Winter 2022 Educator’s Guide out now!

I’ve awoken from my long dearth of creative writing with an update: the new (free) Asymptote Journal Educator’s Guide has been released this week. You can download it here. I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to, editing and proofreading the guide this quarter, as every quarter. It always gives me fresh insights into what’s been occupying my colleagues across the world.

I may have been inspired by my work on characterisations with my year 11 class to write my first lesson designed for non-native speakers of English based on Jorge de Sena’s short story ‘A Tribute to the Green Parrot’.

I currently am PCR-positive and on my 5th day of isolation at home. Beautiful, sun-drenched late winter/early spring weather outside, and it’s like the sun is mocking me. I struggled through wind and horizontal rain on my commute to school on Tuesday morning, tested positive Tuesday afternoon, and it’s been sunny ever since. Two more days to go. As the Germans say, I am pressing my thumbs.


Asymptote Summer 2021 Educator’s Guide Out Now!

I’m so excited to announce the Educator’s Guide we’ve worked on for the past three months is out now and can be downloaded for free here. I contributed the lesson plan on L»ádo Ivo’s poem ‘Identities’, which helps high-school students to re-evalulate the male, Eurocentric literary canon they are often confronted with in schools. Students explore the idea of free verse and then conduct a creative re-writing of a poem they admire.

All our lesson plans are great, so if you’re any kind of educator it would be great to check it out!

Teaching Translations

Self-Translation (and Dissertation)

Recently, I’ve been thanking my lucky stars for the cooler weather. My office window faces the sun in the morning, and, when it’s over 25 degrees, I get real sweaty. Teaching, in any context, always gets me warm, so, in summer, it turns into a real pain. I just wear black every day, like the hermit vampire I’ve become over the last 18 months. It’s sunny today, though, and, up in my artist’s garret, I’m already starting to feel restless.

When it’s cloudy, I also don’t feel like I’m missing out too horrendously by not being outside. I’ve been slaving away at drafting the 10,000 words necessary for the translation side of my MA dissertation (although I’ve done around 12,000 now, so I can cut out my worst chapter). Since It’s historical fiction, I’ve been burying myself in all the unread historical fiction I’ve got laying around in English and I now have a newfound respect for the genre, if that’s even possible since I’d already developed a massive respect for it through writing my own this spring.

We’re also busy squirrelling away at the new Educator’s Guide for the next issue of Asymptote, which I’m really excited about. There’s a couple of blog posts in the wings, there, too. It was my first time designing a lesson plan around a poem, so I’m just real jazzed that no-one else on my team thought it in need of a complete overhaul.

I get the itch to write for myself, but all my creative energies are being swallowed by my dissertation. My tutoring work has also gone quieter, so I’ve been busy doing job interviews for new companies. Tutoring is a catch-22 situation. You can choose between good pay, no support and an extremely unreliable schedule, or a reliable schedule, bad pay and some support. Completely freelance students don’t come along very often, and I don’t work to any pre-ordained plan there. Which is both freeing and daunting. However, the majority of my work this year has been through agencies.

However, if you work for a tutoring organisation, don’t expect to get paid much more than if you were stacking shelves at Tesco. Not that there’s anything wrong with stacking shelves at Tesco. I worked in McDonald’s for two years as my first job, and it was a well-deserved education from my cushy couch contemplation into this cutthroat capitalist world we live in and have to somehow adapt to. However, tutoring is extremely skilled labour which is paid like unskilled labour. And you can forget the time you spend planning for and messaging each student, writing down your plans, organising their progress and your schedule, booting up your laptop, opening all your tabs, reading through the materials and opening Zoom and waiting for them. That stuff isn’t paid. So then 12 euros an hour starts to feel more like 10, at which point I could clean tables in Extrablatt and expect just as much.

And self-translation. I’ve been working on my piece in German for this year’s Specimen translation competition. I posted the draft a few days ago. I’ve updated the draft since then, because writing is never finished. Now I have to provide an English translation of it for the judges. I’ve never translated myself before, and certainly not from my second language into my first. I feel like It’s just going to end up with me editing both versions eternally and simultaneously, noticing flaws in one which I change in the other, like a dog chasing its own tail.

poetry Teaching

The Hill We Climb

This poem is the only one which has ever given me goosebumps and moved me to tears. I’m not usually a huge poetry lover. I’ve taught this poem since first noticing it after the inauguration, and I know it’s almost old news now, but the words and the message are still churning around my brain.

As part of the advanced English course in German high schools, students have to learn about the American Dream. As a British woman, I can never proclaim to fully understand the USA, but I have studied the Civil Rights movement at university as well as having been obsessed with US political podcasts for the past year. Listening to ‘reality TV show America’ was a welcome escapist break from the tediousness of repeated lockdowns.

My students have to learn the roots of the American dream, from the settlers of the 17th century to its ultimate success or failure. They learn its hypocrisies and paradoxes, that America is simultaneously hopeful, egalitarian, divided and prejudiced. The USA is not the classless society it claims to be, and Lord knows it had not always protected the interests of freedom and democracy worldwide. I would argue that you cannot truly call the US a democracy until after African Americans ‘won’ the vote during the 1960s. It’s also important to remember that voter intimidation continues to this day.

This poem beautifully sums up exactly what the American Dream means to many people in the 21st century, at least to those who do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ white middle-class heterosexual male citizen.

Amanda Gorman amazes me. The youngest ever Poet Laureate, and a Black woman. Her genius and composure are inspiring.

The US needs to focus on building bridges right now rather than burning them, Gorman justly points out. How can the US be an example to the world if it cannot keep itself together?

She reminds us that rights, once granted, are not immovable and permanent, but must be continually preserved and maintained. It is ultimately a hopeful poem, but one which does not brush over America’s violent racial and colonial past. The US is a product of its history and is perpetually unfinished. There is no point at which you will ever be able to step back and say, there, we did it, we all achieved the American Dream. Gorman’s message is not new: that ultimately there is more which unites America than divides it, but it is a message she delivers with a unique, calm passion. It’s a timely message, and I couldn’t have chosen a better poem to analyse with my students. We all need a ray of hope right now.


Reflections on TEFL in 2020

If you’d have asked me a year ago, “what is Zoom?”, I would have given you a blank look and asked, “do you mean the verb, to zoom?”

Actually, I’ve been doing TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) on and off for over three years now. I started off working in a German secondary school on my year abroad as a teaching assistant, and went from there. Demand is much higher for English teaching and tutoring in Germany than the amount of English native speakers who would want German lessons. It makes a lot more sense to focus on teaching English to Germans than German to the English. The fact that English native-speakers grow up speaking the world language as their mother tongue is both a gift and a curse. We grow up knowing the world endeavours to understand us, and it leads to monolingualism, laziness and ignorance. English native speakers are lulled into a false sense of lingual superiority, the ‘why would I bother? Everyone speaks English anyway.’

After graduating from university, I did another academic year as a teaching assistant in Germany because I loved it so much the first time. And for the last year, I’ve re-started private tutoring after my fairly haphazard attempts during my Bachelor’s. I started in-person in January 2020 alongside my school, waitressing and online job, and as the first lockdown last March made itself felt in the small German town I was living in, I signed up for various tutoring websites offering sessions via Zoom in an effort to keep myself sane. I had already figured out the flattest hour-long cycle route around town, and there were only so many times I could cycle this route per week without starting to feel like I re-enacting my own personal Truman show experience. I lived in a very hilly region, and I didn’t want to mess too hard with those hills.

Teaching English as a foreign language online turned out to be the best decision I made in 2020. I have hung on to the first student who approached me, and since we’re fairly close in age (she’s in the last year of her A-levels), our weekly meetings are starting to feel more and more like coffee mornings where we get into the nitty gritty of current events as well as the difference between the present and past perfect, or relative and participle clauses. The standard of English in German schools is impressive, especially if they choose the Leistungskurs (advanced course) at A-Level. Modern Foreign Languages in British schools are, by contrast, laughable. By the time German students graduate from high school, they should be fairly fluent, so our lessons have slowly become less about ‘learning English’ than talking about literature, history and politics in English. Together, we’ve studied Mother to Mother, Othello and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as modern British and American politics, and I am slightly melancholy that she soon won’t need me anymore.

My other students range in age from five to around forty. My oldest current student is a business professional working from home with a lot of time on his hands due to cancelled tennis sessions. He says learning English in the mornings helps to keep him motivated. I have also taught adult newcomers to the UK for a non-profit organisation, as language skills are essential for them to be able to settle here and find work. Teaching English as a foreign language with no knowledge of the diverse mother tongues of my students (Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Turkish etc.) was certainly a steep learning curve, as I had only ever taught Germans up until that point. Not being able to immediately access the equivalent is often frustrating, but it does force the students to learn English immersively, as they cannot request me to ‘just tell them’ what a word or phrase means.

On the other end of the age spectrum, teaching a five-year-old has its own challenges. In Germany, children start school at the age of 6, so there is no expectation for a five-year-old to be able to read and write basic words. Another complicating factor is that this student has Chinese parents, so he will soon be learning how to write in Chinese alongside German. Best not complicate things with trying to teach him to write in English, too. So we focus on pictures, and flashcards. Lots and lots of pictures. It was difficult to figure out what a five-year-old knows. I tried to teach him the months of the year one session but this fell through because he hadn’t yet learned them in German. When do we learn the months and seasons of the year? It’s hard to say, I have almost no recollection of being five years old.

Knowing your native language well and being able to teach that language as a foreign language are two different things. It’s been an incredibly long road to being able to confidently pick apart my own language into its constituents and explain the rules. I didn’t do English Language at A-Level, so the meanings of words like auxiliary verb, conditionals, the gerund, the subjunctive, the passive, the past participle, and so on are all things I’ve absorbed slowly over the years. To teach a language, you have to be able to understand how the other person sees it, and notice how opaque and illogical your mother tongue can look and sound. Why do we ever say ‘had had’ or ‘do do’? As in “ah yes, I had had that book, but then I sold it”, or “Yes I do do that!” Just what is our spelling all about, anyway? Brought? Thought? Why do we swallow half of Wednesday? Those sneaky silent ks in knee, knife, knight and know. Did you know that the difference between ‘will’ and ‘going to’ future rests solely on the level of certainty with which you perceive you will actually go there, or do it?

I am so lucky I’ve found a safe industry which hasn’t died in the Corona Age, where I can work from home and be social at the same time. It’s been a lifeline for me, something to keep me motivated during these bleak times.