-time by men, women, children, babies, pregnant women, everyone. It was often thick and nourishing, filled with vitamins and minerals from the grains.

Typical boozers

Continue reading

Heroes of History: Annie Besant?

My last post was about the ‘East End Women’s History Museum’ that turned into a Jack the Ripper museum, because apparently women are only interesting if they’ve been murdered. This got me wondering who you would include in a real feminist history of the east end. So I did a little investigation, and came up with the gloriously eccentric Annie Besant. She had a very interesting and varied life, but although she did some terrific things she also did some pretty questionable things. I’m not sure that she qualifies to feature as one of my ‘Heroes of History‘. Besant therefore gets to be a ‘hero of history – QUESTION MARK???’

Continue reading