Friday, October 24, 2008

Teaching and the Pilgrimage

I taught my first lesson this week! I worked with a class of Terminale (senior year) students on an excerpt from a John Jakes novel called American Dreams. We started the discussion with the concept of “The American Dream” and what that connotes—they were so articulate with their responses! We only got started on the text, going over some of the main ideas. I am going to pick up with that lesson when we get back from the vacation (the first week of November), covering the vocabulary and syntax in a more thorough way.

I also said something in my French literature class today, which is only a big deal for me because the class is obviously conducted in French. They had been discussing the identities of African immigrants, and Sophie asked me to speak to the class a little bit about African-American identity in the northeastern US. I managed to express my thoughts on the matter relatively clearly. Sophie actually commented afterwards that my French has improved markedly since I’ve been here, which surprised me, because I find myself increasingly aware of my linguistic deficits. Ah, well. I’m proud that I contributed a little something to class today.

Another interesting experience from this week was a class I had at the IUFM with a bunch of teachers from Algeria. It was incredibly interesting. The main topic of the day was the difference between FLE (France as a foreign language) and FLS (France as a second language)—because both terms are used here. In the US, when English is taught, it is taught as ESL (English as a second language) or something similar; there isn't a suggestion of "foreignness", there is rather a certainty that one will adopt the language and become integrated in the culture. The terminology leads to some complicated cultural tensions here—tensions which show themselves even more in Algeria than they do here in France. Funny language terminology detail here in Europe—when people talk about the “first language” they learned, they don’t mean their native language—they mean their first foreign language. That’s because everyone learns at least two. They are always puzzled when I say that most people in the US are barely proficient in one language besides English.

We had lunch with the Algerian teachers, which was cool because we just got to talk outside of the intense classroom discussion. We somehow ended up discussing holidays, and someone brought up Santa Claus, so everyone at the table looked at me, because the American image of Santa Claus is the most extreme and the most dominant. They said that kids often see Santa Claus on TV in Algeria, and asked why he never comes to bring them gifts. It really struck me when they said that, because I am aware of how widespread American culture is, but I don’t always think about the effects it has in very different countries. We had really great conversation all afternoon. When we returned to class, I was telling one of the teachers that I think Arabic writing is beautiful, so he wrote my name in Arabic! I didn’t realize that they apparently have an alphabet that’s almost equivalent to ours. The characters are obviously written extremely differently…and backwards.

Last night I went to the movies with the German teachers to see Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which was about two Americans going to Spain. Europeans are obsessed with Woody Allen, so it’s one of the few conversation points on which the American viewpoint is not challenged. We went out afterwards and had some great conversation about traveling, about the differences between France, Germany, and the US, and about what really constitutes “culture”—i.e. the division between sports, academics, and the arts. I really love talking with them. And the conversation always challenges my French vocabulary.

The movie’s Spanish setting got me psyched for the pilgrimage! Vanessa and I are leaving on a night train this evening. We have a basic layout for the trip at this point, though it’s not set in stone. The only things that are absolutely definite are our arrival and departure. Here’s the general plan:

Friday, October 24: night train to St. Jean Pied de Port (the starting point in the South of France)
Saturday, October 25: spend the day in St. Jean
Sunday, October 26: train to Pamplona
Monday, October 27: train from Pamplona to Leon
Tuesday, October 28: train from Leon to Lugo, bus to Sarria
Wednesday, October 29: we start walking! Sarria to Portomarin
Thursday, October 30: walk from Portomarin to Palas de Rei
Friday, October 31: walk from Palas de Rei to Azura
Saturday, November 1: walk from Azura to Lavacolla
Sunday, November 2: walk from Lavacolla to Santiago (the end of the pilgrimage!)
Monday, November 3: spend the day in Santiago
Tuesday, November 4: fly back to Paris

I hope to return with excellent stories and beautiful pictures!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Nous sommes tous americains

Last night, Vanessa and I went to the American Library of Paris to hear a talk about the upcoming elections. It was between Ted Stanger (an American who has lived in Paris for quite some time, and who writes books in French explaining American politics) and Jean-Marie Colombani (a French journalist whose headline after 9/11, “Nous sommes tous americains”—we are all Americans—became famous). They discussed what seem to be the main issues at stake this year, in the eyes of American voters and in the eyes of the world.

I wrote down a lot of remarks they made, because I thought they revealed so much about the U.S., not in spite of—but because of—the fact that it was being seen from the outside. So here’s a brief overview…

Colombani spoke first and essentially said that he sees Obama as the only choice for Americans, that there will be—from an international point of view—a “before the election of Obama” and an “after the election of Obama” (like two different epochs), and that he seems to be the incarnation of the American Dream.

Ted Stanger began more of the comparative discussion between the US and France in terms of politics and presidents. He suggested that he has perhaps a “truer” view of American politics from the outside. People asked about Obama’s image, and whether that seems to be the driving force of his impact—Stanger’s interesting response was that if someone can run a marvelous campaign in the really challenging context of the American elections, they have something special—and perhaps it’s the same something that can help him successfully run the White House.

We talked about the difference between the 6-month campaigns in France and the 1 1/2 year campaigns in the US, the 85% voter turnout rate in France, versus the much lower US rate, and the fact that the French know more than some Americans do about the election. The recount came up, and it led to a comparison between complicated
US ballots (as if they are asking for errors to be made) and the much more straightforward (easier to count) French ballot. All very interesting. Made me reflect a lot on my role as a voter, which has been different this time around—I’m always checking American headlines to keep myself posted, but I occasionally read the same stuff from the French point of view.

Let’s see…what other interesting things have happened this week…

I have continued my observations at the high school, and am teaching my first English lesson next week. I continue to enjoy my literature courses with Sophie, and I have also started observing English language courses with Lek Sang. She has a very different style of teaching, but it has been valuable to learn from nonetheless. She moves at an incredibly rapid pace, and students are repeating, essentially nonstop, what others have said. It’s not always the most natural way of speaking, but it keeps everyone engaged and on their toes, and everyone’s voice is heard in some sense—which is important in the language classroom. Students in Europe learn British English, so I feel a little awkward about my pronunciation sometimes, and occasionally I encounter some vocabulary that doesn’t exist in the US. But more on that later.

Again, I am teaching my first lesson in her class on Wednesday. Something I love about French education is their emphasis on “authentic documents.” Whereas American classes rely on textbooks—which are thorough, but are someone else’s interpretation of the information—they work from real documents and put together the information for themselves. The English language book, for instance, is filled with excerpts from British/American novels, news articles, advertisements, short stories, memoirs, etc. I am going to teach an excerpt from a John Jakes novel called American Dreams.

As well as observing courses, I have also been taking education courses at the IUFM with other first-year teachers. Where we have our student teaching programs in the US, in France, they have a “stage” where they spend one year as a full-time teacher, but with only one or two classes. So they have their own classes, exclusively under their control, but they do not have a full schedule. It’s a different way of learning the trade, I guess. I spent Thursday in class with English language stagiaires—in other words, French people who are starting to teach English. You’d think they’d have wanted to speak English with me, but no, we spoke exclusively in French all day. That’s another interesting thing about French people—they are linguistically self-conscious. They’d rather speak correctly in French than speak incorrectly in English with a native English speaker. I spent Friday in class with the German stagiaires, who are doing a program like mine. So we essentially discussed what we have seen in our schools and what has been interesting to us. They are really nice, but they often get started speaking in German and then I’m at a loss. If only I knew a few more languages. Sigh.

Friday night was fantastic—I hung out with Vanessa, Marky (another American in our group), and a few French teachers who did the other half of this exchange, and taught in Ohio last year! We had wine and cheese, alternated between speaking in English and speaking in French, and had lots of interesting cultural discussions. They loved their time in the US, and truly seem to miss blueberry pancakes (no lie, so do I).

Saturday morning I observed class (yes, high schools have class on Saturday mornings), which was cool. Jean-Pierre (host father from Angers), Marie, and their friends Brigitte and Francois were in Paris, so we met up in the afternoon! We went to see a museum exhibit connected to a movie called Seraphine, about a woman who works as a housecleaner but has an incredible artistic talent. The man she works for discovers her work and wants to show it to the world—but the whole process is disrupted by the two world wars. She has some mental problems and ends up in a mental hospital, where she stops painting for the rest of her life. The story behind the film is true and we actually saw her works. They were stunning! Now I need to see the film to fully appreciate them.

Speaking of art, I went to a display-type event in Paris with Vanessa, where lots of artists were selling their work. Her host mother from Angers is a sculptor; her work was there and she invited us. There were a lot of really thought-provoking pieces. My favorite was a painting of two young boys. The foreground was bright red, and they were sitting and building houses of cards. Behind them, in a kind of hazy background, were the Twin Towers, the Tower of Babel, and the Tower of Pisa, which was being held up by a small ribbon thumb-tacked to a wall. It was just an incredible reflection of the things that men build, and the way that we see them.

Yesterday was also a really interesting day. Vanessa and I went to the well-known market in Saint-Denis. All the main streets of the town are filled with vendors selling all kinds of food, as well as anything else you can imagine—clothes, jewelry, china, kitchen supplies, etc. We bought some fruits and vegetables, but moreover, just enjoyed the ambiance. The streets are truly bustling, and we found that we couldn’t understand everything the sellers were shouting—because they weren’t always speaking in French. I had mentioned that a lot of minorities live in the banlieues of Paris, and that’s what made this particular market so interesting. Even the types of things that were being sold were more culturally distinct than what you’d find elsewhere in Paris.

Vanessa and I came back and made a delicious lunch with our purchases, and then headed over to the Basilique (Basilica). Saint-Denis is a pretty modern neighborhood, so to have an old basilica with a great deal of history in the center of town is odd. To say it’s anachronistic would be an understatement. It’s where a lot of kings are entombed—which always raises the question, for me, of whether what we’re seeing are really tombs or are memorials. In this case, there were quite a lot of tombs, and we found ourselves a little freaked out from time to time. The oldest ones were from around the 500’s! My mind can’t even process how long ago that was. And something cool about France is that streets and towns are generally named after famous French people, so there’s always an interesting story to discover. In my case, Saint-Denis was a martyr—he had been sent by the pope to Paris to spread Christianity France, and ended up having his head cut off—he supposedly walked, carrying his head (and still preaching, I think?) to reach this Basilique. Hence, the area is called Saint-Denis. It also inspired the name of another area in ParisMontmartre, which means Mount of the Martyr.

Speaking of religious history, we have about 10 days off starting this coming Saturday—and Vanessa and I are going on a pilgrimage in Spain! We are following a medieval route from the south of France to Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain. The whole route typically takes a month, so we are doing the first few cities by train, and walking the last five days’ worth of the path. I have heard that it’s a really cool experience, and a great way to meet a variety of people. So I’ll have to spend this week brushing up on the very basic Spanish phrases I learned last year—and perhaps learning a few more related specifically to walking long distances and staying in pilgrim hostels! I should return with some great stories.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Summary of the last week or so

I guess I will start this much needed update with my last couple of days in Angers. We spent our last Saturday visiting Mont Saint Michel, which is absolutely beautiful. It is essentially a little island of its own, so it is stunning, but I think everything is sinking bit by bit as the years go by, so I know there are issues as to how much money should be set aside to preserve it. I guess it’s a tough question, since there are so many things that money could be devoted to, but it really is a magnificent place.

It was hard to say our goodbyes in Angers, since we felt that we were just getting settled in and comfortable. My friend Vanessa and I had been assigned to the same French conversation partner, an English history/literature student named Estelle. We got along very well, and it would have been great to spend some more time with her before we left! And, of course, I was not ready to say goodbye to Jean-Pierre and Marie, nor to their friends Brigitte and Francois. They all devoted so much time and effort to making my time in Angers valuable, and they increased my confidence in my spoken French by conversing with me often, and about practically everything. I spent my last morning in Angers visiting Brigitte’s preschool, where I watched her teach for a few hours. I was nervous about whether the students and I would be able to understand each other, but it went really well! They were comfortable starting conversations with me, telling me about themselves and what they do at school, as well as asking me about my life. The students in the class range from ages 2-5, so besides the cultural differences I got to observe, I was interested in watching how Brigitte and her classroom aides balanced the class so everyone was engaged and involved. The students are truly fortunate to have Brigitte for a teacher—she is incredibly motivated, organized, and thoughtful. I got lots of hugs and “bises” (kisses) from the kids when I left, and they all gave me pictures that they drew. Such a fantastic way to end my weeks in Angers.

I then arrived in the Paris area, and moved into my apartment in Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis is a banlieue (suburb) situated to the north-east of Paris, but is still on the subway line, so I have relatively easy access to the center of the city. The connotation of "banlieue" is much different from that of "suburb" in English—Parisian banlieues generally have populations made up of poorer, immigrant families, so they are very different from the more well-known areas of Paris. Though it might be easier in terms of transportation to be located more centrally in Paris, I am grateful for the opportunity to have a picture of another urban way of life. And, of course, it’s nice to be living with other international teachers doing similar programs.

I have spent a little time at my IUFM in Creteil (to the south of Paris), but haven’t really started classes yet, so more on that to come. I did begin observing courses in Pablo Picasso high school, where I will eventually teach a bit (located in a banlieue to the east of Paris…I move around a lot). I was placed with two different teachers—Sophie, who teaches French literature, and Lek Sang, who teaches English. So far I have only observed with Sophie, and I have loved it! Sophie teaches students who have struggled with academics, and are given two years to complete their middle year of high school (French high school consists of three years—Seconde, Premiere, and Terminale). Her class is small, only 16 students. The students are pretty polite, a little calmer than some classes I have seen in the US, and consistently have interesting perspectives to share. It certainly helps that Sophie runs the class well—she keeps it laid-back but focused and busy. Something that makes French high school different from American high school is that French students finish their high school studies by taking a big exam, called the Bac, which essentially determines what they can do afterwards (much moreso than the SAT in the US—and it’s more complicated, and covers more subjects). So it’s interesting for me to always hear the Bac being mentioned. When I first arrived, Sophie asked students to kind of fill me in on what they were studying, and she told them to speak to me as if they were in their Bac interview. I didn’t know what this meant at the time, but I came to note that whenever students speak in class, Sophie always discourages them from mumbling and using slang, reminding them that they will be judged by very specific standards for the Bac. Also, the French value their language in a very distinct way, and from what I see, French individuals are expected to be able to shift from casual conversation to a higher diction with ease. Anyway, my first few days at Picasso were interesting; the students and teachers seem cool overall. I will keep you posted on my progress there.

I have generally been trying to take advantage of my access to Paris, as well as the nice weather, by doing some exploring. When I’m on my own, I enjoy walking around near Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter, right along the Seine (top photo). It’s a beautiful area, and there seem to be so many interesting things to see and do. The other day, I turned a corner and found Shakespeare & Co. (bottom photo), a famous English bookstore. I loved browsing through the books; they have a really unique selection of titles. I will definitely be making many a return trip there.

Vanessa (whom I mentioned earlier) lives in Paris--near a statute of a big thumb (top photo)--so she and I have been spending a lot of time together. We have tried some cool restaurants. Notable ones include Pain, Vin, Fromage (Bread, Wine, Cheese), where we had a fondue of chevre (goat cheese), camembert, calvados (apple liqueur), and garlic, as well as La Grain de Folie, a little vegetarian place in the Montmartre district. Walking around the streets of Montmartre, we visited the area around the cathedral of Sacre Coeur (bottom photo), which is beautiful at night.

This weekend, we went to see the gardens of Versailles, where there was a big display--the fountains were on, and were accompanied with music (to which the small boy is pointing). We also went to an art exhibit called Picasso et les Maitres (Picasso and the Masters), which sets pieces of Picasso’s work next to related pieces which influenced him in some way. We were surprised at some of the influences we hadn’t quite expected, like Rembrandt. It was also cool just to be surrounded by artsy Parisians.

So, overall, things have been going well here. Though I’m not quite “in” Paris here in Saint-Denis, I love having endless access to it. I know I’ll never be bored in my time here. There are so many things I have yet to see. Nonetheless, I can’t believe I’ve only been here for a week. I feel like I have done a lot and, surprisingly, I’m getting to know my way around! Hopefully I’ll have some more interesting updates soon.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Change of scenery

Hello all, just writing a quick note to let you know that I have safely returned to the Paris area, where I will be living and studying for the next couple of months. I live in Saint-Denis, which is to the north of Paris. I share an apartment with two Polish students, who are really cool. We spent one of my first nights here having a long discussion about educational and cultural differences between our countries and France. I think we are going to get along really well. There are also four German students who live down the hall, and are participating in a program that seems to intersect a lot with mine. We spent all day yesterday in class together, and it looks like I'll be seeing them somewhat regularly, which is nice. It feels good to be establishing some connections so quickly upon my arrival. I also feel really fortunate to get to spend time with several international students; we will all have to speak French to each other, which is great practice, and the conversations I have already had with them have made me reflect a lot upon my own educational background and what I seek to get out of my experience here.

Anyway, tomorrow I start my observations at the lycée (high school) Pablo Picasso, which I am really looking forward to. I am not sure when I will be able to post again, as the wireless internet in our apartment doesn't work. I am currently using a computer in the IUFM (college of education), with--my favorite--a French keyboard. Hopefully you can look for a longer post from me in the near future.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What is your name?

Our last week of courses in Angers went pretty well; it’s hard to believe how quickly the time has gone by. We leave for our individual placements tomorrow afternoon!

Perhaps one of the most moving experiences we have had in Angers was going into the classrooms of a couple of nearby middle schools this week. We were taken to schools which are classified as ZEP (essentially, areas where education has become a priority because the schools are struggling—many of the students tend to come from poorer immigrant families).

On Tuesday, I watched a few English classes in Jean Lurcat middle school. The students were all about 11 years old, so what we observed was much more about classroom management than about the teaching of English. Teaching any foreign language in a ZEP school is challenging, not only because classroom management is notoriously more difficult, but also because French is not the first language for many of the students. Just as ESL students in the US struggle to learn all of their disciplines in a language they have not yet mastered, so do their French equivalents—known as FLE students. This puts all the students on quite uneven footing and complicates the classroom dynamic.

As it is impossible to generalize about an American classroom, it is impossible to generalize about a French classroom, but this one did showcase some of the classroom practices which had been described to me as somewhat “common” or at least “accepted” in France. The students could not enter the classroom without the teacher telling them to do so. Nor could they sit, take out their books, or start writing. It is/was more common in France to find classes in which teachers lectured the entire time; reflecting that idea of the teacher's role is the little podium in the front of many classrooms, where teachers stood and spoke. This teacher in particular was a lot more engaging and moved around much more than that, but the strict classroom structure was there nonetheless, and he did seem to expect to have more control over the students.

What was strange for us in Jean Lurcat was the reaction of the students to our presence. I guess I tend to think that a lot of people travel to France, so an American/Anglophone individual should not be that striking. Apparently, I had somewhat underestimated the situation. The students were absolutely fascinated to be sitting right next to Americans, and they used just about every English phrase they knew to try to speak to us. In one class, a little boy next to me turned and said very quickly, “My name is…what is your name?” (clearly reciting something that had been practiced in an earlier lesson), so I replied “My name is Christine,” and he looked absolutely floored that I had understood him and replied. And I guess it’s true anywhere that young students learning a foreign language have a hard time comprehending that it really is spoken somewhere, that it is someone else’s first language. After “what is your name?” I think the most common questions were “you New York?” and “do you know Zac Efron?” (to which one of my friends replied affirmatively). In one of his more advanced classes, the teacher tried to use the students’ excitement in a structured way to have them form whatever questions they could ask us. We also did a little pronunciation activity with them. Overall, the experience at Jean Lurcat was fine. The teacher was really nice and was quite honest with us about the problems facing the students and staff at the school.

On Thursday, I went to another ZEP middle school, called Montaigne. I knew the day would be different from the moment we arrived. They had arranged for some of their strongest English students to give us tours of the school, both to welcome us and give the students an opportunity to converse with native speakers. My friend Therese and I were taken on a tour by a boy named Samuel, who speaks English quite well, and also studies Spanish and Latin. He told us about the school and we asked him lots of questions about his life to get him communicating extemporaneously, which he handled really well. Afterwards, we watched two Spanish classes with one of the best language teachers I have ever seen. The students in the class seemed to be around 13 years old, and it was their second year of studying Spanish. Nonetheless, the teacher conducted the entire class in rapid-fire Spanish, filling in only more complicated directions and concepts in French. She expected the students to speak to her almost exclusively in Spanish, which is surprisingly rare among language teachers (at least in the US). I don’t know any Spanish, but I felt like I actually learned a bit during the course of the class. I learned more, however, about how to run a language classroom.

In the teaching of any language, it’s certainly important for the students to speak, though it is then harder to monitor their behavior. The teacher at Jean Lurcat had sacrificed opportunities to let the students speak comfortably in order to maintain control, whereas the teacher at Montaigne successfully blended her role as teacher with her role as facilitator of conversation. It involved using a great deal of energy and personality, but she had a more successful lesson and fewer "classroom management issues" to address. My whole experience at Montaigne reinforced what I already knew about the importance of a teacher’s attitude and expectations. Having seen two schools in somewhat similar situations, but with very different approaches to education, I realized that attitude often does determine reality, rather than the other way around. Montaigne felt like a more welcoming, safer place. It’s no coincidence that the school that wanted to make the most of our visit by providing us with student guides was also the school with brightly colored walls, artwork, and places for the students to hang out—decorated by the students. It was a great experience for us—really encouraging and empowering, as we consider and reconsider the roles of teachers in different communities.