Worst Lesson Ever Taught

A typical interview question is, “Can you tell me about a really good lesson you have taught, and say what made it so good?” I’m used to that one and I always have one in mind before I go to an interview.

The last time I went for an interview though, they really threw me. “Can you tell us about a really bad lesson you have taught, and what you learnt from it?” I wasn’t expecting that. Quite apart from the fact that nobody ever wants to share their failures, it’s a hard question to answer. Like most teachers I finish every lesson thinking, “I wish I could teach that all over again – I could do it so much better next time.” How do you choose one from so many like that? I decided to talk about the first lesson I ever taught as a trainee teacher as I don’t think lessons get any worse than that particular one.

I knew what my lesson objective was, and I had thought really carefully about what independent activities I wanted the class to do to practise the learning objective. What I hadn’t considered enough, was how I was going to break down the learning objective to allow them to achieve it. The result was a shambles. I threw far too much information at them in one go, and then set them off on their first task.

Of course, they didn’t understand and the noise level rose as they asked each other what to do. I got frustrated because nobody was working. They were frustrated because I was telling them to be quiet and just get on with it, but they couldn’t. By the end of the hour every child in that class hated me, and they were my least favourite class for the rest of my placement.

But I did take away a very important lesson of my own from that experience, and the first bit of advice I would give any trainee teacher going into the classroom for the first time is this:
The lesson objective is what the class should achieve by the end of the lesson. They are not going to be able to do it after the first ten minutes of the lesson – if they can then your expectations are not high enough. You need to plan a series of small steps for them to take throughout the lesson so that by the end they can look at the lesson objective and say, “Yes – I can do that.”

I’ve never made that mistake again, and now whenever I teach I think about my particular children and plan how to break the objective down for those particular children.

How English lost the double negative (and French gained it)

double negativesDouble negatives are considered bad grammar in English. Try telling an English teacher that you “haven’t got no pencils” or that you “didn’t see no-one” and he or she will pounce and say “Aha…. A double negative cancels out to become a positive, so you do have some pencils and you did see somebody.”

It hasn’t always been like this though. There was a time in English when using a double negative was an acceptable way of emphasising something. Shakespeare is littered with double, and even triple, negatives!

In As You Like It, Celia says: You know my father hath no child but I, nor none is like to have…

In Richard III, Stanley says: “I never was nor never will be”

And in Twelfth Night, Viola says: I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth.
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”

Other languages still have a double negative. For example in Spanish to say I see nothing you would say “No veo nada.”

Well, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, and it’s still good enough for other European languages, what went wrong in English? To paraphrase Baldric in Blackadder goes forth, “ There must have been a moment when double negatives being acceptable went away, and double negatives not being acceptable came along. So, how did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?”

Well, what happened is that the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason came along. Mathematics became more socially important and scholars tried to impose the same mathematical rules to language. In the mid 1700s Robert Lowth wrote a book about English grammar, proclaiming that two negatives must make a positive, and so it has been ever since.

Interestingly – French made the opposite change. As anyone who has tried to learn French will probably remember, to say something in the negative you have to make a ne pas sandwich. I don’t want is “je ne veux pas, I don’t know is “je ne sais pas” and so on. If you’ve ever wondered why you had to use two bits, and why the second word was the same as the word for a step, well… there is a reason!

It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time I don’t want was “je ne veux, I don’t know was “je ne sais” and so on. But then there came a great fashion for exaggeration for emphasis: I couldn’t eat another mouthful….I couldn’t drink another drop……I couldn’t walk another step. Over time this manner of speaking became the norm, but then gradually most of the expressions disappeared, just leaving “pas” which tacked itself onto all of the negatives and has stayed there ever since.

And that’s the story of how English lost the double negative, and French gained it.

Of Valkyries and Slaves

As you probably all know by now, I love learning new things. I love reading, I love adult education classes and I love online courses. What I especially enjoy is the fact that sometimes on these courses or in these books, links are made for me that I should have made myself but just somehow never did. A couple of such moments happened during a course about Vikings that I had downloaded from the Great Courses.

I know quite a bit about Greek and Roman mythology. Somewhat less about Egyptian mythology and embarrassingly little about Norse mythology. However one thing I do know is that the myths all “explain” natural phenomena in some way – for a civilisation that didn’t understand the orbit of the earth around the sun, a sun god makes perfect sense, for example. So when I learnt on this course that the Valkyries of Norse mythology were meant as a way of explain the northern lights, I thought, “Oh yes, of course!” I should have realised that, and yet it had never occurred to me before that the reason there is no equivalent to the Valkyries in the other mythologies I’ve learnt about is that the they are too far south to have needed to explain the aurora borealis,

In the same course I learnt about the “slav” in words such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and slavic. I had noticed in passing that the words all contained “slav” which sounds very much like the English word “slave” and yet I hadn’t made the next link. In fact it seems the Vikings weren’t averse to trading in slaves, and the countries we now describe as “Slavic” are the ones that they captured their slaves from.

I’m sure there are many more lightbulb moments to be had as I progress through the course, and I’m looking forward to coming across them.

Linguistic Predictions

Last year my husband and I downloaded several linguistics courses from the Great Courses. I know I know – this is my idea of a good time. I’m so rock and roll! Anyway, a lot of the lectures were about how language changes and evolves, and one of them was about predictions of how English will continue to change. I’ve decided to write and publish my own predictions as I think it will be interesting to look back on this in 30 or 40 years’ time to see how accurate I was.

First of all, I believe that ‘would of’, ‘could of’ and ‘should of’ will become an accepted alternative to ‘could have’, ‘would have’ and ‘should have’. It may even become the standard. This is one Professor John McWhorter, who wrote the course we listened to, disagrees with me about. I’m not as convinced as him, and this is why:

It’s a common mistake. I already see it in writing as often as I see the correct version – amongst the younger generations more than amongst the older ones. I’ve seen teachers using it, which means it is probably going uncorrected in some classes, which means it is likely to continue taking hold amongst the younger generations. Some of those who grow up believing it is correct will go on to become teachers and the error will continue to be passed on to future generations.

Self-publishing is becoming more widespread. There are lots of aspiring writers out there, and the publishing companies don’t take them all on. But it’s easier than ever to self-publish and still get your books out there. Some self-published writers still put their work through a rigorous proofing and editing process, but some don’t. Some books I’ve picked up have contained a shocking number of errors – ‘could of’, ‘would of’, ‘should of’ amongst them – and I’ve deleted them from my Kindle reader in disgust. I’m sure there will be a growing number of people over time who see these mistakes and think, “It’s published so it must be correct.”

Another change I’ve noticed sneaking into our language is a confusion between the past tense and the past participle. Instead of saying ‘I wrote’ / ‘I have written’   or   ‘I ran’ / ‘I have run’   and ‘I rang’ / ‘I have rung’,   people are saying, ‘I have wrote’ (I’ve wrote a letter to parents about the school trip), ‘I have rang’ (I’ve rang his parents several times about his behaviour), and ‘I have ran’ (I’ve ran after school clubs for the last 3 years). Again I’ve noticed lots of teachers using these so they are clearly being passed onto the next generation via the classroom.  ‘I have wrote’ occurs quite frequently in Jane Austen so it looks as though this particular grammatical construction has changed direction and is now heading back to how it used to be. I’m not sure what the linguistic explanation for this phenomenon is, but if anybody knows I’d be really interested in hearing it.

What else do I think will change? Punctuation, and the apostrophe in particular. There seems to be an increasing number of people who not only fail to place them where they should be, but also litter texts with unneeded ones and even confuse them with commas. A perfect example of all three of these errors is the sandwich shop near me called “Sarahs Buttie,s”. I think eventually there will be a law passed to abolish apostrophes completely.

I don’t think our government will follow our German and French cousins with spelling reforms, as quirky spelling is far too ingrained in our culture, but I do predict one spelling change. As names come in and out of fashion, I think the name of the good professor I mentioned at the beginning of this piece will fall out of use and John will be replaced by Jhon. This seems to be the most common name chosen by children to use in stories and I’ve never yet come across one who has placed the ‘h’ in the correct place!