Monday, 22 December 2008

The love that lay too deep for kissing

We love poetry. Does that make us seem as if we have been snarled on some nasty twig near the bank while the great river of modernity rushes by? We don't care.

And is there not a place for poetry in the EFL classroom, regardless of the fact that there is none in the exam? Surely we are not so enslaved by the exam.

We say it's worth having a go. One or two students might be delighted to see how pleasant poetry can be if you read it aloud. The sound can be so much of a pleasure that it doesn't matter if the meaning of a few phrases here and there is unclear. In any case, to say that a poem is enigmatic is more of a compliment than a criticism.

One poet who has written verses that are particularly enjoyable to read aloud is John Betjeman, writing from a very English middle class perspective with a great deal of nostalgia. The poem "Indoor Games at Newbury" is a lovely evocation of the love of a boy whose chin is still as smooth as his cheek.

After students have managed to read the poem aloud with style (and sufficient phonetic fidelity), one particular line could be picked out for discussion. A "love that lay too deep for kissing." Is there such a love? Students are bound to have opinions worth discussing.

We reproduce the poem here hoping that we do not thereby do damage to Betjeman's estate. (It has been gratefully borrowed from the collection at

Indoor Games near Newbury
poem by John Betjeman

In among the silver birches,
Winding ways of tarmac wander
And the signs to Bussock Bottom,
Tussock Wood and Windy Break.
Gabled lodges, tile-hung churches
Catch the lights of our Lagonda
As we drive to Wendy's party,
Lemon curd and Christmas cake

Rich the makes of motor whirring
Past the pine plantation purring
Come up Hupmobile Delage.
Short the way our chauffeurs travel
Crunching over private gravel,
Each from out his warm garage.
O but Wendy, when the carpet
Yielded to my indoor pumps.
There you stood, your gold hair streaming,
Handsome in the hall light gleaming
There you looked and there you led me
Off into the game of Clumps.

Then the new Victrola playing;
And your funny uncle saying
"Choose your partners for a foxtrot.
Dance until it's tea o'clock
Come on young 'uns, foot it feetly.
"Was it chance that paired us neatly?
I who loved you so completely.
You who pressed me closely to you,
Hard against your party frock.

"Meet me when you've finished eating."
So we met and no one found us.
O that dark and furry cupboard,
While the rest played hide-and-seek.
Holding hands our two hearts beating.
In the bedroom silence round us
Holding hands and hardly hearing
Sudden footstep, thud and shriek

Love that lay too deep for kissing.
"Where is Wendy? Wendy's missing."
Love so pure it had to end.
Love so strong that I was frightened
When you gripped my fingers tight.
And hugging, whispered "I'm your friend."

Goodbye Wendy. Send the fairies,
Pinewood elf and larch tree gnome.
Spingle-spangled stars are peeping
At the lush Lagonda creeping
Down the winding ways of tarmac
To the leaded lights of home.

There among the silver birches,
All the bells of all the churches
Sounded in the bath-waste running
Out into the frosty air.
Wendy speeded my undressing.
Wendy is the sheet's caressing
Wendy bending gives a blessing.
Holds me as I drift to dreamland
Safe inside my slumber wear.

The neglected art of writing real essays

In the shadows of the more immediately useful exam essay writing tutorial at Fullspate is an interesting piece reminding us what a real essay looks like. Some of us who are obliged to get students quickly to the point where they can write 300 words about the pros and cons of genetic engineering, and who habitually insist that students write an even more stilted version of the kind of essay that generations of high school students and undergrads have had to write, often forget what real essay writing was, and still is, all about. In a nutshell, the typical high school student or undergraduate is urged to demonstrate their familiarity with other people's ideas and arguments, keeping to an absolute minimum the expression of their own feelings about the matter. By stark contrast, the essence of the modern essay (although some would call it classical) - a kind of real essay writing that began with the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne in the late 16th century - was its novel expression of a very personal point of view (analogous to the emergence of the highly individual Renaissance artists from the anonymity of icon painting). To a certain extent, this represents a reaction against the kind of scholarship we inevitably bolster when we hurriedly get our students to mimic the wholly uninspiring academic essay. Of course, it is not our fault. The exam questions and the marking rubrics clearly expect a more impersonal and quasi-academic piece of writing. And who amongst us would feel comfortable (or be allowed) to begin a lengthy series of writing classes to help students begin to put their own feelings and opinions down on paper and learn to articulate them thoughtfully when everyone knows that this has no connection with the demands of the final exam?

Why, by the way, this insistence upon the impersonal? If this sort of thing is perpetuated throughout a person's education, it leads to a rather nasty fragmentation: a hypertrophy of the intellect disconnected from the life of personal feeling. Both the intellect and the life of feeling suffer from such a fragmentation.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Babble of Chambermaids

A question for English teachers: To what extent do you agree with the following opinion expressed by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):

"To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors, and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that come near to the babble of my chambermaid."

In other words: When does the analysis of language switch from being a help to being a hindrance to vigorous self-expression? Is it not possible to have too much grammar?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

How would Virginia Woolf feel now?

Virginia Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own" is a wonderful reflection on the position of women and the reasons why so few had managed to become writers of fiction. It is a beautiful piece of writing made all the more beautiful by its restraint. Given the terrible history that she recounts, she would have had every justification in expressing anger and bitterness, but she rises above these emotions, and her writing is all the more powerful for it.

What I want to pick up here is an interesting comment she makes at the end of the talk (it was originally a talk presented to a female audience at Cambridge University) when she looks to the future. She was writing in 1928 and at the end of her talk she tries to look forward and be optimistic about what may well be achieved over the coming century. But before looking at that it is worth highlighting her idea about how writers have a privileged way of capturing reality - not the brute reality of things that may or may not be noticed, but the reality which is the lasting impression that is made when an experience is particularly vivid. Woolf has a strikingly odd way of putting this: It is what remains of the past when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge.

"What is meant by 'reality'? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable-now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech-and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading LEAR or EMMA or LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU. For the reading of these books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life."

With that in mind, let me quote the part where Woolf looks forward an century.

"I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young-alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so-I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals-and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born."

At this point, 80 years after Virginia Woolf wrote those words, I can't help wondering what the author would say were she allowed to return and glimpse what has come to pass. Undoubtedly she would be heartened that so many women have written so much and so many more women have ample opportunity to achieve the financial independence and the room of their own, without which they would not be able to realise their potential. But would she not also be very sad? Would she not be disturbed to see that the culture of the written word that meant so much to her has lost its pride of place? Other - audiovisual - media have taken centre stage with the general impression that they are more able to capture those moments when life becomes more vivid, more meaningful, more real; and these are media that give employment and a source of financial independence and opportunities to be creative to a great many women. But for Virginia Woolf, would this adequately compensate for the marginalisation of the older culture - perhaps she would say higher culture - of the written word?

Monday, 8 December 2008

DIY picture discussions

Looking for materials can take time. It takes a lot less time if you get the students to do it. And it can be fun for them to look for photos that they want to show to others and talk about.

Which is a very lame excuse for us to share one of our pictures. As we type we have company on the window ledge. And here they are:

Friday, 5 December 2008

Michigan ECPE resources

The site is gathering together a fairly extensive list of practice test materials and other resources to help students prepare for the Michigan ECPE test of English

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Another Michigan exam

Here's Dr. Gary buck's announcement of the new Michigan English Test, copied from the website:

On behalf of the Testing and Certification Division of the University of Michigan English Language Institute, I am pleased to announce the January 2009 launch of a new international English proficiency exam, the Michigan English Test (MET). The MET is intended to provide evidence of English proficiency for educational, employment, and other high-stakes purposes. The MET is a secure test that assesses listening and reading, grammar and vocabulary with an optional speaking component, and will provide users with reliable and dependable test scores. All test takers will receive an official score report, indicating their level of proficiency, directly from the University of Michigan.

More information about the MET will be available soon.


Dr. Gary Buck
Testing and Certification Division
English Language Institute
University of Michigan

We would be very interested to hear something about the background to this test, like why did they decide to create a test with no writing component and with a speaking component that was optional. What is the philosophy behind a test which says (assuming most people will opt out of an optional interview) we don't know how well they can speak English and we don't have a clue if they can string a few half-decent paragraphs together? Is this another case of business imperatives trumping common sense?

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

English as a truly foreign language

Our thought for the week (maybe the month) is that we really ought to be teaching English as a genuinely foreign language instead of teaching the English of native speakers to foreigners (make sense?). Maybe it doesn't make sense or maybe it is just splitting hairs but my doubts are mounting that we are doing something wrong, especially in our advanced classes. I have found myself holding up the native speaker as an ideal to aim at and I have been trying to get the students to learn all the subtle idiomatic English used by the native speaker, but is this not a mistake? Why should the native speaker set the standard for the foreigner who is to be given a certificate saying she is proficient in the language?

For a more considered presentation of this chestnut, see English as an international language

Any really good student blogs?

We are trying to encourage our students to start blogging and we would really like to point them to some other EFL students with blogs that really kick your ass, as they (almost) say over in the States. Do you know any? Are some of your students already ace bloggers overflowing with profound posts about youth, pop, the planet and the difficulty of living in a world where everything is in flux? If so, please, please take the time to give us a link in a comment.