Finding 3 VHS tapes featuring aspects of my teaching of English in Romania a quarter of a century ago (post on 8th August), together with meeting two of my former pupils, were definitely the highlights of this summer’s visit to Romania. If another project comes off there will be another highlight but ‘Murphy’ being as he is I will only post about that if it comes to fruition.

However, after finding the tapes while clearing my parents-in-law’s attic I was disappointed not to find two books I had hoped were there. After clearing the attic we set about a store room at our small apartment nearby and another couple of ‘gems’ emerged from 14 years of dust.

Enlarging English vocabulary

A picture of the opening pages of the book, generously inscribed by Gheorghe, “To my friend Roger Livesey. My greatest thanks. If you had not helped me this book would not have appeared. Iași, May 21st 2000.One was one of the books I hoped to find in the attic. Titled Everyday topics it was written by my good friend Gheorghe Stan, Head of English at Liceul National in Iași when I taught there. Its declared aim was to  provide a larger vocabulary for intermediate and advanced learners of English. I may well have been able to find a copy of this book at a second hand book dealers which abound in the university city of Iași but, not teaching English any more, I wanted only the copy Gheorghe presented to me with its generous inscription. I was delighted to find it.

An ecumenical English course

Picture of A leaflet about thr course showing Students with (then) Archbishop Daniel, with me on his left.

A leaflet about thr course showing Students with (then) Archbishop Daniel, with me on his left.

Another ‘gem’ was a complete English course I wrote for an ecumenical project set up by the then Archbishop Daniel, now Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The students came from many different east European countries. Mostly beginners, the idea of the course was to enable them to describe their church, both in a spiritual and a physical sense, in English, quite a tall order as they came only with their own languages (or some also with Russian) – Albanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Kazahkstani, Kyrgystani, Latvian, Russian, Slovakian, Ukrainian and, of course, Romanian – from many different backgrounds and several different churches. It was a wonderful few weeks with many social events between lessons.

I had taught on a similar course two years previously but in 2003 I was course director and wrote all the lessons, so finding them (around 50 overhead projection transparencies) was particularly interesting.

Love letters and all

A final collection of ‘gems’ was cards, photos and letters to Petronela from the beginning of our relationship, including the first ever letter I wrote to her, before our relationship began.

Well worth choking on the dust of so many years of hibernation!

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The ‘structure of a fairy tale’ as drawn in my notebook and copied from that to blackbosrd.

The ‘structure of a fairy tale’ as drawn in my notebook and copied from that to blackbosrd.

Looking for misplaced documents for our forthcoming drive to Romania (mostly proof I had paid a speeding fine last summer in case stopped at the border) I was really excited to discover the tattered remains of a notebook from my earliest time in Romania in 1993/94.

Not only did I not know I had it, I don’t remember keeping any kind of diary but there it is, a daily handwritten journal of my first two months in Romania, from early March to late April 1993. Unfortunately I did not record my first three days, but I remember some experiences of those few days very well: snow inside the train; breathing stopped by climbing out into -22degC; meeting with the Zaharia family with which I was to spend 6 wonderful months; a walk to the Ukrainian border from which I was escorted the 7km back to the town of Siret, having taken a ‘forbidden’ photograph’, by two armed (but friendly) border guards.

Teaching English

The journal stops abruptly on 27th April but the handwritten pages jump to November 1993 by which time I was teaching English and, more excitement, records working with some classes VI (12-13 year olds) at school no.1 in Suceava, to write a ‘21st century fairy tale’ for a competition in a British magazine.

Rambunctious

Recently I posted on this blog about discovering a new word, rambunctious.

https://wp.me/pkm0h-1Kt

and suggested this as a theme for the meeting of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, on 7 July. My contribution was not a fiction but a true story, about teaching the classes VI. Here’s part of what I said:

… …

As I say often, ‘now for something completely different’. The only link to the word ‘Rambunctious’ is that had I known it then I would certainly have applied it to class VIa at School Number 1 in Suceava, Romania, which I taught for a while in 1993/1994.

Here’s the story class VIa submitted though eventually the story they wrote had to be edited down to 500 words for the competition.

A 21st century fairy tale

A poster made with the ‘21st century fairy story’ created by the four class VI

A poster made with the ‘21st century fairy story’ created by the four class VI

Once upon a time there was a handsome young man called Mihai. Although he was only 22 years old Mihai was a very clever computer programmer and he worked in a radar station near to his home near to his home town of Putna, in northern Romania.

One day he saw a strange object on his radar screen. It seemed to come from nowhere and land deep in a forest nearby. Mihai went to investigate.

When he came to the spot he saw not an aircraft or spaceship but a strange machine which was surrounded by bright beams of light. Mihai knew they were laser beams. But his attention was captured by a very beautiful young girl who was standing completely still, also surrounded by laser beams.

Are you alright?” asked Mihai.

Yes, but I cannot move at all,” said the girl. “I am Irina. I was walking in the forest when suddenly the machine you see there appeared. A terrible man got out of it. He said his name was Zod. He said he lived at the end of the 21st century but he had seen me on his time scanner and wanted my beauty for himself for ever. He came to our time in that machine; it’s a time machine but something happened and he cannot go back. So he has trapped me here and looks at me every day. The laser rays will kill anything which tries to take me or enter the time machine.”

As Irina spoke, Mihai knew he had fallen in love with her and must rescue her.

I will come back for you,” said Mihai.

He returned in his latest invention, a large transparent globe which could fly, powered by light could transport him as energy to another place, and could deflect laser beams.

However, Zod’s protection was not just the laser beams. He had powerful robots which could transform themselves into anything they chose. When they saw Mihai’s globe they immediately changed to a black slime and coated the globe. Without light the globe was powerless. 

Thinking that Mihai was dead inside it, Zod ordered it to be thrown in the forest. It lay there for days and Mihai was almost dead when along came a bear.

He smelt the globe. It smelled sweet. He licked the black substance. It was sweet – like honey. Soon he had licked it all off.

Light entered the globe and soon it was active again. Mihai returned to the time machine and beamed himself into Zod’s machine.

Zod was a big, powerful creature but, thought Mihai, the bigger the better. I will transform into energy then transport him far away but not materialise him.

This he did. The giant burst of energy burned out all the circuits of the time machine, the lasers were destroyed and Irina was free.

Will you marry me?” asked Mihai.

Of course,” said Irina.

They returned to Putna where their families arranged a big feast.

Mihai and Irina were married and they all lived happily ever after.

THE END

Rambunctious

As I said, if they were excited to produce the story they were beyond control when they learned they had won a prize. We might say they were absolutely …

… rambunctious!

However, in my notebook, I had also written a letter to the editor of the magazine running the competition, before typing. Here’s an extract:

Letter to the editor

What is remarkable is that at the time they had been learning English for only two years – with me only a couple of months.

First each class was given the structure of a fairy story (see my sketch which I had recorded in my notebook) which was copied onto the blackboard (no computers then, so chalk on a real blackboard).

… the class was divided into groups of four and each group wrote their own story then read it (to the whole class). This was followed by a discussion during which I tried to suggest some improvements in the plots to get closer to a fairy story (the boys particularly tended to produce ‘Star Wars’ type science fiction tales).

At the following lesson I held a ‘workshop’ when again the structure of a fairy tale was explained and the vocabulary of the structure relearned. The outline plot and characters were defined.

The children were so keen they asked to come to school on a Saturday morning to produce the final entry. Again this was organised as a ‘workshop’, one pupil writing out the story as it was developed using many of the best ideas from the various groups.

Finally, after typing, a further lesson was used to give the opportunity to recognise and if possible correct any mistakes in English. Any mistakes they could not correct themselves have been left in the final entry.

The story production sequence has been of enormous benefit. Their already high motivation has been even further increased. They have considerably extended their vocabulary and they have had to explore different grammatical structures to reduce the number of words (to meet the competition criteria of 500 words).

RL

There’s more on teaching classes VI at school no.1

Allstars members, all from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, gained many things from their involvement in the internet projects; the confidence to present their work to an audience of adults was one. Here am Allstar/Leo presents to an annual conference of Lions Clubs

Allstars members, all from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, gained many things from their involvement in the internet projects; the confidence to present their work to an audience of adults was one. Here an Allstar/Leo presents to an annual conference of Lions Clubs

I have many fond memories from my time – 11.1/2 years – in Romania but none more fond than my time ‘teaching English’ to a class in an industrial high school in an industrial area of the city of Suceava, an area therefore depressed after the destruction of industry following the collapse of Communism.

A few days ago someone from this class contacted me, see below. I cannot begin to write how exciting this is but I just had to blog about it.

Not the Mafia

The story behind moving to Suceava to teach was all due to my misunderstanding of a Romanian word – ‘Marfă’. I began in a ‘top’ high school, Liceul Ștefan cel Mare, when my intended 6 months stay working in a voluntary humanitarian project in nearby Siret ended. How this happened has been documented on this blog in the past. However when I suggested I wanted to teach less advantaged students there was considerable opposition from the authorities. The overall view was ‘why bother with them, you’re wasting your time, concentrate on the best schools and the brightest students’, an attitude I met in Romania many times then, to the point of causing me many personal problems at the time. Foreigners could then be given a hard time. That is changed now and followers of this blog will know I have spent substantial periods in Romania most years since I left in 2004 and have many friends there.

However, the problems were a contributing factor in my moving to Iași, where I then taught in an ‘industrial high school’ and a couple of ‘top’ schools.

A different way of ‘teaching English’

I didn’t ‘teach English’ in a conventional way; I tried to do it in a way from which my students would not only learn some English, enthusiastically, but build confidence to believe they could achieve anything they wished. This was by involving them in projects with classes in English-speaking countries, UK and Canada if I remember correctly, and subsequently helping them to get involved in volunteering, leading eventually to formation of the third Leo Club in Romania. The projects were on email, beginning with one donated ‘obsolete’ IBM laptop. No Windows – everything was done with MsDos; does anyone remember that? Eventually the class involved in the email projects called themselves the ‘Allstars‘ and went on to form what was the third Leo club in Romania and probably among those with the youngest membership anywhere – the Suceava Burdujeni Leos were then 12-14 years old. Late teens early twenties is more usual.

A ‘Messenger’ request answered

A few days ago I had a request on Messenger from Anca … (the family name I did not recognise). Usually I ignore such requests (my dislike of Facebook except in small closed groups has been well documented) but for some reason I opened the message and was delighted to see it was from my former student in the industrial high school mentioned above. The class have a Facebook closed group and Anca posted that she had ‘found’ me and asked if anyone else from that class remembered me.

What happened as a result was humbling. The general response was “How can we possibly forget?” accompanied in some cases by thanks to me for what they had achieved since, eg a lawyer, an IT specialist, an English teacher, even a tattoo artist! (I didn’t tattoo them, honest!). One was particularly amazing; she said that only a day or so previously she had been teaching her daughter a limerick I wrote for her almost a quarter of a century ago. I didn’t remember it but she had and sent it to me. I remember all the names though I knew them only by their given names (I’ve generally not put them in the photograph captions).

Last year during a short visit to Suceava I did try to find some of these former students but without success. In a way not surprising as I’ve now learnt that many of them are now in other parts of Romania and it’s quite likely some have moved abroad – so many Romanians have. Now I’m hoping that my health will allow me at least one more visit to Romania, when I’ll do my best to meet as many as possible of them in person. Meanwhile, somewhere I have the documentation for the Leo club and will try to find it, together with more of the photographs taken during activities of this wonderful group of youngsters.

I wasn’t able to post here for a couple of days but I must have a grump on a couple of themes, one from UK news on Friday, the other ‘news’ from the school in which Petronela is teaching. Those themes? The continuing treatment of women as second class citizens; the disgraceful state to which education in the UK has been ‘allowed’, or forced, to fall.

Women’s pay

The ‘news’ that, beginning this weekend, women are effectively working for free till the end of the year is a generalisation, a simplification, but it makes the point very well I think.

Women in the UK are, in general, paid so much less than men for doing the same job that half way through November men will have earned the amount that women will have to work till the end of December to achieve.

How on earth do we accept this over a century after Emily Davison was killed protesting at the Epson Derby?

Children in UK who cannot read or write at 11

On Friday Petronela began to teach a ‘low ability class’. Of course some children may be ‘brighter’ than others; whether they should be ‘streamed’ as such is an argument I will not get into, it’s basically the same argument as whether grammar schools should be reintroduced. I have mixed feelings about both. However, she was ‘warned’ there are children in this class 7 who cannot read or write. This after being at school, primary school, for six years.

I’m not suggesting that all parents should, or could, teach their offspring to read and write before they go to school – at five years old in the UK (as my mother did for me, for which I’m eternally grateful). What I am suggesting (not a strong enough word) is that children should not be moved from primary to secondary school without being able to read and write at some basic level at least.

That they are gives the high school teacher an impossible task and disrupts the learning of other students.

UK lowest literacy among developed countries

Way back in 2012 there was an article in ‘The Independent’ newspaper giving some reasons why the UK is lowest for literacy in developed countries (confirmed in recent OECD survey and report) which is still relevant.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-obvious-reasons-why-uk-literacy-and-numeracy-skills-are-among-the-lowest-in-the-developed-world-8871402.html

It is almost the same with numeracy, but I will not get too much into that, except to say that I completed the first five questions in a recent GCSE maths exam paper in my head in a very short time. I could not have done that with a GCE ‘O’ level paper, despite all the assurances that standards have not dropped.

I remember well when Petronela was studying English for GCSE so she could teach in UK (at the time she was working as a teaching assistant) she came home with the question “How do you spell ‘read’?” I was surprised as I thought she knew very well. She told me that a teacher had written something on the board with the instruction to students to ‘Reed this’! Since then we have had letters from school, doctors, hospitals, the local council, etc, with basic spelling mistakes and appalling grammar.

C’ grade is not, in my opinion, a high enough grade in the GCSE English exam to teach any subject, as is the case now. Again, I do not believe all the assurances that this is the same level as was needed to get a pass at GCE ‘O’ level. I am sure that it is not.

I sometimes, as a writer/blogger, indulge in some passages which are not grammatically correct but I know I am doing it, for effect. I sometimes indulge in some ‘journalese’ for similar reasons. I may well have done it in this post. But I would not do it if I were teaching a lesson in school.

I used to tell my students in Romania that you cannot learn to use correct English fluently in the classroom, and vocabulary almost not at all. To succeed with these you have to read, read, and read. What chance do those who cannot have? Little.

To add fuel to the fire libraries are being closed, or threatened with closure, across the UK. Our local village library has been rescued by a team of volunteers.

As I said, reading from an early age is one of the many things for which I am grateful to my mother.

I was so surprised to find myself sitting under a picture showing my high school and a brief history

With that title it may seem odd if I tell you I’m sitting in Wetherspoon, one of a large chain of pubs where they open early in the morning, have free WiFi and serve good (Lavazza) coffee which is cheap: £1.30 for a double espresso (which is what is in front of me as I write this). They also serve a ‘large’ English breakfast for £4.99 if you want it. I do not, I ate my usual raw oats with milk at home.

It is, in fact, the first day of school for Petronela after the summer break. She resigned from the school she had been at for 11 years before we went to Romania as, among other reasons, there seemed little opportunity to teach history, the subject she loves and her speciality,  though she taught Humanities, Religious Studies and Citizenship as well as beginners’ French, even a little Geography, there.

Supply teaching

Time to move on so she has gone ‘supply teaching’, in the UK that means filling in for teachers who are absent for some reason, and this week was the first time a requirement for a fully qualified history teacher had come up. At the moment it is just for this week. As the school is difficult to reach by public transport from our home, I’m the taxi driver.

Right opposite the pub in which I am sitting is recently grassed over space which until a few months ago was what was left of my high school

It is, people might think, a coincidence as Wetherspoon is just across the road from a green space which was, until recently the building in which I went to school – Keighley  Boys’ Grammar School. The school has not existed for many years but the building was demolished only in the past few months.

There are a few more ‘coincidences’. The grammar school was housed in what was the ‘Mechanics Institute’, a magnificent building with a Big Ben type clock tower, built in 1870. A large part of that was destroyed by fire and the wonderful clock tower fell down but, I assure you, I didn’t do that despite my notoriety for building a smoke ring generating machine to disrupt lessons. Anyway, the fire was long after I left.

The magnificent town library. You can just see a corner of what is now a Wetherspoon pub, on the far right

For this week I’ll probably not go home but stay in the town until Petronela finishes, either in Wetherspoon or the magnificent library next door, which also has WiFi. I used to escape to this library when I played truant from school –  a frequent occurence in later years when I disliked school intensely – particularly history (!) and French. I loved maths, physics, English (language, not literature, two separate subjects) and art so attended those lessons diligently and did extremely well in final exams in those subjects. French I had ‘dropped’ earlier when I refused to go to school unless I was allowed to do so.  But the history exam was my glory day. I wrote my name and details as required at the top of the paper, waited the regulation one hour without writing a single word then left.

Apoplectic headmaster

The headmaster was my history teacher; he went apoplectic, even berserk, and I had to go into school on a Saturday morning and sit the history paper; quite pointless of course. There must have been something wrong with the teaching as later in life I set up and ran a history society and, of course, married a history teacher.

Another ‘ coincidence’: my high school was created when a forerunner of the school where Petronela has just gone to teach, a little out of the town, was moved into the Mechanics Institute.

Finally, I sat down with my coffee not taking note of my surroundings, looking at the space which was my school through the large windows in front. Then I noticed the ‘picture’ on the wall to my right, featuring photos of the Mechanics Institute and forerunners with a little information about it and the ‘grammar school’.

As I’ve probably said before I do not believe in coincidence, so await what comes next.

Our real life Cruella de Vil

Returning to UK after the longest period away since I returned, in 2004, from living in Romania there’s so much to write about. Should I settle on a theme or just ramble away as is my wont? The latter is more my style so here goes.

Britain used to be the most liberal of countries and we thought of Germany as very strict and restrictive. Now it seems to have reversed. Stupid regulation after regulation governing everything here, so called ‘Health and Safety’ reaching ridiculous proportions, every child seems to have an allergy so cannot eat this or that (we’d have starved!), excellent recruits for the Nazi SS, unintelligent bullies, controlling train travel (at least on Northern Rail) and car parking, not all of course but a substantial proportion; teachers now expected not only to teach but to take over the role of parents in the most basic of  ‘education for life’; teachers and nurses bogged down with stupid form filling rather than getting on with the job for which they signed up, so leaving their professions in droves. Essential utilities companies, like British Gas (foreign owned of course), hiking their prices by stupendous amounts while rewarding their senior executives with massive pay rises.

We have a perfect Cruella de Vil leading the country using leaving the European Union (I refuse to use that dreadful ‘B…..’ word) as a perfect excuse to remove the power from Parliament and put it in the hands of a few of her lieutenants, so called ‘Ministers’.

Of course, everything is the fault of the immigrants, especially if they’re from eastern Europe or Muslim – I don’t think.

In fact, it’s the fat cats who are determined to get even fatter and roll in their slime.

Even (now this is going to upset 10% of the population) my previously favourite radio station, Classic FM, has sunk further into the money-making mire with repeated self-congratulation from the majority of the presenters, advertisers who seem to think the audience is made up of cretins. Their much (self) lauded 25th birthday concert, with a superb orchestra and chorus (the Liverpool ‘Royals’), was largely rubbish with no obvious reason for the bits and bats played. There was a super rendition of Bartok’s violin concerto by a young man, only 21 I think, and a premiere of a very interesting, exciting, piece composed by a young woman, only 23 years old, whose name I cannot remember but I’ll be seeking her out. With that fabulous orchestra and chorus why the devil didn’t we get, eg, Beethoven’s 9th instead of that mishmash of bits of this and that?

What prevents me jumping in the car and going back across the water? An elderly lady’s smile, sitting on a wall in my village main street and discussing the weather with me yesterday morning while waiting patiently for her bus.

 


A beautiful day at ‘Camping Warnsborn’ near Arnhem close to the German/Dutch border. This is an excellent site and perfect for a first stop after taking the morning ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland and for the afternoon ferry back, being only 1.1/2-2hrs drive from the port. The owners, Felix and Margo, are very pleasant. Beautifully maintained grass for pitching a tent and surrounded by woods; we didn’t have time to explore them 5/6 weeks ago but will do so on this lovely ‘English’ summer day – 24-25degC. It’s easy to find from the E35 motorway as it’s close to Burger’s Zoo, which has clear signs on the motorway after which there are excellent camping signs to the site.


Surprising a good run this morning from the Rhine valley to here, arriving at 1pm after a leisurely drive with no holdups. I’ve mentioned before the inability of Germans to maintain free-flowing traffic around road reconstructions and although we had a clear run some indication of what motorists were in for was given by a kms long queue in the opposite direction to enter Germany. I guess Germans can organise a piss up in a brewery but that’s about it; I don’t want to hear any more about German efficiency, though those in the north seem generally a lot friendlier than those in the south despite the oompah oompah and lederhausen down there.


I probably mentioned the birdsong last time we stayed here at Warnsborn, lovely to wake to, but this time we are visited by many dragonflies; they seem to find Dusty’s open door the ideal place to sun themselves. I got a oic, sort of, but the iPad isn’t ideal and I can’t be bothered with a camera.

In fact the last three days, two in the Rhine valley and one restful now not far from the ferry are an ideal finale to our trip. We just downed a bottle of some fizzy rosé P found in Aldi, about acceptable for the occasion resembling a mildly alcoholic lemonade. Far better was some ‘alt Gouda’ cheese, bought in Germany though we’ll be passing close to Gouda tomorrow morning.

It’s good P is not going back to stress of ‘that school’ and it’s allowed us to miss the rush back for the beginning of school this week. She has meeting with two agencies next week for some ‘supply teaching’; anything is better that the nonsense she had to endure where she been for so many years, much appreciated by the students but not by the so-called ‘senior management’. Better for my sanity too.

It’s good to have such a fine end to the trip (not counting what we might find when we arrive in UK, though we know the campsite is good) after the ‘disasters’ of Hungary and Munich. Thankfully we had the pleasant Austrian site between.