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.

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