It was the last class
on Friday at the British School of English, and it had just gone 9.00pm. The
students were doing a reading exercise from New English File
about who wrote the song Imagine, while I sat at my desk, checking the
answers in the teachers book. After a minute or two, I got up to monitor
the students, but found myself being drawn towards the large pane windows.
Although it was dark outside, you could still see the magnificent medieval
palazzo with its terracotta turrets, red Roman blinds, Corinthian
columns and ornate balcony. Opposite were the Due Torri; two
red-brick towers you could see from everywhere within the city walls. One of
them must have been about a hundred metres high, while the other was about half
the size. The view made me feel like I was living in another time.
I walked towards the
students, seated in a semicircle facing me. They all seemed engrossed in the
text. The first one I came up to was Stefano. He had already finished the
exercise. He took off his black-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes. They looked
smaller without his glasses on, a cobalt blue colour, a similar colour to mine.
Stefano was the strongest in the class. Apparently, he left his home town when
he was young to look for a job in Bologna. Now, at only thirty, he ran his own
olive oil company.
said to the class, Ill just give you another minute and then
well check the answers. If youve already finished, compare your
answers with your partner.
Next to Sandro was
Antonio, reading the text with his arm round Sara. They were both from
Benevento in the south. Antonio was a well-built man with thick black hair and
smelt of Polo aftershave. Sara, on the other hand, was a slight little thing
and wore a pink top with Baci e Abbracci written on the front. On
the wall behind them hung a poster of the phonemic chart. It was supposed to
aid pronunciation. Each phonemic symbol had a picture to represent the sound
like: /p/for parrot; /b/for bag; /k/for keys. Unfortunately, /ts/for
chess sounded just like the Neapolitan word for toilet, which Antonio took
great pleasure in reminding me. Next to Antonio and Sara sat Giovanni, the
Interista (the Inter Milan supporter). He read the text with his head in
his hand as if he was sleeping; tiny bristles stuck out from his shiny bald
crown. Then there was Elio, who had a funny habit of starting every sentence
with the word: Allora. He used his pen to follow the lines of the text
and looked like he had nearly finished. At the end sat Giorgia and Carlotta,
comparing their answers. They went to the university across the road and were
beautiful. Giorgia had blonde straggly hair, a snub nose and an impish smile,
while Carlotta had long dark curly hair, high cheekbones and such dark eyes you
could almost drown in them.
Once I had done a full
circle of the class, I took the teachers book and sat on the edge of my
lets look at the answers together, I said to the class.
Whats number one, Stefano?
already done number one, prof.
Oh yes. I
smiled. So, whats number two, then?
John Lennon read
Yoko Onos poems, he replied.
said. And number three, Antonio?
Er, number three
is: John Lennon wrote Imagine.
Good, and number
John Lennon spoke
about the song in an interview.
right, and five, Elio?
Allora, the song became a hit
again when he died.
After we had gone
through the answers, I asked the class if they had any questions.
Antonio grinned. When you are going to play the song,
The class laughed.
All in good
time. I smiled. All in good time.
It was time for this
weeks song gap-fill.
Music is a
powerful stimulus for student engagement precisely because it speaks directly
to our emotions while still allowing us to use our brains to analyse it and its
effects if we so wish.
Well, thats how
Jeremy Harmer (one of the best known names in English language teaching, puts
For me, the song
gap-fill is an activity where teachers, especially frustrated musicians, have
the opportunity to entertain the class by playing their favourite songs under
the assertion that the students are actually learning something.
I used to come up with
any excuse to play a song, as it would take up at least twenty minutes of the
class, and it was a good way of ending the lesson on a high. But you can get a
bit unstuck if you become too self-indulgent. Once, a student in Barcelona
asked me to explain a verse from Radioheads Karma Police.
Unfortunately, I was too busy letting the music speak to my emotions to allow
my brain to do any of the analysing stuff. Having no idea what the verse
actually meant, I tried to come up with a convincing explanation: Well, I
suppose it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
got one for you, one for you, one for you, one for you, one for you, one for
you and one for you, I said, handing out the New English
File worksheets to the class.
Once everybody had a
copy, I sat down on the desk.
Okay, so before
we listen to the song, were just going to look at some
Id like you to
match the words on the left with the definitions on the right. So, lets
do the first couple as an example. What does religion
Christianity, Hinduism, Islam etc, Stefano said.
said. And heaven?
A place where
some religions believe that good people go when they die, Carlotta said.
Good, so, with
your partner, Id like you to match A to J with one to
While the students were
doing the exercise, I inserted my tape into the cassette player and made sure
it was all cued up. I had the original version because the one on the class
cassette didnt do the song justice. Then, I quickly went around the class
to see if everyone had finished the exercise. Most of them had.
lets look at the words together, I said. Whats
food! Antonio cried out.
English food? I smiled.
A place where
some religions believe that bad people go when they die, Giorgia
The noun for
hungry, the class said almost in unison.
The opposite of
After going through the
vocabulary, I held up my photocopy and showed them the song lyrics.
were going to listen to the song, and you put the words weve just
looked at into the gaps. Okay?
I was about to press
play when suddenly, Antonio got up from his seat.
Er prof, one
moment, he said in a low voice.
He walked across the
room and turned the lights off. The classroom was in complete darkness, the
students just about recognisable.
Saras face lit up. Come incantevole!
palazzo became more evident through the large pane windows, and the
light from the outside streetlamps created enchanting silhouettes on the
I pressed the play
button, and the muddy, echoey piano of Imagine filled the classroom,
followed by the haunting voice of John Lennon. Antonio and Sara started to
sing; then Giorgia and Carlotta joined in, then Stefano, then Giovanni, and
finally Elio; the feeling was contagious. I turned up the volume and started to
sing too. The whole class swayed in their seats; Antonio and Sara with their
hands in the air, Giorgia and Carlotta making peace signs, Stefano, Giovanni
and Elio even lit their cigarette lighters as if they were at a
This was surreal. I
couldnt believe how a simple song gap-fill exercise could have turned
into something resembling a scene from a peace convention. Was it the pictures
of doves or children holding hands on the worksheets that inspired us to be so
as one, or was it the potent fumes from the lighter fluid? As Sara
started singing into her pink hairbrush, I feared that the latter was evidently
Just then, the
classroom door opened.
Oh, no! I thought with
a pang of apprehension.
I felt as if someone
had just slammed the fall board down on the piano keys. CLANG!
At the door was
Barbara, the Australian teacher. The light flooded in from behind her,
illuminating her profile. The expression on her face was unforgettable; she
just stood there with a look of bewilderment, open-mouthed, like a
The students crooned
unaware of the unexpected guest behind them, reaching a crescendo at the end of
the second verse: You-hoo!
I just sat there,
Barbara turned around
and left the room without saying a word.
Whoops! I thought,
remembering she taught an exam class next door.
I made a face, a sort
of clenched smile, like when you know youve done something wrong. I
tiptoed over to the cassette recorder and turned the volume down. But it was no
use. Their singing was louder than the music.
What could I do? I
couldnt bring myself to destroy the love, peace and harmony in the
Oh well, I thought with
resignation, it is a Friday, and carried on singing with the rest of the