Words I have never taught

Today I found myself teaching the word disheartening.


It is a word I am confident I have never taught before. I am not sure why not. I was talking with my students about the experience of having your work go unrecognised. I think I would usually say it can be frustrating, or demotivating. But for some reason I said it was disheartening, and wrote it on the board.

One or two of the students copied it down. To them, it was just another word with a fairly obvious derivation. Easy to remember, perhaps. Perhaps less memorable than demotivating.

There must be many similar words I have never taught but which would come naturally to me. When I occasionally teach Cambridge Proficiency I suppose more of those crop up, but I wonder if in fact I, in common with all other teachers of English as a Foreign Language, have such a thing as a teachers’ diction, in the sense of a restricted set of lexical items based not on level but on some misguided sense of propriety or utility. Or just habit.

Such a diction would paradoxically include words that neither I (certainly) or any one else (very possibly) ever use in anger, such as downsize, synergy and hot-desk, but disclude words I certainly do use from time to time, such as grief, entombment and yew (all of which I think I had probably never taught until a couple of days ago, when a student unexpectedly started talking about his fascination with funerary rituals – he had been to the church of St. Ives over the weekend to inspect its graveyard).

It is natural to want to anticipate learners’ needs, and to save them the bother of picking up stray lexis they will probably never need. I won’t be doing a lesson on entombment any time soon. But I might just remind my students of disheartening before the end of the week, perhaps in the context of information overload.


The View from Here – 5

Room 5, looking out towards Room 3



I’m waiting in Room 5 for students to re-assemble after the coffee break.

This is the corridor of group lessons. Room 5 and its neighbour Room 4 are usually taken by business groups (although there is no strict system). From the top of Room 5 (where this picture was taken) you can see people going in and out of Rooms 3 and 4, sharp and full of coffee and in search of a bit of mid-morning accuracy.

Once they are in, you can’t really see them, let alone hear them. I worked once in a school in Italy where the classrooms were partitioned in glass, so that you could see, but not hear, what was in progress in the classrooms on either side. It was like working in a drained aquarium, where we, the fish, flapped open mouthed and in varying degrees of bewilderment or angst or salty embarrassment in our new element.

You need a little privacy. I was reading somewhere recently about the stresses associated with working in a cubicle. All that supposed free communication does not offset the loss of privacy and concentration, the attritional surveillance.

Students need a little privacy too. English in its ovum stage is a personal business. You need the freedom to get things wrong. To look and sound daft. To repeat yourself in ever more erratic spirals of ungrammaticalness. To fail to make proper sentences. Over and over. It is the only way properly to learn.

And so the four students will shortly arrive, and ease themselves into a few modal verbs, the classroom open only to the lime-tree and the ambulances on Hills Road, and the freedom to experiment.

Wild Swans on the Cam

Once in a while you have to play hooky. For various odd reasons I found myself cycling along the river yesterday afternoon when I had expected to be teaching. And since I had a bit of time on my hands, I stopped to take a picture of the swans.


I once counted 59 swans congregated on the river at Cambridge. This was an unlikely thing to see and I suppose I may in my excitment have miscounted (swans have a habit of bobbing about interchangeably) – I say unlikely because of the poem by W.B. Yeats, the Wild Swans at Coole, in which the poet muses on his own ageing and the agelessness of the swans, as follows:

THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

I do not know precisely how many years it is since I counted my nine and fifty [sic] swans (certainly not nineteen autumns; perhaps twelve); all is no doubt changed since then (although now that I think of it, was it in fact on the Thames, not on the Cam?) –  but, playing hooky, you can a little bit recapture that lighter tread, if not your actual passion and conquest.


No gods, no teachers

One of my students has set herself the task of reading the new employee handbook for the American software development company, Valve (you can download it, here). Not because she is going to work there (she is not a software engineer) but because Valve has a peculiar, perhaps unique management structure: it has no managers at all.


It is not a small company (Valve produces games such as Half-Life and Counter-Strike, as well as the widely used games’ platform Steam©), and it is very successful, but, to repeat, not only does it have no managers, it has no management structure whatsoever. It is a self-organising commune, in effect, an anarchist cell in the midst of the capitalist world.

Real anarchists would be appalled (even if the ultra-libertarian disposition is common both to social and, so-to-speak, fiscal anarchists). Valve has no political or economic agenda (so far as I know), it only has a faith in the self-organising ability of free-thinking professionals.

And software engineers are on the whole a free-thinking bunch. The industry is an odd outgrowth of the capitalist world, rooted as it is in part in establishment big business (IBM, Hewlett Packard), the conservative corporations of the American post-war boom, and in part in the Californian counter-culture which spawned Silicon Valley. Software engineers, many of them, are natural anarchists.

I sometimes think that a language school could function pretty well with no management or organisation. Students could float in in the morning and set up ad hoc lessons with other students or teachers in order to work on specific skills or areas; or they could work on projects of their own, or read the paper and chat. The school would be an environment in which language learners could be around other language learners with a smattering of language experts on hand if need be.

Sounds very peaceful. I suspect such an organisation would not be problematic for teachers (since language-teaching, like software-engineering, self-selects for oddballs); but students coming from slightly more orderly and, let’s be fair, productive business environments might find it all a bit, well, long-haired and perplexing.

Perhaps it’s just the summer getting to me.

Creative OISE

It’s a moot point whether there is such a faculty as ‘creativity’, but whatever peculiar combination of skills it is that we choose to call by that name continues to flourish at OISE Cambridge.

One of our students, Ivan Leplevskiy, is just coming to the end of an 8-week course, and is now heading off to art school. Before he left he did this drawing of James, whom many will remember as the tallest teacher at OISE, and the most distinguished. The drawing certainly captures something.


Ivan also showed us a selection of paintings, of which these are a few:

Копия IMG_0291 Копия IMG_0385 Копия IMG_9950 Копия IMG_0307

We wish Ivan the best of luck.


Meanwhile, one of our teachers, Sally Guyer, in company with Doris Lessing, has been working on the creative imaginations of various of our students. She sends me the following communication:

Creative Writing

Following a reading comprehension in ‘Global Advanced’ where we read a short story by Doris Lessing about a young boy called Gerry, these 4 students were then asked to write a piece as if they were one of the other characters (the big boys) in the story. 


Every day, my German friends and I go to a beach on the west side of Miami.  An English child comes daily to a beach close to us.  Every day he observes us diving through an underground tunnel.  Yesterday he came and talked to us; he was curious and wanted to try what we were doing.  I told him it was too dangerous for him because he was too young and wouldn’t be able to hold his breath for long enough.  He was very stubborn and wanted to try anyway but I didn’t agree.  I wasn’t persuaded.  He wanted to demonstrate to us he was able to do what we were doing so he held his breath and dived down through the tunnel.  We waited for him at the opposite end of the tunnel.  He spent a lot of time down in the water and after a while I became afraid he was drowning.  I thought it was necessary to go down and see what he was doing but suddenly he came out of the water.  Everything was fine but I knew he had run a big risk and put himself in danger.


I was spending my summer holidays in my village near the lake.  This year an English boy called Jerry decided to spend his holiday here.  He is four years younger than us but my friends and I welcomed him into our group.

Usually when we bathe at the lake we dive into the water and try to pass through an underwater tunnel.  One day, we went to the beach and while we were playing we saw Jerry half a mile away, diving into the water.  I thought it was strange that he didn’t come to play with us but at that moment I didn’t pay too much attention.  After a few minutes, I noticed that Jerry was still underwater so I started worrying and ran to the place where I saw Jerry diving.  When I arrived there, something drew my attention – there was a rock stained with blood.  I thought the worst.  As I turned round to go back and call the police a gasp reached my ears; it was Jerry.  He was laying on a rock looking exhausted with his eyes filled with blood and his nose bleeding but, thank God, he was alive.


Not a day goes by when I don’t see that little boy swimming enthusiastically at the beach, right next to where me and my crew meet every day.  He seems to be in the water from the early morning until late evening and it looks as if he is trying to measure how much time he can last underwater since he always brings a stopwatch with him.  We’ve been observing him for a couple of weeks so far and he certainly is a promising swimmer but he looks a bit young to be part of a crew. We thought we could challenge him to dive into the water and swim across the rock passage, something all of the members of the crew have had to overcome at some point.  That way all of his efforts would be somehow be compensated (rewarded).

It is a daring and dangerous test though, not advisable for those who are afraid of the dark and the unknown.  I remember the day I had to do it – my arms and legs were trembling and my head was spinning just before I got into the freezing water.  A strong feeling of regret invaded me and thoughts of giving up kept splattering my mind.  But I had no choice, I was pushed into the water amongst a loud uproar coming from all of the people from the crew, an uproar that that faded away into a rumble and then silence, absolute silence.  I was left in complete darkness so I relied on my hands to find my way.  I was surprised at how much my lungs were withstanding the pressure and this gave me the confidence I needed to carry on with my task.  I was eventually able to perceive, despite my blurred vision, a dim light at the end of the cave.  When I finally got out, the previous uproar turned into shouts of victory.  I was euphoric too, not just because now I could be one of the crew but also because I had gone beyond my limits and shown myself that I could face almost any challenge.

This happened when I was nineteen and I can imagine that, for a boy of his age, it could actually be a matter of life and death.  How would he be able to cope with such strong emotions?


I had just woken up when I found John banging at the front door because he was waiting for me to go to the beach.  I looked at the alarm clock and realised I was really late.  I quickly put on my trunks and ate a few biscuits then got on my bike and went to meet John.  He told me he had been waiting for almost half an hour.

As we arrived at the beach I saw Gerry passing in front of us.  He didn’t stop as usual but continued cycling.  I was quite surprised he didn’t wait for us.  He loved hanging out together.  At the beach we swam straightaway because it was so hot and then we layed on the sand and waited for Tom who would be arriving soon.

Suddenly the weather changed and it started raining.  I had forgotten that my parents had told me it was going to rain at lunchtime.  The rain was very brief but I stopped under a tree to backpack getting wet in the shower.  I saw Gerry coming back from the beach.  He was pale and his face back was full of scratches.  I understood instantly what he had done.  He joined us and we went back to the beach once it had stopped raining and had a wonderful day, swimming and playing football.

Impressive stuff.

The View From Here – 4

Room J – the Lime Tree

I am in Room J, up in the attic, looking out of the window at the lime tree that stands on Hills Road and dominates the front of the school.


In Room J you are level with its top-most branches, and with the windows open (as they must be in the current heatwave) the scent of lime is very strong.

The word lime is derived from the Old English lind, cognate with the modern German Linden (the change from n to m was possibly a result of compounds such as line-bark, line-bast, in the same way that most people now say hambag for handbag). Linden in Middle English was the adjective form (akin to wooden).

The word lind also meant soft or flexible, as the wood is very soft and adapted for carving, hence the tradition of lime wood sculpture most famously in Southern Germany, but also in England – for example the choir stalls in St. Paul’s Cathedral and much of the wood-carving in Hampton Court, both by Grinling Gibbon, are in limewood:

Lime trees are attractive to honey bees, evidently, which may partly explain the swarm we had in Room 5 last year. Honey bees can glut themselves on its nectar to such an extent that they pass out drunk.

I don’t suppose I will be passing out drunk from the perfume of lime in Room J. I have too much to do up here. For most of the year, the attic corridor is quiet, not much going on beyond Room 10; but now it is a hive-like space, people going about their business in a jostling, convivial, brow-mopping sort of way.

Jewish Cambridge

One of our students, Wang Shi, is currently enjoying a spell as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, where he is making a study of the history of the Jews in China and Japan, among other things, and he told me that in pursuit of greater understanding he paid a visit to the Orthodox synagogue on Thompson’s Lane, near St. John’s College, where he was made very welcome (in spite of their taking exception to his having a ‘reformer’ as a supervisor).

There are in fact, so far as I can make out, two Jewish communities in Cambridge: the Cambridge Traditional Jewish Congregation, centred on the synagogue on Thompson’s Lane, and the Beth Shalom Reform Group. The Reform community are currently building a new temple on Auckland Road, and it so happens that the beginnings of the structure can be made out in a photograph I took from the Community Orchard at the weekend.


I would like to say that Cambridge has always been tolerant of its Jewish residents, but since they were expelled in 1275 (prior to the wholesale expulsion enacted by Edward I in 1290), that would not be a defensible statement. Jewish scholars only started to return to Cambridge in the 1650s during the Interregnum, where they taught Hebrew on the BA course. The first Jewish undergraduate, Arthur Cohen, took his degree in the University in 1858, following a parliamentary edict of 1856 opening Cambridge to Jews, Moslems and others.

A university, at its best, is a sort of institutionalised diversity; a city, likewise. Not only do cities and universities have much to gain from the friction of peoples, whether in the economy of trade or of ideas, but they are defined by that friction and the various sorts of energy it generates. Cambridge, it has to be said, was not always a great university, and has been in its time a bastion of unadventurous and conservative thinking, of exclusive rather than inclusive social organisation. But a university – again, at its best – represents a sort of intellectual adulthood, and a diverse city a sort of social adulthood, and Cambridge at least aspires now to both states.