I was back at German class last week, having missed two lessons because of my trip to Brazil. I was rather pleased when the early birds in the class smiled and said ‘Guten Abend’ in a cheery fashion when I walked in. Dora the teacher gave me a particularly big smile. She also gave me back the homework I had handed in three weeks ago.
I had worked hard on the two homework tasks. The first was a letter introducing myself and the second was supposed to be a description of a holiday in a German-speaking country. I’ve only ever made working visits to Länder wo spricht man Deutsch, so my homework was about my visit to the ETAS conference in Zug, Switzerland last September – Mein Arbeitsbesuch in der Schweiz.
Dora had requested us to add photos or other visuals to the second piece of homework (nice idea), so there were photos of me talking at the conference, and hanging out with other conference-goers.
I think she knows I do teacher training now.
I was chuffed as beans* at the feedback Dora gave me about my homework. At the end of the letter, she wrote this:
Lieber Ken, vielen Dank für den interessanten Brief. Ihr Deutsch ist sehr gut! Vielen Dank für ihr Feedback. Das war sehr hilfreich.
I think most of you will be able to work out what that means. She found the feedback I gave her before the last lesson very helpful.
The smiley face is also hers, by the way.
At the end of the Arbeitsbesuch homework, she wrote:
Vorsicht (careful) mit den Artikeln der, die, das und Adjektivendungen.
Those bloody articles and endings will be the death of me.
Before I say anything else, I want to congratulate Dora on her clear and precise homework feedback notes, which include pointers to make you think about your grammar, syntax and word order mistakes. There is no doubt in my mind that what holds me back from being an effective German speaker is the trouble I have with articles and adjective endings, so I think these notes are really going to help me improve my German writing.
So – with grammar notes on my homework have I not problems. (Ed: you appear to be thinking in German here)
However, as regular readers of this blog will know – with totally grammar-dominated lessons have I GROSS problems. (Ed: see above note)
So this is the story of the rest of the class, which grammar bestrode like a Colossus. (Ed: now you’ve gone all classical – can you start writing like a normal person?)
When it comes to putting together an ELT coursebook syllabus, authors try to match grammar, function and lexical strands. An obvious example of this would be: present simple tense for habitual actions + talking about habitual actions + food, which gives us such memorably vivid lines as English people eat eggs for breakfast.
The key is to try to disguise the connections, and make the whole thing look like seamless and natural information.
Unit 11 of my German coursebook Willkommen matches health/illness vocabulary, talking about your (un)healthy lifestyle and modal verbs.
Dora started off the class by (I think) revising modal verbs – müssen, dürfen (to be allowed to) wollen (want to), sollen (should) etc.
I say ‘I think’ because I presume she did more presentation work on form and usage during the two classes I was away. As I’ve mentioned before, Dora is very good at eliciting what at least some of us already know. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to work out whether she’s taught it before, or she expects us to know it, or she’s making student prior knowledge the main plank of her teaching method.
She put us into pairs and asked us to write down the forms of the modals. I was paired with Brian, my first chance to work with one of the men in the class. Brian is mid-20s, Irish and works in a Catholic Boys School in east London. He has a nice smile and seems very friendly, but is at the same time a bit unforthcoming about himself. I haven’t yet found out why he’s learning German.
Brian is a godsend for Dora. Every so often, she explains a grammar rule in German, and then asks if anyone would like to translate it. My Irish partner for the evening always jumps at these chances.
“Müssen means ‘have to’ but the negative form is a false friend, because ich muss nicht doesn’t mean ‘I mustn’t’,” he said, echoing Dora’s explanation. “It means ‘I don’t have to’.”
He smiled with great satisfaction when Dora gave him a metaphorical pat on the back for this articulate intervention.
However, something strange happened when Brian and I worked together. We spent a few desultory minutes trading the translations of ich muss, ich muss nicht, ich darf etc. When we got to ich will (another false friend, it means ‘I want to’), I asked: “Gibt mir ein Beispeil” – give me an example.
Brian looked at me in complete incomprehension.
“An example of what?” he asked in English.
“Put it into context,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Was willst du am Wochenende machen, zum Beispeil?”
The notion of putting it in context, using any of this language meaningfully while we were checking the verb forms, seemed outlandish to him.
Before he could comment further, Dora brought the activity to an end in her usual idiosyncratic way by saying: ‘StoooooOOOOPPPP’ (It starts quietly and gets louder).
We then helped her create a paradigm of modal forms on the whiteboard. You can imagine I was bouncing off the walls with delight during this part of the lesson.
The board looked like this when we’d finished.
Then it was time to do something from the book. In the health/modals unit, Willkommen has a reading text which consists of four people’s personal statements about their lifestyles. All four statements cleverly integrate information about what the people do, what they aren’t allowed to do, what they should do and what they want to do.
The class had read the text during the last lesson. Now it was time for listening. As soon as the tape started playing, I realised it was simply the same as the reading texts.
We listened (and I surreptitiously read – and I don’t think I was the only one) and made notes on the page. Mine looked like this.
Then we were put in pairs for a bit of exploitation of the target language. We had to find our how healthy our partner’s lifestyle was.
Brian immediately turned to the woman sitting on the other side and paired with her. Rather too hastily, I thought – what had I done to upset him?? This language learning is increasing my paranoia!!
So now I was paired with Elena, a lovely Spanish woman whose German is like mine – sort of confident/fluent but also faulty. I hadn’t worked with her before, but I did know that she works for a company which sends her to Germany quite often. Highly motivated person with a need for conversational practice. Like me.
Dora said we should use the examples in the book – was tun sie im Moment, was dürfen sie nicht tun (what aren’t you allowed to do – one of the examples in the book was a man with a heart condition who wasn’t allowed to jog), was sollen sie tun etc etc.
I presumed they were just guidelines, so Elena and I talked round the subject, hardly using the key modal language at all. I discovered that Elena goes to the gym twice a week, and also has zumba and yoga classes, plus she goes for long country walks at the weekend. She doesn’t drink alcohol and she drinks a lot of water. And she wants to buy a second-hand bicycle.
No wonder she looks so healthy!
When people started giving feedback, I realised that all the other pairs had worked out how to use the modals from all four columns. They all followed the list in the book scrupulously – what their partner did, what they weren’t allowed to do, what they should do and what they wanted to do. They managed to do this even when it was quite difficult to think of an example (what they weren’t allowed to do was a particular problem).
When it came to my turn, I didn’t look at the book at all. I said what I could remember from our conversation. In my confident/faulty German, it went something like this:
Elena is a very healthy Fräulein, she goes to the Fitness Studio twice a week, and she also does zumba and yoga. She likes going for long walks at the weekend and she doesn’t drink alcohol.
When I finished, everyone, including Dora, looked at me in silence. Clearly they were all expecting more.
‘Um… und auch trinkt sie viel Wasser,’ I added, rather lamely.
Dora looked at me. There was disappointment in her eyes.
‘Und was darf sie nicht tun?’ she asked.
Then I got it. I hadn’t done the task correctly. I was supposed to say something from every column. And – duh! – I hadn’t even asked Elena if there was something she wasn’t allowed to do.
‘Ich weiss nicht,’ I said, now totally embarrassed that I hadn’t done the task right. Then I remembered the bicycle. ‘Ah! Sie will ein Fahrrad aus zweite Hand kaufen,’ I added. It sounded a very odd addendum indeed.
Unlike the previous week, when my partner Celia and I got a big laugh for a piece of acting out we did, my pairwork led to a kind of embarrassed silence. I had not followed the rules. Feedback must contain examples of dürfen, sollen und wollen.
And you know what? It seems to me that the whole class buys into this system except me. Everyone apart from Elena was staring at me with the same accusatory look on their faces. It said: You aren’t following the RULES!
I am now officially a troublemaker.
It’s almost time for my next lesson. I don’t think I will get a cheery ‘Guten Abend’ when I walk in next time.
And I wonder if anyone will agree to be my partner….
The names have been changed.
* Note to non-Mancunians: Chuffed as beans is a northern expression meaning very happy, which may only ever have been used in a few streets near Manchester. Whatever its origins, I appear to be the only living person who still uses it, so don’t worry if you’ve never heard it before.