Saturday, July 25, 2009

On Teaching English

It’s much harder than I thought. We all (for the most part) know how to speak our native language and how to speak it well. With that understanding comes difficulties because with a high level of understanding, we have the rules at our command, but not necessarily a clear understanding of how or why.

For example: “in August, I will have been in Prague for over a month.”

It seems like a sentence that is simple enough, but why can’t we just say “August, I in Prague over month.” Well aside from the article (“a”) missing before month, the sentence does not express time correctly or make much sense. Without “will have been” the sentence is not grammatically correct. But what is that and why is it necessary?

The verb conjugation is the future perfect continuous. It is formed with will+have+been+present “ing.” We use the future perfect continuous to show that something will continue up to a particular time or event in the future (in this case, August). If we were to poll all native English speakers I’m willing to bet the percentage of people that knew the proper grammatical form, function and label would be low. Before the course, I was among them.

So how do you explain that to intermediate English learners in a clear, concise way without confusing yourself in the process? This is the challenge. Scale things down even further. How do you explain to elementary learners why “eye” and “I” are pronounced the same but mean different things? You have to be extremely careful with your language because if you don’t watch what you say, they might not understand 75% of what you say. The short answer is lots of hand motions, simple hands-on activities and a lot of patience.

One of the main criticisms I received when I started in the classroom was my teacher language. You literally have to cut all colloquialisms or else the students will not understand. We don’t even realize how much we use them until we think about it:

“Okay, I’m gonna hand out these worksheets and we’ll go over them after you finish up.”

For starters, “gonna.” What does that mean? “Going to” – but the students were never taught “gonna.” Why don’t we just say “going to?” The truth is that it’s a complex matter of linguistics that I don’t really understand.

“We’ll go over them.” The students probably caught the “we+will,” but what is this business about “going over” the worksheet? We place them on the table and jump? Or maybe on the floor and step over? “Finish up?” Do you hold the paper in the air when we are done?

We can begin to see how a single sentence can throw students off before we even say a word about future intentions that have a specific time marker and comment upon the continuous actions leading up to said marker. Oy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Perseverance in Prague (I can keep these p-words coming)

As Paul Pierce once wrote to me: "Perseverance pays." Let's see.

10pm on a Sunday night. So long weekend #2.

I have to say I still struggle to gauge the passage of time here…seems like my body still remembers the time warp of Boston-to-Dublin-to-Prague.

The weekend could not have come sooner. It was, to say the least, a bad week. After clocking around 3 hours of sleep last Sunday night, I came down with a nasty cold that I didn’t really kick until late Friday. I was so busy with school and exhausted from being sick I did nothing but get up, go to school from 9:30-6 (some days as late as 7 or 8), go home, eat, do work, go to bed, and then do it again the next day. I joked to mom and dad that on that schedule, I may as well have been taking the course in Boston. I hardly knew I was in Prague.

The course is really kicking my ass. As of this moment, I find myself on the borderline between passing and failing. When we deliver lessons to our Czech students, we are observed and graded according to a very harsh rubric that demands we teach exactly how they have instructed us during their lectures and demonstrations. I “passed” my first lesson (any score over 60/100 is a pass) on Tuesday. I “barely” failed my lesson on Thursday. Mainly, because I did not get my students to participate more, I used a few colloquialisms (not teacher language), and I did not manage to fit what I had planned into 45 minutes. During both lessons I was in desperate need of Dayquil and a nap, but instead I had to enthusiastically teach under the stifling pressure of being observed. It was delightful.

Sometimes the instructors are less concerned with whether or not the students learn and more with whether we do precisely what they tell us. I’m not here to question it, I just want my certificate. And even though I’m not in terrific position, I’ll get it. I’ve already made a list of things that I need to accomplish in my next lesson Wednesday, and I’m excited to teach healthy.

The basic philosophy they preach follows a “communicative” model. This is an educational theory label for student-based learning. The approach is highly researched in psychological language acquisition, cutting-edge in English pedagogy and challenges the tradition of teaching-based lecturing and explaining. In truth, their methods are excellent and if I did things the way they’ve asked, I would be a great teacher. The difficulty is that not only am I inexperienced at teaching, I’m still in the process of learning their approach.

I am not afraid of failing; many of my peers are in even worse shape. My sense is that as one of the top ten TEFL schools in Europe, they won’t just hand these degrees out, and for that, I don’t blame them. My only issue is that you are not really aware of how difficult this is and how seriously each person risks failing until you’ve already tanked a lesson and put yourself behind the 8-ball. The scathing criticism that follows borders on belittling sometimes, but they are accurate in their evaluations. I’ll pull through.

SO. I think we start to understand why I haven’t seen much of Prague. It’s a shame, but I won’t see anything anywhere if I fail, so I guess I can handle seeing a little bit on weekends only for the last two weeks of the course. It will have to do. For now, I’ll share what I’ve got:

I snapped these while wandering around last Sunday evening. Let me preface by saying this is but the tip of iceberg. To lead off, it's Chuck the emperor!
This is right next to the Charles Bridge - the bridge featured in my the header picture - is probably one of the densely tourist-y parts of Prague at any given moment. It's overwhelming. Here's my attempt at a similar shot:

One thing that is unique to Prague is the cubist architecture. It's one of the only places in the world you can find buildings like this.
Crazy. On the other hand, Baroque style and influence is not unique to Prague, but it is no less gorgeous for it. This is just a sampling of one of thousands of street corners in this style:

Perhaps I should show some pics of "home" - a place I've spent much more time in than I would like to have, but so it goes. Below, my concrete slab of a bed. I made the bed just to take the picture...

Here is our hallway. First door on the right is the shower/sink, and the second door on the right is the toilet. They are separate, and this is usual here. They also love to position the toilet so that when you close the door, your nose is practically touching it when you've seated.
The tiny kitchen. It's not so bad, but I could use a little more room to move. It would never work for more than just my roommate Anders and I.
We have a fridge and a washing machine! This must be the post-Soviet era!

But seriously, it's nice having a washer, even if it's cleaning abilities are suspect at best. I've resolved not to put anything "nice" in there.

Week 3 starts tomorrow. Better things, people, better things.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dobry den Praha!

It is now 2:59PM local time. I awoke about an hour ago.
In Prague, the metro stops running at midnight, but it resumes service at 5:00am. Realizing that we would stay out past 12, our crew kept the metaphorical “train” rolling until 5. Thus, I got home at around 5:30. I actually feel pretty good.

I suppose now would be a good time to relate my horrific arrival. To make a long story short, my delays in Dublin put me in a bind. Upon arriving at the airport, I discovered that Bank of America put a hold on my account because of fraud suspicion. Although I had clearly explained to them well beforehand that I would be using my ATM/debit card in the Czech Republic in July, they still f'd up. Wonderful.

So I found myself running on less than an hour of sleep after 30 hours of shenanigans on planes and the streets of Dublin with only 20 Euros in my pocket, no phone, no transportation, and no internet connection. Wireless was not available at the airport, so I was unable to make a call to BOA. I had explicit instructions that my housing fee had to be paid up front in Czech crowns and I had nothing. After approaching the information desk in the airport, she paired me up with a Brazilian dude that was also after an internet connection. She directed me to the Marriot across the street. So with all our baggage, I explained to him in Spanish that he did not really understand or trust that we had to file over to the hotel to get internet. Portuguese isn't as close as it sounds. Upon arrival there, it took about a half hour to purchase 15 minutes of internet use that I realized did not work on my computer, so I had to use a desktop in the lobby. It did not have the internet phone program Skype that I use to make calls. For a moment I tried to run the cable directly through my laptop, thinking I was real clever, but it didn't work either.

After saying my goodbyes to the Brazilian still trying to communicate with the front desk, I filed back over to the airport, and shared my woes with the information desk again. She directed me to a phone that was on the other side of the airport that took me another half hour to find. By this point, I was sweating buckets and not thinking clearly at all. I finally found the phone, but ALAS I had no change. Wonderful.

Hesistating to purchase a calling card with my euros, I found a swipe-and-call phone booth and called the emergency line of my program. I landed at midnight and it was already almost past one. The woman I spoke to from TEFL Worldwide told me not to worry about the money and just catch the shuttle that they had arranged for me. So back outside the airport I went.

Shooing numerous cab drivers away, I waited for another half hour or so before realizing that the last shuttle left at one. Great.

I went back in to the information desk, by this time I think the woman and I had a blossoming friendship going. She advised me to try taking a cab. I thought, maybe this will work. So as I shuffled out again, a guy smoking a cigarrette asked "cab?" Yes, I responded and explained my financial situation. He immediately said "no problem!" Now we are getting somewhere.

So off I went. The ride was a long one and the cabbie seemed to not know the hotel I was supposed to meet the woman at. It would be no stretch to say I was in anxious shambles. Something about the driver rubbed me the wrong way and my imagination started to run wild. Central/Eastern Europe has a unique vibe. It may come from the crooked nature of Soviet rule and industry, it may be the disbelief in the use of deodorant, but as we took one dark, deserted street after another, I convinced myself that he was set to jam the brakes at any moment, demand my wallet, computer, iPod, and camera and kick me to the curb. His strange taste for acoustic American pop music and frequent glares in the rearview only made things worse. I clutched my pen and prepared to use it if necessary. I was strung out like a kite.

Fortunately, my fears did not become reality, but I was anything but home free. We pull up to the hotel and he turns and says 40 euros. Wonderful.

In every sense, he was furious. He quickly locked the doors so I couldn't get out. Again, I begin to fear for my valuables.

Me: "I told you at the airport I only had 20 euros."
Him: "You said euros, I said I accept euros."
Me: "I don't have any more"
Him: "Well then we go to cash machine"
Me: "That's quite impossible...(and then I proceeded to explain my deteriorating relationship with Bank of America)"
He was less than sympathetic.

Leaving my bags in his trunk, I ran into the hotel and found the woman I was to meet. I decided she may be able to make some headway in Czech. They conversed and the jist was that he may have misunderstood what I said because of his English, but I was on the hook for the fare. I was too tired to be clever enough to make a peace offering of free private English tutoring lessons. With the help the woman, I dig deeper in my wallet and discovered some US dollars. $9, in fact.

We concluded by agreeing I would give him another $10, so I handed him the $9 and we split. We got far enough away that he was too frustrated to chase me over a buck, but I heard some ungodly Czech curse words.

When I finally called BOA on Monday and had something to eat and drink for the first time since Dublin, I had to explain to the employee that yes, the Czech Republic is a country, I was quite starving and would appreciate if he could fix things as soon as possible, and no, it is not spelled like "check." Typical bank.


To get things started last night, most of my fellow teachers-in-training met up for dinner last night at a Mexican place. We got there after an adventurous journey in the complete wrong direction. At one point, I borrowed a map from a pack of rowdy Brits from Birmingham as they filed into a pub. Because of my chops, they didn’t believe I was American, but rather thought that I was a pimp of sorts. Prague has stretch limos that are basically brothels on wheels and dudes approach potential customers on the streets. After assuring them I only want to use their map, they gave my chops a tug and then directed me towards a park where they claimed you could…

For once, I think I will censor myself. Let’s just say there are some strange things happening in the bushes of some of the parks here.

It sure is cheap. I like to gauge how expensive a city is on the average cost of a beer. In Copenhagen, you may recall beers ran between $8-10. Here, you can get a half-liter (17 ounces, just over a pint) for around 20 crowns. 18 crowns to the dollar makes for about a buck a beer. This is dangerous.

It raises one of the greater challenges I’ve faced. Everything is crazily cheap, but it does not feel like it when I’m tendering 100 and 1,000 crown notes. After dinner, beers, etc. last night, I still only managed to spend ~400 crowns (~$25USD). Amazing.

Thursday was a big day. I taught my first 45 minute lesson alone and I managed to purchase a lighter for my stove with what little Czech I know and made myself a nice stir-fry dinner.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Dobry den!”
Cashier: “Dobry den.”
Me: “Prosim vas [hold up hand, make lighter motion with thumb, friction sound with mouth]?”
Cashier: “__________?” (I think she said the Czech word for lighter)
Me: “Ya!” (nodding my head like an anxious dog, practically with my tongue flapping)
Cashier: “Yo.” (goes and gets one from the other register)
Me: “Djequi!”

Only a few words, but I felt very accomplished because she understood me immediately. The woman that typically works the register laughs at me (more like with me) every time I come through her line and try to speak Czech. Sometimes I go twice a day. Four days in, I feel like I really have the hang of it. It’s a great feeling.

Much of the comfort I feel already comes from the conclusion I reached when I left Spain. People are living a pretty similar life over here. The language, food, and cultural differences aside, it is not too hard to adjust to with the right attitude (meaning that at times you’ll be unable to make yourself understood, but it comes with the territory).

There are still some adjustments. For one, I’ve found it difficult to run here. Unfortunately, there really aren’t many sidewalks here as the my neighborhood layout, as it is further from the center is really just a series of apartment buildings and condo areas connected by main roads and the subway. Also, I get crazy looks from all the locals. Running is not at all common here; even more so further from the city center. Many Czechs would prefer to stay home, drink 3 liters of beer and eat sausages that contain a week’s worth of fat and cholesterol.

My course is intense. Our days often run from 9:30-6 and we are constantly learning a new method or planning a lesson in groups or individually. Though it has kept me busier than I expected and kept me from exploring the city much so far, I think it is incredibly rewarding. When I step foot in my first classroom, I feel like I will know what I’m doing. It’s made me appreciate the art of teaching. So much of effective education comes out of creative and thorough planning beforehand. The idea is to show up, be organized, control the flow of the classroom, but let students do all the work during class. If you are able to explain things clearly and plan effectively, the teacher becomes a passive presence while students take control of their activities and worksheets.

This weekend, I hope to actually “see the sights.” Hopefully then I will actually have some pictures to show off.

Monday, July 6, 2009

En Route to Prague, Installment Two: Dublin

This blog post is much less of a live update than the last, but to stay true to the spirit of my notes, I will type them as I recorded them in my journal. I am currently exhausted and hungry after a series of difficulties I had once I landed in Prague. But that is a story for later. I am getting ahead of myself. In order to pick up where we left off, we rewind to Saturday aboard the plane for Dublin.

5:48PM Made it on the plane. Already sick of carrying around my absurdly bulky backpack. My back is killing me.

Funny observation #1: The Irish (at least aboard Aer Lingus) pronounce "H" with an emphasis on a "hah" sound so it comes out like "hheych." I am seated in row 41, seat H.

6:05PM Seatbelt fastened. The anticipation builds.

6:24PM Take off.

Uneventful flight, uncomfortable seats, was only able to relax the eyelids for maybe 45 minutes.

11:58PM We land in Dublin. Local time 4:58AM. I will now switch to Dublin time, but refer back to time as my body perceives it for effect.

5:16AM A sneeze attack strikes as I make my way through border control. Though it was embarrassing, it may have led the border police to stamp my passport and wave me through faster than they would otherwise.

6:00AM Waiting for a bus into the city center. I just picked up some Euros, realizing how much I kind of missed the monopoly money. It's a shame that now I have to figure out Czech crowns.

6:19AM Having boarded my bus, I have U2 blasting in my iPod. My body is already starting to question this sunrise at midnight phenomenon, but I'm having a blast. There are Mike Biernes all over the place (cheers dad).

What to do @ 7am on a Sunday in Dublin? I need to get my hands on a decent city map.

6:28AM Oh boy, the old drive on the left side of the road number. Not as scary as it was the first time around.

6:38AM "Where the Streets Have No Name" plays. Dublin appears to have streets with names.
6:51AM This place is sleepy. The only other person I've seen out here was an elderly woman wearing a red, white, and blue cowboy hat and a flourescent yellow construction vest (I couldn't tell if there was anything underneath...ugh). After listening to her ask me the same slurred question three times, I got the jist. Apologizing, I told her that unfortunately, I was fresh out of cigarettes. She probably attended some sort of mocking July 4th event at a pub the night before and had yet to find her way home.

7:34AM After snapping some photos around the Liffy River (above) I decided to stop for some breakfast and coffee. Maybe that will set my body straight. Doubtful. It's 2:34 in the morning man, what do you mean it's breakfast time?

7:59AM Toast, eggs and coffee have really helped me shape up (so far as I can tell at the moment). I've managed to gather more city maps and now I figure that if I tour the Guinness factory, I may as well check out the Jameson distillery as well. Don't worry - I have no aspirations of getting out of hand here. If I expect to make it to Prague, we must have some discipline.

8:10AM Just met an Irish guy at this cafe that had just returned from Boston, where he had apparently been for the past month. We joked and bitched about the rain and marvelled at the sunny Dublin skies. I caught about 60% of what he said.

Quote on the wall: "Work is the curse of the drinking class." Oscar Wilde

8:37AM A very nice Indian family took my picture in front of a war memorial.

To the distillery!

9:26 Jameson not open until 10AM, to the Guiness factory (open at 9AM daily).

The tour was a pretty typical explanation of the brewing process, history, and legend of Guinness, though they clearly spent loads of money making it as engaging and interactive as possible.

Through the tour I was really just biting to get to the tasting - but WHAT a finale IT WAS!

A cleverly dynamic renovation has created a skytop glass panorama of Dublin with a free pint, fresh from downstairs, to boot. MY GOODNESS MY GUINNESS!

10:28AM Along the way I learned the proper pub pour of the elegant drought. Using an authentic Guinness pint glass, you pull the tap and run the beer down the side of the glass part of the way, tipping late and stopping short of the golden harp. Wait exactly 119.5 seconds, then tip the tap in the upwards, filling the glass the rest of the way with a perfectly formed head. The pourer or drinker is then left to marvel at the settling of the beer, which the Guinness people called "the surge."

The Guinness pint is a true thing of beauty. The freshness was unlike any other I have tasted. The bitter chocolate and coffee notes were so clear and crisp.
10:45 This view is unreal. Increasingly so given the sleep deprivation and beer.

11:39 The Jameson Distillery Tour. Yes, I squeezed both in before noon (or 6am according to my body). So it goes when you arrive as early as I did. The tour starts in 6 minutes and I am excited. While I am having plenty of fun on this solo adventure, I would of course rather be doing

this with friends. I haven't stopped noticing little things around the city that I know certain folks back home would appreciate (Ryan loved Lucozade energy drinks, no one appreciates Guinness like Brendan, and Patty used to go through Jameson like crazy when it was on sale).

12:45 Just wrapped the tour. Jameson certainly takes pride in its craft and in the process of doing so, puts down other whisky styles and producers. Most particularly, they seize on every chance to hate on the Scots and their "inferior" Scotch whiskey. There's a strong sense of triple-distilled superiority and suspicion of smoky peat perversions. They also trash on Jack Daniel's.

The tour guide was knowledgable but indifferent and blunt at times...I would have expected him to have shown more enjoyment of such a sweet job. Seriously.

Though the Jameson-cranberry juice is apparently an old Dublin favorite, I took mine on the rocks. No need for additives aside from temperature and mild dilution.
On my way out, I found a restaurant/bar (apparently voted one of the best in Dublin) called The Church! Go figure.

1:15 The rain has begun to come down steadily...this is, after all, Ireland.
1:51 Found a pub to grab a bite and wait around a bit before hopping a bus back to the airport. I thought I was about to watch a soccer match between Cork and Limerick, but it turns out that its actually Gaelic football. It's kind of like rugby meets basketball meets soccer. I am SO confused.

Here's a link with a clip of that explains some. I still don't get it.

Staring at my pint, I still don't understand how the brewing process is so similar to other styles, but the final product is so distinct. I wish I was back at the top of St. James Gate again. It was amazing how big Guinness really is in Dublin. When I would stroll through a pub, it seemed like 90% of the patrons (especially even the ladies) had a Guinness, and these people were no fair weather tourists. Even Budweiser doesn't have that kind of pull in the States.

2:50 I befriended an Irish guy named Sean and he was trying to help me understand the rules to the game. Unfortunately, he got the boot from a bouncer in the pub after trying to go out for a cigarette. I didn't think he was in that bad of shape, but who am I to question.

3:03 One for the ditch?

4:12 On the bus back to the airport. The U2 song of the moment is "In God's Country." The rain continues to fall.

9:16 Aboard the plane to Prague. It was not easy to get on. Initially, we had a full half hour delay due to a passing lightning shower. Once we finally boarded the plane, we sat for about another half hour before the captain informed us that due to a mechanical problem, we would have to get off the plane until it was fixed. Wonderful. Another hour passed before we finally were able to get on and take off.

I am beat, and hopefully I will sleep well tonight. Still having difficulty sleeping on the plane. It does not help that there is not one, but two screaming children that will not cut it out aboard.

11:59PM (Local Czech time, one hour ahead of Ireland) the plane lands.

And so it begins.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Prowl for Prague live updates: Installment One

12:11PM: What am I forgetting? I should probably go help dad with the lawn. One more mowjob for the ages.

1:33PM: The McGuirks, Mullin, and Bobby came over for farewells. I really have a hard time with these goodbyes. Not sure when I will see them again or where they will be or what they'll be doing next time we meet. Heavy duty.

Having studied abroad in Dublin the semester before I was in Spain, Bobby suggested a tour of the Guinness factory during my 13-hour layover-blowout extravaganza.

2:00PM: Mom has decided that the 4th of July and my departure day is an ideal time to apply caulking to the molding in the upstairs bathroom shower. I take my last shower in the US outside.

2:49PM: We depart. Temperature 87 degrees Fahrenheit (not sure what that is in Celcius, maybe I'll learn this time around). Kourtney would not let go of the bear hug. Brandy was indifferent. Mom expressed her opinion on European marriage. Much too soon.

3:03PM I93 split. The gravity of the day is suddenly palpable.

3:14PM A plane flies overhead. Not sure is the rumbly in my tummy comes from nerves or the lunch I ate entirely too fast. Likely the former, but it's not a fear of flying. Again, it's the gravity thing.

3:17PM A billboard featuring another hilarious Snickers pun eases the tension.

TIME UNKNOWN: The drop-off and parental goodbye. After all the speculation and predictions, it went very well. Dad may have been more emotional than mom, surprisingly.

3:32PM: I check in with Aer Lingus. Thankfully, my bag is under the 20kg limit. The pleasant foreign lady behind the counter found herself confused by my two first names-name. She addressed me as Richard. Please, call me Dick (what I should have said).

Though they are separate flights 13-some odd hours apart, she arranged for my baggage to be forwarded on to Prague. In the process, she had to advise not one, but two of her coworkers to accomplish this to satisfaction on her computer screen. To say that I am skeptical that I will find my bag safe, sound, and timely when I get to the other side is an understatement. So it goes.

3:59PM: A seemless pass through security! Who knew. No issues with the chops, scrutiny of the one way ticket, and THANKFULLY, no colonoscopy as predicted by Uncle Gerard.

4:01PM: Middle age married couple arguing about who forgot to pack the toothpaste as we all struggle to put our shoes and belts back on and gather our personal effects.

Hubby: "I can't manage your personal toiletries, I have my own to worry about."
Ol' Lady: "But we're

To mom: Fear not your son's marriage anytime soon.

4:41PM: Listened to my first U2 track to get in the mood for Dublin: "One Tree Hill."

5:02PM: A 6PM flight within the hour. Dublin here we come.

Fireworks and Departures

As I sit here typing, my mind continues to jog in an effort to remember all the things I am forgetting. I may as well take comfort in the inevitability. So long as we have the passport, all is well.


I plan to try a new format to document my journey from Boston to Dublin to Prague. I'm jotting down to-the-minute updates on my progress and thoughts as I venture halfway around the world. Hopefully, I will be able to post these in chunks, and I will be sure to number them to avoid confusion, since posts appear in reverse order with the most recent first.

Here we go...