Thursday, December 4, 2008

Adventures in Teaching

Well, is it about time that I updated this thing, or what?? Unfortunately, the internet connection in my apartment was more of a myth than a reality until very recently, and that made me particularly lazy about getting stuff posted. But, I finally got hooked up, so here we are!

OK, I think the first subject to tackle is my teaching. As I described before, I have two sets of students, most easily differentiated as “Beginners” and “Advanced”. To be honest, I’ve really hardly taught them at all due to the school vacation in October/November, but I have had some good (and not so good) experiences I can relate.

So, the first students I met were the advanced ones. It was the day before my orientation, and I honestly wasn’t expecting to have to meet them until the following week. It was all a bit of a surprise for me, but I had no choice but to roll with the punches because the other teacher is, in fact, the head of the whole program (Mr. Duchet). Actually, I didn’t need to prepare anything for them; it was just a chance for me to meet them and observe Mr. Duchet in action.

OK…“in action” might be a bit of a stretch for the elderly Mr. Duchet. He should, by all rights, be retired. Why he’s still working is beyond me (and most others), but oh well! So, I showed up 10 minutes early for class. At first, only 3 students were there. Eventually, Mr. Duchet showed up 5 minutes late for class. Still just 3 students. Mr. Duchet showed me the new computer lab setup where we’ll be taking turns working with the students. (It’s very cool, actually…each student has a computer equipped with an enormous pair of airplane pilot headphones that have a mic attached. The teacher has a computer that he/she can use to monitor what each student is doing and communicate with them via microphone. Cool.) Mr. Duchet had no real idea how to use these new computers as it was the first day of class, so it was lucky that my tech-savvy ass was there to figure it out for him.

Eventually, after about 15 minutes, the rest of the students showed up. Turns out they had a class immediately prior and they aren’t given a passing time to get to the next class. Once they got in there, I was made to stand up and present myself. I was pretty nervous about this, but it turns out that they were very friendly and seemed to take to me right away. I made them laugh…whew!

So, I hung out and watched how Mr. Duchet handled class. He had a copy of the T.S. Eliot poem (the title of which I can never remember) upon which the musical “Cats” is based. Now, Mr. Duchet has an incredibly thick British accent. I would never think that he was French, actually. He sounds like he’s from Bristol or something. So, he’s got this Shakespearean actor thing going on as he reads the poem for them as an example. The only problem was that he would start out each line very loud and strong and then, by the end of it, his voice would be nothing but a quiet mumble. How the students understood him, I have no idea; it was a struggle for me!

Another thing about Mr. Duchet is that he constantly talks to the students in French, which led to him speaking constantly to me in French. Naturally, I could only understand him about 45% of the time. Needless to say, I found myself doing a lot of head nodding and saying, “Uhh…oui!” without having any idea what I had agreed to. I had assumed that, like in my French classes in America, the teacher would speak to the students exclusively in English. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point? But no, not here! So, this will remain an issue for me, I’m sure.

The funny thing is that by the time I had the second lab class with these students and Mr. Duchet, I had had them by myself for the casual Tuesday morning class, and I mentioned to them that I could rarely understand Mr. Duchet. So, during the second lab class, whenever Mr. Duchet talked to me in French, they would all crack up as I nodded and kept saying “Oui!”. Then, after we split the class and I took my half to another classroom, I had them translate what Mr. Duchet had been rambling on about. Very amusing.

I really love these students. They’re so much fun to teach because they’re almost fluent (so I don’t really have to “grade” my language with them) and they’re studying for an incredibly hard exam in order to become English teachers, so they’re quite motivated to learn. Excellent combo! Plus, they’re very nice people, too. Several volunteered to call the asshole internet company here on my behalf. A girl named Alice has been especially helpful, calling places for me and even translating my birth certificate into French!

I particularly enjoy the Tuesday morning class with these students. One week, I brought in an article from the International Herald Tribune about an alternative fuel road race in Berkeley, California. We read the article together, then I broke them up into three teams and had them design an alternative fuel vehicle of their own, which they would then present to the class. They worked really hard on it, with lots of debate on the design and drawing of the vehicle, and the results were hilarious. One of the cars ran on “flower petals, perfume, and horse or camel shit”. This was presented by the team of dainty girls, so it was particularly amusing. I saved all of their drawings because they were so great.

Just before the Toussaints school break at the end of October, they had a class outing to a local Irish pub, and they invited me to come with them. What a great time! I think they were a bit surprised when I showed up with my hair down (for the first time) and makeup on, but they quickly recovered themselves and we set about the very important business of getting schnockered.

The best part about that night, aside from it being my first night on the town since I got here, was that they taught me quite a few naughty (but oh-so-useful) French phrases that you just never learn in school. Among these were several ways of saying “I’m drunk”, “I’ve got a hangover” (my favorite of those is “Je suis dans le paté” which means “I’m in the paté”, paté being a fancy type of processed meat mixture, of course), and naturally, many variations on “Fuck you” and how to call someone a bitch or bastard. Here are a couple good ones–bitch: “poufiasse” which sounds like “poofy ass”; blonde bitch: “blondasse”; bastard: “con”. Alice wrote them all down for me so that I could study later (when I would have a better chance of remembering them). Oh, another good one! For something very expensive: “ça coute la peau de cul!” (It costs the skin of an ass!) And something that’s cheesy: “C’est cul cul la praline.” (It’s ass ass the praline.) LOL

At first, my beginning students provided very few experiences as entertaining as this. In fact, the first class I was supposed to have with them ended up being cancelled, although no one thought to inform me of that fact. So, all revved up and sitting there, waiting…not even the other teacher showed up. In the end, I had to ask at the office. I felt like such a dope! Still, my job requirements don’t include being psychic, so everyone was very apologetic, especially Michel (my supervising teacher).

Once I finally got around to teaching these guys, it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had feared. In fact, we usually laugh a lot and have a good time, in general. The level of English varies wildly between them, which makes for interesting classes, to be sure. Since Michel takes half for the first hour and then we switch, and the students are allowed from week to week to decide on their own how they will divide themselves up, it can often mean that one half will be all intermediate-level kids who love to chat my ear off, and the other half will sit in stony, false-beginner silence, hoping I won’t call on them, requiring me to drag the participation out of them. It’s no wonder that after my second round of classes with them, I nearly lost my voice.

Still, there are a few gems among these students, the ones I look forward to seeing. Mostly these are boys, as the girls seem to be, in general, much less apt to be the ones to speak up. Fred, Charles, Alexandre, Denis, Sylvain, Nicholas, Thomas, Stephane, and a few others whose names I haven’t yet memorized. These guys are really funny or really charming or really sweet. They make the day go faster, to be sure!

The most fun I’ve ever (inadvertently) had with the beginning students happened just this week, in fact. It all started because I had been a lazy ass over the Thanksgiving weekend, and didn’t feel like preparing their class material ahead of time. Since the prep only involves making photocopies of an article and then writing up a few questions about it that we can discuss in class, I decided just to come in a bit early on Tuesday morning to get it handled. The article that I chose came from a group that Michel had given me that were apparently tried and tested. “Don’t reinvent the wheel” he told me when he gave them to me. Nice and easy, just like I like it. So, I looked through them Tuesday morning, chose one more or less at random, and went on about my day.

Well, my mistake was that I didn’t read it out loud before class. I have to read the article out loud during class, so the students can hear my pronunciation before they take a turn with it themselves. Usually, I read through it once beforehand just to see if there are any words I need to emphasize, etc. Of all the times for me to slack off…

So. There I am, casually reading this boring article out loud (on the subject of declining reading scores in Great Britain’s primary schools) when I get to a quote from the Education Secretary, Ed Balls. That’s right. Ed Balls.

I think you imagine my surprise at suddenly finding myself saying the name “Ed Balls” out loud in front of my students, so then it is no great leap to imagine me immediately starting to giggle like a Beavis and Butthead extra. I took a deep breath, apologized to my students, and soldiered on. Until the beginning of the next paragraph which began with the phrase, “Mr. Balls stated that…”

Frankly, at that point, I just burst out laughing like a lunatic. My students (a particularly low level group to start off the day) looked at me like I had three heads. And the thing was, once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop! I just kept thinking about how horrible it was that I was laughing in the first place, and then I’d think about the horrible name, and I was off again! The giggle loop in action (for any “Coupling” fans out there)! It took many deep breaths, four or five tries, and pinching my hand as hard as possible to sober me up enough to finish reading the article.

After I was done, I tried to explain to the students that the name was very funny in English, and please forgive me for being such an idiot. Well, they were laughing at me quite a bit by then, so it was no big deal. At the end of class, however, one of the higher level students asked me, “What this name Mr. Balls means in English?” I happened to have a dictionary at hand, and no remaining dignity, so I looked it up and told him. They were all most amused.

For the next class, I decided that there was absolutely no fucking way I was going to read that name out loud again. In the interim, I had spoken to my friend Jennifer over Skype, and in telling the story to her, I started laughing so much that I couldn’t breathe. I could barely get through the story at all! I mean, Mr. Balls has to be absolutely the worst name in the history of the world!! I defy you to come up with one that can compare. So, yeah, no way I’m reading that again.

I decided to just fess up before I read the article. I explained to them that the name was very funny in English, and that I wouldn’t read it because otherwise I would laugh like crazy. I also explained what it meant, so that they would understand my reasoning. They all thought it was funny, and so the class passed with little to no drama. Sylvain suggested that I say “Mr. B” instead, and used that name himself when writing up his summary. Very cute. Also cute was in the next class when Fred, one of my best students (and a very-nearly-Brad Pitt look alike) was unable to complete his summary as he wanted because, as he said, “I was searching a word play for Mr. Balls, but I was unable to find it.”

The last class of the day, with a couple of the loud-mouth boys who love to go back and forth with me, was really a lot of fun. As they were silently reading the article to themselves at the beginning of class, I noticed that Charles and Alexandre started laughing. So, they were already ahead of the game. When it came time for me to read, I gave my little “It’s a funny name” speech and said that I wouldn’t be reading it out loud. Charles volunteered to read it for me! Ok, no problem. I started reading and then paused for Charles to say the name. He said, “ED BALLS” with a deep, resounding voice…much like you would say “JAMES BOND”. Well, we all died laughing. More of the same on “MR.BALLS”. Then, when they had to write up their summaries, both Alexandre and Charles naturally managed to work in the name “Mr. Balls”. Oh, the little joys of teaching!

And thus ends the blog on my students. In general, school things these days are clicking along with very few issues, but if anything along the lines of Mr. Balls happens again, I’ll be sure to fill you in!

In the next update, look for stories about my first trip to La Rochelle. Holiday blogs to follow!

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