Saturday, October 17, 2009

I Love the Nightlife

"I'll stick with gin. Champagne is just ginger ale that knows somebody."
~M*A*S*H, Hawkeye, "Ceasefire," 1973

Lest you think I've been sitting on my hind-end, doing nothing but working and tidying my apartment, let me tell you a bit about my social exploits here in Gliwice. Fair warning, Grandma!

It must first be said that I really shouldn't be drinking. I suspect it makes my pancreas act all sorts of crazy (which is quite a long story that I shan't be going into here). I had grand plans, when I first arrived in Gliwice, that I would go out with any new friends I might make and just not drink booze. A tonic water with lime for me, please. Ah yes...those were simpler days, days before I had actually met the motley and alcohol-soaked crew of folks with whom I so enjoy working.

Never forget that teachers have an appetite for alcohol which rivals even that of priests. People who teach small children are especially voracious drinkers; I suspect it's to quiet the voices, to drown out the haunting tune of the "Hello Mickey" song and to try to forget that they dance around like a retarded Barney for a living. If there's anything that could drive a person to drink, it's being shut up in a room with a bunch of 6 year-olds all day.

So, in light of the fact that I work with both children's teachers and people from England, it was really inevitable that I would end up drinking on the regular. Not that I get drunk often, because I only usually have a couple beers in a sitting.

Notable exceptions include the first "Pub Club" organized (and paid for) by my school. drinks. I drank 2 dark beers before realizing that they were 8% alcohol. After standing up and nearly falling over, I drank 2 more dark beers because they were 8% alcohol. Had an absolutely spiffing time.

The second exception was at the joint birthday celebration for Chris (fellow American teacher) and Iza (office secretary extraordinaire). This was held in the same venue as the Pub Club, a pool hall/bar called NOT. I drank mostly vodka that night. Bad vodka. It was loads of fun, but I was shit at pool. I was even drunk enough to try my hand at foosball for the first time, but I lost spectacularly. Polish women are vicious foosball players...don't say I didn't warn you.

Other than organized parties and Pub Club, I mostly just go out for drinks with a few teachers at a time. There are some rather excellent bars around here, of the candlelit and cozy variety. Huge on atmosphere, with lots of dark wood and brick, and excellent music. My favorite bar is called "4 art". It's a music/piano bar, but they only have live music on a sporadic and expensive basis. The first night I went there, the stereo was playing all American oldies. I hadn't heard Elvis' "It's Now or Never" in ages, but it is an amazing mood-setting tune. They were also playing Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Bassey, even "Son of a Preacher Man", which happens to be my all-time favorite oldies song. That bar made an amazing first impression, and it hasn't disappointed yet.

It was at 4 art that I had my first taste of real Polish vodka, specifically "Żubrówka". This is a special vodka that's made from rye and flavored with an extract of grass grown where bison graze. Check out the link for more info. In any event, its flavor is a bit like mild cinnamon. They mix it with apple juice, and the result is like drinking a glass of apple pie. Freaking delicious. A side effect of Żubrówka and apple juice is that you can drink about 10 glasses without realizing how much alcohol you've consumed, so it's best to enjoy it in moderation.

Another cool bar is Gramophon. Similarly candlelit and cozy, it's an awesome place to share a few expensive beers and eat some tasty international food. The scalloped potatoes we ate there last time were really quite good (despite having kielbasa in them).

A new, alcohol-free, find is a tiny coffee shop that I was introduced to by my Italian friend, Guisy (Jo). She took me and Magda there for coffee and cake a couple weekends ago, and it was really quaint. I think there were about 5 tables, total. I got the cappuccino because Jo said it was the best in town (and she's Italian, so I'll take her word on that). Magda got the hot chocolate with cinnamon, but ended up not drinking most of it because it was more like a thick chocolate sauce than a drink. You could just about have stood a spoon up in it. The cup was approximately the size of a thimble, but even that was too much for Magda's taste (and it was fairly bitter, as well). I helped out a bit, but without milk to wash it down, I was soon defeated.

Last week, Magda, Jo, and I went to hear some live blues music at a local bar. Smoking isn't yet banned here (and smoke-eaters seem to be nonexistent), so we were fairly choking the whole time. Still, the music was better than I expected. The first group did a damn fine cover of "Kansas City". Throughout the night, an obnoxiously drunk old man in a Xerox cap kept trying to mess with the band, walking up close to them (no stage) and even trying to touch their instruments. But the real low point of the evening was when a 70 year old man tried to hit on me in Polish. He was wearing a jaunty kerchief around his neck, but a girl has to draw the line somewhere.

I suppose that just about covers my boozy exploits on this side of the Atlantic. More to follow, I'm sure. This coming weekend is Halloween, and the school is having another Pub Club at NOT. No free drinks this time, but there will be a costume contest, and the winner gets about a $10 bar tab. Here, that would buy you at least 3 beers. Not too shabby. I still haven't decided on my costume. I'm thinking of using face paint from the kids' party in the afternoon to paint my face like a cat. Then, I'll dress nicely and buy some kind of whip to carry with me. What will I be? A kitten with a whip, obviously. :-) Not that anybody will understand, but it's a fairly simple costume, and I just can't be bothered to craft something more elaborate. No costume shops in Poland!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Winter Wonderland WTF?

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."
George Eliot

Autumn is my favorite season, so when it only lasts three and a half weeks, I get a bit cranky. Personally, I think that snow before Halloween should just be illegal. Where are the golden and russet leaves crunching underfoot? The homey whiff of woodsmoke in the air? Cheeks glowing red from the pleasant bite of the wind at a high school football game and the crappy concession stand hot chocolate throughout? And let's not even talk about the Norman Rockwell escapades to apple orchards and pumpkin patches, sipping hot spiced cider before taking a hay ride with your family. These things were as traditional to the Midwestern autumns of my youth as State Fair corn dogs were to the summers.

Yesterday, it started snowing here in Gliwice. Sleet, at first, eventually shifting into fat flakes by nightfall. I've been told that this will be it...nothing but winter from this day forward. I refuse to give in; surely, there's a bit of autumn left in this place. Just melt this snow and give me a couple more weeks of air that's crisp instead of frigid, bright blue sky mornings instead of dishwater gray clouds, and let me wear a scarf because it's cute instead of needing to wind it around my head to keep my face from freezing off.

Two more weeks of fall is not too much to ask when it's only October 15th. Just sayin'...

"Bittersweet October. The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause between the opposing miseries of summer and winter."
Carol Bishop Hipps

Happy Teachers' Day!

Yesterday, through the ceaseless sleet and bone-chilling gusts of wind, there shone a ray of simple happiness. Teachers' Day. Yes, they take a day here to honor teachers with presents, flowers, and songs. The secretaries bought us cookies and candies, while the students bashfully presented roses. We even had one duet of "Happy Teachers' Day" (sung to the tune of Happy Birthday, of course). Smiles abounded. Even on the face of yours truly, despite having to teach my babies.

In fact, one of said babies brought me a rose! Out of all of my students, it was the least likely one, in fact, who shyly handed me a red rose just before class.

Joanna. The first day I met her, I was just observing the class as part of my training. She refused to come in from the hallway; her father had to beg and plead with her, eventually giving up and just dragging her inside. The teacher, Ania, told me that she was always like that. I thought, oh, I'll get to deal with her every week once I start teaching. Nice.

Once I took over the class, Joanna would be brought into the classroom by her mother, but not need to be dragged. She still wouldn't talk during class, but I did notice her following along. I could tell that she was learning colors and numbers along with the rest of them, even if she wouldn't answer any of my questions.

Then, last week--a breakthrough. She actually talked in class. And not just to me, but to another girl, too. I could have jumped up and down. Her mother had occasionally asked me if she was participating, so when I told her that Joanna had finally spoken up, she was ecstatic. So, perhaps I did really earn my rose. Regardless, it was very nice to be included, even though I'm so new to all of the kids here.

Happy Teachers' Day to all teachers, especially those of us sweating it out in the trenches!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Work: The Curse of the Drinking Classes

"Early to bed and early to rise probably indicates unskilled labor."
John Ciardi

When I first decided to come to Poland, I resolved to find a job which would allow me to develop my skills as a teacher. My previous teaching gigs were all of a slightly odd nature, nothing too typical. In Seoul, I taught at a combination school/camp, where kids came for a week at a time and classes were experiential. So, for example, I would spend a week working in the "Bank" or "Talk Show" classrooms, teaching the kids all the vocab needed to make a bank deposit or accuse someone of being their baby daddy. Fun, but not real teaching. In France, I was contracted to work 12 hours each week, but only averaged about 8. I taught masters-level university students, and my job was to be a native accent that they could listen to when the urge struck them. During my 6 month contract, I was treated to 6 weeks of vacation. It barely qualified as real work, and I thoroughly enjoyed the break from reality.

Since I'd like to make teaching my career, I figured I'd best get on the stick and acquire some real teaching practice. Hence, my decision to find a normal, 9-5 teaching job in Poland. Um, yeah. The job I finally found isn't exactly normal, and it certainly isn't 9-5, but I will be getting lots of practice. Let me tell you a bit about it...

I will refrain from using the actual name of the school (since I will likely want to bitch about them at some point in the future), but it's one of several in a popular chain located throughout southern Poland. It uses a specific teaching style known as the Avalon Direct Method. In short, this requires trained teachers, such as myself, to forget everything they've learned about the popular and effective communicative method (student-centered) and switch back into a teacher-focused, lecture type style. I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of this method, but teachers who have been here awhile say that it is successful. I think it will take a significant time for me to come around to this opinion, but I'm willing to be open-minded.

Basically, for my adult classes, I have to stand at the front of the room and ask students questions from the coursebook they're following (there are 4 levels of coursebooks). Each lesson is 80 minutes, usually with a 5 minute break in the middle. For the first 40 minutes, I ask them questions that they have covered in previous classes. Students usually end up reviewing each question about 4-5 times. I ask the questions randomly, so students have to listen constantly in case they're called on to answer. An example: "Where is the most exciting place you have ever traveled to?" Answer: "The most exciting place I have ever traveled to is Lithuania." The students practice target vocab and grammar by imitating the structure they hear in the question.

Some of the questions are really ridiculous, though. "Is it good to be alive?" is one of my favs, along with, "Do you have anything expensive in your bag?" Whenever I ask something like that, I make sure to add, "Because I want to steal it later." Always gets a laugh. There are lots of questions that I consider invasive or too personal, like "How much was your last phone bill?" "Have you gotten a raise recently?" and ones on religion and other somewhat taboo topics.

The second 40 minutes is typically spent doing new work, which involves actual teaching. Although, again, it's teacher-centered. So, I have to just talk them through things like new vocabulary and grammar structures instead of giving them tasks to do in order to learn the material. Then I ask them the new questions that go with the new work. It can get a bit tedious, as I'm sure you're imagining. I've found that it's significantly more enjoyable if the group I'm teaching has good chemistry. If they are easy to laugh or to make fun of themselves, and there's a good vibe in the room, then it makes my job a lot more fun. If they all sit there stony-faced and bitter...well, it makes for an excruciating 80 minutes, let me tell you.

We constantly rotate groups, so I never teach the same group twice in a week. Working hours vary enormously. I can have a lesson at 7:15am (the taxi to the company where the lesson is held leaves at 6:55, which means I have to be conscious at 5:45 in order to throw on some clothes and make it to school on time) and then not have another until 6:20pm. Days like that are fairly rare, though. Usually, I have at least one lesson in the early afternoon, at 3:20. Still, it is possible to have to work until 9pm. Split shifts are an undeniably annoying aspect of this job.

In direct contrast to my adult lessons, I also teach children. Thankfully, their curriculum and the expected teaching methods to be used with them are much more communicative and student-centered. This still doesn't mean that every class is a treat, unfortunately.

I have two groups that I refer to as "my babies." They are 6 or 7 years old, and each group has about 8 kids on a good day. I dread these classes as much as one can possibly dread 40 minutes of anything. I am simply not a lover of small children, it must be said. There is nothing in my history or personality which indicates a desire to sing the "Hello, hello!" song while dancing around like a retarded Barney. Every time I walk into that classroom, I feel like a giant fraud, like one of the students is going to call me on my shit and say, "Who the hell do you think you are, clapping like an idiot like that? If your friends could only see you now, they would never stop mocking you. Ever." I need students that I can take out for a drink, not students that are only a few years off the tit.

Other than the babies, I also have a group of 12 year olds. I actually enjoy teaching them, even though they occasionally get on my nerves with their constant urge to chatter and annoyingly pubescent attitudes. I often feel like a real teacher when I have them, so that's good for both my resume and self-esteem.

I've only been observed once since starting to teach, and it was, naturally, one of my baby classes. I have each group for 40 minutes, and they're back-to-back. I was going to be observed for only the second half, so I figured that the first lesson would be like a run-through. Oh no, not to be. First, only about half of the kids showed up, and the ones who did come didn't feel like getting out of their damn chairs that day. There is no sadder sight to see than a 32 year old woman dancing alone to the "Hello, hello!" song, let me tell you. The rest of the lesson was like pulling teeth, but the lesson plan did last until the very end of class. Unlike the lesson for which I was observed, where the kids were hyperactive and the lesson plan was finished with 15 minutes left to go. 15 minutes is an eternity with kids this young, especially when one is being observed! So, we ended up playing a couple games with flashcards and the realia I had brought with me to class (basically hide and go seek with the glue stick and pencil case). It was a torture, and I was sweating buckets of frustration and embarrassment by the end. I won't get my feedback until Monday morning, so I guess we'll see how much I'm to be punished.

But, before you start thinking that I must hate my job, I have to say that I really don't. Mostly, I don't hate it because I work with some really excellent people. My fellow teachers and the staff are all my age or younger, from England, America, South Africa, and Poland. It makes for a great working atmosphere, and I do really love just hanging out with them, either at work or some pub (as we seem to do quite a lot, actually).

I feel positive about my job, overall. I'm sure I'll get the hang of the kids' stuff one of these days. But if I ever turn into someone who actually enjoys dancing around like a retarded Barney...please, just shoot me.