Conversation and more

The photos in this post are by a professional photographer, Rolf Oeser, who happens to have been a long-time participant in one of my English courses at the Frankfurt Adult Education Center (VHS). Rolf’s photos appear nearly every day in the Frankfurter Rundschau, one of the city’s three daily newspapers. He rarely missed one of our Thursday evening classes, but sometimes phoned in to say he would arrive late because he had to take photos of some local event for the next morning’s paper.

Me teaching ‘Conversation and more’

I began teaching English at the VHS Frankfurt in 1972, when I was a student at the Goethe-University, and I have been doing it off and on ever since, although I didn’t have much time for teaching during the years when I was Head of English or when I was working in the IT department.

This course, “Conversation and more B2”, is one that I taught for fifteen years, from 2005 until the lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

Crista with my dissertation

For this particular course meeting, the participants sprang a surprise party for my 80th birthday, and it really was a surprise because I had never told anyone when my birthday was. The way they found out was that one of the ladies, Christa Tomuschat (who had been in the class since 2008), got the idea of borrowing my dissertation from the university library. At the back of the book was a brief biography including my exact birth date.

Mutation, Pandemic, Epidemic

In addition to celebrating my birthday, we also did the speaking and listening activities that I had prepared for that evening’s class.

Since this was in November 2019, several weeks before the first reports of a new coronavirus emerging in China, the words mutation, pandemic and epidemic were on the blackboard as exotic vocabulary items, not words that were constantly in the news. We had, in fact, not the slightest presentiment that we would soon be living through a pandemic, not just discussing the concept.

Cough /f/ and sore throat on the blackboard

This was not the first time we had talked about pandemics in this class. The first time was in 2007, when the topic came up because one of the course participants was a man who worked for a large international corporation and was on their committee to draft contingency plans for various emergency situations such as terrorist attacks and pandemics. He provided us with a text in English called “Business Continuity and Pandemics”, which I excerpted as the basis for our class discussions.

The topic of pandemics came up again this time, in 2019, merely because I decided to re-use a series of eight short recordings on medicine and illness that I had not used since 2014. So it was definitely not any sort of premonition on my part — in fact not having premonitions is a tradition in my family.

In the spring of 1912, my grandfather was in London on a business trip. Thinking he would be finished by early April, he booked his return voyage to New York on a new ship called the Titanic, but then his work took longer than he had expected, so he changed his booking and returned later on a different ship. After the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, he was sought out by reporters who wanted to know, quite insistently, if he hadn’t had a premonition of some sort, but he denied it, saying he had changed his plans for purely business reasons. (But see my post The Titanic in Cherbourg for more on this story.)

OHP transparency with listening instructions

For the listening comprehension activities in my courses, I always tried to give instructions in advance, so they would know what to listen for. To avoid confusion, I often printed out the instructions on transparencies for the overhead projector.

(My children, who are now in their forties, all use PowerPoint and a beamer for their presentations in their three very different occupations, and they considered me hopelessly old-fashioned for printing out transparencies, but the reason I did it is that the classrooms in our building were all equipped with overhead projectors, but hardly any of them had beamers.)

In this case, I was introducing the fourth of the eight listening exercises, and the instructions read: “What are the six ‘Milestones of Modern Medicine’ that are described here? Which one do you think was the most important? Why?”

Note-taking during the listening exercise

I played the recording twice, and most of them took notes. Then — and this is an essential point — they immediately compared notes and discussed with a partner, in English, before anyone said anything to the whole class. This is essential because it encourages everyone to listen carefully, rather than just sitting back and waiting for someone else to give the answers.

Pairwork in the classroom

Part of my job for decades was to observe language classes and give feedback to the teachers afterwards. The most common reason for listening comprehension activities flopping was the teachers’ failure to insert a pairwork phase between the listening and the full-class discussion. This meant that most people didn’t really listen, knowing that one or two class stars would be sure to blurt out the answers before anyone else even got their thoughts together.

One of the reasons I have not (yet) resumed teaching during the coronavirus pandemic is that pairwork in the classroom is not only unsafe but strictly forbidden, for fear of transmitting viruses. (For more examples of classroom activities that cannot safely be used during a pandemic, see my post on the Dresden adult education center.)

Collecting answers on the blackboard

After the pairwork phase, we had reports and a discussion with the full class, and I collected the answers on the blackboard: anesthesia, antibiotics, DNA, germ theory, sanitation and (not yet on the board) vaccines.

At home, to prepare for this phase, I had practiced saying deoxyribonucleic acid, and apparently I said it more or less correctly, since there is a retired chemist in the class and she didn’t object to my pronunciation. But otherwise I just say DNA like everyone else.

Correcting pronunciation

Usually I’m the one who corrects people’s pronunciation, but I try not to overdo it, correcting mainly those mistakes that lead to misunderstanding or are typically German.

Fortunately, I am by now quite accustomed to British English, so I no longer correct things that sound wrong to me but are actually just the way the British say them.

Some of the course participants

Other topics in this course in the autumn semester of 2019 included Greenland and climate change, memorable travel experiences, working with animals (for instance on the Erie Canal), extreme weather conditions, Sherlock Holmes, Greta Thunberg, lottery winners, Michael Palin’s train journey, chocolate, school uniforms, road rage, Alice’s Restaurant, Buy Nothing Day and collecting things. For all of these topics, I brought in recordings for listening comprehension, and sometimes also short reading texts.

Six pictures of me teaching the conversation course

At the end of the evening, Rolf suggested we all come to the front of the room so he could take a group photo. He used a timer so he could be in the photo himself:

Group photo of the conversation course

Another group photo

Rolf Oeser’s photos in this post are from 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.

See more posts on adult education.

19 thoughts on “Conversation and more”

  1. Wow! This is awesome ! I didn´t know you taught English!
    I really admire these Adult schools here in Germany, afterall, it´s not too late to learn something.
    I am planning to improve my German skills soon in better schedules and timings. I prefer the old style of classroom learning than on line.
    Looks fun and you are one cool teacher!
    mach weiter so…

  2. What a fascinating post! I think if I lived in Europe I would have a good ear for languages. At least, that was my experience when I was a young backpacker, and hopefully I have not lost the art. But here in Australia there is so little chance to immerse oneself in another language. Although my ear comes in handy for all those call centre people based in the Philippines, India and elsewhere.
    But oh! The hysterical mistakes one makes when learning a new language. I still remember my landlady in Florence, saying, “let me explain the difference between il tetto, and la tetta”. I was trying to tell her the roof was leaking. Perhaps you get what I was actually saying 🙂

  3. I think you should revisit the notion of premonitions in your family – one (the Titanic) may have been a coincidence, but now you have two examples. One more and I’ll be convinced you have psychic genes!

    I totally agree about the pair discussions – I often used the same technique when running workshops on various business topics (strategy development, scenario planning etc.) as it makes sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinions even if they are too shy to do so in front of the whole group. It also gives participants the opportunity to discuss in more detail something that particularly interests them.

    1. Yes, and the pairwork also serves as a kind of a filter, since they can decide which points are important enough to be reported in plenum.
      As for the premonitions, my point was that neither my grandfather nor I had the slightest inkling of what was going to happen. We were both caught totally by surprise, even though he was in the safety business (he was in England trying to take orders for large consignments of industrial safety goggles) and I led a purely theoretical discussion on the concept of pandemics a few weeks before one started.

  4. Truly a MASTERCLASS! It’s incredible to know about your teaching profession and I wish I could join your classes.This is one of the rare blogs where you have featured your photographs. I have read all the comments and totally agree with my fellow readers that you are a great story teller. Happy Birthday Don and wish you the best.

    1. Thanks, Vijay. Usually I take all the photos myself, so I’m not in them, but this time I was very fortunate to have Rolf taking professional photos of our class.
      I miss teaching, but I think I will have to wait until the pandemic is over, or at least manageable, before I start teaching again.

  5. I enjoyed this post immensely. You’re such an inspiring and dedicated teacher. I work in the field of language, and I really appreciate the advice you gave in the post. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your nice comment. Glad you liked the post. I’m not teaching right now because of the pandemic, and I really miss it, but under the current circumstances I can’t teach the way I want to. (Also I am in a high-risk group because of my age.)

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