The photos in this post are by a professional photographer, Rolf Oeser, who happens to be 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 misses one of our Thursday evening classes, but sometimes phones in to say he will arrive late because he has to take photos of some local event for the next morning’s paper.
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.
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 has 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.
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.
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.
For the listening comprehension activities in my courses, I always try to give instructions in advance, so they will know what to listen for. To avoid confusion, I often print 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 very different occupations, and they consider me hopelessly old-fashioned for printing out transparencies, but the reason I do it is that the classrooms in our building are all equipped with overhead projectors, but hardly any of them have 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?”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Rolf Oeser’s photos in this post are from 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.
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