Monday, 28 December 2009


I grew up a Roman Catholic, in a London parish attached to Ealing Abbey, a Benedictine foundation. The Abbey also runs a school, run and taught by monks and lay teachers, where all 3 of my brothers went, and where my father taught History, Classics and advised on careers.

In recent years one of the monks (a former head of the junior school) was accused of sexually abusing boys, suspended from serving, and investigated by the police. Dom David Pearce was found guilty and jailed for 8 years. The Charity Commission has investigated and criticised the Abbey for its handling of the case - you can find the report here:

I remember Father David well - and remember that my brothers and their friends disliked him greatly. Perhaps now I have some idea why that was!

What makes it more appalling and baffling is that he continued to abuse after he was suspended and under police investigation. I can't imagine what he was thinking (was he mad? was he addicted? did he think he was immune?)

It also seems pretty clear that the Abbey did not do enough to protect young people in their care, and that they need to sort themselves out. The Abbot apparently apologised during Mass to the parishioners, but I wonder whether lessons have actually been learned.

A personal sideline on the story - and a terrible warning, if you like - is that David Pearce had himself been a pupil at St Benedicts. He left the 6th Form intending to become a dentist, but my father, who was his careers advisor, made the following note about him: "priest?"

For years after my father's death, my mother mentioned that as an example of my Dad's wonderful insight....


Of course if Pearce had gone on to become a dentist and abused young lads from that position of trust, the profession of dentistry would have been horribly tarnished instead.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Err... yes... ahum... hi there

Been very quiet for a long time - variations between nothing to report, and oh-Lordy-so-much-going-on-it's-the-last-thing-I-can-do-to-blog-about-it.

Well, that's holidays for you.

I'm now back in the UAE, back at work, and no less busy than ever. A bit fitter and thinner (marginally) and taking steps to become more so. Back behind a screen more often, as well.

So there will be more to come.

Some of it might even be good.

Watch this space, as they used to say on telly.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Meanwhile... back at the farm...

While all this has been going on, back in my home country we're having an election.

Not the kind of election most people get excited about, where you might have an outside chance of changing the government. Nor the kind of election that it seems from away over here my compatriots would rather enjoy at this stage, with greedy, self serving MPs swinging from every lamppost.

No, it will be one of those elections people don't normally bother to get out of bed for. Except tomorrow, I rather think they will.

We (or rather they, as I missed my registration) are voting for local government councillors and members of the European parliament... I'm ashamed to say I don't know who my MEP is. This sort of thing would normally attract a turnout of about 20% of the electorate, in a good year. Tomorrow I hope it will be massive. The opinion polls don't really know how to read it: bad for Labour, the party in power (a massive recession followed by a huge scandal... lovely!) but possibly also bad for the Tories (umm... what's different about them on policy?... errr....).

One curious thing over the last 20 years or so is that there has become essentially no difference in policy between the two main parties: both agree with more privatisation, even of social services like the NHS, deregulation of business and financial services (and we now know how well that has worked out) and increasing authoritarian control.

We haven't, so far as I am aware, ever had a national debate about whether we wanted these things (in fact I seem to recall all parties insisting that they were NOT trying to sell off the NHS, the London Underground, schools, the Post Office, while all the time the creeping tides of privatisation lapped ever higher around them).

But where there is no difference in belief, parties have to compete on their competence and honesty. Nobody's debating what the government should do, just whether party x or party y will manage to do it without leaving top secret information on the 7.15 train to Waterloo, and without vastly enriching its MPs at public expense.

The Labour party has failed on both counts, but the Conservatives have been equally corrupt, and show no signs of being any more efficient.

So it's an interesting election all right. I wish I was there.

Playing God with the Mogs

Roxy's kittens are thriving and rampaging around the house.

While still feeding them milk, Roxy celebrated the kits' near-independence by ... going on heat and rampaging around the house singing her eerie love songs. I suppose that, having made a rather good job of bringing 4 healthy moglets into the world, she thought now would be the time to start another 4, and another, and another.

We thought otherwise. She was scragged, bundled into one of the shiny new cat carriers we've got, and delivered to the vet under protest.

He's a good man, our vet. Very critter-oriented, it took 3 visits before he made eye contact with us primates. All the same, we felt like murderers.

She was at the vets for 3 days, during which the kittens wandered about looking anxious and deprived. We did much the same.

Yesterday we brought the poor mog back, complaining loudly. Her flank has been shaved and painted blue, with a neat row of staples pinning her wound together. I sat in the back with the cat carrier open and stoked her head all the way home. At first she was just cowering and moaning (especially on the roundabouts - not surprising given some of the driving we could see), but as we got into our neighbourhood she stretched her neck up to peer through the windows, and I would not be surprised if she recognised perfectly well where we were.

Once indoors she was immediately surrounded by the kittens, who sniffed her, kissed her whiskers, stroked their tails along her flanks, and licked her ears. She licked them back. It was so clearly an affectionate reunion that we felt, if anything, even more guilty for taking her away. The next thing was that she lay down and fed them... at least, they all sucked away frantically and, apparently, we satisfied.

She is obviously aching and rather cranky - tends to crouch and moan, and walks stiffly. This will pass. But she has also lost some of her trust in us, and is not happy having us pick her up. She cowers when we come close, which is upsetting. It seems that she is afraid we will grab her, stick her in a cage, and whisk her away to a strange place where people do painful things to her.

The worst of it is that we will, on Sunday, when we take her back to have the staples taken out.

Poor Roxy.

She'll get over it, but I'm not sure whether we will.

Monday, 1 June 2009

so much to blog, so little time

The pace just gets quicker, with teaching and grading, testing and final presentations all galloping faster and faster to the end of the week. Something in my brain goes dead and I find myself sneaking peeks onto the net...

And answering emails. There has been an email-based debate about teaching vocab here - basically, what when and how.

The background to it is that on the course I teach, a new target is for students to "learn" - which means they must be assessed - on the Academic Word Lists, the top frequency words in Academic writing.

This came in for the first time 2 years ago. So one of my big jobs last year was devising assessments... which we now have a bunch of.

Oddly, the requirement for the course was that students should demonstrate passive understanding of 65% of the list and active production of 60% of the list... I suspect the figures should be rather different for realistic language learning (I'd guess 75% passive recognition - 50% active production would be more likely, though I don't know any research on the figures).

Anyway, devising an instrument that assesses production is quite hard, and the freer the production the harder it is.

There is now the suggestion that some of the AWL should be devolved down onto the level below.

However, the problem I notice most is not with students learning an academic word list (they are good at "learning" - in the sense of "memorising the translation of" lists of words). It is with the more basic vocabulary - what is often called the basic 3,000 words.

Plus they suffer difficulties with forming sentences and word forms (as in history - historical - historian) - it seems hard for students to recognise what a plausible sentence of English looks like, even into their 2nd year. Obviously, this affects their writing, but it also affects their reading.

A lot of exam reading comprehension consists of recognising parallel expressions (so in a text which mentions "eyesight" the question might ask about "vision") - one expression might contain the Academic list word but the other will use a paraphrase.

Students sometimes say "I know what this means in Arabic" but being unable to find other English words is a barrier (and it also encourages students to plagiarise... another can of worms).

Personally, I think that more lists would be pretty deadly - another move, as if we needed more, towards the "memorise-test-forget" cycle a lot of our teaching seems to aim to emulate. I would like more reading - more extensive reading and more focused reading with vocab support. But it's harder to measure the benefits of that.

I even proposed a test - some students in Foundations doing the AWL earlier, and some doing extensive reading with vocab support - then see who does better in the AWL in Year 1, and in everything else.

I'd be willing to bet money the readers would not only learn the AWL's better, but score better in reading and writing....

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Due to circumstances beyond my control, I got no sleep on Monday night.

A little after 5am on Tuesday, I finally began to relax and to doze a little - the sort of semi-sleep when you can't tell your thoughts from your dreams.

Naturally, this is about the time when normal people are starting to stir - normal people, and normal small furry mammals.

We have 6 of those in the house at the moment, and the 4 little kittens are just beginning to scamper about. To scamper and to climb, as I discovered.

I dreamt, and then realised that it was truly happening, that one of the little kittens was resting its head on my arm... and she was. She had gone to sleep under my hand, having climbed all the way up to my pillow - about the equivalent of me climbing up my house to go to sleep on the roof. And she's only 4 weeks old.

I was glad it was the one we call Big Spot (or probably Molly, short for Mollipop) who we are hoping to keep. She seems to be intrepid and affectionate.

Anyway, it was a nice scrap of animal comfort after a very bad night.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Turn-up for the books

"No Miss. I don't deserve it."

I've never had a student argue for a lower mark before, but it happened today.

The student's reason was not having done as well as expected (as expected by both of us, frankly) in this assessment.

I thought the mark I gave was fair (well, naturally I would think that) and, true, it would have been good for some students but was rather disappointing for this one, who is normally excellent.

It's an odd reaction, but it reminds me of going into my university exam in Anglo Saxon thinking that I hadn't prepared hard enough and really deserved to fail (actually I did OK - not great, but OK). But part of me felt I deserved to do much much worse.

Seems to me there are two issues here. One is the basic feeling that performance and result, or effort and result, should match up, which most teachers (and students) would agree is a Good Thing generally.

Now, while performance should match result (in a sense the performance is the result) it isn't necessarily true that effort matches result. I have known students who speak virtually like native speaking teenagers but made no attempt to learn anything more since leaving their English-medium high schools, and I have known many students who valiantly struggled to improve from a very low base, and who made it to a high level of achievement.

The other issue is what the criteria for success or failure are.

When I went in to translate some bits of Anglo Saxon poetry my personal criteria was to produce a good English poem which would catch the meaning and some of the spirit of the original. Fat chance: I was nowhere within a million miles of that sort of ability or knowledge - but what I had managed was clearly good enough for the examiners to give me a creditable pass. (I still feel that wasn't good enough, but it may now be too late to go back and try to out-Seamus Heaney Seamus Heaney).

My student's criteria for success seems to be, to be able to express her ideas clearly, 100% accurately and (very important to her, this) in a totally original and amusing way.

This, needless to say, is way beyond the exam criteria.

But it is absolutely lovely to have a student who has that kind of approach.

This is the student who called me over during a reading exam and pointed to a sentence in the text. My heart sank, as I was sure she was going to ask me for help - which of course I would have to refuse. Instead she said "Miss, I LIKE this sentence." Two days later she could still recite it by heart.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Conference workshop

For a while now I've been posting mainly about moggies, which may have given the impression that I do nothing but play with the kitties (while waiting for my manicured nails to dry and in between making the maid's life a misery). But no, I do a bit of work for my keep from time to time (only when I have to, y'understand), don't have a maid, and must have the least manicured nails in the country, if not the region.

So ... one of the things that has been happening here has been a conference on Cultivating Real Writers. Due to my neurotic urge to volunteer for things that seem interesting without considering whether they are feasible, or indeed wise, I stuck my neck out to run a writing workshop for student participants. A lot of the workshops and presentations were very pragmatic - aimed at finding out how you could improve your IELTS score in writing, for instance - so naturally I wanted to be the light relief.

The workshop uses an idea I saw someone demonstrate about 5 years ago at a NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education) event, done by a very good chap whose name, I'm embarrassed to say, I have totally forgotten. He was a writer and teacher, and it went down very well, so I borrowed the idea - ie stole it. I'm sorry not to remember his name - I would credit him if I did - but at the time I was too interested in what was going on to make a note of it.

Anyway, the basic idea is that, if you can get someone to write a single line, then you can get them to write another single line, and then another. I use similes (as the original geezer I saw did) and try to take it through the different senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch, in roughtly that order.

The great thing is that neither I nor the students know what to expect, but usually (I've done this a few times in a few different contexts) what comes out is terrific.

I did the workshop twice, first with a group of lads from one of the big cities, then with a group of girls from a smaller place. Neither group had the choice of what to attend, which was rather worrying to me - they had been signed up for the workshop willy nilly.

Some of the images that came out were fantastic.

How about: "...darkness that burns until I look for a hand of light to pull me out of it"?

"Sorrow is grey like an old TV program"?

"Shyness is like a little flower in a huge heaven./When I feel shy I want to hide/so nobody will pick me."

I mean, wow! Images I would never have thought of in a million years.

They were not brilliant English speakers BTW, though some of them were pretty good, but the point is that they were using all and any of their language resources to write something fairly simple, but full of meaning.

If I have a point of view on the native speaker/non native speaker thing it is that a language belongs to anyone who uses it, perhaps especially for those who use it well, and to do that you need to play.

Also, most people told to write a poem would feel pretty shy, but writing one line - that's different. The poem is the result of the process, not the start of it.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Roxy the beautiful!

Some time ago we took our little black cat Roxy to the vet to be neutered. "Uhuh," said the vet, "too late," and showed me two little critters wriggling away inside her on the scan. Ah.

On March 23rd I watched her give birth. She did this on our bed, with our active participation which she evidently wanted. She had a cosy nest in a cupboard in the bedroom, which she had checked several times, but no, she wouldn't stay there, and as the evening wore on, I realised something was starting.

She was alternately pacing the floor, miawing, and jumping on the bed to curl up next to me and lick my hands. I noticed spots of amniotic fluid dripping from her rear end. I got some newspaper and an old shirt of B's under her. She was groaning - a deep throaty noise, a sound I have never heard a cat make.

Something shiny and dark was protruding from her rear end. It had a metallic gloss to it, like the sheen on a soap bubble, only tarry black. It was about the size of my thumb tip, and didn't seem to be moving.

Roxy carried on jumping onto the floor, pacing, groaning and jumping up on the bed again. After a while I noticed that the shiny "bubble" had emerged further. At this point she started to push and heave, with great shuddering gasps, and with me stroking her head and telling her she was doing very well. In between gasps she was purring, which I understood meant she wanted me around.

The bubble had what looked exactly like a curly little porcelain teacup handle sticking out of the middle of it. I had no idea what this could be.

And then she heaved some more and the whole thing slid out, a shiny bundle faintly shaped like a kitten. And it was tail first - that little "handle" was the tail, about an inch long.

It lay very still, completely covered, like a cat mummy in glossy bandages. She pounced on it and fiercely licked it all over, breaking and swallowing the wrapping it was in. In seconds, she had a tiny, stripy, motionless little male kitten, quite wet, and still attached to her through the umbilical cord which disappeared into her rear.

This emerged with a push attached to a thing like raw liver and almost the size of the kitten, which I suppose was the afterbirth, and which Roxy immediately ate, licking up the blood and chewing through the umbilicus. This was when the kitten first showed signs of life, and I breathed again. She washed its head, and we stroked it and her.

A few minutes later she went through the same thing again. A black male, this time, a bit faster emerging than the first one and a bit more alert and moving as soon as it was out. A second afterbirth too, which again she chomped up.

Then a third - this one, black and white, was a little female. By now Roxy seemed quite experienced.

Finally, after about an hour from the start, and obviously exhausted, she roused herself, pushed and heaved, and produced a fourth, also a black and white female.

So... four little kittens all alive-oh. All born tail first, between 10.30 and 11.30 pm, local time on 23rd March, and each one we could see and handle from the first emergence.

Not much blood - quite clean and tidy, all things considered. She did not feed them until they were all born, and I was worried she would not have enough milk, but at first, they were so tiny and must have had such miniscule tummies, just a drop would be enough.

She's certainly feeding them well. They are just coming up to 3 weeks old now and at least twice the length they were. I noticed this evening that the stripy one has got little kitten teeth begining to bulge in his gums... not quite broken yet.

The picture is of them at 15 days old...

My, my, it has been a while...

Yes indeed.

The expression "stupid busy" that I read in an excellent blog called "Sheepdogs and Wolves" lately comes to mind. In my case, that perhaps should just read "stupid".That's me at work, but at home also been a bit pushed.

We had our first guests to stay for 10 days, and great fun it was too - I got to do a lot of stuff in 10 days I probably wouldn't get round to doing over a couple of months, plus there was that panic that set in just before with me thinking "beds... we need beds! And spare towels! Oh, and curtains! Must have curtains!!" (Which reminds me, I still have to pay for them...)

The result is we finally furnished the spare bedroom (only been in the house for 6 months!), and thanks very much to our excellent neighbours for lending us another bed.

I think they had a good time. We enjoyed them being here, too.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Noggin the Mog

Noggin the Mog was our first cat, found stuck in a drain as a tiny kitten. We took him in, although my husband was adamant he was not a cat person.

He was a timid, homeloving and remarkably un-agile black and white cat with a baggy bum and an anxious expression, and became very attached to my husband. He used to wait on the doorstep for us when we came home (although we left the window open so he could easily come in) and as soon as my husband sat down, Noggin would rest his chin on my husband's foot or leg and gaze up at him with adoration.

He was our boss cat, as we added Sophie and Roxy since then.

We assumed we would have him for the next 15 or so years and would take him back to the UK with us when we leave here.

Two weeks ago he didn't come home. We have been out every day since then looking for him in the evenings and in the early morning when it is still dark.

We didn't find him, but I did find another cat which had been shot dead.

It is so unlike Noggin to be out for more than an hour. It did happen once before when he managed to get himself stuck in the car, but as soon as we opened the car door in the morning he hopped out.

So, we have to conclude that Noggin the Mog, aka the Nogster or Mogworth Portly-Feline is dead.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

You've had the gifts, now for the shockers...

We were doing a reading comprehension when suddenly a student leapt up and ran out screaming.

Now, my classes are not usually that exciting.

What had happened was, she was sitting next to a girl who is a bit of a skivver. Let's call her Girl A and the screamer Girl B.

Girl A was using the class time to discreetly fool around on the Internet. Specifically, to fool around on an Arabic website that purports to tell you the future (terribly haram in the Islamic world, BTW).

Girl A had typed in a silly question to which the website bot replied "Stop playing! This is not a time for playing!"

Which caused a bit of a sensation. Especially with Girl B, who is a fairly sensitive soul.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Gifts and shockers

This morning I had set up the class to talk about an object - you know, describe what it looks like, what it's made of, what it is for, what it means to you...

Just before I left the house this morning, the youngest of our three cats shot into the house with what looked like a tennis ball made of raffia and flock in her mouth.

A bird's nest, with three tiny orange-tinged eggs in it.

We think it is a sunbird nest.

The eggs were still warm (possibly because they'd been in Roxy's mouth) but there was no way we could have persuaded a parent bird to sit on them again. So that's three little birdies that will never say tweet tweet tweet.

Oh dear.

A mog is a mog, and they will hunt, but having three of them does rather tilt the odds in favour of the feline crew as against the feathered prey.

But it did make an excellent talking point for the class. And while I would never disturb or handle a nest in the wild, it is fascinating to see one up close.

It's mainly made of something like reed or dry grass, with a fluffy padding. I can't tell if the fluff is organic, gathered from the Arabian Fluff tree (there is a tree here called the Ghaff and another called Ethel), or gleaned from the discarded matresses of itinerant labourers.

The eggs are cream speckled with orange, with denser colour at the rounded end.

(I wonder, about eggs, whether the pointed end is the end that emerges first... that's one for henhouse experiments.)

Anyway, that was my warmer for the class ... it went downhill from then on.

More on that later.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Never volunteer!

A few months ago an email went round asking for volunteers to work on a college magazine - a magazine that would represent the students' and the college's achievements to the wider community.

I volunteered because I have some editorial skills and experience, and because I think a magazine would be a jolly good thing.

There is no funding for this, and an earlier pilot was produced by someone whose job was student development and promoting the college... and it didn't come off.

They got as far as a pilot is all.

Naturally, with no funding, everything has to depend on selling space to advertisers, but my boss said - I quote - that I "would never have to worry about dealing with sponsors" -

Well, we busted several guts, but mainly mine, to get an issue together and over to the printer for the pilot.

And guess what?

The funding from sponsors is not enough for what the printers are asking, the sponsors can't get their ads together, the boss wants publication brought forward to coincide with some random visiting bigwig... and somehow this is up to me to sort out, in my spare time (hah!) from teaching, marking, team leading, assessing and keeping up-to-date in the world of EFL.

Now, I do have editorial and writing skills, but I have no skill, and almost certainly no ability, to conduct financial negotiations or sell advertising space!

I'm an English teacher - you might as well ask the cat to do it.

The lesson, surely, is that when an employer says to you "you will never have to worry about X" you should start worrying about it immediately.

One of the reasons I like working where I do is that there are lots of opportunities to participate in the life of the college outside the classroom, and there are lots of ways you can enhance students' experience.

Should I just swear off this volunteering business?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Random thing

Well here we are again, back at the chalk face (ahem, the white boards) after the mid-year break.

A student said to me this morning "English isn't really about anything, is it?"

I had to agree with her.

Topics we've been talking about in the last 2 weeks include

imports and exports
labelling of products
the incense route
smells we like and what they mean to us
the trade in spices
Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the Americas
bushfires in Australia