Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

The downside of up.

I might have mentioned this before, but I love Paris. I love the cobblestones  under my black boots and the crisp wind whipping my trendy scarf as I cross the Pont Neuf. I love the hot chocolate at Angelina’s and the occasional treat of Ladurée macaroons. I love being able to walk to the Louvre on Friday evenings for a quiet afternoon with the Masters.

I am not so in love with my job.

I’m technically in Paris as an English teaching assistant. Sometimes, however, it feels as though I’m in Paris as an under-paid, under-trained, under-worked disciplinarian. Here’s the situation:

Two times a week I take on a batch of 15 sophomores and attempt to do fun things like play a speed-dating game or watch clips from American TV shows to learn slang. And I’m quite enthusiastic about the lessons I plan – I try not to do anything that I wouldn’t have considered fun when I was a sophomore learning French at Salem High School. That might actually work in American classrooms, where students are relatively disciplined and stay quiet while the teacher is speaking, even if they sulk when assigned any tiny amount of work. But oh no, not in a French classroom (the film The Class comes to mind).

The problem occurs both because of students, and because of the system under which I am supposed to be working.  First, let’s deal with the system.

  1. I only see these students every other week. Sometimes, they have tests, so I might not even see them that regularly.
  2. Their presence is mandatory, but I do not know the names of the students to be present beforehand. So I cannot take roll, and therefore cannot punish students for absence.
  3. The students are not graded based on their performance in my class. They, in essence, have no motivation to attend nor to participate, and therefore they don’t.
  4. During orientation, I was not made aware of my rights as an instructor; for example, I don’t know the protocol for when a student is tardy and claims to have been at the nurse’s office. When I ask for a note, they shrug and feign incomprehension.

I cannot imagine these students are deliberately malicious. They are talkative and I perceive them to be disrespectful, but perhaps that is because their teachers let them to speak among themselves in class, and I, as an American, see that as impermissible – a cultural difference. But the fact of the matter is that when I do reprimand students for disruptive behavior, they simply talk back and refuse to do their lines, or put down their head, or accept responsibility for their actions.

I’ve spoken to teachers about protocol, but it seems there’s not much I can do. I can send the students to the CPE, essentially to the principal’s office, but I’d rather not. Surely there is a solution to keep them  in the classroom and to engage them in the activity – positive reinforcement, rather than disciplinary action.

A few of my readers are teachers, high school teachers, in fact. What do you do when your class is rowdy, shows up tardy, or refuses to participate? How can I make my activities more engaging or enticing to adolescents? Is punishment the only answer?

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Like two piece in an iPod.

Before I left for England a few weeks ago, I decided to ambitiously quasi-plan the remaining 19 weeks of teaching to which I would have to return in early November.  Those of you counting, that means I only teach for a total of 21 weeks in 7 months. One of the pros of working for the French is, in fact, not working. Anyway, my planning had me scheduled to play a few ‘getting to know you’ games with my secondes (sophomores), since they knew a bit of my past and interests, and I knew nothing of theirs.  In my usual super-planner way, I wrote everything out, divided the class into minutes and then discovered that I can, in fact, think on my feet in class.

One of the teachers at our orientation mentioned she went over an idiomatic expression every week with her students. One of my teachers at school mentioned playing pictionary with idiomatic expressions in class.  I decided to combine the two: every week, I’ll go over a new expression, and in April I will hand them out a list which we’ll use to play a Idiomatic Expression Pictionary game.  Last week’s expression was “like two peas in a pod.”  In an effort to get them to speak English, I had the class devine (guess) what the expression could possibly mean. And, boy, was that entertaining:

  • “Madame, ees eet becos oo are alone becos zere are only two?”
  • “Madame, whot ees a pod? Ees like iPod?”
  • “Madame, ees peas half?”
  • “Madame, ees becos oo are a lot of peepol in a smol place?”
  • And finally, “Madame, ees becos oo are same?”

For your reference, the French equivalent, which my kids were quick to offer up, is “Ils se ressemblent comme deux gouttes d’eau.” They’re like two drops of water.  Oh, and a pod is une cosse.

That was supposed to be a five minute exercise, but 15 minutes later we arrived at the translation, and had to move on to the next jeu: I know someone who…

This is the game where everyone stands in a circle, one person gets in the middle and says something like, “I know someone who is wearing red shoes,” and then everyone wearing red shoes has to change places. Well, it took forever to explain the game, but once it got going, I think they enjoyed the opportunity to horse around a bit.  Getting them to sit back down became the hard part. Having a sentence structure already given to them didn’t seem to help them construct a sentence correctly, though.  After several “I know someone who is shoes/brown hair/sister” statements, I made them repeat and get help until they got the sentence structure right, by which point everyone was itching to switch places and chaos ensued.

But the last game was definitely a favorite with the classes: Who am I? I asked the students to write down one or two names of celebrities on a piece of paper and collected them all. Then a volunteer came up, picked a name at random and covered his or her eyes. I wrote the name on the board so the other students could see, and then erased it.  The volunteer had to ask questions to discover their “identity.”  Once they did, they picked the next victim, er, volunteer.

I was quite impressed with the range of celebrity names I got from the students…everything from Beyoncé to JFK.  Here are  a few names for your entertainment:

  • Characters: Hulk, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Iron man, James Bond
  • Actors: Brad Pitte (sic), Tom Cruise, Eva Longoria, Georges (sic) Clooney, Orlando Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Vin Diesel
  • Musicians: Janis Joplin, Beyoncé,  Billie Joe Armstrong
  • Politicians: George W. Bush, JFK
  • Authors: J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer
  • Other: E.T.

One of the more entertaining question-answer sessions came with Billie Joe Armstrong, which resulted in the class not really knowing who it was and offering suggestions like, “The jazz guy,” then, “No, the man on the moon,” followed by, “You’re wrong, it’s the Tour de France winner.”  Turns out, he’s the lead singer from Green Day. Even I didn’t know that, and I like Green Day.

One thing I learned after my first week of teaching in October was to plan more than you think you’ll need, because sometimes an exercise goes faster than planned.  That didn’t really happen this past week, but having extra things to do meant I could skip over bits if I felt the kids were being too rowdy or if it looked like it was boring them.  Three 15 minute activities, or four-five 10 minute activities seem to get the best response.  American doctors might take a look at some of my classes and shout ADD.  I think that kids today are so used to getting immediate response and cycling through multiple sources of entertainment thanks to the internet (for example, going through 40 YouTube videos in an hour, each with a different topic), that as a teacher you have to be on your toes.  Youreally are competing against internet-based instant-information in an entertaining presentation.  If you want to win, you’ve got to be more fun.

This week’s theme is Facebook, and today’s 3PM class is my first set of guinea pigs.  Let’s see how Darth Vader fares.  That last sentence will make more sense later this week, so I guess you’ll just have to come back for the punch line!

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Courses, of course.

My second week of teaching has come to an end and I’ve finally met the majority of my students.  I have quite a mix, in terms of age, ethnic background and English speaking level, but for the most part they are all quite nice and not intentionally disruptive of class.

A quick breakdown of my schedule, as it now stands: I work Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  On Mondays and Tuesdays I’m at the school from 8h00 to 17h00, though I don’t have classes the whole time (today, for example, I have only 4 hours of actual teaching time…); on Thursdays, I have courses back-to-back from 10h00 – 14h00, which I prefer in some ways (less down-time, but it means I get home early).

I’m teaching a range of age groups: I have 3 groups of secondes (sophomores), 1 group of premières (juniors) and 6 groups of terminales (seniors).  There’s further distinction between the groups of premières et terminales, because from what I understand about the French secondary education system, students have to select a quasi-major during their Junior year.  These range from literature/arts to business to sciences, and there are even some students in BTS, a post-high school program similar to an associates degree, but the courses are taken at the high school.  Determining your program is supposedly the student’s choice, but in the vein of selecting AP or IB in the US, in that you pick based on your academic level, not necessarily on your desired profession…I have a group of ES students (business, econ, etc.) who are quite brilliant, and only surpassed by a group of Euro students (the IB-esque kids, who even take their history course in English).

Yet, even in my non-advanced level courses, there are chatty students that want desperately to exercise their English.  This afternoon, for example, one of my seconde groups was given the option to attend a review in their French course instead of my English section, but one girl opted to stay in the English section.  She and I had a wonderful time: we reviewed Halloween vocabulary, talked about Harry Potter books, watched a clip from The Nightmare Before Christmas (which she had already seen because of her Canadian cousins), played pictionary and talked about Shakespearean plays. Keep in mind, she’s a sophomore…and we only resorted to translating a word from French to English once (and even then we got there pretty much through circumlocution).

Then again, there are students in my groups that couldn’t care less about English, and continue to hold conversations with their peers in French, despite my requesting “In English, please!” every 5 minutes.  I even told the kids I don’t care if you talk to your classmates, just do it in English.  That didn’t really work.  Playing pictionary and bribing them with American candy, however, did work for a while.  But for the most part, students only resort to French to explain my comments/instructions to those that are completely clueless.

Interestingly, we were instructed in our training session not to let on that we spoke French (to prevent the complete degeneration of the English class into a discourse in French).  I’m having a hard time with that!  I know what they’re saying, and want to answer, but have to prompt them to re-ask their questions in English…I’ve told all my classes that I don’t speak French, and actually, one of the courses is thoroughly convinced I have no idea what they’re saying.  This is the same class that went to French instead of English today, but when the French teacher told them I was invited to sit in on their course (which I couldn’t, because the girl wanted to study English – yay and nay), they told her it would be useless, since I don’t know a lick of French. In any case, I’m learning to master the Gallic shrug and a puzzled expression when my students try to ask me for traductions.

As for my private students, I’ve got two lined up for sure, one hour a week a-piece.  I might have a third and possibly a fourth, but that will be determined in the next two weeks.  I’ve also applied to teach English to 5-8 year-olds on Saturday mornings, so things are looking up!

And for fun, here’s the video clip I’ve been showing to my students today…it’s almost Halloween!

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Bitches and beaches, ohms and homes.

Now, for something a bit more lighthearted.

Today was my first day at the Lycée Charles le Chauve in Roissy-en-Brie.  I met, for the first time, the instructor with whom I have been corresponding via email all summer. He introduced me to several of the English faculty, and they were all very inviting, très gentils. Many of them are quite young, and the dress code seems fairly casual – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a school where teachers wore baggy jeans and sweaters but the students wore leggings and leather vests, as is à la mode these days.  I suppose it’s because we’re living on a teacher’s salary…and they’re living on Mom and Dad’s.

I sat in on two courses to observe student-teacher interaction and the students’ level of English. My first course was a group of secondes (sophomores), who were a bit shy only because they weren’t sure about their English.  Once we got talking about places they wanted to visit and the current image of Barack Obama, there were several raised hands in class.  It’s a good thing I voted Democrat, as I think I might have been boo’ed out the room had I not!  After an interesting experience with lunch in the cantine (um, I think those were potatoes?), I sat in on a group of premières (juniors), who were better in terms of English-level, but more hesitant to ask questions.  They went around introducing themselves…and as the professor laughingly mentioned, we gathered that they were all between 15 and 17, lived in one of three neighboring towns, and liked sports.

Before coming to France I perused several ex-pat blogs and the online writings of assistants who had completed this program before. One of the more entertaining bits of these shared experiences is the funny way French students of English tend to pronounce our language. They have a habit, for example, of adding “h” where there isn’t one, and dropping “h” where there is. One of the girls today asked about ‘omes in America.

By far, the most funny (for us Anglophones, certainly, but perhaps not for the teacher in the course) is the difficulty students face in pronouncing the long “i” sound, as in “pieces” or, as it happened in class today, “beaches.” We were talking about reasons the kids liked their favorite country and one boy spoke up, “Well, it has good music and girls.” Another nodded in agreement, “Yes, ze girls and ze bitches.” That led to an entertaining discussion about the difference between “bitches” and “beaches,” where the teacher tactfully avoided stating the explicit meaning of the former word (offering up “female dog” instead) and a brief lesson on prononciation.

A last anecdote, one that shocked me more than the events on the RER this morning, actually. We were discussing detective novels in one of the courses, as the students are reading an excerpt from an Agatha Christie book.  The professor asked, “What’s the one detective story you’ve all read?”

The class answered in chorus, “Ten Little Niggers.”

Now, I use that word only because it’s in the actual title of the book, but let me tell you, to hear it come from the mouths of twenty-some teenagers all at once was quite a shock.  Apparently, it’s the original British title to the Agatha Christie book, And Then There Were None – a book that popularized the rhyme we normally refer to as “10 Little Indians” and a book the kids all read (in French) because their former principal insisted upon it. As an aside, the actual rhyme seems to be titled “10 Little Injuns” in its original form, reworked to the Christie title by Frank Green in 1869, then back to the form we know in the 1940s when the Christie book was published in the United States.

All in a day’s work, I suppose. I should be getting my actual schedule soon – the teacher coordinating it actually asked if I wanted a four-day weekend. I said that would be ideal.

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Roissy-en-Brie and gay Par-ee

Mairie de Roissy-en-Brie

Mairie de Roissy-en-Brie

After a long drought of communication (read, since April), my inbox is now filled with emails from the French Embassy and their compatriots on the other side of the pond.  This is a good thing.

I now know that I will be teaching 15-18 year-olds at the Lycée Charles le Chauve in Roissy-en-Brie, a town 30 minutes from Gare du Nord in Paris, from October 1st until April 30th.

I, of course, as an information-searching nut, went online and scoured the internet for any dirt I could gather on Roissy-en-Brie and the lycée, as soon as I received the email.  And here’s what I learnt learned:  Roissy-en-Brie is a lot like Fontainebleau, minus the château. So it’s pretty, and close to Paris, and has outdoorsy things to do like hunt in the woods by following dirt trails and trees marked with street names, and quaint downtown streets with cafés that charge an arm for 3 boules de glace.

The lycée‘s website gave a bit of insight into the titular Charles, but was not as forthcoming with information about the English program.  It seems, however, that they have a fantastic music program, and it might be nice to get back into some piano playing – perhaps I can learn some contemporary American pop pieces to share with the class.

Speaking of the class, I’m slightly terrified of teaching 15-18 year olds. I mean, I’m turning 22 in October, so that makes me what…4 years older than the oldest and 7 years older than the youngest of the bunch? How much did I respect the young-ish teachers when I was in high school? Well, I do recall wondering if they knew what they were doing (*cough* and harboring crushes on the younger male teachers *cough*)…do *I* know what I’m doing?

I’ve tutored kids before, and TA’d 2 university-level courses, even come up with lectures for both and led discussions…I suppose it shouldn’t be too difficult to translate that for a high-school audience, since the students I was working with at uni were 18-20-year-olds. I read (in my pursuit of all things France-and-teaching-related) that it helps to set your foot down at the beginning of class: only English in the classroom, no disrespect, strict grader, etc., etc. Which makes sense – once a push-over, always a push-over.  And that shouldn’t be too difficult for me anyway, as I tend to expect a lot of other people, mostly because I expect a lot of myself.  I think deep down I want to be that tough professor that everyone hates and loves at the same time.  Some of my best professors have really made me work for their approval (hmm, there might be some psychology to this worth exploring), and didn’t Colton say that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery?

Anyway, it seems the easy part is over: I got the gig.  Now I just have to get my visa, book my flight, figure out health insurance, get travelers insurance, find a second job, get a French bank account, fill out more paperwork, get a French cellphone and find some place to stay.  Oh, and breathe.

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