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by Robert Steward




Bologna, Italy 2006


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 teacher’s 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.

‘Okay,’ I said to the class, ‘I’ll just give you another minute and then we’ll check the answers. If you’ve 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 teacher’s book and sat on the edge of my desk.

‘Okay, so let’s look at the answers together,’ I said to the class. ‘What’s number one, Stefano?’

‘We’ve already done number one, prof.’

‘Oh yes.’ I smiled. ‘So, what’s number two, then?’

‘John Lennon read Yoko Ono’s poems,’ he replied.

‘Good,’ I said. ‘And number three, Antonio?’

‘Er, number three is: John Lennon wrote Imagine.’

‘Good, and number four, Carlotta?’

‘John Lennon spoke about the song in an interview.’

‘That’s 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.

‘Yes,’ Antonio grinned. ‘When you are going to play the song, prof?’

The class laughed.

‘All in good time.’ I smiled. ‘All in good time.’

It was time for this week’s 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, that’s how Jeremy Harmer (one of the best known names in English language teaching, puts it) anyway.

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 Radiohead’s 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.’

 And failed miserably.


‘So, we’ve 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, we’re just going to look at some vocabulary.

I’d like you to match the words on the left with the definitions on the right. So, let’s do the first couple as an example. What does religion mean?’

‘For example, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam etc,’ Stefano said.

‘Good,’ I said. ‘And heaven?’

‘A place where some religions believe that good people go when they die,’ Carlotta said.

‘Good, so, with your partner, I’d like you to match A to J with one to ten.’

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 didn’t do the song justice. Then, I quickly went around the class to see if everyone had finished the exercise. Most of them had.

‘Okay, so let’s look at the words together,’ I said. ‘What’s hell?’

‘English food!’ Antonio cried out.

Everyone laughed.

‘Apart from English food?’ I smiled.

‘A place where some religions believe that bad people go when they die,’ Giorgia said.

‘Good, and hunger?’

‘The noun for hungry,’ the class said almost in unison.

‘Good, and peace?’

‘The opposite of war.’

After going through the vocabulary, I held up my photocopy and showed them the song lyrics.

‘Okay, so, we’re going to listen to the song, and you put the words we’ve 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.

‘Oooh!’ Sara’s face lit up. ‘Come incantevole!’

The medieval palazzo became more evident through the large pane windows, and the light from the outside streetlamps created enchanting silhouettes on the classroom floor. 

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 concert.

This was surreal. I couldn’t 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 true.

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 gargoyle.

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, helpless.

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 you’ve 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 couldn’t bring myself to destroy the love, peace and harmony in the classroom.

Oh well, I thought with resignation, it is a Friday, and carried on singing with the rest of the class.




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