The task for the students in the upper-intermediate class I teach was to consider various possibilities for a school trip and, after conversing in pairs about the benefits of each, to recommend one. But first they needed to think about useful language, and for that they were to look over a set of phrases about benefits—learn to work in a team, cope in another language, get a real thrill, and the like. Which did they already know, which might be helpful? What other vocabulary might they use? The students began. I moved among the three groups, listening and occasionally noting on the whiteboard anything I heard that I’d want to draw the class’s attention to afterward.
One of the trips was to an amusement park. A student called me over. “What do you call a carrusel?” he asked, and when I told him, he repeated the word. “Merry-go-round! What a wonderful name!”
Roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and bumper cars, which his partner immediately asked me to name in English, didn’t move him—he hardly reacted—but this term did. He sat, pen in hand, still savoring the word before writing it down, a smile on his face, his lips moving as he again pronounced it, this time just under his breath. I also said it again, aloud, hearing it now myself too. “Merry-go-round.”
A Frost poem came to my mind: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” Then I saw in my mind the cover of a children’s book my mother read to me, called “The Country Child.” And then right on the heels of that white and yellow image with the drawing of a country church under trees, was a sinister black and white one from “Strangers on a Train,” the Hitchcock movie where the girl is quietly throttled at an amusement park. After a noisy struggle in a later scene, the merry-go-round flies apart.
My student looked up. He’s a wonderful student, attentive, interested, engaged—all those good things, and with a facility for using plain and simple English. Not all students have that. Others in the same class get tied up translating from Spanish, and to avoid mistakes, they learn rules they then often question. The other day one of these students said to me, “In Spanish either the continuous tense or the past simple conveys the idea of repetition.” I shrugged. “In English, in this instance, it’s the past continuous you’d use,” and though he didn’t blame me for the English language diverging from his expectations, he didn’t love the new route and didn’t hear a new music. This other student so often did.
He shook his head in wonder, then got back to the practical. “How do you spell it?” he asked, setting his pen to paper, and it wasn’t I but his partner, another student with a quick mind and a host of rules, who rattled off the answer, smiling too, with pride. I continued to circle.
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