October’s Teaching Misadventures

27 Oct

Hello everybody!

I’ve been meaning to write this latest blog for about three days now, but the days have gotten busier and time keeps on flying by!

I’ve had two weeks back at school now. My first day back was Thanksgiving Monday, and I told some students about how in Canada, nobody was at work or school that day, and they were taking the time to give thanks for all of the things they have in their lives. The night before that, Seb and I made a Thanksgiving Dinner of sorts for ourselves – we decided to not take on a turkey, but each had a chicken breast wrapped in bacon, as well as mashed potatoes, gravy and corn. We also made our own stuffing from scratch, but unfortunately it was more like soup than stuffing. I was too lazy to even think about making my own pumpkin pie (it’s a pretty non-existent thing here) so we fried bananas in sugar and cinnamon for dessert. It was a great meal and a nice way to celebrate the holiday. We even lit a candle!


Unfortunately, I had quite a bad cold during my first week back at work. Not that drinking beer for three days and staying in a tent in October had anything to do with that. At one point I was doing group-work with students and started coughing enough that tears were pouring out of my eyes, and the students were mildly alarmed. But I managed to have Thursday and Friday off, and made sure to buy some juice (vitamin C!) and cough drops too. That plus lots of sleep made for a quick recovery.

My first week back at school meant that I had my first Conversation Course session. I came all prepared with an episode of Two and a Half Men where they celebrate Thanksgiving. I had been quite nervous, but another teacher helped me set up the projector and speakers to my laptop. I had tried to publicize the course a bit earlier in the week, but had also been worried that I would have a huge class full of kids that I wouldn’t be able to handle. No need to worry: three showed up. One of them was from grade 7, and I was surprised that he came since usually in class he’s too shy to try speaking English. The other two were from grade 10, although unfortunately one of them had to leave halfway through. We started watching the episode, but I had no concept of how much the characters murmur and how fast they speak. I had to stop it about five times to summarize what was going on for the kids, and by then any trace of humour was pretty much gone from the story. In the show, Charlie pays Jake to be overly friendly to this girl that he wants to be with. I tried to teach the kids the definition of “bribing” but in the end one of them said “so, if you were to say to someone: ‘do this or I will beat you up’ that’s a bribe?” and suddenly the show didn’t seem nearly as light and funny. So after we gave up on that, the students and I discussed different holidays. I asked which ones were their favourites, and described a few Canadian ones. The one guy had to leave around then, and he said he would like for the class to be on a different day of the week – unfortunately I think I’ll have to keep it the same though, since it’s taking so long for word to get out so that students attend. At this school, classes are 90 minutes long as opposed to 45. I tried to let the other students go home early once the one guy had left, but they were still having a good time and wanted to talk more. We discussed all sorts of things, from what they did on their holidays to what they like to read, to their siblings and families. The older girl told me she’s been working on a book, and told me all about the details of the plot. The younger student didn’t always understand what was going on, but he was good at answering questions directed at him, and didn’t seem discouraged by what he didn’t know. Sometimes the girl would translate what we were saying into German for him. The fact that there were only the three of us in the big classroom meant that silences felt really big and awkward, but everytime I tried to offer for the kids to go early, they weren’t into it. The girl actually kept talking past when class was supposed to end. I definitely take this as a compliment – they enjoyed themselves so much that they didn’t want to leave. I definitely consider that to be a successful first class!

On the weekend, I spent a lot of time putting together my Canadian presentation that I promised various English teachers I would make. One of them told me she would be absent this Thursday, and suggested that I use that class to give the presentation. I was nervous at the idea of running a class without her, but agreed. On Sunday I submitted the presentation to another teacher to look over, and on Monday he had lots of tips for how I could make it better.

This week has consisted of a lot of new “firsts” for me. On Monday, the grade seven students began learning about Scotland. So, I brought in some photos of my previous trips to Scotland, and also brought in my bagpipes. During the photos, the kids were excited to learn that Edinburgh is where J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote part of her book, and were also excited to see the bridge in Glenfinnan where part of Harry Potter was filmed. They were quite intrigued by a picture of “Iron Bru” I showed at a grocery store, and none of them have tried it or heard of it before – it is very Scottish! They enjoyed the pictures of bagpipers, especially one that I took at the World’s showing hundreds of pipers for massed bands, and one that has me in it with my uniform on. Every time I showed them a picture with a body of water in it, they said “there’s Loch Ness!” and I didn’t bother correcting them.


While the photos were enjoyable, the part everyone was most excited about was obviously the bagpipe playing. I first tuned my drones to show them that part of how it sounds, and then told them about how bagpipers squeeze the bag when taking a breath. I then put in the chanter, and warned everyone that it would be very loud. I told them that if they plugged their ears, I wouldn’t be offended. We were set up in the computer lab since we had been looking at pictures, and that room fortunately had a carpet to absorb a bit of the sound. When I played the first note, a lot of the kids shot back in their chairs, but as they got used to it fewer and fewer had their hands over their ears. I just played Scotland the Brave then stopped, and they all went crazy. It was a good thing I had shown them the photos before playing, because after that they were hardly quiet enough for me to say anything else. But they asked a few questions about the pipes, like how much they cost, and a few of them asked how long I’ll be in Germany for (maybe they want me out of the country right away now that I’ve revealed this instrument?) After that, before we went back to the classroom I laid out the pipes and let them come and have a look. The teacher was equally excited about the whole thing, and said it was the first time she’s heard that type of music live. When we were back in class, small groups of students were sent out in the hallway to speak with me. A few of the students got really excited about that and wanted to go first, and it was a very happy moment for me to see them so enthused about interacting with me.

On Tuesday, the teacher that I normally work with had to leave school quite suddenly. So another teacher gave me a stack of papers and told me what the students were expected to do. It took me a long time to understand what she was telling me in German, but the message got across eventually. It was a grade 10 Honours class, so they behaved exceedingly well for the entire class. The students first had to read an article about Alice Munro, so I read out the first part and then got different students to read the rest. After that they had to answer questions about the reading, and I sat there nervously wondering how on earth I was supposed to pass an entire 90 minutes with them. At one point I saw a student glowering at me, but I’m fairly sure that was more out of boredom than any personal anger. Once they were all done, I asked different students what the answers were. I didn’t have too much creative or original to add, but I like to think that I didn’t do too poorly considering the lack of notice. Then the students had to read a short story by Alice Munro. I asked whether they would prefer to read it individually or all together, and seeing as a few had already started we settled on individually. What I didn’t realize was that this meant some of them would be finished way before the others. The story took a lot longer for me to read than I expected, and in the end everyone was finished only 10 minutes before the end of class. I asked a few questions about it, such as what the students thought about it and if they preferred novels or short stories. In the end, I don’t think the students were riveted by my amazing teaching skills, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t bored out of their minds either.

After this class, I went and spoke with the vice principal about what would happen in the next class I was supposed to teach with the absent teacher. He told me that the principal was going to give the students a test (the teacher had already set up the test, it’s not like the principal was just being cruel), and after that I could supervise the students while the principal worked in his office. So he came in and gave the students their exam, and told them that if they looked over at someone else’s paper, I would take it away from them. He made me sound good and menacing, so the students never really found out that I’m a softie. It’s amazing how much power simple supervision has. I have hardly any teaching experience and don’t have much authority within the school system, but my simply being there and attentive meant that no students dared look at one another’s papers. When there was about half an hour left in class, I told students that once they were done their papers they could raise their hands and I would collect them. Unfortunately after that, some of the students started making noise. I had a complete flashback to those moments in my school days, when students around me were done and started chatting away about random things while I was staring at my paper in paralyzed fear, willing the last few answers to pop into my mind. So I tried to make the students be quiet. Every once in a while I would say something like “guys, some people still aren’t done their papers. No talking.” or “Come on guys, some people still aren’t done. Read quietly or work on something else”. But there unfortunately was no stopping them. In the end I said “ok guys. If you are extremely quiet, you can go now. But don’t talk until you’re out of the room.” They seemed pleasantly surprised, and managed to leave without making an obscene amount of noise. I hope that the students still working had gotten enough silence, but I’m not really sure. One of them said good-bye to me as she left, which I found very friendly. The embarrassing part is I didn’t notice she was saying good-bye, and sort of had my finger in my ear. Either way, I still take student interactions to be a good sign. It makes me really happy whenever one of them says hello to me in the hallway, and I love that the more I work here the more faces I recognize in the school.

So, the day of my working spontaneously alone was a success. Normally I will not be teaching classes alone, but I was happy that I could help out when teachers were in a tight spot.

One teacher sent me an email early in the week asking if I could come to his grade eleven class on Wednesday. The kids had a big exam the next day and it would be helpful to have two teachers helping them with their practice exams. I think that class went well, although a lot of students weren’t ready with a draft for me to look over until the last few minutes of class. I still haven’t gotten the hang of being forward and demanding they share their work with me earlier. I still feel quite guilty though – one student gave me her work and I basically ripped it to shreds. I was trying to fix all these details to make her writing better, and didn’t realize she would be so discouraged when she got it back. But eventually the other teacher worked with her and I like to think he made her feel better about her progress. From then on I made sure to only work on a few general things instead of fixating on every detail! One student unfortunately had such messy writing that I skimmed it over and made about two comments to make it seem like i knew what it was all about. Either way, I like to think that in the end I was a bit of a help. One student wanted to know the difference between “many” and “much” and thanks to my days in copyediting class I know that answer quite well.

After that, it was conversation course time again. I had serious doubts that anyone would attend, since all three people from the last week were only about to make it every second week. But lo and behold, the grade seven student was able to make it since something else got cancelled. A bit of a shame that I couldn’t go home 90 minutes early, but helping with English is what I’m getting paid for! For this week, I had printed out the lyrics to the Barenaked Ladies “If I had a Million Dollars” and I played it for him. We then spent some time discussing what we would do if we had a million dollars, and then we got onto the topic of pets. That proved to be a conversational jackpot, since he has a guinea pig, a dog, two mice, and a rabbit. There were a lot of times when we didn’t know how exactly to get our message across, so we resorted to dictionaries and drawing on the board. At one point he was telling me about his two pets that are now dead, but I didn’t realize the dead part until a while later. I’m not actually sure of how many pets he has at this moment. But either way, it was a good class!

After school, I had orchestra practice. Next week there will be an Organ concert featuring the new organ that the school bought. Since our band’s conductor found a piece for bagpipes and organ, I’ve been asked to play in the concert. I brought both my small pipes and my normal pipes to practice so we could try it out. It turns out that the big bagpipes are just a bit off key from the organ, but the small pipes were just right. The plan now is that I will play Scotland the Brave on my big pipes at the beginning of the concert, just to frighten the bejeezes out of the audience. Then once they’ve recovered, I’ll play a lovely duet with my small pipes and the organ. It should be a good time! After practice we all went out for Greek food. I’m enjoying the chance to play music and speak German on Wednesday nights, and I’m very glad it’s part of my weekly schedule!


The photo above is my Mom and I playing small pipes at a wedding this summer – just in case you didn’t know what small pipes look like. I think they were a lovely, subtle way to add music to the wedding, and after borrowing a friend’s small pipes for this performance I really wanted a set of my own (and then I was given my own set right before coming to Germany!)

Thursday was a very big day for me this week. After having made all sorts of changes to my Canadian presentation, this was the first day I actually got to deliver it! All of these hours of time preparing a powerpoint and a handout and a reading and notes and a lesson plan outlining how I would spend every minute…and I would spend 90 minutes trying to get a grade ten class to be quiet enough so that I could teach it all. In the end, it went very well. The morning started off shaky when the copier broke down halfway through my food information sheet, but fortunately I had gotten enough copies of the fill-in-the-blanks form. When I got to the class, there was a computer that usually teachers use to hook up to the projector, but no one had told me the password for accessing that system. Luckily I had brought my own laptop, and was able to hook that up fairly efficiently instead. But from that point on, the presentation went very well. It doesn’t include as much personal information about my background as I would have liked, but I think it’s a good general introduction to Canadian culture. I was surprised by what things the class found exceedingly interesting in contrast with what they were bored by – especially in the celebrity section. They couldn’t care less that Deadmau5 came from Canada, but thought it was awesome that Seth Rogen was Canadian. Unfortunately none of them have seen “Austin Powers” so the Mike Myers reference wasn’t as cool as I would have hoped. The only thing I didn’t handle very well was their assignment at the end. They had to work in pairs to make a dialogue about coming to Canada and what they would see and do, but when I made them present from their seats, no one else paid attention. So next time, I’ll have to make sure they go to the front of class and everyone else is silent. Some of them just said “we’re not done yet” and it was a way to get out of presenting. One student asked how old I am, and when I told him I’m 22 he told me I look like I’m about 15 or 18. I’ll take that as a compliment! Either way, I was extremely pleased with how it went.

After that, I had a class helping out with grade nine students. The class had to make a dialogue about going to Australia, and so the teacher and I did an example dialogue to start them off. The students certainly got a kick out of that, especially when the (male) teacher chose the words “come party with me!” It’s interesting what things kids decide to pick up on. We had basically a standing ovation at the end of it, so that was fun.

After class, I headed off to my very first German class. I should explain that a bit though.

As most of you know, one of the things I hoped to do as part of my stay in Berlin is learn as much German as possible. The university that my boyfriend attends, TU, offers German language courses that are a fair bit cheaper than they would be elsewhere in Berlin. I picked out a course that I felt would be a good fit for me – it was on Thursdays shortly after I finished work, and it was at the B1 level (the levels are basically A1, A2, B1…up to C2). Unfortunately, when the courses opened up for people to apply, they were only open to TU students. I was basically informed that, if there was any room left by the time the course began, I could possibly take it. But the one I wanted to take became full before I was able to apply. However, I decided to show up to the first one and see how it went.

The train ride from my school to the University is quite gorgeous. I get to pass the Berliner Dom, the fancy TV tower, the government building, and the statue of the golden woman. Those names were not very accurate, but either way I loved the view. Here’s a few photos of those attractions in case you’re unsure of what I’m talking about.


Once I got to the class, I asked the teacher (in German) if I could stay even though I wasn’t registered. She said that it was no problem, and if someone else were to leave the class I could likely take their place. We started off the class with a German proficiency test, and a few students were told that their results were good enough that they could move up to a B2 level course. One of them decided to do that, and at that point the teacher wrote me a note to give to the receptionist, saying that I could take this student’s place and I should be entered in the TU system. I’m really hoping that this works out and I can register for this class, but I have to wait until tomorrow to try because the receptionist was out of the office and wouldn’t be back until Monday.

The class itself was thoroughly enjoyable. There were only about 15 students, and all communication happened in German. Whenever the teacher was teaching us the definition of something, she would use German to explain it instead of translating it to English. There were people there from Poland, Bulgaria, China, Iran, and many more – it would be really cool to get to know people from such unique places. I would have to get used to having homework again, but since it’s yet another way for me to use German within my week it would be really good. Plus, it’s not like I’m going for an A in this course – I would love to do well, but it’s not a mark going towards some sort of degree. If I got to take this course, that would mean I speak German Wednesday evenings with my band, then Thursday evenings in class, and probably use it on the weekends with friends. I’ll keep you posted about if I’m able to get in!

The class lasted 3 hours, and afterwards I met Sebastien at the library. Thursday was the “Lange Nacht der Bibliothek” which basically meant that several libraries throughout the city were open for people to come and see them. Sebastien’s university library was partaking, so we saw a few lectures going on and walked around. I asked a bit about if there were practicums available at the library, but was told that school libraries primarily hire students from the school itself. We then went to another library that was absolutely breathtaking, and apparently houses some of the most diverse records in the world. I tried asking there as well, but was told that it’s very competitive to get work at that library because of it’s reputation. After that Sebastien and I went to the mystery movie night we check out every week, and got to check out Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (I don’t feel like checking the spelling, sorry!) try to get out of prison.

So there you have it. I’m really sorry if you found this report a bit tedious, but those were the adventures of my week! I hear that it has snowed in Calgary, but here in Berlin the weather is still treating us really well. I’m loving the fall and all of the gorgeous falling leaves. Tomorrow I will try and get into that German course, and after that I’m going to try and ask about volunteering at the library that is really close to my house. I’m also going to start practicing my bagpipes intensely in preparation for my performance this week. On Tuesday I’m checking out a tour of dungeons in Berlin, which supposedly has a Halloween theme. It could be interesting!

I hope you all enjoy the rest of your weekend!



1 Comment

Posted by on October 27, 2013 in Travel and Working Abroad


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One response to “October’s Teaching Misadventures

  1. Judy Neelands

    October 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Hey Robyn, really enjoyed your blog! What a fantastic experience you’re having!


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