Reflections from a Lectrice d’Anglais

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It feels rather strange to be working on wrapping up these classes I’ve been teaching since last fall.

I’m definitely going to miss my class full of sci-fi/LOTR fans. Never can tell where class discussion is going to go and my yes, do they have some pretty strong opinions. On an exam last fall for bonus points I gave them sentences to put into passive voice. One of the sentences was “Frodo destroyed the ring.” One of my students crossed out Frodo and put Gollum before putting it into passive voice. This may or may not have been the same student who spoke for the rest of class in a Gollum voice after I showed the Air New Zealand Flight Safety video with LOTR characters a few weeks ago during our travel unit.

I can’t say it’s all gone smoothly teaching here, but it’s definitely been a learning experience on multiple levels.

What’s it been like teaching English in France?

Different. Very different. Naturally, I knew it wouldn’t be the same as what I’ve been used to. My entire teaching career up to this point has been focused on teaching students French. Now, for the last 8 months I’ve been standing up in front of a classroom to teach English, my native language, and it is even more of a challenge than I fully realized it would be.

100_3968 - CopyI’ve sometimes felt like throwing up my hands because I feel like there’s an overall lack of
organization in the university system (welcome to France, Stace). Throwing me 8 or 9 classes and telling me to do whatever I want with little clue as to what my students have done previously absolutely overwhelmed me starting out. I was so very thankful for a couple of teachers who shared their lessons with me and gave me an idea of how to teach these classes. It’s been pretty rocky, but I think if I were to do this another year, it would go somewhat smoother.

What was one of the biggest differences?

The students.

Of course, it does make sense that French students would not be the same as the American students I’m used to teaching. However, I was not prepared for the discipline problems I ran into those first few weeks. After I established rules and they got used to my rules and the consequences, things did start to go smoother though I did often feel like I was teaching high school all over again. Alhough I don’t think I would ever have heard myself saying “Arthur and Clément, please put that flask away. I want you happy in this class and ready to talk but not quite *that* happy!” in either a high school or a university in the U.S. Yes, that really did happen!

What I did love about my French students was that I could talk more freely with them without worrying so much about someone getting easily offended. In my conversation classes especially we talked about so many different things and everyone felt free to voice an opinion. Although we always had a theme for the week, I really wanted them to take the conversation where they wanted it to go. They were much more likely to get into lively conversations even debates if it was about something that interested them. You should have heard one of our book discussions the other day. 😉

It was a joy to me as a teacher to see many of my students blossom. They often wowed me with their presentations. Two of the guys pretended to be sports anchors for several minutes and then had the class do a game show quiz on sports news in Europe and U.S. Or, I had another student who had the entire class involved in a game show over different anglophone accents. I’ve had students who got up in front of the class and started off nervous but as they continued, gained confidence and were able to get the class involved in discussing their topic.

Sure, I’ve had more lessons than I want to count fall flat and there were plenty of times when I just about wore myself out trying to get these kids to talk. I have also had plenty of times I left the university after a long day nearly in tears because I wanted so badly to go home as things went just that horribly with classes. I remember at one particular low point another teacher seeing how discouraged I was, sweetly told me that I was here to touch lives and that somehow or other all these other difficulties I was going through would work out. I call that a turning point because it took the focus off of myself and put it back onto others where it should have been. I’m thankful now to look back and see the strength the Lord gave me on those tough days and smile about the good times I’ve had in class. Yes, I’m also really going to miss a lot of these kids I’ve gotten to know.

The students did also pick up on my great enjoyment of coffee….

100_3965One time I intended to write on the board for students to be sure to print a copy of a worksheet to bring to class and went along giving them instructions. I was interrupted by giggles and students pointing at the board saying “Uh, Miss? Miss! *hahahaha* Print a coffee!?” Yes, it’s rather obvious where my mind was at that time. They kindly suggested I go find myself one as they walked out of the classroom. Later that same day, two students in another class were doing a partner oral exam and decided to impersonate me interviewing for a job in an espresso company. That absolutely cracked me up, and “I” apparently got the job….Woohoo!

As much of a learning and often stressful experience this has been, there are some unique things about these students that I have enjoyed uncovering. They love to tell me about their culture and about things I need to try while I’m here. Often if class discussion was lagging, I’d ask them questions about France. Conversely, you should see how excited and curious a lot of them are when I tell them about my life back in the States. Sometimes they come up to me after class to ask questions like “Do you prefer our coffee here or the coffee in the States?” “What kind of an accent do you have?” “Where did you learn how to teach?” “What does a Texan accent sound like?” “Do you really know cowboys?” We also have laughs when there’s a complete breakdown in communication in the classroom. This is usually when they mispronounce something, and I can’t figure out what they’re trying to say, so they try in French which depending on what it is might still not work. An impromptu game of charades then begins often ending in laughs.

I have many, many stories to tell, but for now I’m content, relieved, and maybe just a little sad that the semester is almost over! What an adventure it’s been!

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Of Teaching, Tartelette Consumption, and Topics of Conversation: Just another Week at the University

It feels a little strange to be working on preparation for what will be week 4 in some of my classes and week 5 in others. I’ve been teaching for nearly five weeks in a French university! o.O Those first couple of weeks of trying to figure out this entirely different system while balancing ongoing paperwork required quite a few trips to the coffee machine and maybe a few too many pastries. I often felt like I was caught in a never-ending Monty Python skit that had been hijacked by the Barnacles from Dickens’ circumlocution office. Thankfully, things have calmed down considerably. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, I have calmed down considerably. This doesn’t mean every problem has been solved, I just don’t see the point in continuing to worry about it.The exception being the ongoing back and forth with the bank, but that’s been my ongoing saga since my arrival.

So much tends to happen in one week, I thought it would be fun to just give you a few quick glimpses to try to illustrate what it’s like at the university.

Finding a new teaching weapon

The University

The University

One thing that has slightly shocked and greatly annoyed me about teaching in France has been the unceasing chatter of students when I’m teaching. This is frustrating because I know they are going to be lost when they start the activities I’m explaining and also because it is very distracting for me trying to teach. I haven’t had to deal with this sort of problem since my days of student teaching in a high school. I was chatting about this challenge over lunch with a couple of my friends last Sunday. They explained that it seems to be a cultural thing with the French as far as they could tell. However, they gave me some excellent advice to be sure to breathe from my diaphragm when I have to raise my voice in order to not only create more volume but also to keep from straining my voice. I should have remembered this from my days of being in choir, but it had absolutely slipped my mind. So, Monday morning, I strode into class and decided I would try it to see if it would make any difference as the class was chattering away all at once. I took a deep breath from my diaphragm and raised my voice to say “Okay, class is starting. I need everyone’s attention up front.”  My voice echoed all over the room leaving the students quiet and slightly stunned that my voice could carry like that. A mischievous grin went across my face at my new found weapon. 😉 That in addition to reviewing rules with my super talkative classes seems to have helped the problem. I fear that this may be an ongoing battle with teaching and do have some theories as to why this is more of a problem here than in the U.S., but that’s a commentary for another post.

Impromptu Discussions at the Copy Machine

I have a rather hectic Wednesday. It’s incredibly long and by the end of it I’m usually speaking in completely ungrammatical English while sipping tension tamer tea and promising myself never to complain again about teaching two sections of French at Purdue. I’m not the only one with a long Wednesday though. A few of us end classes around the same time and seem to all end up at the copy machine in the faculty lounge to make copies of our attendance sheets. Fatigue is usually written all over our faces as we’ve reached the rather hilarious state of exhaustion when almost anything is funny and the topics of conversation can become rather random. This Wednesday’s impromptu copy machine meeting began with one teacher venting about the struggles of trying to get students to participate followed by another teacher entering the room to ask for some help on how to explain the difference in meaning between present simple and present continuous. We mulled of “She isn’t wanting to eat” and “She doesn’t want to eat” for quite some time as we went through all of the possible scenarios when one might use one versus the other. We didn’t exactly arrive at a solid conclusion other than that using “doesn’t” makes more sense. Somehow in our floating from topic to topic, we began discussing U.S. geography and quizzing each other on the states and capitals. At one point as three of us were stumped on the capital of Vermont, we realized how late it was getting and decided to call it a night. There was quite a feeling of camaraderie as we walked to the tram stop laughing at various things and discussing our future aspirations. We’re all here only for a year or two just passing through. Yet, providentially, we’re all here together at this time to teach French students English. And yes, the capital of Vermont in Montpelier. It’s ingrained in my memory now. 😉 As tiring a day as it was, it was refreshing to get to chat with others in the same boat.

Pot de rentrée

What a tartelette framboise looks like although the ones at this luncheon were much smaller than this one with only one or two raspberries

What a tartelette framboise looks like although the ones at this luncheon were much smaller than this one with only one or two raspberries

The above statement refers to a welcoming meeting around a table of hors d’oeuvres within a department at the beginning of a new year. This meeting began with a warm welcome to the new staff as well as a farewell to a couple of people who are retiring. It was a great opportunity to meet and chat with several of my new colleagues.I wish I had taken a picture of the spread on the table! The French definitely know how to do hors d’oeuvres! It was rather different from what I am used to though because everyone just stood around the table and picked up and ate what they wanted from the platters as they chatted. I have to confess that I was starving due to not having had time to go to the store to restock on food in the apartment, so I was as politely as possible stuffing my face and only chatting if someone walked up to chat. Everyone seemed to be congregating on one side of the room, and as I noticed an untouched platter of pastries on the other side, I made my way over to inspect the platter for non-chocolate options. I was mid tartelette framboise when a gentleman walked up and asked me where I was from and after I answered, he urged me to try the wine after noticing my cup of coffee. I remarked that I was happy with my coffee. He then insisted that I couldn’t possibly experience the French culture if I didn’t drink wine. I responded that I didn’t drink alcohol and loved coffee and expected the conversation to move along. Being French, this was too good of an opportunity for him to pass up and thus followed a rather lengthy discussion involving a subtle accusation that I was being Pharisaical in my refusal to drink. At least I could tell he was mainly teasing due to the twinkle in his eye and mischievous grin on his face. He was having quite a bit of fun at my expense that was obvious. I really think it was a ploy to distract me from the pastries as quite a few began disappearing as I discussed my point of view. Upon remembering a meeting he was supposed be at, he left suddenly leaving me to continue contentedly sipping my coffee. I was eyeing one of the few tartelettes framboises left on the platter when one of my French friends who had been listening to the conversation leaned over and assured me that I could indeed experience the French culture without drinking wine as she rarely drinks. I laughed and told her that I was glad to receive the affirmation. I’d rather experience the culture soberly, let me assure you. I decided to grab another cup of coffee as I headed back to my office just for good measure. It was indeed a warm welcome, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet some new people even if I can’t remember all of their names.

There were some other neat things that happened this week which are in the midst of becoming blog posts but haven’t quite made it past the mental editing stage. A follow up post on the continuing topic of funny little things in the French culture is also in the works. I’m looking forward to continuing to share my ongoing impressions and experiences from my adventures living among the French!