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.