Tag: Learning

Not a Nerd, A Linguist

I love languages. I haven’t always. My language learning was somewhat limited in secondary school as PowerPoints made me peeved and speaking exercises were sickening to me. I have always felt that there is something so incredibly embarrassing and frustrating about trying to speak a foreign language. It is almost like you are a toddler again, crying with frustration about how you can’t tell people what you really think with the limited words at your disposal. It’s yet more embarrassing because it is easy to feel when talking to a conversation partner in a foreign language that you are incredibly boring. Where in English you would usually launch into an elaborate story about how the coffee machine scalded your hand and how the dog was sick in your slippers this morning, when asked how your day is, in a different language you resort to saying ‘It’s ok’.

However when you do eventually get past the point of being horrendously embarrassed with every decibel, you can start to enjoy yourself. You start to learn phrases which you like and which are fun to throw into conversation (my particular favourite is ‘it’s a storm in a teacup’) and then you feel pretty smart. Yes I said it. You feel smart. Why is there a big taboo over acknowledging when you have learnt or done something which represents a high level of intellectual skill? Everyone likes to feel smart, and that is one thing that you do feel with languages.

Taking you back a few weeks to my trip to the Touchdown Dance event in Birmingham; we were waiting at the tram station when a Japanese couple approached a friend of mine. Between them the couple had determined how to ask how to get into ‘Centre town’. My friend explained to them that they needed to get the tram from the other platform. The couple did not understand this, and I found myself trying to explain it to them. My friends tried to keep their laughs internal as I told the couple in a thick Japanese accent exactly what my friend had said, occasionally throwing in one of the only relevant words I know in Japanese ‘Ryoko – Travel’. The couple got it though, the accent and that one word of their mother tongue had earnt understanding, and the laughs of my friends turned to surprise. It was a pretty good feeling.

I have the confidence of a spoon. I don’t like compliments and have to work hard at not getting angry at those who try to give me them. In fact until the trip to France in march this year I wouldn’t even admit that I would like to do a degree within languages because I was so adamant I was rubbish at it. In my classes I don’t feel that confident, because my colleague and lecturer obviously know a lot more than me, I’m learning though. But just occasionally, completely out of the blue, my knowledge takes me by surprise and makes me smile. So now I have just decided that smiling is as good a reason as any to take a degree in a subject.

This week I have done work experience in the languages department of my college and I have really enjoyed it. Particularly today when I delivered a lesson to an NVQ class.

So… If nearly two-thirds of 300 UK firms have said that they prefer staff with language skills. Why aren’t more people learning them? French, German and Spanish were highly commended by the companies but Arabic and Mandarin are vastly growing in importance. Research shows that one in five schools in England have a persistently low up-take of languages, which in this job deprived environment is ridiculous. However, with most schools in England offering mainly European languages like French, German and Spanish the chances of even the most enthusiastic young people picking up highly sought after languages like Arabic and Mandarin are slim. Make it available in schools and make it exciting. Communication is never a bad thing.

At the news that in college we may get the opportunity of conversational Arabic next year with a volunteer I was very excited. Then I somehow felt the need to make a self deprecating phrase about how I am such a nerd that I embarrass myself sometimes. To which my teacher replied: “You’re not a nerd, you’re a linguist.”, and I guess I am quite proud of that.

 

Prompted by: http://bbc.in/1lY0HkD

The Smell of Coffee in The Silent Cacophony- What Makes a Good Music Teacher?

I have been learning the mandolin since christmas 2012. For those of you who don’t know what the mandolin is, its an instrument which is strummed like a guitar, about the size of a ukulele, tuned the same as a violin and with two strings per note. It is the first instrument I have ever actively enjoyed playing and I have now reached the point where I feel semi-competent in making bearable sounds from it (I can change chords and strum at the same time… just).

This success is largely thanks to my brilliant mandolin teachers of the past and present- both of whom happen to be called *Trevor and both predominantly use the nickname *Trev. The similarities don’t stop there as both have hefty facial hair of some kind, the ability to play the ukulele and spend vast amounts of time in rooms filled with musical instruments. All of which they are able to play- of course. Trev number one, a folk musician who lives near the sea, appears to have converted his front room into a musical man cave. Guitars hang from the walls like trophies and the occasional bell or kazoo is perched on one of the many music stands cast around the edges of the room. On top of his piano lives an impressive collection of trilby hats which seem to all possess different personas which he chooses carefully from before heading out to a gig. I only had a few sessions with Trev One, but he did a lot of work with me on how to sing and play simultaneously which I am very grateful for.

Trev number two teaches in a music school above a shop which sells cheap-but-cheerful brightly coloured guitars. In his room he has narrowed his collection down to just a few instruments of choice, some preserved in expensive looking cases like coffins whilst others sit perched on stands welcoming students in. Before moving away to college, and away from Trev number one, I’d had no idea how hard mandolin teachers are to come by. In fact it took nearly a term to find Trev number two. However since our first session, we have met up nearly every wednesday to learn chords and songs.

It has not always been the case that I have had brilliant music teachers- in fact previously I presumed that hating children was a necessary attribute of being in the school’s music service. I met my first ever music teacher when I was around seven years old: she was an ageing woman who wore a lot of hand knitted jumpers. Every thursday morning she attempted to teach myself and a small group of other girls the violin within the confines of the echoey school hall. I had signed up for violin lessons having never held the instrument before, and mistaking its sound for that of the cello. I soon discovered that the shrieking wooden devil was not for me. Plus our teacher appeared to be on a personal mission to find us the most embarrassing and childish songs to perform in front of school assemblies. After much pleading to my parents I was finally allowed to give my violin and makeshift sponge and rubber-band shoulder rest back to the council.

My next teacher was a lady called Mrs H, who was a plumpish woman with angry red cheeks. This could have possibly been caused by her spending all her working day either playing the clarinet or shouting at her students. I had gone to her with the intention of learning the flute, but after being told that I had a ‘clarinet mouth’ I was lumbered with the instrument until I finally left primary school. I hated the noise that it made and the way the texture of the reed on my lips made me shudder. Telling her I wanted to quit has to be one of the bravest moments of my school career, and though at first she appeared angry she didn’t start a vendetta against me as I had feared she might. In fact, she disappeared completely and I didn’t see her again.

It is these experiences of instrument learning which make me so grateful for the two Trevs. My current Trev is the inspiration for this blog. Last week I went to the music school for my usual wednesday afternoon lesson, mandolin in hand. When I entered his teaching room, which smells strongly of coffee and wooden instruments in their silent cacophony, I suddenly had something very different on my mind.

“Trev… would you possibly mind showing me a guitar?” I asked. I have only held acoustic guitars a few times before, their size has always been slightly intimidating compared to my mandolin and I distinctly remember breaking one’s strings in secondary school. Trev however was more than obliging, and we went on to spend the whole half an hour session looking at all the different types of guitar. He let me hold and explore each one- classical, acoustic, electroacoustic and just electric and did his best to explain the differences between them. I asked a lot of questions, all of which started with “It’s a silly question but…”, however that was ok because all of his detailed answers began with: “There is no such thing as a silly question but…”. He taught me a few basic chords and has agreed to do some lessons with me on the guitar, because I would love to be able to play a bit and apparently it is a lot less fiddly than the mandolin.

The experience reminded me that the best teachers are the ones who don’t just teach you the notes, vocabulary and rhythms. The best teachers are the ones that install in you the passion that they have for music. Even if it is not the instrument you are supposed to be learning, a different piece to the one you have been working on for weeks or just you wanting to chat about music in general- enthusiasm is the most valuable thing a student can gain from their teacher. Once you have that passion for music or a paticular instrument the notes and chords tend to fall into place because you have the motivation to practice until you get it right. That passion is the thing that makes you want to play your instrument to gain calm after a hard day, or makes you listen more carefully to songs to find ‘that chord’. It is the passing on of this enthusiasm which I think makes a really exceptional teacher.

 

Me holding the mandolin

 

 

(*Trev is a pseudonym for both mandolin teachers, however they do both share the same name.)

Finding The Handless Toddler and His Creepy Cohort

Getting up early on a saturday isn’t usually my idea of fun, I like to laze about with catch up television and cups of tea until mid morning, but today I made an exception. I love taking pictures. I take them everywhere and of anything. I like to capture places, objects and people continuing to go about whatever they are doing. I don’t see the point in moving things around or making people pose in photographs because the picture then doesn’t depict the moment it was taken in. I would never necessarily attach the word ‘photography’ to this hobby of mine. I just bumble about and take photos as I go. ‘Photography’ is expensive lenses, knowing what macro is and being able to use dropbox. Certainly not me. But today I decided to take a chance on a student notice at college and take part in a photography project.

College took a minibus of five students, including myself, up to Ebbw Vale in Wales. This is somewhere that I had never even heard of before and had previously misread in the email as ‘Elbow Vail’. When we set off the sun was shining but as we crossed the Welsh border we found that snow was falling thick and fast. We gathered at a coffee shop where I met L from UCAN for the first time. She was a lovely lady, who very patiently explained to me what ‘Aperture’ is and how I can use it to my advantage in photographs. She also very kindly sorted out my camera which used to have a tendency of overexerting itself on the zoom button. The snow was still coming down when we left the cafe to start taking pictures.

The first place we went to was a small Owl Sanctuary at the top of a steep hill. There were two tiny wooden buildings- one with small animals in and the other with birds. Lai was very pleased to see the owl, but the pale coloured bird wasn’t so stricken with her and made a horribly loud screech. At first I was pretty nervous about taking photos. I knew that was the whole purpose of the trip but I wasn’t sure what everyone else was doing and didn’t want to seem like I was going overkill or, to another extreme, like I couldn’t be bothered. I soon settled in though, and continued my usual happy snapping of the things that I can sort of see and in the general direction of things I would like to. There was a slightly bizarre moment when the man working at the sanctuary mistook my polite ‘hello’ smile for an ‘I would like to hold an owl’ smile. I had unwittingly had the glove put on my hand and before my discomfort could be made known there was an owl walking on me. I was nervous and protested as politely as I could but he was now convinced I wanted to stroke the owl with my other hand also. Luckily at this point I was rescued by a member of staff who reiterated my point about not really wanting a large bird to sit on me and I was duly de-owled. The other building had degus, guinea pigs, smaller birds and a tortoise in. I preferred these to the owls because they all looked very sweet and I could imagine children visiting and spending ages watching them.

The owlA guinea pig behind bars

The weather turned into rain and icy winds. I was glad that I had brought my thick coat but I was still frozen. We all got back into the bus and went down to a small lake with a bridge. On a patch of waterlogged grass was a chilling set of stone statues. One of them was a huge boxing glove which in the rain cupped a small pool of water. The others were of babies and cherubs with terrifying pupil-less eyes and their skin mottled by the weather. These creepy statues reminded me of the children in Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. No one in the group knew the relevance of these statues, but I think that made them endearing in a way. It was almost as if they had placed themselves there because it was so hard to imagine the rationality behind someone picking them. I began to think up stories and meanings behind them, particularly about the sinister toddler who’s hands I imagined to have either rotted away in the welsh weather or to have always been congenitally absent. I imagined him fighting away a sleek abstract sculpture that had been originally chosen to compliment the lake, bending the metal and sending it sliding into the blackness below the water’s surface. Once the battle had been won I pictured the other statues slowly creeping into place to join the terrifying toddler; where they would remain as relics of an event that no one was aware of. I do love art that lets you think up such strange ideas.

Stone baby, which seems to have a hand coming out of its stomach. It is mottled colours of grey with pupil-less eyes.A stone Skull on a rockA stone boxing glove.A cherub with pulling a face with bloated cheeks

The handless child with a quiff and blank eyes

When we had become too cold to push down the shutters of our cameras we headed back to college. I had a lovely day despite the weather and I am so glad it was so far from the stoney faced camera clutching that I feared.

Wet branches

Lai with soaking fur

NATSPEC Student Conference

On tuesday I had the pleasure of being part of the group representing my college at the NATSPEC student conference. NATSPEC is the Association of National Specialist Colleges and it works to connect and support all the specialist colleges in the country. The conference was set up to give the students of the colleges a chance to give their opinions on the specialist education system and to meet each other.

Unfortunately getting into a specialist college isn’t as easy as enrolling in a mainstream school. Funding needs to be granted from the local authority for a student to be educated elsewhere, and a case needs to be made for why the funding is necessary. The funding application process is long and stressful, and a lot of hard work needs to go into it. This is something that every student at the conference had to face to get to their specialist college, and why NATSPEC are working to change the system for the better to give more young people the opportunity to benefit from specialist education. The new Children and Families Act is due to change the specialist education system again, and it is important that the views of the people it will effect are shown now.

The conference was held at the very impressive  National Star College near Cheltenham. The day started with introductions and we were put into groups with a few representatives of each college per table. On our table we were sharing with some lovely staff and students from Derwen College who we quickly got chatting with. The activities involved writing down our answers to some set questions on large pieces of paper. They covered a range of topics- from what we would recommend about specialist colleges, to what NATSPEC should do to improve the current system. With each question came very valuable discussions and ideas began to fly. Everyone on the tables, both staff and students, were passionate about the fact that specialist education is vital and needs to be protected and made available for more young people. As funding gets more and more difficult to obtain for prospective students the more these colleges struggle to stay open. I had never really thought about the effects of the funding system on the colleges themselves, and it was a real eye opener to hear about it. All over the room I could hear words like ‘Life changing’ and ‘Independence’ being used and so many more positive words being scribbled in big letters on each group’s sugar paper. It breaks my heart that every year so many young people get denied these opportunities because of the harsh funding process.

When asked what I would say to someone thinking about going to a specialist college I replied: “You can stop worrying about your disability and start learning and living.” and I mean it with all my heart.

It was an amazing day and NATSPEC is now in the process of planning it’s new campaign using the ideas students gave. You can read more about NATSPEC here, and see my thoughts on my personal move to specialist education here. I’ve seen the way specialist education can change lives, and I think it is something that we should definitely be fighting for.