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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When in Doubt, Ask a Frenchman

There are two ways of approaching setting up life in France: in the suave, confident,”I can definitely do this” manner or in the panicked “I’m not a native speaker! AAA!” manner. I try to lean towards the former and suppress the latter in theory. However, I usually end up somewhere in the middle while clutching the shoulder strap of my purse as if it’s my lifesaver in a sea of native speakers. Much to my relief, I’m finding as I continue to run my errands that if I ask a French person for help (in person, not over email) albeit directions or just because I don’t understand something, they are more than happy to help though they may give me a “Aw, she’s so cute trying to speak my language” look while they’re helping me. They’ll even suggest changes to how I phrase my sentences too. True story.

Two weeks ago, I thought I could open a bank account in one afternoon.

*insert laugh reel*

This definitely turned out to be a harder task than I thought it would be. The accountant was very professional and seemed rather pleased to be helping an American. He even told me that he really liked my passport which is saying a lot because my passport photo looks, frankly, terrible. My visa photo isn’t much better as from what my younger brother stated while laughing, I look like a Russian Orthodox saint complete with a halo. Anyway, the accountant proceeded to list off everything he would need to complete opening the account. I had everything except one thing, a proof of residency. This situation dragged on for a while since my landlady is often gone for work, and he wasn’t incredibly clear on everything he needed to prove I live here (or maybe I missed something in my jet lagged frame of mind). Although I was frustrated not to get my errand done in a timely fashion, I was impressed by his willingness throughout the entire initial interview to stop and explain something if I didn’t understand since my bank and tax form vocab in French isn’t the greatest. Let’s just say that he had quite a bit more patience than I’ve seen exhibited by some Americans in talking to someone with a foreign accent.

Today, after a couple of weeks of ongoing paperwork frustrations, I finally received this which was music to my ears:

Bonjour,

j’ai bien réceptionné la facture. Je la transmets dès aujourd’hui à notre service pour qu’il puisse valider votre ouverture de compte.

Basically, he’s got everything he needs and will work on finishing up opening my account. Thank you, Lord!

March 2009 038

One of the hallways at the school or rather it’s one that leads to another hallway in another building with a random letter. The veteran teachers tell me not to feel bad since they still get lost themselves.

This unfortunately was just the first episode of ongoing paperwork woes. I’m still dealing with a health insurance “missing document” problem. I’m too tired to deal with it until Monday. Then, this week I was met with the onslaught of information on my actual teaching schedule complete with two orientations for separate departmental classes I’m teaching. I was told this morning that part of my job on Monday will be to explain to the students how their classes work. I looked at the professor rather wide-eyed and asked if she could explain to me how their classes work because I have no clue. She did the best she could, but I still fell a little like I’ve been thrown in a pond and told to swim but there’s no shore in sight, and I’m pretty sure that the life jacket they threw is only usable if I filled out Blue Form A2 before being tossed into said pond.

I also finally discovered my institutional email inbox only to find a host of emails and at least two claiming that there are more forms for me to hurry and fill out. Seems not too surprising that the school itself is a bit of labyrinth.

My Teaching Schedule....Yikes!

My Teaching Schedule….Yikes!

All that aside though, I’ve been so thankful for the teachers and secretaries who have done all they can to try to make this whole transition as smooth as possible. I was in a little bit of a panic yesterday after our instructors’ meeting because I’ve been handed a total of nine (yes, nine! EEEK!) classes to teach with no clue where to start. However, two teachers have willingly shown me around, showed me how to set up my laptop in the classroom, offered to give me their lesson plans from last year, and even took up some of their lunch break just to make sure I had an idea of where to start. I’m meeting with one of them next week to ask more questions and get some lesson plans, and I’m brainstorming with another one over email this weekend on what to teach in one of the levels both of us have.

Oh, and *ding ding* (like the tram), I have a bus/tram card as of this afternoon! Woohoo! No more one trip tickets for me! That is one big thing off of my big to-do list.

Maybe it’s not as calm as I would like, and maybe I feel like I’m a little lost, but as one of the professors told me after I told her that I felt like my mind was exploding with all this information: “Don’t worry, you’ll find your way! You’ll be fine.” I know I will, I just need some time to process, plan, and rest. Maybe I’ll just go back and gaze at this view this weekend. It’s quite a calming view indeed! Oh, France, how can you be so beautiful and yet so incredibly stressful at the same time? 😉

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From the Pen of a TA

I’m what you call a TA (Teaching Assistant), and in my case at least, I’m actually more teacher than assistant, but that’s a little beside the point. As I sit sipping my coffee and munching on some homemade caramel candy relaxing after finishing my finals before I go proctor one tomorrow, thought I’d just drop a little note to the undergrads out there. This is meant to be positive, so just pull up a chair and a cup of coffee, and let’s have a chat.

Letter Writing

Dear Undergrad,

There exists in the word of Academia a special sort of “inbetweens”. We’re not exactly like the Tributes in Hunger Games or the kids trying to make it into a faction in the Divergence series, yet there are some similarities. I mean, if we don’t get our names out there in print and succeed in some avenue of research, we’re pretty well “factionless” and “dead” academically (cannon not included). We’re called “graduate students”, and, you, dear Undergrad, most likely will, at some point, end up in a class with one of us at the board with our handy PowerPoints and chalkboard diagram drawing abilities or lack thereof (seriously, why do we still even have those in college?).  

Here’s a few things to keep in mind…

Despite what you might think, we are, in fact, human and not just robots repeating information that has been passed to us from on high…uh, well,…*cough* I mean, we are allowed some amount of creativity,..

In any case, a good many of us were in your shoes not that long ago, thus we understand often more than we let on what it’s like being in your shoes. This can be an advantage for you, especially if you need help understanding a concept or are running into difficulties. Obviously, this understanding will only go so far, so please don’t ask to leave my class 20 minutes early to get to an exam in another class just because I’m an “understanding TA”. Not impressed over here.

However, on that note, students don’t ask for help nearly as much in person as they should. I say “in person” because I get way too many emails with questions that could be answered better in person or by looking at the syllabus. Time in class is limited, so I can’t always explain something as thoroughly as I would like, but I can often help you understand better if you come see me in office hours. Besides, if you come to my office hours, I can pull out my scratch paper and colorful pens and write out examples or draw pictures or whatever I need to do to hopefully get the light bulb to come on! {Emphasis on colorful pens} The trouble is, my office door is usually open during my office and tutoring hours with students very rarely coming by for help. Take advantage of those office hours that any of your teachers offer. We’re one of your most valuable resources in college! I can also write better recommendation letters if I know you better as a student! Yes, we write those too. See, we’re not robots. Just do us a favor and don’t wait until the last minute to come see us…

TAs and students comic

Secondly, we’re teachers, students, and researchers all at the same time. So, we often feel stretched thin as we juggle our own work and also teach. In my case, I love teaching but I have to admit biting my tongue on a stressful day when a student asks when I’ll have tests, quizzes,Scrat writing assignments, etc graded when students have just turned something in the day before. Most likely, I spent a good portion of the night before getting caught up on my own homework and research and still have the stack sitting on my desk waiting to be graded. Don’t worry! I’ll get it back to you! Just first allow me to go eat my quota of cookies, find a good cup of coffee, maybe get a little sleep, and then I should be able to get your papers graded. 

Thirdly, most of us are still pretty young (probably the age of your older sibling), so we have a lot of enthusiasm and energy especially if we’re teaching something we love. So, please bear with us if we run down a rabbit trail because you just asked a question that related to a class discussion, article, and/or research that we’ve lately been delving into. I’ll usually stop when I look at the class after going through some long explanation on the board, and everyone is giving me the “Why did we even ask?” look. This is good too though because we love our field so much we want you to love it with us, so please do ask questions! 

We’re future professors (hopefully). You’re invaluable to us because we’re learning from you as we continue learning how to teach. Yes, we’ll be doing research in most of our future career, but we’ll also be spending quite a bit of time in front of a class and/or helping train others to teach. I feel so proud (in a good way) and happy every time I run into former students. I love to hear about your triumphs and where your studies are taking you (even if it’s not to France). Every grad student is different, and there’s quite a wide spectrum in approaches to teaching, but I’ll always remember the help a grad student teacher gave me as I struggled in a class. I passed that class with flying colors mainly because he was willing to help. 

As a former undergrad, I wish you all the best and hope that you find some time to relax over the break. If you ever continue into to grad school, you’ll be happy that you did take those breaks to relax, believe me.

Sincerely,

A Tired T.A. in Need of Sustenance (as usual)

When 8am becomes doable

I’ll be the first to admit to not being a morning person! That doesn’t mean I’m a big grumpy person when I get up, but I’m…what’s the adjective? Yeah, just ask little bruva (my affectionate term for little brother) on this one. Let’s say, I’m conversational to the point of answering yes/no questions and very simple questions that require one to three words. Give me some coffee and I’m ready for the day…usually.

Needless to say, I was just a little surprised when I was handed the 8am 5 days a week beginner’s French class to teach this semester. Okay, I did half expect it would happen since I’m one of the new graduate instructors in the department since they don’t let you teach until you’ve completed a couple of semesters. So, I smiled and decided to treat it as another adventure.

Orientation came and went, and I was sitting in my room the night before my first class wondering how this would go. I did student teaching, yes, but this would be different. These students would be basically reviewing everything they had ever learned in two years of high school French in one semester. They’d be looking at me (a kid about the same age if not younger than them) expecting me to teach them everything they need to know when it comes to learning and speaking French on a beginning level.

It’s a little daunting. I had the feeling of dread and excitement rolled into one.

How would I survive the week? The day? The 50 minutes? What would I do if they asked me questions I don’t know? What would they think if I made a mistake? How can I be fair? How can I seem organized?How can I be effective? How do I make the class fun?

All at 8AM!!!

I woke up early the morning of the first day and made two extra strong cups of coffee, ate breakfast, got dressed, took a deep breath, and walked out the door. “Whew! Here we go! ” I thought.

I found my room and about 15 kids were already waiting to go in. I was a little shocked. I was 15 minutes early!! I sat down in the chair at the front of the room and started trying to get things set up, but my computer wouldn’t turn on! O_O My new laptop was apparently having as many jitters as I was. I was trying not to show my frustration at having technical issues. In a squeaky voice I made of funny comment about how I hoped everyone showing up at 7:45 for a 8 am class would become a habit which got a few chuckles.

I kept staring at my screen which said it was now running diagnostics and decided that using the computer wasn’t meant to happen. I felt all eyes on me as I continued to wait for the minutes to pass before going over the syllabus right at 8am. I kept giving a reassuring smile to the students and right as 8:00 on the dot, I handed out the syllabus. I had the students introduce themselves and make name tags followed by an in depth look at the syllabus.

I didn’t really start having fun until with the last 10 minutes when I got them to practice basic greetings in French. The students started getting excited when they understood things and I tried to be as encouraging as possible to get them to try to pronounce the foreign words. Well, “Bonjour!” isn’t quite foreign, but saying it correctly can be a little difficult. They seemed to enjoy it, and I let them out about 3 minutes early.

I survived that first day and the first week. Each day seemed to teach me about what was working and not working as I taught. I found out what happens when you don’t plan very well. I found out what happens when I’m not organized, and yes, what happens when I don’t drink enough coffee. I’m still finding out that I need to change my strategy. I’m not reaching students like I need to in order to make sure they understand.

There’s something sort of scarily addicting about teaching, I’ve found. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not nervous to walk into that classroom and set up to teach the lesson for that day.  Yet, as soon as I walk in that door, I can hardly wait to get started and start seeing those light bulbs come on as students are able to understand and pick up what I’m trying to teach. Well, at least, I hope to see the light bulbs come on. One day, I looked around the classroom to a stare of absolute confusion and yes, there were even a couple of horrified looks. I stopped and started backing up and slowing down trying to see where the problem was. It turned out the problem was sort of the whole lesson… Damage control was necessary the next day, but we got over the hurdle and moved on.

So, when did 8am become doable?

It became doable not just because it’s my job. I get paid for this…eventually. But, more than that, I have these next few months to try to help students love French as much as I do. Sure, perhaps they won’t love it as much as I do, but at the very least I can give them the tools to start off with learning French and hopefully they’ll enjoy it too. As one of the professors said in our French division meeting, “The future of our program relies on you the graduate assistants teaching these lower levels. You are the ones who will inspire students to continue in the program.” I hope I can have that impact.

For now, it’s the continuing process of learning, trying something else, trying to do better, and oh, yeah, keeping up with those grad classes I’m also taking. It’s going to be interesting trying to balance all this. I often want to just plan lessons and activities and not have to pick up that book I need to read for the next class.

As I’m looking at the clock right now, I believe it’s time to finish preparing for tomorrow and call it a night. I’m overcoming the speech problem gradually in the morning, but it does seem to require a sufficient amount of sleep, I’ve found.

Until next time…

Naam wa La (Yes and No)

Means "Arabic" in Arabic

I was sitting in Arabic class Friday trying to figure out how to describe in Arabic a picture of King Kong hugging the Empire State building for an exam question… 

Needless to say, it wasn’t going that well. Let’s see with my limited vocabulary, I could say that I like that tall building. The weather looks like winter. I like Manhattan? Never been there, so I really don’t know if I do or not. I was expecting something a little easier to describe with my very, very limited vocab. Come on, give me a picture of a beach and I could at least tell you that I like sunny weather or that the season is summer! I couldn’t even remember the word for gorilla…

This past week has definitely been one that has felt much like a monster climbing and howling all over the mountain of my life known as  “graduate school”. The coffee container is nearing empty too which is never a good sign. I’m having to dig around to find some old flavored coffee and beans to grind. Yes, it’s been a week!

Recently, I was in a professor’s office discussing in French what to write for a paper for one of his classes. I told him that I was stressed. He looked like he felt sorry for me and asked why. I told him how Arabic was so difficult. He grew up speaking Arabic, so he asked to see my book. I handed it to him and he started flipping through the pages where I had done some practice. He told me that I seemed to be doing very well. He then handed me the book back and looked me in the eye. He told me that I shouldn’t quit trying and asked me if I knew why. I shook my head. “Because this is an important language. It has a future in the U.S. It doesn’t matter what job you get, this will be a good card to have in your hand, my friend. You’ll do fine.” He smiled and told me about how he was trying to teach himself Spanish too, so he could understand how hard it can be.

I know it wasn’t much, but it did help me feel a little better. I often feel like I’m on a spinning merry-go-round juggling balls and trying to keep from flying off. The only trouble is that I’ve started dropping balls (aka forgetting things that are due and appointments) and sometimes feel like I am indeed going to fly off this spinning insanity into an abyss where exhausted grad students go and never come back.

But, I’ll not get too pessimistic…

Yes, my schedule is packed! To top things I keep adding to it not really thinking how it’s going to get done…

Yes, I’m usually stressed out and exhausted! However, I’m learning so much. Although Arabic is hard, I’m learning a lot more about what it’s like to be a student sitting in a language class feeling completely lost. French always came fairly easy to me although it’s not always easy either. I was usually the nerdy one sitting in my undergrad French classes, and now I’m the struggling one in Arabic. I’m definitely learning quite a lesson in empathy as a future teacher because I don’t have to try to pretend to know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, I AM in their shoes.

I’m trying to keep a good outlook even if I do come back to my abode feeling pathetic sometimes. My younger brother made the following suggestion as a remedy for my stress when I mentioned how stressed I was:

I think I might print one out to place in our graduate student office in our building…

I told him how much I appreciated his suggestion, but in order to keep from getting a headache, I figure I’ll stick to my three favorite stress relievers right now:

Sleep

Sleep

Coffee

Friends

In the meantime, I really better get busy on that presentation for this week. And, then there’s that commitment, and that abstract, and that meeting…

I better start brewing another cup of coffee!

Good Ole Professors…

I just wanted to give a little recognition to one of those good professors since one generally only hears about the bad ones…

As I was on campus this morning picking up a couple of books and taking my now clean small coffee pot back to my cubicle, I ran into one of my former professors. I have to say, on my Top 10 List of favorite profs, he was quite close to #1. It was dear old Dr. Carlson…

He was my history professor from my first semester at Tech. He taught the first American history class from the beginning of the nation to 1877. He’d been teaching at Tech since probably the 60’s and was one of those older type professors. His style of teaching was interesting, he just came to the front of the lecture hall of 400 students and stood at the podium and told the story of America. No powerpoints and only occasionally did he write on the board. He loved Andrew Jackson too, so at one point he even tried to reenact a dual that Jackson had which was thoroughly entertaining. I just really liked his class even if it was probably more difficult than average.

As a shy freshman, I went to his office out of the blue one day just to say hi and let him know I was in his class. He was shocked that I came, and then we started a long conversation about history. I stopped by his office a couple more times that semester to get some questions answered. From then on, we had a good student-teacher relationship. If we ever happened to see each other on campus after that semester, he always wanted to know how things were going and what year I was. He was a very kind and considerate teacher.

Today was no different.

After I had heard that he’d retired and was pretty much only a consultant, I didn’t think I would see him anymore on campus. I did let him know when I graduated and he sent back a sweet email and told me about the books he was publishing. Today he was walking with a colleague of his and seemed quite happy to see me. He teased me about how I should have gotten a minor in history and hoped that things would go well with my French M.A.

It absolutely made my day, and I hope that if I ever become a teacher either in a high school or maybe a college, that I can have as good of an effect on a student as he has had on me.