So, a man walks into a classroom ..

14th January 2011 at 00:00

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Well, perhaps not quite all of them .

How many people move into adulthood without ever having learned the most basic terms for describing the language they speak? The answer would appear to be "a lot". Just mention noun, adjective and verb to the average adult student and see the panic come into their eyes.

Of course, a sympathetic teacher can rectify this - but it's not always as easy as you might think. "Give me a noun," I ask my class. "People, places, things. You can see them all around you."

"Wall?" says a hopeful student. "Very good," I reply. "Now, the world would be a dull place if we only had nouns. So how are we going to describe our wall?"

"Orange?" ventures another brave soul. "Excellent," I respond. "So what do you think `orange' is in that expression?"

"It's a fruit," says someone else. "Ye-ess," I say, "but when it's a descriptive word it's an .? Adj .?"

"Adjective!" It comes out like a sneeze.

"Brilliant! An adjective. Let's try for another one, shall we?" Fifteen pairs of eyes instantly glue themselves to the floor. It's like when the crazy man gets on the bus: whatever you do, don't catch his eye.

"Lorraine," I say. I know she'll find this challenging, so if she's got it, then it's 101 the rest have too. "Let's have another word to describe the wall shall we. What's it made of?"

"Wall," says Lorraine.

"No," I say, patience personified. "It is a wall, so it can't be made out of something called `wall' now can it? When they built this room, what did they use to construct it, do you think?" Lorraine looks as if she's going to cry. "Cement," she says desperately.

It looks like plaster to me, but I'm not going to quibble. "So now we've got two descriptive words, orange and cement. That means we've got two . two of what exactly?"

"Walls," says Lorraine.

Hohum. I try another tack, and for some reason find myself telling them about the nickname I was given at school: monkey face. This they find hilarious. Even Lorraine manages a smile. Probably it's hysteria, brought on by the hope that now I'm wandering down memory lane, I might just forget about my sadistic naming game.

But you can't help noticing how many tricky classroom situations can be defused by a little humour. You won't find it on any lesson observation ticklists, but in so many ways laughter is a real lifeline for the teacher.

Just think about it. When you pass a room where someone else is teaching, you don't feel envious if the class are working hard, or listening intently to teacher. But if they are all laughing, you know that someone has got something right.

Mind you, not everyone agrees. My teaching was being observed a while back, and I was feeling pleased that at least I'd got the class laughing. "They weren't all quite so happy though," said my observer afterwards. "For instance, I think some of the west Africans in the class didn't really get your jokes." She added that maybe I should make my humour a little less Eurocentric.

This was tricky. After all I was - I am - a European. I suppose I could have tried, "There was a young woman from AccraWho pumped helium gas into her bra ." But I don't think that was what she was looking for either. So instead I just mumbled that she could rest assured that in future I would deliver all of my classes in a mirthless monotone in order not to exclude anyone.

But for now I'm certainly not going to exclude Lorraine. Did she really think I'd be so easily distracted? "So," I ask, "if my face was the `thing' and `monkey' the word describing that thing, what parts of speech do we have?"

"I've no idea," Lorraine says. "But I can see why they gave you that nickname."

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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