Kids can be so cu – GAAAH!

Holy crèpe paper…that’s supposed to be educational?

Ok, so that’s not even a real child, it’s a plastic model which gave me a lurching heart attack the minute I turned around and glimpsed its hell-black eyes in the Pingelhof traditional farming museum on my trip last week. The real children I am actually teaching really are quite sweet, and as our lessons finally begin to come to their end, their reactions are ranging from adorable to inexplicable.

I’m now getting into the penultimate or final lessons for each group, and as I sit the children down and tell them in the saddest-sounding whisper I can muster (simultaneously putting all my energy into not sounding at all joyful or triumphant) that these are our last lessons together it is hilarious to see what they do with that information. One kid, Max, was so devastated after the lesson that he sobbed and his mother had to calm him down, as she later told me – tragic, yes, but good feedback is good feedback. The other kids in Max’s group immediately asked, naturally, if they would be getting a present of some kind, since they have been doggedly demanding that I make them all animal masks since that fateful day I brought in a snake and monkey mask for them to frolic about in. But this is a group of kids who all have huge, cartoon eyes and adorable high-pitched giggles and are addicted to being tickled and so I couldn’t say no to the little tykes.

Livin’ it up on a Friday afternoon

That’s my favourite group; others won’t quite be getting the same level of dedication.

One of the groups, from a slightly impoverished Kita in the south, were very strange. I knelt to tell them the sad tidings and after a moment of reflection the adorable and very Ikea-pretty (i.e. blessed with Scandinavian good looks and subtle colour combinations) Lasse said: “Rosie is soft like a cushion.” He then lay his head on my lap and started to mew, and all the other kids said, “Yes, she’s soft like a cushion,” and joined in nestling on my big squashy thighs. I had to sit for a while just staring in confused affection at this sudden litter of puppies on my lap stroking my thighs, and then eventually just tried to distract them with the picnic game.

Other children are not so sweet, and use this as an opportunity to loudly announce that they don’t want to do English anymore and their mum says it’s a waste of money and that they should have done swimming instead; others seem to completely lose their sense of what is going on and start asking if that means they won’t have an English lesson tomorrow (the lessons are only once a week, never twice in two days) or suddenly asking what happened to that English teacher they used to have before I came along (answer: they quit because they hated the job and you, children!). And some simply ask, “Why?” 

In absolute honesty, to be leaving the kids is rather sad and I have grown very fond of almost all of them; well, save the group who are as thick and herd-minded as a group of buffalo and simply spend every lesson loafing around the room dribbling slightly. But most of the children are sweet and affectionate and in finding out that I am leaving are touchingly saddened. Some now call me ‘mummy’ and some simply cling onto me like baby orangutans. And an oddly large number of the children have taken to repeatedly kissing the back of my hand during lessons like a Victorian gentleman introducing himself to a fine lady. It’s rather charming.

Still, even though my time here is drawing to a close, that is no reason for me to stop discovering new and mental things to do in this hilarious city, and thus I will end this entry with a concert that I was at featuring a Gypsy Swing Jazz Band. No, I didn’t really know those words could come together like that either. The venue was the Fuchs and Elster, a wonderful little bar/pub named after one of the sweetest stories of the Sandmann, a little pre-bedtime telly show from East Germany in which a tiny story lasting five minutes was played out to soothe East German kids into sweet felt-puppet dreams. The tales of Herr Fuchs and Frau Elster are stories of a cantankerous fox and a mild-natured magpie who have the personalities of that grouchy old man who chases children off his lawn and that sweet old lady who gives those same kids cake and lemonade, respectively. The stories revolve around Frau Elster trying to do something nice and Herr Fuchs just trying to enjoy a quiet life, and they are beautiful and charming.



  How could a pub named after that not feature some kind of organic Gypsy jazz on its menu? The concert was brilliant, in fact, a mix of twangy Gypsy Kings-style skiffle music and Woody Allen-style jazz with a mental lead violinist who sang in a moany growl. Unfortunately my friends and I were not able to fully enjoy the concert due to the complete maniacs in the audience. It was not particularly music to dance to, but despite this a man in a Popeye-striped-shirt was flinging himself around like he was being toyed with by an invisible puppet master. The man had an expression on his face that can only be described as “agonecstasy”  and seemed to have completely misunderstood all genres of music at the same time, as he was dancing to the swing/jazz/skiffle beats with a mixture of skanking, hip-hop hand gestures and wild hippy flailings, whilst making Super Mario whooping noises and shouting “Arriba” like a Mexican bandito. He was not the main offender, however. The worst was the man directly next to us, a man who seemed to be composed of nothing but elbows and shoulders, getting his groove on in the most self-indulgent and inappropriately energetic manner. He was whacking us in the arms, face, boobs, bellies, grinding up and down the side of my poor friend and indulging in erotic caresses with the two women  and other dude he was with until, at the end, they all just gave up and clustered into a big writhing ball of fake carnal fervour. If you are reading this, you angular and malfunctioning robot, take your hoodie and blazer combo off and burn it, then go and read a book or something. Chillax, dude.

Lovable rascals

This is Berlin, I promise. Don’t look up too long or you’ll step in something…

Allow me to paint you a picture with words and sounds. You are asleep in bed at 6am on a Sunday morning. You are comfortable, warm and happily drooling onto the pillow. You have not slept well during the night but now you are nestling blissful in the cocoon of slumber, the mellow breeze of the morning gently toying with the hairs on your forehead. Suddenly and without warning this song explodes through your window and into your subconscious at tremendous volume.

You leap up and close the window but it’s coming from the flat next door so it simply barges through the wall instead – and you are then forced to spend the next two hours that should have been sleep-filled instead wondering why the neighbours are:
a) listening to this song on repeat for two hours
b) listening to a synth xylophone cover of the song rather than the original if they like it so much
c) doing so at 6am in their kitchen.
These are the same neighbours who regularly have colossal and loud raves in their flat every Wednesday and Thursday night, and who last night seemed to be watching just the car chase parts of all of Hawaii 5-0 with the television pressed up against the wall. There are so many people around who are simply bad and naughty; people who don’t give a single microscopic hoot and know they’re being antisocial, tossing Snickers wrappers on the ground and letting their dog chew your iPod headphones with no other feeling than a mild sense of triumph. Oooh, I’d like to smack them until they weep. Funnily, though, I don’t think any of my favourite kids that I teach will ever grow up to become these people, and my favourite kids aren’t goody-goodies or sweet little girls or cherry-cheeked cherubs. No. They are the really, fantastically, bloody naughty-as-sin kids.


The naughty children I teach are so much more deserving of the huge quantities of energy and attention I am forced to give them. Sure, the good children have earned good treatment and are often brilliant kids, and it is important to make them feel that they are getting recognition for being obedient or well-behaved or clever. It is also crucial for the group as a unit to show nothing but approval for the ‘good example’ kids and nothing but dismay about the ‘juvenile detention’ kids. Little Leonie is a smarmy, competitive and boastful shrew but she gets lots of stamps and high-fives because she is at least trying to exemplify what the kids think the teacher wants as good behaviour. 

It’s an impossible juggling act because this must be carefully balanced with the praise the other good kids get, the praise the kids who are just casually drifting along with the crowd get, and the praise the bad kids get when they do something remarkable like sit down. The good kids know they are good and often become distraught if they feel that they missed out on earning a brownie point; I have one pupil who collapses into a gooey crying heap the minute he is not instantly high-fived and given a standing ovation for saying a word. My superiors advise me to make these good children into examples by praising them as a form of telling off the others, as in, “Now look how well Marc is sitting, isn’t that fantastic! We should all be sitting just like him. Super!” This is unbearable enough but there is a very good reason to avoid this entirely, and as someone who used to be the unbearable swot in the class, I should know. The problem is that in holding up the good kids as examples to follow, they become incredibly easy to hate. You can see the other kids narrowing their eyes and puckering their mouths if these teachers’ pets ever get this treatment, and I just can’t do it to them; I have to protect my own kin. The fact of the matter is, when a kid is good they are praised, and when not then not. 

But no-one can understand how heartbreaking it is to always have to yell at the kids you love. And god help me, I love the naughties. They are hilarious – Julius has a rock-star mane of long hair and roars like an asthmatic lion when he gets excited or angry, which is all the time. Alexander is the only kid I’ve known to actively refuse to represent male characters in games in favour of female characters (“Ich will ‘sister’ sein!!”) and Leo is so, so, so desperately rude and naughty but his debonair eloquence at the age of three is so disarming I sometimes want to embrace him for the startlingly offensive things he says. Naughty children are exciting and rebellious and never boring; you can tell that the reason they are bad is that they are in fact geniuses who already know too much about the world. Julius had a horrendous fistfight with his two mates in class this morning and after I had succeeded in calming them all down, he smoothed down his hair with dignity, turned to the other two and said, “Now look. After all that, I want to know – and let’s agree on this – are both of you still my friends?” His equally naughty friend Michel replied, “Well, all I know is that I am my own friend and my name is Julius.” These kids are four years old and it was such an arresting moment of sincerity I wanted to buy them all presents for being awesome. These bad kids won’t grow up to be bad adults; these are the children who will become in charge of important firms or making new inventions because they have energy, wit and brain.

I love it when the kids secretly cover my attendance list with stamps when I’m not looking or when they ruin the entire game or story because they have realised that ‘boots’ sounds like ‘poops’. It shows such imagination and reluctance to be normal and boring and average, and for that reason every time I shout at them I am secretly wishing that if I ever reproduce my own child will be just like them.  

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Who says young people have short attention spa – ooh, a bird!!

Any good insect-themed bowl requires time, concentration and commitment.

There is a general assumption these days that ‘the youth’ have lost their ability to concentrate on any one thing for more than fifteen seconds thanks to the scourge of the Internet and television and the general overwhelming bombardment of stimuli with which our premature consciousnesses are forced to deal with on a daily basis. This is a rather insulting theory and goes alongside the ‘exams are getting easier’ and ‘children are getting oversexualised’ arguments which help to perpetuate a grumbling bitterness towards the Yoof of Today which we all thoroughly resent, thank you very much. But more than being insulting, this is a destructive theory as it has led to a very uncomfortable new set of theories and reasoning applying to teaching and communicating with younger generations. It is assumed that since our attention spans are so fleeting and our demand for stimulus so ravenous, we need interactivity, movement and fast-pacing when it comes to our learning and our entertainment. We are forced to endure lessons where resentful teachers make us play terrible ‘educational’ computer games where you walk through a human gut or conduct your own poorly-animated archaeological dig, we must write our homeworks in the form of kitsch Powerpoint presentations which somehow count as more stimulating than any other thing in the world because they are capable of making a bullet point zing across the screen with a noise like an old-fashioned camera taking a photograph in an empty tin can underwater. Because it involves movement and colours and sound effects suddenly a boring subject is supposed to be transformed into a whirlwind of intellectual intrigue, a source of knowledge so absorbing you lap it up like a greedy, greedy kitten.


Of course, interactivity in learning is very important; you will learn far more in doing something yourself than when you simply have someone read it to you in a drab monotone. Chemistry is a subject only made bearable by the fact that you work through the theories involved by doing your own experiments and making your own conclusions which can then be applied to the abstract content. However, this works well as an idea because there is a clear purpose to experimenting and it has a sense of being real-world valuable as opposed to some gimmick. And let us not fully dismiss gimmicks in themselves when they have valuable mnemonic use; a bunch of bored sixth-formers are much more likely to remember the theory of electron shells when they are made to whirl around the room (hopefully screaming ‘wheeeeee’), no matter how simultaneously humiliating they may find it.


But there is also a lot to be said for young people’s capacity simply to be interested. Give us a dry subject and of course it will take goons dressed up as the Vikings dancing around a psychedelic cartoon oyster to make us pay attention. Find me any middle-aged person who doesn’t react exactly the same way. But give us a reason to be interested and we will engage ourselves, or at least try; it is hard to deny that we all remember and learnt best from the teachers who found their own subjects interesting and vital and did little more than inject their own enthusiasm and interest into their teaching to make it work. When our wonderful German teacher taught us about the Wall, she told us about her own experiences and gave us an idea of the collective German feeling at the time and without having to do anything more than tell us the story of what happened we were hanging on her every word.


Still, it is not the ‘youth’ that really concern me when it comes to this question. The people that are really at risk from the ridiculousness of these assumptions are the really little ones, the ones that are still coming to terms with the complexities of putting on trousers. Every time you make an assumption about a certain group, you risk perpetuating that assumption or even causing it to become true in the first place. Yes, little kids have short attention spans, but children have always had short attention spans to a certain extent, even back in the days when people like to believe they sat for hours at a grassy riverbank fishing with a length of their mother’s sewing cotton. No, kids have always been stimulus-hungry piranhas, devouring one activity for a couple of minutes before swarming over to another or simply staring with a menacing underbite out of the empty preyless waters. Give them something that they can truly be interested or engaged in, however, and it is a doddle keeping their attention; there have been times when I have managed to avert complete meltdown with kids of friends or family simply by teaching them how to make origami water balloons and letting them quietly be fascinated for a good half hour. 


We are making a huge mistake by pandering to this imaginary child who only likes things that are multicoloured, flashing and change subject and backing music every minute. We are setting them up to expect that kind of interaction with the world and not giving them a chance to ever be fascinated in the first place, never silently offering them the question: ‘would you like to know more?’ For example: recently I watched two whole episodes of Blue Peter to give me some material to write about for a BBC application. Blue Peter, for those of you who don’t know, is a TV show for kids presented by a trio of grinning Bright Young Things who take the viewer through a series of different items to do with everything and anything that is interesting or relevant. In the past, in any given show, you might have seen a really good report on how buildings are demolished, an item on show dogs and a performance of what they can do, a musical number, a feature where one of the presenters briefly joins the U.S. Marines and a ‘Make’ where they construct a fashionable London bistro for your Barbie out of a cardboard box and PVA glue. It is a marvellous idea because it fits exactly that young mindset where you are constantly full of a million questions about everything and you haven’t yet decided quite what you don’t want to know yet. But – good grief. Ten years ago a report on demolishing buildings would have been four or five minutes long and contained lots of good explosion videos, an explanation of how they stop the buildings falling on other buildings, an interview with a demolisher and a final climax where the presenter gets to blow something up himself. Now, the item would have been a minute long, and would have run thusly:

(videos of explosions set to a well-known Muse track)

Presenter: Woah! When a building gets in the way, you’ve got to get rid of it somehow!! How exactly?!
Builder: Well, we use dynamite to – 
Presenter: AWESOME! (presses plunger and explodes building in the background)
Presenter: Amazing! This has been really ground-breaking!! Back to you in the studio Mindy! (cut back to frantic-looking blonde in technicolour set)


It was atrocious. Each of the items was so short and superficial that there was barely any time to even understand what the topic was. The Blue Peter make, which used to be so complex and beautiful, was this time simply a hideous ‘rabbit’ made by stretching two elastic bands around a flannel. Of course children are going to have fragmented concentration if that is what they are being fed! Give them a mediocre thirty-second-long video of a pen factory and they’ll be interested for 30 seconds; give them a great two-minute long item about pen factories and they won’t complain at all either.

This is what grieves me about my work. I spend forty-five minutes with children pelting various activities at them as if they were dogs being encouraged to chase different coloured balls across the room. That isn’t even far from the kind of activity we have to do with them. We have to make everything a short game and get the kids leaping and running and sitting down and standing up and singing and repeating…and yes, often they beg for the time when a particular game will come to an end but that is less to do with their own lack of attention than the fact that the game is simply poor. They love stories. They love games where they can draw things or games that have more than one rule. They love learning the body parts by playing doctor for a good five minutes rather than frenziedly poking each other’s shoulders and noses for one. If you keep giving them new topics and seguing between them with transitions as subtle as getting them all to hop on one leg they will simply have a wild and fragmented experience and a fragmented knowledge of the language they are supposed to be learning to boot. 

Ultimately I fear the root of my resentment is the fact that I am not allowed to sit down with my kids for a good hour and do cutting and sticking with them. But I am worried that if we don’t ever raise the standards of our teaching to hold their attentions, they will begin to lower their capacities to be interested to meet our offerings, and that would be a colossal shame. Kids are curious about everything, why would we want to render them all a bunch of yappy-dogs, just barking at things that wiggle and squeak?

Should you be learning English if you haven’t yet learnt to use a fork?

Yes! It’s a real Trabi! (Plus owner who was not happy about me taking this picture.)

Now I’m not prone to exaggeration (cue raucous peals of laughter from live audience) but Monday morning’s lesson has got to be one of the worst any of us babysitter teachers have to deal with. It is a group of four children: a baby of one-and-a-half years, who can barely speak at all and has a tenuous grip on reality as it is; a two year old Turkish boy who is stocky and strong like a baby buffalo and doesn’t really know any English, German or Turkish but does know how to say “Onur MAAAAAAD!” in German just like the Incredible Hulk; a three-year-old girl who is rather bright and willing to join in if it weren’t for…; the other three-year-old, the adorable blonde who made his fame on this blog months earlier as that cherub who takes his family jewels out of his tights and kneads them like a stressball. It is one of the most impossible groups of pupils to teach, not in the least because none of them have even the faintest glimmer of interest in learning English; the other ‘zone- in this kindergarten is a bomb-site of broken and scattered toy bits and crayons and sweeties which no child would under any circumstances want to leave behind in order to play farm animal memory game with a weary and shoeless ‘teacher’ (something about having to remove my shoes makes me feel like I have lost any authority I could have had before the kids even enter the room).




This class is a shining example of how quickly kids develop when they are so very young; the four of them together, if they ever stand in a line,  resemble the evolution diagram  because each of them occupies such a different plane of early development. The baby is so small that she can barely stand, and spent today’s lesson lying completely motionless on the floor in a manner so lifeless that I had to stop a couple of times and watch her until I was sure she was breathing. She was, and for some reason was also grinning all over her sticky face as if enjoying some kind of treat. Onur, the two-year-old, is just beginning to get a hold on the logic of real life, which is why it’s possible to see him over the lessons getting more and more aware of the ract that language has a communicative role; this unfortunately manifested itself in him working out what ‘Nein’ means and roaring it at me every time I ask him to do anything, from sitting down to being an Easter bunny. Fascinatingly this is coinciding with his developing understanding of games and the point thereof, as a few months ago he used to be a silent force of destruction slowly trudging around the room oblivious of the fact that we were playing things around him, whereas in the last couple of weeks he has been able to point at a card in the memory game and even realise which card is the right card to be pointing at. 


Out of the two three-year-olds, the youngest (the male) is determinedly resistant to everything and is firmly in the stage of still being fascinated by his own and other people’s bodies, meaning that when he isn’t also saying ‘nein’ or massaging his tender parts he is begging the other one to touch her belly to his or is pressing his face against her bum. The girl, the oldest, generously allows this behaviour but is herself now far too mature for this and absolutely loves the games; unfortunate, then, that none of them are possible when the other three participants are rolling on the floor, tearing the room apart or inspecting their perineum. I allow her to play ‘Doktorarzt’ every lesson as it is her favourite game and allows me to subversively sneak in some body-part learning, but she is currently in that point of childhood where you are fascinated by the idea of having babies and so it doesn’t particularly move her that my head or nose or fingers require an injection but I do now have an impressive clutch of invisible babies to tend to.


Yet as they age by mere months each of these kids is changing so rapidly I can hardly believe it. The baby began as little more than a drooling flesh-bag, whereas now she is picking up English words and knows when they correspond to certain pictures and when I am asking her to repeat them back to me. Onur never used to understand that words meant things so it used to be a case of me shouting single words at him and him shouting them back at me in a kind of detached way as he was busy throwing things and pressing his face into the wall at the time; now he is grasping their relation to the world he lives in and occasionally will deign to sit down for a full two minutes or so. And the two older ones have learnt new and creative ways to misbehave, such as stealing and hiding my mp3 player headphones somewhere in the toy crate. 


It is one of my most chaotic and least productive classes but it is quite intriguing to watch these little beasts become more and more complex as they age. Like kittens you don’t notice them looking any different from day to day but you do remember the day they stopped puking on that sofa cushion, and I suppose they even look different too. It must be strange to be a Kindergarten minder and watch thousands of toddlers enter your doors too tiny to eat by themselves and leave big enough to tell you they think what they’re eating is yucky. For someone who only spends three quarters of an hour per week with them it’s a little like watching every third episode of a TV series. Still, sometimes you are lucky and catch a really good episode; last week was my favourite so far, when the girl was being a little demon and then accidentally kicked the bottom of a vast clothes rack propped up against the wall. It fell directly upon her with a colossal WHAM. She was flattened to such a degree that you couldn’t even see her under the enormous thing, and when I lifted it up, trying to surpress all my fear and amusement, she was spread out like a photocopy of herself. It took her about four seconds to recover.

Please mentally read the following text in the voice of the pubescent boy character in The Simpsons

Butternut squash-chili-ginger soup. You need this soup in your life.

It has been a quiet week on this blog, and for that I apologise. The reason for this is that the flecks of baby-spittle which landed on my tongue at the beginning of last week heralded the beginning of the end for my physical well-being. It began with a cold, which rapidly deteriorated into a godawful sniff-fest forcing me to fill my entire bedroom with used tissues, and then after the weekend deepened in complexity and heft rather like a fine whisky; all of a sudden I was unable to talk in any voice other than a faint quacking noise resembling the voice of that broken squeaky penguin in Toy Story 2. Feeling left out and bored, the rest of my body decided to get in on the action and my big toe began to creak like old wood and explode with acid pain every time I did something crazy like walk or go up or down stairs. “Why didn’t you guys tell us you were having a party??” demanded my teeth, and proceeded to become hypersensitive to anything that is any temperature or flavour outside of completely neutral.  Unable to speak, walk, eat, drink, sing or dance around properly my daily doings are currently somewhat laboured.

But I so seldom take sick days, and at school used to covet my hundred-percent attendance rate as if it were a Victoria Cross medal.I have my gleaming 100% fixed in my mind and will not let it go for anything less than amputation. I once attended an audition during the throes of Swine Flu and passed off my almost-not-there voice by choosing to play a weeping old lady for my improvisation. No pathetic germ or measly inflamed tendon will stop me from marching Thatcher-style through life, and thus with gritted teeth and a pronounced limp I have been teaching my lessons, turning to the dreamy wonderfulness of this spicy, nutty soup with a crusty hunk of walnut ciabatta to serve as my medicine.

Teaching when you are feeling like death warmed up is a guaranteed disaster. The only classroom situation that suits such a state would be if all of the children had been mesmerised into sedentary contemplation moments before one enters the room. Unfortunately I don’t have any Dido that I can pipe into the classrooms before my arrival so this is never the case. It is fascinating to see how children react to a teacher when we reveal that we are not inhuman machines designed solely to ponce about in front of them; they appear completely aghast that the Teacher should Not Be Untouchable like the guys on TV who are exactly the same every week. It does strange things to their moods and ultimately causes any authority you had to disperse like smoke in a draughty concert hall. Here, for example, is a breakdown of the week’s worst lessons:
Monday
The class with the baby. Sadly the baby is ill, as is one other child who the Erzieherinnen (looker-afterers) tell me (with worryingly dismissive apathy) is actually in hospital. Thus in a class of just two children the youngest spent the entire class sort of sloddling (a cross between slithering and waddling) around the room doing destructive things while the other entered the room, sat quietly in the corner and wept with heart-breaking misery. She wouldn’t do anything I asked or had planned to do so in the end we sat quietly for the lesson and pretended to cook things for an imaginary family of farm animals who were very picky about the colours of their breakfasts.  
Tuesday
One child gets so furious after I ask him not to play catch by grabbing multiple children by the shoulders and dragging them behind him like sacks that he leaves and goes back downstairs; the other children sense that I am physically weak and demand that they should not be made to do anything except hide and seek all lesson. In the afternoon the children are so indifferent to their croaking teacher that they all somehow get hold of huge wads of bubble gum and chew it open-mouthed pointedly in my direction.
Wednesday
Oh sweet Moses. An Open Lesson of French-Revolution proportions. The boys realise that I cannot shout at them and run around windmilling their arms, refusing to sing the songs in favour of going ‘WAA-WAA-WAA’ in time with the syllables of the lyrics. The boy whose mother is present suddenly becomes irate for no reason and spends half an hour sobbing in wet, outraged yelps.The girls are concerned and unsettled. In the afternoon the few children who are not absent reply to my every request with a variation of ‘no’.
Thursday
I sit the children down at the beginning of the lesson and explain in my whisper that because I cannot talk loudly they must be ganz lieb and promise me that they will be good this lesson. They all adorably nod with earnest respect and promise in unison. Never before have so many children injured so many other children in a mere forty-five minutes; near the end I manage to make a loud quack to get their attention, and surrounded by sobbing toddlers I tell them off for being bad even though they promised to be good. They all club together and explain that they all forgot that they promised. In the afternoon the children are late, rude and violent, and one boy who didn’t want to do English bare-faced lied that his mother had forbidden him from doing English. For five minutes, I believed him.

Anyway, as I say, such a week necessitates recovery time and soup. The soup was finally achieved tonight and if I get a few requests I might post the recipe, as it was honestly ladle-lickingly delicious. Recovery time comes in the form of streaming episodes of quality comedy, and so, without further ado, allow me to make some recommendations that you may or may not have yet tried, so that you too will have something to slump in front of when in the throes of illness.
-30 Rock. Starting with this because it is the most embarrassingly mainstream. I was strongly against this show for a long time because I saw it as such a disappointment; a much-lauded example of a successful female comedian in the spotlight which in fact seemed to suffer from Ugly Betty syndrome, that self-massaging worthiness of having a character criticised for being ugly, fat and disgusting when they are in fact highly attractive and desirable. However, it takes a few episodes to realise that the other characters only see Liz Lemon as these things because they are so completely absorbed in themselves and their own perceived awesomeness; once you have made that realisation the show becomes a delight to watch, a parade of self-obsessed twerps who are so oblivious that they are impossible not to be fascinated by. Also, Alec Baldwin is a titan.
-3rd Rock from the Sun. Yeah it sounds almost exactly the same. But this one is about aliens pretending to be humans so they can conduct research on Earth, and it is deliciously over-the-top and wildly silly. It has the fat bloke from Jurassic Park as an obese policeman who thinks he is a sculpture of Sex Itself, and it has a hint of Back to the Future pantomime about it which you don’t find in modern series.
-Absolutely. This is the weirdest show you might ever watch.

Scottish people doing inexplicably bizarre sketches with wild accents and appallingly grimy sets? Yes please, very yes. 
– The Kenny Everett Video Show. This was the daddy of things like The Fast Show and is excellently funny. As a bonus it features completely unnecessary and unexplained dance segments by an erotic and very 80’s dance troupe, Hot Gossip. The sketches are stupid and wild (there is a regular character called Brother Lee-Love who is a Harlem-style preacher with one or sometimes two enormous plastic hands) and a lot of the humour comes purely from Everett’s clear love of the kind of tragic special effects that at the time were the most cutting-edge thing on the market. 

– Finally, The Goodies. This is ideal watch-while-you’re-ill telly. It was Bill Oddie’s big break and unbelievably popular for a time. The theme tune is goofily catchy and while the episode plot set-ups may make you raise your eyebrows so high they’ll get caught in your stylish mohair hat, the slapstick segments are so cleverly filmed and beautifully timed that I sincerely hope you find yourself doing that kind of suffocation laughter that I fall into every time.

So there you go. Now get some soup and you’ll be fine.

If French is the language of love, English is the language of lols

Simple, beautiful genius. Thank you, anonymous stenciller.

Look at this wonderful piece of graffiti. I walked past this truck today as it momentarily stopped in a queue and seconds after this photo was taken the driver glared and me and drove off. But for a fleeting moment I stood gormlessly beaming at a van purely because someone had stencilled the English translation of their motto on the side. (I would just like to applaud their attention to detail in ensuring the fonts also matched.)

No matter how long I study and immerse myself in German my heart will always belong to English. This is not because it is my mother tongue; any actual link it gives me to the UK is meaningless to me and sometimes approaches the faintly embarrassing when people dub me ‘Mrs Bean’ or when my pupils address me with the name ‘Englisch’ since the majority of them cannot be bothered to remember my actual name. I don’t even think it is a beautiful or aesthetically predisposed language – like any language it can sound pleasant if you use the right sounds and rhythms, and if you can find a more glorious-sounding string of words than ‘the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black fishingboat-bobbing sea’ you win a Kinder egg. English generally, though, tends to have a thudding neutralness to its sound which make it a great allrounder although not particularly often a pleasure to hear; it is the oats in the muesli of the world’s various languages, performing a crucial and worthwhile role but only once in a while getting a chance to shine as flapjack.

But what English has in spadefuls which makes it remarkable is its capacity to express comedy and humour in general, and for this reason I am smitten. 
I miss it in German, as in English even the most everyday conversation is littered with the tiniest euphemisms, puns and simple silly noises which make it a joy to hear and endlessly entertaining to speak. You don’t spend a tenner when you can spend a quid, you love to be offered a cuppa and a biccy and possibly even a sarnie, and you’ll avoid spending time with your friend who is so ‘vanilla’ in favour of someone who is completely banterous.

You only have to watch the first forty-five seconds of dialogue in ‘Juno’ to see how far this can do and how brilliant it can sound. 
“Your eggo is prego.”
If there is a way to be this casually creative with French or German I would pay good money to be taught it, but from what I encounter my brief flirtations with this kind of speak in German are received with confusion, derision or worried concern. I caused a whole tableful of dinner party guests to burst out laughing because I tried to jauntily carry off the word ‘wunderlecker’. So much of casual everyday conversation which takes place in English is simply not at all present in German; take, for example, our ability to make any sound into an adjective describing how something feels, sounds, tastes etc: “He was just so…blah…” or “I’m feeling so urgh today”. My mother and I use the word ‘bloicky’ almost on a weekly basis to describe that feeling of having too much unpleasant goo sloshing around your stomach, and as much as I try I cannot think of a single other expression that would convey this feeling any more sublimely or sound more like the squelching of your belly as you sit in a silent room being stared at by a group of silent-stomached people.  

And how else would English be the language that spawned Carry On films if it weren’t so preposterously rich with euphemisms? I can reel off thousands of different words for lady parts and man parts and construct a wild, colourful spectrum of them ranging from the ultra-tame (‘boobs’ or ‘jugs’, for a start) to the bizarre and hilarious (‘boobular area’, ‘ba-donk-a-donk’ and the most excellent ‘va-jay-jay’) to the downright obscene (no, you are not getting any examples of that. This is a family blog, consarn it). Or what about our capacity to exaggerate? It’s absolutely über-awesome, like, completely insanely MASSIVE and ultimately the most ridiculously unbelieeeeeevable thing ever. Dude. 

I don’t know how I would even articulate a single sentence in English if I didn’t have outdated slang words which I could use ironically – they are so rad. Or if I couldn’t use inappropriately strong words for relatively tame concepts after I’ve done a day of hideously boring work. Or if I couldn’t shorten almost every word at my disposal into a cutesy term of familiarity, like I do when I’m wearing my jammy-jams (pajamas, for you Germans) with my hotsie (hot water bottle) and hot cow-juice (milk). I miss my language and its clowny goofiness; I fear that in German I am entirely boring once you take all that away.

Still, your mother tongue never leaves you and German could always do with an injection of whimsy, so I will keep on trying to make it a bit more oo-er missus. Look out, the Deutschinator, cuz Mrs Bean is here and she’s going to get all freakisch in this Sprachy-wachy, Homekraut.

The Kindergarten method of contraception

My maternal instinct has always leant towards a more stereotypically manly side of the spectrum; I love children, get on with them tremendously and find them often adorable but when confronting the question of having my own in any other real-life context than ‘some day maybe’ my maternal instinct coughs a lot, changes the subject and then turns on the TV. It is a huge decision and I am not going to cement my intentions on something so significant so early in my life, particularly while I am still such an indecisive person that I can spend a good half-hour in the supermarket trying to choose between regular oranges and blood oranges. However, like many of my colleagues, here our job comes to the rescue in allowing us daily access to a wide and exciting variety of small children ready to pound any inclination to become a parent down into the dust. It is astonishing how many of us in my company admit that their attitudes to kids and parenthood have changed (not necessarily permanently, but we shall see) since starting to work with them. Before I began working with infants, I had no idea, for example, quite how disgusting they can get. I am currently ill once again since on Monday a child literally and suddenly coughed directly into my open mouth; said infant was positively dripping with opaque green mucous and by the end of the lesson her entire face had a nauseating glistening sheen, completely coated with the various unhealthy fluids she was leaking. Today a child I do not even teach was so overcome with affection for me that he simply had to embrace me, which was unfortunate considering that he was so covered in food and snot that it looked like he had been sneezed on by a feasting dinosaur. He was unnervingly damp, too, and as with all the kids like this (and there are many) they always seem to want to hug you exclusively with their mouth and hands .

This line of work has also awakened me to the rather sad thought that while children are precious and the time during which they are little and wild and creative is short, a lot of what they do and produce during this time is sadly unremarkable. All of the ‘gifts’ I am given are so rubbish and apathetically produced that I can’t bring myself to stick them on the fridge: I have received, in the past, a blank sheet of paper with one edge coloured sky blue, a scribbled maelstrom which had then been folded and glued sixty times until it was no more than a rock-hard clump of frantically coloured Pritt-Stick, and my personal favourite came yesterday when I was given as a ‘present’ a hinged paper model of the human jaw that they had clearly had to make in science class. Presumably when one is a parent one sees golden potential in everything your child does, but how much of this flotsam can you save before you have to make the heart-breaking first ever decision to throw one of these bits and pieces in the bin? 


One thing that has not changed about my attitude to children, of all ages, is their immense capacity to be hilarious and ingenious completely out of the blue. All it takes is the right word, the right tone, the right idea, and within seconds you have their gleaming smiles and wide eyes fixed solely upon you and within milliseconds they will be having their own mind-blowing ideas to suggest to you. I have had to promise one class that they will all be getting hand-made (‘gebastelt’) tiger masks as a surprise present for Easter because they honestly looked so hopeful and joyful when asking for this present that refusing would have been cruel. Don’t ask me where they got the idea from in the first place but they have mentioned it every minute of every class every week since. I also particularly like that children are unashamed to be completely in love with something they do – this seems to cause a kind of insane tunnel-vision where nothing else seems important or fun, to the point where one of my pupils actually chose not to go on a school trip to the natural history museum because she didn’t want to miss out on the ‘points’ that I give the kids who arrive to their lesson on time.


But I’m not about to pretend that this post is in any way going to be a balanced argument or have an open conclusion. As it is, I feel like most of my colleagues; working all day with little children is making me want to fling my uterus into the nearest ditch. When you have your own, you can love them and care for them and have them as a little project. When you teach other people’s, all you see day after day is a parade of bored, crying, gooey, whiney, eye-infectiony faces and you don’t get to do the best things, like reading the bedtime story or giving the christmas presents or helping them learn to swim. And I’m a cynic, so I am going to assume that those things are all overrated anyway.

Kids say, do, sing, dance, touch or destroy the darndest things…

South Lichterfelde, where I teach on Thursday mornings. That white triangle in the distance? An abandoned carousel. Really.

Good god, I wish I could be young again. I don’t mean ‘heyday of my youth’ kind of young – I’d like to think I haven’t quite left that in the first place, not to mention that I am repeatedly mistaken for a sixteen-year-old (or younger) and threatening to make me relive puberty is the one surefire threat that would make me do anything in the entire world, even drop-kicking a newborn kitten against a brick wall. No, I mean like toddler-young, teeny-weeny young, the-kids-I-teach kind of young. They live a marvellous existence and don’t even know it. To wear tights as your default legwear regardless of gender or prejudice arising therefrom? To take a good hour to eat a whole apple because proportionally it would be like an adult eating a balloon-sized fruit? To find everything that makes a slightly goofy noise marvellously funny, even if it’s repeated numerous times? People, these truly are magical moments, and it’s a shame we spend all of them dribbling around in a hyperactive dizzy fog until it lifts around the age of six and we realise that the world is a dark, dark place.

The one thing I really love about teaching the real tinies is how appreciative they are of the effort you put in to be entertaining and funny. Unlike adults, if you do a really good dance or put on an especially wacky voice or simply raise your eyebrow in an extravagant way they make no bones about showing you how much they love it and find it hilarious, and they giggle and jump up and down and grin widely and sometimes they say brilliant things, like when I introduced a new song and at the end little Julian collapsed with a puff of tired breath and sighed, “That is my new favourite song ever.” The kids I teach constantly come up with wild and funny ideas or thoughts which I can scarcely witness without wanting to applaud them; Vlad, a burly little chap with a deep and sturdy voice, once said he didn’t want to come to English because he ‘was scared’. When I asked him what he was scared of, he gave me a devilish smile and said: “I am scared of my shoes.” Thank you, Vlad. Recently I was playing the fish game with one class – this game involves the children being ‘BIIIIG FISH’ and me being a ‘little fish’ and having to ask them ‘how are you?’ until the word ‘hungry’ comes up, at which point all the BIG fish run after the little fish and eat him (me). The big fish leapt on me with their usual vigour and chewed me down to the bones, at which point one child stood upright, deadly serious, and said, “I didn’t finish eating you up.” “Why not?”, I replied. “Because you didn’t have enough salt and pepper on you.”


They are nuts, and sometimes I wonder whether they are too young to be being strictly ‘taught’ anything, simply because their world works in a totally different way. Some of them can’t sing a whole song without spontaneously being violent to the person next to them, and some of them spend an entire forty-five minute lesson with their tongue lolling out of their mouth, swooping it around in big circles like someone swinging a wet rag. To teach such little ones you have to be constantly looking around like a lifeguard in a pool full of triple-amputees; there is always one child that needs to be told to STOP IT, another child who is gradually losing focus and a third kid who has just done something awesome. You must never ever forget the child who did the good thing like say a word properly or finally say ‘I am fine’ instead of ‘I am five’ for the first time because the praise is what they live and die for, and you can actually see their face drop if they do something right and you don’t give them the recognition right away. 

Praise and positive reinforcement are, I reckon, the two strongest strings to any teacher’s bow, but in this age group most of all. I have had several kids who are just plain old why-you-little kind of naughty and sometimes all it takes is a huge burst of compliments at a well-timed victory for their eyes to gleam and for them to spend the rest of the lesson behaving like a champion. They are suckers for the praise, too, which makes it so easy to dispense; there is one game I play with them divided into two teams competing against one another, and every week I engineer it so that ‘oh my good grief BOTH teams have exactly the same number of points, BOTH teams have won!!!’. Every week they scream and whoop with joy and hug each other for this tremendous collective achievement – my cynical childhood self would have simply furrowed my bushy eyebrows and commented that when everybody wins, everybody also loses. Play it right and you can have a whole group of toddlers pliable like putty; forget it or come to work in a bad mood and you can have them banding together in mutiny.


Finally, I have realised that the one thing I do need to keep me going from lesson and do my job well is to find one thing in each child that I think is cool or funny or clever, to avoid the trap of ignoring the ‘that little bugger’ in the room. This is not easy sometimes. The little three-year-old who constantly massages his testicles is hard to cherish. The kid who calls me ‘fat teacher’ is not so precious. But darn it, it can and must be done, and I find myself focusing in on the funniest little idiosyncrasies which are the things that have me marvelling day after day at how weird and awesome and alien little children are. I love Cedric because he does a Michael Jackson impression at ear-splitting volume at the end of every game. I love Jon because he dresses and stands as dapperly as a character from ‘The Great Gatsby’. I love Zoe because she looks exactly like my grandma even though she’s three. I love Julian because of his huge afro and huger grin. And I love the testicles kid because…well, I’m working on it.
  
p.s. my humble blog seems to have gained an exciting amount of momentum and I’d like to thank you all for reading and for your very kind comments and support; I’m really enjoying writing this but it wouldn’t feel half as worthwhile if it weren’t for knowing that you are egging me on. I’ll be coming up to my fiftieth post soon, for which I want to do something special (a video methinks…) but in the meantime I love reading your comments so keep ’em coming, let me know if you have a topic request, and do recommend Guten Morgen Berlin to friends, family and loved ones. For now I promise I will try to get posting at least three times a week so you can have your ‘Nase voll’ of me sooner rather than later. (‘Die Nase voll haben’ = to have had enough, literally to ‘have your nose full’)

The Usborne Kid’s Guide to Advanced German

Why do they even need to learn the word ‘Jacket’ at the age of three anyway?

There are two sides to teaching English to very small children, and both of them are rather disarming once you actually begin to consider them any further than ‘whatever pays the rent’. One thing you become aware of is that in teaching them the specific syllabus with which you have been provided, someone has made the conscious decision of what they feel are the most important and appropriate words to form the foundations of a language for a very small child; the other is that in teaching them you are yourself learning a highly particularised German and simultaneously being faced with its limits. I’ll explain:

First of all, we have the syllabus the kids have to learn. My class this morning, for example, has four children in, one one-year-old, one two-year-old and two three-year-olds. They have to learn the clothes at the moment but while they are understandably learning ‘shoes’ and ‘socks’ they are also learning ‘jacket’ and ‘pullover’ without ever learning how to say ‘trousers’ or ‘shirt’ or ‘underwear’, the latter of which would be nice as it would at least allow me to tell the kids to keep their hands out of their aforementioned. This strikes me as strange; I am well aware that the company I work for know as much about teaching languages to children as they do about cures for rattlesnake bites, but I would give a lot to know the thought process that makes someone decide that children that young should be learning winter accessories as opposed to the ultra-fundamental clothing basics that you need in order not to be charged with public indecency.

There is presumably a certain logic to this: shoes and socks go together, so do a jacket and pullover. Bending over backwards to defend the syllabus somewhat, at least there’s some sort of golden thread. And if you are going to teach kids the basic emotions (happy and sad) you should probably throw in a couple that they’re likely to want to complain about on a daily basis (sleepy, ill, hungry). But as you teach children sets of words you notice in their reactions and ability to grasp certain words that the concept itself isn’t even properly established in their minds yet; none of them really quite get what ‘proud’ is as an emotion, for example, as if while they know how to translate it into their native language they still can’t associate it with anything they might have an anchor to in their minds yet. You also realise the impossibility of teaching a language without taking into account the grammatical and syntactical differences between the two languages in question – teaching ‘snow’ and ‘it’s snowy’ or ‘rain’ and ‘it’s rainy’ almost works because they recognise a pattern and know that it is in some way similar to German (es schneit, es regnet) but when you get to ‘sun’ (die Sonne) and ‘it’s sunny’ (die Sonne scheint) all of a sudden there is a problem. In German the syntax changes as all of a sudden the sun is doing something funky, the pattern is lost and you are left with a classroom of kids saying things like ‘It’s Sonne!!’ or ‘The sunny!!’. And grief, don’t get me started on trying to explain to a group of six-year-olds who have no concept of time why it’s half-past-three in English and half-to-four in German. I make it up to them by letting them massacre each other in the guise of playing ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’ at the end of that topic.

And, as I mentioned, it works the other way around. The phrases I now use most on a daily basis are stupid, teacher-y phrases that I never so much learnt as simply caught out of the corner of my ear and later used in a desperate attempt to get the children to SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP AND FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP KICKING LUKA IN THE GONADS PAUL. ‘Quatsch machen’, i.e. to muck around, is my most-used phrase, as in ‘if you keep mucking around I will make your life a darker shade of hell’. I have a great big sheaf of idiomatic German tellings-off and praises bundled in my mind, and the kids seem to get what I mean because they sure as heck aren’t behaving like little arses just because something got lost in translation and I accidentally asked them to plunge into anarchy as opposed to sitting down quietly. But then something odd happened to me today.

I was sitting outside the classroom with my whole English class waiting for the Hausaufgabe (homework) kids to get the hell out of MY classroom at MY lesson time and I was trying my hardest to stop them all playing this game they had all suddenly invented of skipping sideways up and down the corridor and smashing into each other if they ever got too close together. I was trying to calm them down by asking them about the sports they played and out of nowhere one of the smartest kids in the class asked me: “Can you speak German?” I was, at the time, speaking to them in decent conversational German. “No! I only speak English!” I said, in German, with a wry smile playing on my lips (well that’s how I imagine myself, I suspect it looked more like I was trying to dislodge my false teeth from my palate). “URRR then how come we can understand you then???” the kids all replied incredulously. This is when the whole thing just became too much fun and I started to mess about with their perceptions of reality by announcing in fluid German that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying and they couldn’t understand me either. How odd, though, that despite the fact I have been teaching them for months and the whole time been speaking very adequate German to them they still don’t understand that as speaking or understanding German. What is language to them? Do they see it as fundamentally separate from communicating, as if I could have spent all this time talking English and giving them the feeling of understanding on a subconscious level? Do they think I have a script of German every week which I learn word for word without knowing what it means? Or are they just being moronic to distract me while the rest of them pelt sideways up and down the corridor barging violently into each other? It’s a complex mystery.