Life skills in Brazil

I recently returned from a trip to Brazil where I was talking about teaching life skills to teenagers. By happy coincidence, the previous month I'd finally got round to reading Dear Me, a letter to my sixteen-year-old self. If you've never come across it, this is a book that consists of letters written by a selection of well-known names to their younger selves. What words of wisdom would they pass on after the experience of so many years. As J.K. Rowling writes in the book's Foreword, 'the overwhelming message of this body of letters seems to be: Be yourself. Be easier on yourself. Become yourself, as fully as possible'.

So I started my Brazil talk by quoting some examples from the book. A lot of the advice is very practical. For example, the actor Hugh Jackman advises his teenage self to “Buy shares in Google when they are invented!!!!” Other advice is more personal such as these words from J.K. Rowling. “Stop smoking NOW. Stick up for yourself a bit more. Forgive yourself a lot more."

Some advice comes up time and time again. James Woods is just one of several people who refers to listening to others: “Listen more than you may be inclined to do. Talk less.” Many writers refer to the low self-esteem they experienced as a teenager. “Expand your horizons," writes Gillian Anderson, "your world is a bigger oyster than your low self-esteem wants you to believe. Follow your dreams not your boyfriends.”

I also came across this letter from Lucas Cruikshank. “Don't fret about the whole 'shy thing' you're enduring right now. I mean, give yourself a break!” In case you don't know, Lucas Cruikshank was one of the very first YouTube stars. His was the first YouTube channel to reach a million subscribers. Lucas was actually sixteen years old when he wrote his letter so he wrote it to his thirteen-year-old self.

Writing a letter to your younger self is a fun activity. You should try it sometime. The book thoughtfully includes some blank pages at the end where you can write your own letter. After reading Lucas's letter, I wondered what advice I'd give to my thirteen-year-old self.

So that's me in the photo when I was thirteen years old. It's from a provisional passport I needed for a trip abroad. (I love the fact that it has a space for a photo of my wife.) And here's my advice to my thirteen-year-old self:
“Don’t take life so seriously.” I used to worry a lot when I was a teenager.
“Work more with other people.” I don't remember ever doing group work or even pair work at school. (This was a long, long time ago.) I didn't really appreciate the benefits of working with other people until after I'd left school.
“I know you hate speaking in public but it will be very useful one day.” I was extremely shy. I still don't feel at ease talking in front of other people.
“Think more about other people.” I admit it. I was very self-obsessed as a teenager. Aren't we all?
“They can be right too!” OK. Point taken.
“Learn to speak Portuguese.” I originally put 'learn to dance' but after spending a few days in Brazil, I realised how much I love Portuguese and how much I'd like to learn it.

I think a lot of the advice I'd give to my younger self is similar to the advice we'd give teenagers today: Learn to deal with stress, understand the benefits of teamwork, be more self-confident, think more about other people, respect other people's opinions. These are all life skills. And Portuguese? Is learning a language a life skill? We had a discussion about that over dinner. Answers on a postcard, please.

I'd never been to Athens

When I first moved to Spain a long time ago, people would sometimes ask me what I missed most about life in the UK. I would usually say 'the radio'. Back in the mid-80s, the only UK-based station I could listen to in Spain was the BBC World Service which I never really liked much. I wanted the dramas, news programmes, documentaries and quiz shows from Radio 4 and the music from Radio 3. Of course things have changed since then. First came satellite TV which included UK radio stations and then came the Internet.

Today, apart from being able to listen live to radio stations from around the world or use various catch-up services, I can subscribe to podcasts and have programmes automatically downloaded to my audio player to listen to whenever I want. Now, when people ask me what I miss most about life in the UK, I usually don't know what to say.

All of which brings me (in a roundabout way) to Pop Culture Happy Hour, a podcast I regularly listen to. It doesn't come from the UK but from NPR (National Public Radio) in the US. According to its blog, NPR's entertainment and pop culture round-table podcast 'features spirited discussions of movies, books, television, and nostalgia.' The show is basically a group of people talking about fun things that I'm interested in. And each podcast ends with a segment called 'What's making us happy this week' in which the presenters talk about something that's making them happy that week - it could be a new album, a project they're working on or a sports event ... anything.

I borrowed the question to ask the teachers at the IP Conference in Athens last weekend as part of a talk I gave on life skills: 'What's making you happy this week?' It's an example of the kind of question you could ask students when they come to class. You know how students often arrive to class in a bad mood because they've had a bad day or have a problem at home or have just argued with their best friend? Asking a question like this can help to make students aware that there are always reasons to feel good, even if they’re just small things. If you do something like this regularly, it not only makes your students feel better, they'll be more receptive in class. Positive thinking.

At the talk, I let the teachers know what was making me happy this week... Many years ago I co-wrote a series of ELT songs for the Cambridge English Course with Jonathan Dykes. One of the songs was called Brighton in the Rain. The song practised the present perfect and there were two versions - one with all the lyrics and one with all the past participles removed. The students had to provide those past participles. The first line of the song was 'I've never been to Athens' and the music was a pastiche of a Greek folk song. Anyway, I've been singing that song for years and the first line had always been true for me. I'd never been to Athens - until going to the IP conference. So being in Athens was what was making me happy this week.

Thanks to everyone who came to the talks. If you're interested in hearing the song then follow the link below. I apologise for the music but would like to point out that that I love Greek music - thanks largely to my brother-in-law who lived in Athens and has a large collection of Greek music. He also suggested I visit the Acropolis Museum. I'm glad I followed his advice. I can't wait to go back again ...

Listen to Brighton in the Rain