Saturday, 6 January 2018

The liberating power of learning and teaching or Five Ways to Kill a Man

Learning in general is a personal matter as it is -- much more so learning a foreign language. Having come a long way in teaching and learning (one must continue to learn so one can remain in touch with one’s students and, more importantly with oneself), I have reached some very simple conclusions and have freed myself from the self-imposed fetters of strict planning and adherence to methodology.

Of course, one might argue that it took me a lifetime to realise what others have practised by default. This is not an effort to preempt criticism, but I do feel that delving into different approaches and assimilating them in my teaching has in fact enabled me to reach this point where liberating myself is an informed  conscious decision.

Here is a poem which I prepared and presented following my instinct though I did my bit of research beforehand.

Five Ways to Kill a Man by Edwin Brock
There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man.
You can make him carry a plank of wood
to the top of a hill and nail him to it.
To do this properly you require a crowd of people
wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak
to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one
man to hammer the nails home.

Or you can take a length of steel,
shaped and chased in a traditional way,
and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.
But for this you need white horses,
English trees, men with bows and arrows,
at least two flags, a prince, and a
castle to hold your banquet in.

Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind
allows, blow gas at him. But then you need
a mile of mud sliced through with ditches,
not to mention black boots, bomb craters,
more mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs
and some round hats made of steel.

In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly
miles above your victim and dispose of him by
pressing one small switch. All you then
require is an ocean to separate you, two
systems of government, a nation's scientists,
several factories, a psychopath and
land that no-one needs for several years.

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man.
Simpler, direct, and much more neat is to see
that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.

When I first read the poem, it strongly reminded me of the recipe conventions mainly in two ways:

1.   There are all those “ingredients” which one can use.
2.   If you follow the “method” in combining them, you will get the right result, which, in the given context, is to kill a man.

So I searched for some images of the “ingredients”, placed them on slides on PowerPoint – one slide per verse – and asked my students to name what they saw and think of how the images were related to each other.

They were rather pleasantly surprised by the apparent lack of relevance, and yet they did their best to answer the question. It actually took plenty of speculation and discussion. Funnily enough, they got the “psychopath” right!

My surprise came when a student of mine saw the “recipe” structure in the poem so I presented the students with the following text and gave them time to “see” the similarities.

To make the flatbreads, tip the flour into a large bowl with 1 tsp salt and the cumin seeds. Make a well in the centre and pour in the oil and 150ml warm water. Mix together well. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a few mins until smooth. Leave to rest in a lightly floured bowl for 15 mins. Meanwhile, mix together the yogurt and dill. Season and set aside.

All in all, it was a stimulating session for both the students and myself.

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