Here we are, back at work after the Christmas / New Year break –though the rest of the world is still on holiday, it seems! It’s eerily quiet in school: the stone corridors and grand Victorian rooms of the Cambridge University Union Society are empty and echoing (many of our students have yet to return) and dusk falls early on these January days………. Oh! This is crazy! I’m sitting in a brightly-lit office with my lovely colleagues, planning some very interesting courses for the next few months – not a ghost in sight!
We’re actually working on the programmes we offer our younger students: we take under-18s on special courses all year, and through July and August we have our wonderful Summer School where our youngest students are just five years old! However, tempting though it is to dream about punting on the river, and cream teas at the Orchard, we have to focus on designing some courses which are coming up next month, when I fear the weather will still be wintry.
One of the special things we do is provide tailor-made courses for families, where they can choose whether to study together (yes, Mum and Dad and the kids all in the same classroom!) or separately, with the children having their own lessons while parents join our regular group classes.
We were persuaded to offer the ‘whole family’ course by a couple who had experienced this (by accident) at another school, and really enjoyed it. We took some convincing, as we couldn’t see how it would work, but having run a lot of these courses now, we’re quite sure of their value, and they’re great fun for all concerned. They seem to be most popular in the spring and summer, so now’s the time for us to check our stock of games, craft materials, see what’s new online, and start preparing more conventional teaching materials according to what the families have told us about their interests. While Peter (our Academic Team Leader) and I deal with these, Nora (Admin) is gathering up-to-date information about places to visit – we’ve learned that it’s vital to vary the pace and content of the lessons, and going out to the Fitzwilliam Museum, or the Botanic Garden, is an ideal way to freshen everyone up, and enormously enriches the classroom lessons.
We’re talking to the tutors – all chosen because they genuinely enjoy working with youngsters, and embrace the idea of the family studying together – and making sure they are happy with the topics. Frank (Accommodation) is catching up on homestay inspections; our Families already have accommodation in Cambridge, so that’s saved him some work.
By the end of the week, we should have all these preparations in place, and will be able to think about the High-School Groups who’ll be arriving soon, and then ……. it will be time to plan the Summer School!
Well, we’ve finally made it to the end of the Michaelmas Term, and now exams are over, and we’ve even had some snow, things are definitely feeling festive. Here in the office, we’ve taken a break from planning the 2018 Summer School - you really don’t feel like that when it’s -5 degrees outside, anyway – and have been planning the Student Christmas get-together instead: much more fun!
Ever since Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol the English have been obsessed with Christmas; even with global warming we’re still convinced that we should have snow on 25 December, and even though obesity is becoming a national issue, we insist on consuming our own body-weight in frankly strange and food and drink that we wouldn’t dream of eating at any other time. For those of you who don’t generally celebrate an English Christmas, or who might be considering giving it a try this year, here are some of the traditional goodies to look out for (or avoid!):
Christmas pudding: a heavy mix of dried fruits (raisins, currants, sultanas etc) suet (which is grated beef fat – yum!) flour, sugar, brandy, eggs all mashed up, piled into a cloth, tied up and boiled for hours to produce an object which resembles a bowling ball. On the Big Day, when we’ve already eaten mountains of turkey and all the trimmings, we do the only logical thing with this delicacy – we stick a sprig of holly in the top, pour alcohol over it and set it alight. With luck we manage to do this without setting fire to the house, or Grandma……
Mince Pies: First make your mincemeat: it’s the mixture as above, put into jars (like jam), but don’t cook it. Use to fill small pastry cases (do cook!) and serve alongside Christmas Pudding. Useful if you did actually destroy the pudding when lighting it. And don’t worry, there’s been no actual meat in mincemeat since the 1850s.
Christmas cake: As above, minus suet, plus butter. Bake, don’t boil. Cover with marzipan (almond paste) and coat with Royal Icing. This rock-hard sugar coating was presumably invented by dentists…. Christmas Cake is eaten at tea-time (around 5pm) just in case you’re still feeling hungry after your meagre Christmas Dinner!
By the way, all the above should be made no later than September and stored until Christmas. The flavour should improve - and in any case, with modern antibiotics, food poisoning isn’t the issue it used to be….
Anyone still capable of movement after all this food will be expected to pull Christmas Crackers: these are small explosive devices (banned on planes, and sold only to over-18s, though used by anyone over the age of 4) containing a paper hat, a small piece of unidentifiable plastic (sorry, a gift), usually all the way from China, and most importantly…. A JOKE. Appreciating these jokes depends on a) understanding the famous British Sense of Humour and b) having imbibed enough of the Christmas Spirit. Here are a selection, starting with one especially for students of English:
Q: What do you call Santa’s Little Helpers? A: Subordinate Clauses.
Two snowmen standing in a field. One said to the other: ‘Can you smell carrots?’
Q: Why didn’t the skeleton go to the Christmas Party? A: He had no body to go with.
And if you don’t understand them, I won’t be explaining them. I’ve tried that before, at many Christmas parties, and I know from bitter experience that it just doesn’t work!
Anyway, that brings me back neatly to the ABC Student Christmas do, which was a great success and enjoyed by everyone – a lovely way to round off a very happy and successful term.
Merry Christmas to all our friends, and a very happy and peaceful New Year.
Autumn has really taken hold now: temperatures are dropping, we’re wading through drifts of golden leaves on Jesus Green, and the clocks have gone back. No-one had any problems with that this year, thanks to putting up lots of notices and teaching students ‘Spring forward, Fall back’ – useful once we’ve explained that fall is US English for autumn!
Although it may seem that autumn is a boring time, just waiting for Christmas to come along, we have some traditional festivals to brighten up the days: Hallowe’en of course takes place on 31 October, with Jack O’Lanterns carved from pumpkins, children going trick or treating, and otherwise sensible adults suddenly appearing as vampires or Egyptian mummies. Like many English people, I thought that all the modern fuss about Hallowe’en was a rather tacky import from the US – it’s certainly not something that we did when I was a child. (I’m not saying how long ago that was!) However, on closer investigation, I found that the tradition of celebrating Hallowe’en was actually taken to the States by emigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the 19th century. In those days, the traditions were much more concerned with the ‘real’ meaning of the festival, being the day before All Souls’ Day, when the dead are remembered and there is supposedly more ‘supernatural’ activity. It was always a good day for finding out who you would eventually marry: girls would peel an apple (all in one piece) and throw the peel over their shoulder; the shape it made when it landed would be the unknown husband’s initial. This could explain why I spent my teenage years looking for a tall, dark, handsome Chinese guy!
Our other big autumn festival is definitely home-grown: Guy Fawkes Day on 5 November celebrates (oops! Should say ‘commemorates’) the attempt by a group of conspirators to blow up Parliament in 1605. Guy Fawkes was unfortunate enough to be caught with the barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. This, by the way, was not the Palace of Westminster that you all know today – that was built in the mid-19th century after the original Palace burnt down.
All over the country, firework displays are held, often with bonfires where an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned. Here in Cambridge we have a huge firework display, bonfire and funfair on Midsummer Common attended by around 25,000 people, but of course lots of people have their own Guy Fawkes parties, with traditional warming treats like baked potatoes and sausages (maybe cooked on the bonfire), soup and mulled wine. Many people still make their own ‘Guy’ – stuffing old clothes with newspaper and painting on a scary face (always with a big, black, curly moustache) – though I’m not sure how many actually get burnt these days, in the city, at least. It used to be common to see children wheeling their Guy through the streets in an old push-chair asking passers-by for a ‘penny for the Guy’ to spend on fireworks - though with Health & Safety and Child Safeguarding concerns, I can think of at least a dozen reasons why this no longer happens!
And then there’s the Lord Mayor’s Show in London (the City of London, that is, nothing to do with Sadiq Khan…) on 11 November this year. It’s a brilliant day out, with a parade, lots of events around the City, and finishing with fireworks on the Thames. It’s been held every year for over 800 years, so if you can’t get to it this year, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to catch it another time!
All in all, autumn isn’t at all a grey and boring time to come to England, and Cambridge in particular, as plenty of our students, including high-school students from mainland Europe spending their mid-term break with us, will testify.
Almost unbelievably, here we are in the middle of October - autumn leaves blowing across Jesus Green, novice rowing crews out on the river, no more lost Freshers wandering in looking for their College …… and lots of students wondering which English exam to take in December.
Here at ABC, we start by making sure that our students know the difference between the exams, and which one will best meet their needs.
The main area of confusion for most students seems to be between IELTS and the Cambridge ‘Main Suite’ exams – First, Advanced, etc. Many students come to us saying they need IELTS, but when we ask more questions, it turns out they actually need any recognised exam at level B2, C1 …..
IELTS started life as an exam to ensure that overseas students coming to attend University in the UK had enough English to deal with academic study, hence its focus on academic topics. It was never intended as an exam for the workplace or even everyday life: in fact, post-graduate University students with good IELTS scores often join our General English courses to help them manage in their daily lives!
For the majority of students, who need proof of their English level for their future careers, a Cambridge exam is more practical and more accessible. Most people start by studying General English, and this is just what the Cambridge exams test, and what most people need in their working and everyday lives.
Students on ABC’s full- and part-time courses study General English, so it makes perfect sense to aim for one of these exams – a Certificate from the University of Cambridge at the end of your course has got to be a good thing!
We talk to each student individually about their exam entry, looking at their progress in class and their test results, and help them make an informed decision about which exam to go for and when. We don’t want to see students entering exams they won’t pass, and wasting a lot of money in the process!
Once registered, the students follow a structured programme of exam preparation, including weekly mock tests, leading up to the big day. Exams are usually held in University premises in the centre of Cambridge, so very handy for students to pop in afterward to tell us how they’ve done – hopefully not needing a shoulder to cry on!
These days, students can log on to the exams website to get their results, usually a month or so after the exam, and then it’s just a few more weeks until that long-awaited Certificate arrives in the post.
For anyone who’s just arrived in the beautiful and quiet city of Cambridge, it might come as a surprise to know that during July and August the city is buzzing with visitors from all over the world, many attending Summer Schools to improve their English. Here at ABC alone we had students from 41 different countries studying at our Summer School, and students aged from five to seventy!
To be honest, we need a calm and quiet time after the busy summer to prepare for the very different demands of our Academic Year students. We’ve already been joined by the au pairs, studying part-time while they help busy Cambridge families organise their lives, and are now welcoming students attached to both of our Universities, as well as workers coming back to Cambridge after their summer holidays. Most of these students are taking long courses, so we get to know them very well, which makes for a really friendly and supportive atmosphere. Of course, we don’t only have long-stay students, people also come to us for short courses, for all sorts of reasons: sent by their company, combining a course with a holiday, because they’re relocating …….. many go on to become regular visitors, maybe because of our superb location and great teaching, or possibly because of cakes on Friday mornings!
We’ve already had the first influx of our high-school students for the autumn, starting the new school year with a ‘holiday’ to Cambridge (at least, that’s what they think it is!), so the whole team has been working hard looking after them: arranging accommodation, going to the airport, booking social activities…. Oh, and providing a first-class English course!
Next job will be to help the students decide which exams, if any, to aim for this term – though at the moment, with a blue sky and a temperature of 20 degrees, December seems a very long way off!