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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Learning English through cooking (Μαθήματα Αγγλικών μέσω μαγειρικής)

The Greek economic crisis may have had a massive effect on people's income, but it still hasn't dealt a deathblow here in Crete in people's spending habits in private education for their children. Greeks still send their kids to afternoon language classes, to learn mainly English. Because I'm a native speaker of English and an English teacher myself, I felt it ethically wrong to send mine to such lessons when I knew I could be doing the job myself. Not only that, but all Greek children have English lessons at state school, at least twice per week. Some even have English lessons in the afternoon state school (like mine), which is optional, mainly used by children with working parents. Sending them to a private language school on top of the lessons they get at a state school (no matter how bad they are, as some Greek parents believe) is surely a mismanagement of resources, not to mention short-sightedness on the part of both parents and teachers. It's another good example of the highly unsustainable Greek system of getting things done.

A lot has been written about how parents should not take on the role of the teacher, but I find such discussions highly theoretical, and in modern times, they miss the point. Education is changing. No longer is it a case of  "open your books, turn to page X, start reading, now answer the questions", etc. You can do such work through the internet. Teaching is much more dynamic now than it ever used to be, and all because we live in the internet world where we do not need teachers all the time to tell us things that we (thought we) didn't know. Even at the research institute where I work, I no longer use pen and paper; all my students' homework is conducted online, including essays and exercises. I'm still working on testing them online internally in this way; where there's a will, there will eventually be a way.

The village school in the background
Unfortunately, not all children have the same opportunities. The biggest difference is not the country we live in, but the possibilities available in the different cities, towns and villages of a country. There is a distinctly rural identity in my children's school which, if developed positively, could encourage children to be more creative within their own environment. State teachers generally use the prescribed school books, using traditional methodology, and they teach according to national standards. All very well, but the truth is that most of the children in a village school are not being prepared for the global connected world. This is not necessarily the teachers' fault; most of the parents have a limited educational background and their contact with the outside world is generally non-existent.

Apparently, we've been promised a better educational system. But at this early stage in Greece's new revolution, it is too difficult to try to get a state teacher to change (most often) her ways, because the education system in Greece had a lot of cracks in it well before that, most teachers have not studied/been abroad and they do not have an all-round education. They themselves have been brought up within exactly the same academically-inclined system (and it worked for them).

Rather than change the Greek state school teachers, I simply try to change the messages that my children may be picking up from a school system which does not encourage children to nurture their critical thinking skills. There is little in the way of applied teaching. In this world, where the pace of life is very fast, it's easy to fall behind technology-wise, especially when you can't afford it. I get my children to apply their collective knowledge in multi-task purpose-set assignments. It's much more challenging for their young flexible minds than a worksheet for homework (I'll leave that for the state school teachers). To learn English effectively with their mother as their teacher, I need to make sure that they are listening, speaking, reading and writing as much as possible, exclusively in English. And there is always the internet, the best tool for learning anything when used in the right way.

Here's my checklist:
Listening: from me, English DVDs (no subtitles).
Speaking: with me, English-speaking friends, tourists.
Reading: reading material aimed at children their age (via Amazon orders, or electronic format), and internet material (eg games targeting children's development, exclusively in English); never give them information they can find on the internet!
Writing: diary writing (every day); never spell words for them - they have to use a dictionary!
Grammar: that's a really hard one - they need rote learning exercises for that. The only other way to do this is by getting them to start a blog where spelling/grammar errors will be shown up automatically by work processing programmes. (Watch this space.)

Occasionally, I try to find English-language instructions for them to follow. My particular favorite is through recipes: they get fed at the same time. They still need supervision in the kitchen because of my fear of their using knives and playing with fire at such as early age. But they kill two birds with the one stone in this way.


Here's a carbonara recipe I adapted for them, which they find easy to follow. The changes I made to the recipe have also been clarified for them, eg:
- "Why do you use more oil than the recipe says, mum?" "Because we're Cretan."
- "Can we still make this if we don;t have pancetta?" "Yes, we have other similar local ingredients."
- "Can you really make this recipe using fewer eggs?" "Of course. You just did."

Don't forget that kids like numbered steps. 

To make a Greek carbonara, you need:
250g spaghettini
some olive oil
a few slices of Cretan bacon (known as apaki), about 3 per person (12 pieces)
2 garlic cloves (they like to hear the sound of the papery peel crushing against the pressure of the knife)
2 eggs
1 packet of cream (make sure it says '100% Greek' on the packet - FAGE produces it)
half a cup of grated cheese
salt and pepper

1. Put the spaghetti in a large pot with water and let it boil for 10 minutes.
2. Heat the oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add the bacon pieces and crushed garlic. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring every now and then.
3. While the bacon and spaghetti are cooking, beat the eggs in a bowl. Add the cream, cheese, salt and pepper, and mix everything well. Don't forget to watch the bacon and pasta!
4. When the spaghetti is cooked, switch off the element and drain it very well in a colander. Then put it back into the same pot.
5. When the bacon is ready, switch off the element. Pour the bacon into the spaghetti and mix it in well. Then add the egg mixture and mix that in well too.
6. Serve the spaghetti hot.

Easy Peasy Chinese: Mandarin Chinese for Beginners (Book & CD)English is a very important language in the world so I'm thankful I know it myself and can pass it on to my children. Although I learnt foreign languages at school, it was at a time when the world was very white: we were learning French and German in New Zealand, along with Latin. All very useful for making an interesting person out of you, but not so useful in preparing you to enter the New Zealand job market, not even in those days. I now can't imagine a world where Chinese or Arabic isn't being learnt. I've bought some material for my children to start learning Chinese. Now all I need is to learn it myself...

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