The Last Week

Well, I’m done with camps and with ‘fake Russia’.  It’s been very strange being thrust into Russian culture once more, and it’s definitely clarified my thought with regard to whether I ever want to go back.

The past couple of weeks have been much better, partly thanks to the staff, and partly thanks to my groups being much more balanced.

The staff here at the hotel are absolutely great.  They’re Russian ex-pats and just adorable.  The husband sells me chocolate every day, while the wife is lovely: she makes an effort to understand my muddled Russian, and cooks me vegetarian meals when there’s nothing for me to eat :).  They’re both fantastic.  There are two other Russian women who work here too, who always say hello with a smile.  Then there’s the kitchen-hand, a young guy who appears with coffee and milk the moment I pick up a mug.  It’s all very cute!

I should also mention my colleagues.  Michael has been supportive as usual of course.  All of the staff have been great actually.  This week’s in particular have been really friendly and high-energy.  There’s been one girl in charge of the rabble for the duration, and I don’t know how she does it—I’m dying of exhaustion, and she just keeps on rolling!  What a champ.  There’s also the manager of the camp here, and he’s a lovely guy.  I think I confuse him at times (eg in my insistence that fish is meat), but he goes out of his way to ensure that I feel welcome and respected.

As I said, my groups have also been much better.  The personalities have clashed a lot less, and so it’s been much more fun for everyone.  The kids are all still hyperactive, of course—it’s two weeks with no school and no parents, and they go a bit wild—but they look out for each other a lot more which is great to see.  There’s a lot of creativity going on, and the students, whose levels vary wildly, support each other when someone doesn’t understand something.  They do their best, and that’s all I ask.  I’ve become a little attached to them, actually!

With no more ado, here are some videos of the kids’ final presentations:

Horror film:

Murder mystery:

Robbie vs Rex:

Mirrors Parody:

Well done to all of my students—they did a great job in pulling these together.

And with that, I’m off once more: Helsinki for a few days, before heading back to the UK.  Bring it on!


Rock-Star Teaching

I actually wrote yesterday’s post a few days before it went live, which has resulted in my needing to do a second ‘goodbye, teaching!’ post.  People also regularly ask me about my teaching philosophy and how it all works, so I figured it was time to write about it.

The reason I’ve called this post ‘rock-star teaching’ is because that’s what my students make me feel like: a rock-star.  In jumping up in front of the groups to give out course certificates last night, the kids clapped so long and so loudly that we had to use the microphone to get them to be quiet again.  They later put on a play about me called ‘Laura’s Good Mood’, and there have been sooooooooooo many hugs.  And letters saying how much they love me.  And drawings and poems for me.  And photos with me.  Not to mention declarations of undying filial love!  One girl wouldn’t let go of me this morning, she was hugging me for a full minute.  I pointed out that she couldn’t come to Helsinki with me, that she had to go back to Russia—to which she announced “but I love you so much!!”

I definitely am a stupidly popular teacher, though that’s not what I aspire to.  An incredibly large number of students have also told me that I’m the ‘best teacher they’ve ever had’, or that I’m their ‘hero’.  (It’s like I’m just begging to be trolled here, right?  A quick note on the trolls btw—they’ve obviously made some errors thanks to English not being their first language, so please don’t harass them too much.  Besides, the post going live tomorrow will be more than enough to explode their brains.)  This leads to other teachers asking me what exactly I do that’s so awesome.

Part of my teaching style comes from the fact that I had some truly fantastic teachers growing up.  My old chemistry teacher, for example: I did physical science in year ten, so that I could take it in year eleven, so that I could take chemistry in year twelve and have him for a teacher.  I was used to teachers who were like friends, who had a sense of humour, who knew and were passionate about their subject.  These are the values that I tried to enshrine in my own teaching.

There are of course cultural differences in teaching styles.  While English and Australian students quickly adapted to my methods, it took my Russian kids (and adults) a little longer.  My style is drastically different to that of Russian teachers.  It took my groups in St P a few weeks to get acquainted with the idea before they really started thriving.  It was a difficult challenge having the summer school groups for only a couple of weeks at a time: it depended on the group dynamic whether they’d adjust or not.  In the end, just about everyone did.

So, what is it then?  Basically, I run my classrooms democratically.  Kids are expected to be there because they want to be there (and it’s my job as a teacher to make the lesson fun and interesting enough that they do in fact want to be there).  They are expected to respect each other, to take responsibility for their own actions, and to try.  I almost never say “you have to do this”.  If there’s something I want done, I ask for it: and my kids love and respect me so much that they just do it.  Furthermore, I give my students input into what they want to study.  At any time, they can ask for an activity or a subject they’d like to do in class, and I do my best to cater to it.  If it’s something controversial, then we check that everybody’s comfortable with it, and vote using a show of hands (or anonymous balloting).  The students make up their own rules and any punishment for breaking those rules: people are always more interested in doing things which were their own idea.

With regard to in-class conflicts: if it’s between students then I try to ensure that they use ‘friendly’ conflict resolution techniques (as described here).  There are to be no personal attacks, or hatred for hatred’s sake.  I try to promote understanding.  If I’m having a problem with a student (which is very rare) then I try to talk to them personally.  As a very very very last resort (it’s happened twice) I’ll give them a choice between simmering down/taking a walk or my calling their parents—it’s all still their choice, so they are being responsible for themselves.  Because it doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching kids, adults or teens (my usual age group): everybody likes to be respected, and everybody is capable of taking responsibility for themselves.

With regard to homework, I’m generally fairly flexible.  Firstly, I don’t give pages of boring or irrelevant exercises.  Partly because people do have other priorities in life, and they’ll do the homework they have time for: stressing them out or overloading them isn’t conducive to learning.  I give additional exercises in problem areas, or interesting reading/watching/listening to students as per their particular interests.  I also make sure that all homework I give is necessary or relevant.  If I need them to start thinking about something before we do related in-class activities the next session for example, or if they need further practice.  I only get annoyed about people not doing homework if they don’t do it for say a month in a row.  Then I’ll speak with them separately and check that there’s nothing going on at home etc before taking any further steps.

My overall teaching philosophy is that learning should be fun—because it is.  Learning’s fantastic, and there’s never any reason for it to be boring.  Sure you could teach continuous tenses by talking about brushing your teeth: but you can also teach them while discussing extreme sports.  Sure you can teach argumentative techniques by role-playing a conversation about your favourite food: but you can also teach them while debating genetic modification.  Every activity I do in the classroom is chosen because it will be interesting to that group, because it will get them involved and be a damn good time for everyone there.  Oh, and because they’ll learn a lot in the process.  And they do: they learn because they want to.  If people are interested and having fun, they’ll learn a lot more: and that goes for adults, too.  Adult groups like boring things as much as anyone else: which is to say not at all.  Find out what your students are into, and cater to it.

Does everyone like how I teach?  No.  Sometimes I get in trouble, and sometimes I go too far (eg my post of a few days ago!).  It’s generally my employers who don’t like it though, and honestly, they’re not my priority: the students are.

As it is, I’ve hung up my teaching hat.  I miss teaching sailing every day of course, but I was never going to be able to do that forever.  Teaching English was just a way to get into Russia for a while, and now I’m returning to my career.  I need something more intellectually fulfilling, and something which doesn’t involve writing lesson plans haha!  I hope I’ve been a good role model for the students I’ve had.  Seeing them flourish has been an incredible privilege, and I suppose I rather love all of them.

A Finnish Phenomenon

Last Wednesday, I went with the rest of the summer camp into Joensuu, to go on adventures and do some shopping. At the end of the day, we went to the biggest store I think I’ve ever seen, and I set off to buy a range of peculiar items.  But every single place in the store I went, I found Angry Birds paraphernalia.  There was clothing of course; lollies; drinks; bike reflectors; tools; speakers; toys; headphones; games—anything.  At one point I found a whole set of AB kitchen-ware, from coasters to saucepans, and pretty much lost it.  I was standing there, baffledly holding a saucepan, asking it “why?!  WHY!?!” when some of my students found me.  I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing that they weren’t even surprised at my apparent psychotic break.  Either way, I saw so much Angry Birds stuff in Finland that I’m now slightly obsessed.  I’d make a great brain-washing subject.

My couple of days in Helsinki were really rather cool.  On the Friday night after my arrival I just went for a brief walk down to the ocean to go hang out with the boats and seagulls.  The Saturday started off with my leaving the hostel with no clear plan in mind—other than coffee, that is.  For some reason it’s nigh on impossible to find ‘real’ (espresso) coffee in Finland: everything’s filtered coffee.  Eugh.

Anyway, as I was walking toward the city I was distracted by a sign announcing a ‘pop-up cafe’ 25 metres away.  I was intrigued: I’d heard that this ‘pop-up’ phenomenon was becoming quite a thing in Finland: basically you go to someone’s house and have a coffee, or lunch, or what-have-you.

I walked up to the apparent venue, stuck my nose in the door, and was greeted by a man in Finnish.  I asked him “you have coffee?”, and after his affirmative nod, was somehow upsold to a rather lovely breakfast.  It included not just the filtered coffee, but blood orange juice and a fresh home-made roll.  I got talking to the lady at my table, as you do, and learned rather a few interesting things.  I’d been shamelessly eavesdropping on the Finnish conversation around me, and interrupted to ask what language family it was part of.  As it turns out, it’s not Slavic (of course), but nor is it related to its Scandinavian linguistic neighbours.  Actually, its closest language relative is Hungarian, of all things!

I later started talking to the owners of the house/cafe, and they told me that this ‘pop-up’ phenomenon has only started happening the last few years thanks to some loosened regulations.  It’s only their second year doing it, and they only have it on weekends in the summer.  The venue itself was rather sweet, with the walls covered in art and a tap-dancing stage in the corner.  (Here is its facebook page with address and details).

The cafe/art gallery/home-owners
The cafe/art gallery/home-owners
The tap-dancing stage (of course)
The tap-dancing stage (of course)
The sign outside the 'pop-up' cafe
The sign outside the ‘pop-up’ cafe

Fuelled up, I walked further toward the city, and became rather delightfully distracted by the botanical gardens, some markets and the cathedral:

When I got back to my hostel that afternoon, I was greeted by a police barricade and an anarchist demonstration/’punk squat’.  Because I can’t go anywhere and not encounter police haha.  This photo was taken from my hostel room.  The demonstration wasn’t big as such, just obtrusive!

helsinki (7 of 9)

On Sunday, I went on a walking tour.  It was very interesting, though to be fair a lot of Finnish history is kind of Russian, so mainly I learned about relations between the two countries.  I was rather enjoying walking around being completely anti-social and not having to talk.  Then a French guy came up and insisted on engaging me in conversation, and I somehow was forced to start acting like a normal human being once more haha.  He works as a chemist creating paints and things, so that was something a bit different.

A statue of some of the characters from the Kalevala, an epic Finnish poem incorporating creation myths and basically everything else.
A statue of some of the characters from the Kalevala, an epic Finnish poem incorporating creation myths and basically everything else.
Love locks are put on bridges in Finland, just like in Russia.  This is part of the official 'bridge of love' for 2008.
Love locks are put on bridges in Finland, just like in Russia. This is part of the official ‘bridge of love’ for 2008.

After my day’s walking (something for which my fitness level was not prepared!), I headed back to the hostel for an unashamed sleep in the common area before heading off to the airport.  Despite some ‘interesting’ conversations with the Finnish and then later the UK  immigration officials, I made it through to London—hurrah!  (I’m having more and more trouble with immigration.  I guess they see the number of countries I go to and start to think I’m doing something dodgy.  After all, whose life actually includes this much travel?)

I’m beyond stoked to be back in the UK.  When I lived here, I never had the intention of leaving—it really is like home to me.  More so than Australia is.  I’m considering whether I can move back here somehow.  I was so happy walking around today that I felt my heart would explode!

Today’s missions just included re-opening a UK bank account, shopping (two strange moments—I ended up doing some admin work for a stranger, and I saw a woman in full hijab with her husband coming out of the super-hardcore section of Ann Summers), and checking out a tattoo parlour.  Because tomorrow, I’m getting my first tattoo.  I’m not sure if I’m more excited or scared!  Naturally I’ll post photos.

Vamos a la Playa

I must say, my boobs have been man-handled more in the last four days than in the preceding year.  In the most innocent of ways, of course ;).

I remember I was talking to a French guy in Helsinki and he was appalled that Finnish people have business meetings.  In the sauna.  While they’re naked.  I said to him that “for all French guys have this reputation, you’re a bit uptight, aren’t you?”

In some ways, nudity is kind of a privilege while travelling.  Privacy is, anyway, at least in hostels.  Obviously you share a room, and the bathrooms aren’t usually much more enclosed.  I’ve never been especially modest, but by now I’m completely indifferent to getting changed in front of people of either gender: it’s more their sensibilities I’m concerned about.

I don’t necessarily feel the same way about random people touching me.  At least, until I went to the Turkish Baths in Istanbul last year, and ended up naked on a stone slab, while some other almost-naked lady rubbed a jar of honey into my body.  Now I just go with whatever.

There’s a Dutch guy in my hostel room, Peter, and we discovered that we both wanted to go snorkelling, so we decided to go to Playa Blanca (White Beach) yesterday.  I’ve actually never met a Dutch person who hasn’t been a reasonable human being, which is I guess how I end up in the Netherlands so often.  Anyway, he suggested that we get up at 8:30 or some such and head off.  Fortuitously, I got up way earlier, and at 8:30 went to go and ask at the front desk what time we could catch the bus to PB?  The guy said “right now”.  And he did not look like he was joking.  It turns out it’s a full day-trip by boat, and the last one leaves at 9am.  Much scurrying ensued.

We picked up an Englishman, Angus, and a Portuguese girl, Rita (I thanked her and Peter for having rhyming names, making it easier for me to remember) on the way.  We then jumped onto the boat and it was freaking fantastic.  Water is totally my element, and zooming across it was superb.

Upon arrival at the beach, we went snorkelling for a bit.  It was pretty cool, I saw some nice fish and a huge lobster.  In saying that, I did my Open Water course on the Great Barrier Reef, so I have been somewhat spoiled as far as fish go.

We had a little hut on the beach (yesterday became rather outrageously gouge-y as far as wallets went), so post-swim went and chilled there.  At some point, a man with a wheelbarrow full of coconuts and alcohol rolled up, and I couldn’t resist.  I didn’t have my camera though (shock!!) so the photo of me in complete beach-bum mode with pina colada-filled cocktail will have to wait.  Next, ladies offering massages rolled up.  Apparently they were very literal with the ‘whole body’ description (boob molestation #1).

Post-lunch, it was more swimming, chilling and day-dreaming.  To be honest, I’m not really made for sitting on a beach.  Running around/playing sport on it, yes.  Swimming, yes.  Sailing, hells yes.  But inactivity frustrates me.  Nonetheless, it was pleasant.

In the evening we headed to an old wall along the sea-coast, to watch the sunset:


We stopped by Cafe del Mar for a moment, as in doing my running-off thing and dragging Rita along with me, we’d lost the guys.  Then it was pretty much dinner and bed.

This morning I got up early to check-out.  Luckily (?!?) I’d woken up at 2am and had never been able to go back to sleep again, so that was fairly easily achieved.  I then went on a trip to a nearby volcano, Volcan de Lodo El Totumo.  After a couple of hours of sitting on the bus as we picked up all of the other people in the city, we went on out.

Wiki’s just told me that according to local folk-lore, the volcano used to be full of the normal volcano-y stuff: ashes, lava, action heroes.  Then a local priest transformed it to mud by sprinkling some holy water into it.  Seems a little dubious to me.  The holy water part, not the action heroes (of course).  It’s quite small, with a fabulous view of a lake and wetlands from the top.  You climb in, lower yourself down into the super-dense mud, and then the attendants give you a ‘massage’.  I use these ones ” because it’s not so much a massage as them slopping you with mud (molestation #2).  As I’m sure you’ve gathered, today’s featured image is from the volcano.

After you’ve had enough of playing in the mud, you endeavour the slippery climb out then jaunt on down to the lake.  There, women grab you by the hand and sit you down in the water, and help you wash the mud off.  Haha unexpectedly, they also took all of our clothes off.  Sudden nudity!  And, needless to say, molestation #3 took place.

I’m now back at the hostel in Cartagena, and in about an hour will head to the airport for my flight to Medellin.  All of the inactivity is starting to drive me a little cuckoo, so I’m looking forward to a big night out and then a few as-active-as-possible days there.  And let’s see if I can keep my clothes on, this time.