In 1977 my family and I departed for a six months exchange in England based in Roehampton, a district in south-west London. We traded homes, cars and pets and schools with a British family with three girls. In retrospect it might have been interesting also to trade our four boys but we didn’t go quite that far.
The change of scene offered new insights into culture, class and vocabulary. We were now in a new world of off-licences, school dinners with lemon sponge, school uniforms (long pants for sixth grade and tenth, short pants for seventh and kindergarten). Our youngest started school with great enthusiasm but it waned each day. By the end of the week when asked, “What’s wrong?” he replied, “Nobody understands me when I talk. All they say is “Pawdon? Pawdon” Accents mattered. We fared well as colonials because no one really knew how to place us in terms of social class and we were welcome in both the grander houses and those of the lady who “did for them”. Our car also now had a bonnet and a boot.
There were huge benefits. Having all my sons in school all day gave me the freedom to research the teaching of English in local schools. I visited several thanks to the help of the British Council representative based in Ottawa and when I phoned for assistance, it turned out that his home in the UK was in the district where we were living. This rated not just a list of schools to visit but a dinner invitation. Research in that era depended not on web searches, but on books and in-person visits. Both proved fruitful and I was able to write a research paper that was later filed with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. I had applied to that body for a small grant but never heard from them before departing. Happily the grant came through within a week of our return to Canada; the paper had been written and expenses had been paid, so we all got new clothes courtesy of good British shops like Selfridges and Marks & Spencer. The most used English composition text in Canada at the time was called Learning to Write. My paper was entitled Writing to Learn.
The best teachers in the English school system then appeared to know that the act of writing helps clarify thought. The teaching of literature was also instructive in that students were encouraged to explore their own emotions and experience much more than to dwell on technical aspects. I liked the emphasis on good speaking as well. It was not surprising that both vocabulary and literacy generally benefited from the offerings of public broadcasting, especially the BBC. There was no 500 channel universe, but there was always something on that benefited audiences of any age. Radio at that stage was a particular delight. Live theatre always beckoned. We were able to travel north before coming home and took in the York Mystery Plays, performed outdoors by a local amateur cast that more than did justice to their long tradition of presentations.