Friday, 19 April 2013

All the world's a stage

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, particularly if you were getting accustomed again to seeing two posts per week (as it was back in the halcyon days of late September and early October). Welcome back, then, to Edward's classic blogging technique: posting once in a blue moon, and starting every single one of those posts with an apology.

Anyway, to business. *serious face* From the title of this post, you may have guessed that I'd be talking about Shakespeare today. In fact, I will be - although not for a couple of paragraphs yet - but the topic of this post will actually be a different kind of stage. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, for one of the most intense experiences of my entire Year Abroad: the stage d'anglais oral.

(Fig. 1) Obligatory flashy picture produced by the Académie.

As part of its égalité des chances (equal opportunities) programme, the Académie, or local education authority, runs a series of stages d'anglais et d'espagnol during the school holidays. The idea is to give students at a lycée the opportunity to develop their skills in a friendly, small-group environment, giving them a desire to communicate. Of course, in order to work, these events need people to run them; given as how the above description sounded pretty similar to what I've been doing as a language assistant this year, I thought I'd give it a go.

And so it came to pass that, on Monday morning, I arrived at a nearby lycée, ready and excited to work on delivering an engaging programme. Except there was just one problem - there was no programme. I'd turned up expecting to be given a series of worksheets to guide the students through, but as it turned out we were completely left to our own devices; this is understandably pretty scary when it's your first stage, it's 8am on a Monday morning, and you've got three hours to fill without any materials to hand.

Thankfully, since it was an extra-curricular event, there was no list of prescribed topics to cover, meaning that I could do more or less whatever I wanted. My plan came together over the course of a rather hectic Monday morning, and by extension Monday evening, so that by the following day I was able to deliver a pretty balanced programme to the (different) group that was waiting outside my door at 8am. More than that, it went rather well! On each of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I split the morning up into four 50-minute sessions, during which we focused on introductions, listening, conversation and discussion respectively. With that in mind, I present you with 'three-useful-things-that-Edward-used-in-a-frantic-attempt-to-fill-time-but-which-actually-worked-pretty-reasonably':

  1. Two truths, one lie. This is a great introductory game, and is also incredibly simple. Each student has to write down three pieces of information about themselves, of which two are true and one is invented. The other students then have to guess which one is which; for some reason, all my students thought that I had a brother called Xerxes but no-one believed that I played one of the Ugly Sisters in a panto!
  2. Alibi. A useful game to develop conversation skills. Students are split into teams of two, and have to invent an alibi that excuses them from a crime committed yesterday (say, a robbery at the supermarket down the road). Each one of them is interviewed individually, and the prize goes to the team whose stories have the fewest discrepancies. A sure-fire way to get some very detailed questions, fired off in an attempt to catch other teams out ...
  3. The shopping channel. A game that developed out of hot-seating. Upon realising that the standard technique of 'sit-in-a-chair-and-talk-about-this-object-for-30-seconds' was a bit too advanced for some of my students, I modified it slightly. Every student had to choose one object from their bag, which I then redistributed. After a minute or so of preparation time, each student then has 30 seconds to try and sell everyone else the object they've been given, in the spirit of a shopping channel. This can lead to some very unusual situations, such as 17-year-old young men having to sell nail files, but is always very funny when you put some happy-shopper music over the top of it.
Four days later, I can genuinely say that the experience of doing a stage was ... well ... unique. Extremely tiring, yes; teaching for four hours non-stop every day for four days is absolutely knackering. But it was also really fun, and allowed me to develop my teaching style while working with some really intellectually engaged students. My only concern is over my copious viennoiserie consumption during the week: my stomach probably hates me right now.

Oh, and I said I'd mention Shakespeare! Well, for our last lesson together, my secondes group had had to learn an extract from Romeo and Juliet (in modern English). I thought I'd get into the spirit, and so had a go too - although to make it fair, I had to learn the original stuff (for the interested, Act II, Scene 2, ll. 1 - 25). The students then marked me in the same way that I'd marked them, taking an immense pleasure in pretending to dock me marks for pronunciation. Talk about bad Juli-etiquette ...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Going clubbing

The local club has been a huge part of my life in Reims for the last few weeks. As the pressure from lessons builds up, it's great to be able to go somewhere where I can let my hair down a bit, take my mind off registers and lesson objectives, and just relax. Everyone at the club is really friendly, too: they're a lovely bunch of people, all of whom really enjoy having a good time.

Sorry, what was that? Nightclub, you say? Oh, goodness, no. Hang on ... you did know what I was talking about, right? The English club that I've been running at the lycée on Tuesday evenings since January?

Good. Just checking.

The story behind this English club started in about November. I'd been wanting to do something extra-curricular for a while, and to my surprise the nice people at the Vie scolaire agreed with me, calling it 'a great idea'. Because of the particularities of French school terms, we couldn't start till January, but since then it's been a very satisfying experience.

The students are all members of the internat (basically the boarders), and on average I get about ten of them turning up every week. One of the first things we agreed on was that these would not be anything like lessons - in fact, I asked the students to tell me off if they ever heard me use the 'l'-word - and since then this ethos has held up surprisingly well. As a general rule, I try to focus on speaking activities with a fun element to them; in the club, however, I'm not limited to the programme, and so can choose almost anything to work from. A recent favourite was Balderdash, an excellent dictionary game that saw students come up with some incredible definitions for obscure English words. For instance, proposed meanings of the word 'tintinnabulation' included: (1) 'the act of walking strangely after drinking alcohol'; (2) 'using Tintinnab', whatever that is; and (3) 'liking Tintin'. As for 'nincompoop', we had: (1) 'something you eat for dinner'; (2) 'the name of the smiley on Facebook that gives you a picture of poo'; and, inevitably, (3) 'constipation'.

I mention all this because our next session (on Tuesday) will be our last. I'm trying to go out with a bang, so if anyone has some inspired ideas for what to do, please do leave them in the comments section below. (At the moment, plans include an analysis of Rebecca Black's Friday and a game of Countdown, so anything you can suggest would be an improvement ...)

P.S. Psst! Do you like the new favicon?

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Things I like, no. 2: the boulangerie

In this series of shorter posts, I'm looking (somewhat egotistically) at 'things I like'. Part 1, in case you missed it, was the SNCF: this time, I'm looking at something a bit more local. One of the clichés of French life, particularly in the provinces, is the boulangerie. You know, the institution that makes this possible:

(Credit: Although that particular post
doesn't seem to be about baguettes.)
The 'bakery on the corner' does genuinely, though, seem to be more than just a twee and outdated stereotype. Au contraire, they still exist, and in great numbers. My 'local' is about five minutes' walk up the Avenue de Laon, and is run by a team of three lovely ladies, selling a pretty impressive selection of baguettes, pavots, and of course viennoiseries. (And yes, feel free to draw your own conclusions from my use of the word 'local' - do the French value their boulangers as much as the British do their landlords? Quite possibly.) Here's the thing, though: this isn't some well-off corner of Kensington, where the business has survived because its patrons all have money to spend on a premium product. The Avenue de Laon is one of the busiest streets in Reims, and a huge variety of people from all walks of life pass along the pavement. Most importantly, the boulangerie is next door to a Carrefour City (think Sainsbury's), which itself offers pain cuit sur place toute la journée. So how in the world has this small shop managed to survive, in such a climate and in face of such competition?

Quite simply, because they're good at what they do, and love doing it. The bread is excellent: whereas the stuff from Carrefour is very nice, the crustiness and texture of a boulanger's work is very tricky to put into words. (Although that hasn't stopped Baguepi, a consortium looking after local boulangeries, from trying. Have a read of this.) Whenever I go in through the door, and the little bell tinkles, I know that, in addition to getting a really nice piece of bread, I'll have a conversation. All of which goes some way to explaining why, more often than not, these conversations end in the words à bientôt.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Coxing in French (Part Two)

Regular readers of this blog (all two of you) will remember that, way back in October, I wrote a post about coxing in French. This post will be an update to that, so if a lot of technical talk about rowing isn't your thing, do feel free to come back for my next post. I won't mind.

Over the months, I've been doing a variety of things around Régates rémoises, the local rowing club. I've coxed everyone from 10-year-olds to seniors; subbed in to row with 14-year-old girls; rowed in an Empacher with some university students on an exceptionally cold Wednesday evening. However, one thing that I've been doing a surprising amount of recently is coaching, particularly off-the-water coaching. The club is very well-equipped with ergs (les ergos) for training off the water, and if a particular age group isn't going out sur l'eau that day, I'm occasionally asked to coach them on the ergs for a bit. This has been a very rewarding experience, particularly since I've got a lot better at explaining things to do with rowing (in English as well as French - it seems as if expressing yourself in another language helps you with your mother tongue too!). What's that? You want an example? Good - 'cause here one comes.

On the day in question, I was coaching les benjamins. These are ten-to-eleven-year-olds, who have been rowing at most for one year, so generally they don't spend too much time on the ergs. When they do, though, it's important to get it right. Many of the mistakes made by these novices are the same ones made by novices in the UK of all ages (including myself, on the rare occasions when I have an oar in my hand), so the French coach and I were both looking out for them. The classic error made by novices is rushing the slide. Essentially, the rowing stroke is made up of two phases: the drive phase (phase d'appui) and the recovery (phase de retour). The drive phase is when the oar is in the water; the recovery, as the name suggests, is the time when you're coming back up the slide on your seat, getting ready to take another stroke. Lots of novices don't put very much power down in the water, and try to compensate by rushing up the slide; this is dangerous as (a) you tire yourself out by pulling yourself up the slide, and (b) as you come up the slide, you're moving against the forward motion of the boat and by charging up the slide run the risk of slowing the boat down drastically. For this reason, coaches encourage rowers to spend about twice to three times as long on the recovery as the drive phase, so that you can put more force in the water while allowing the boat to glide under you.

The difficulty, however, was getting the benjamins to take this on board. There's an old saying in rowing that 'ergs don't float', which means that you can get away with stuff on an erg that you can't get away with on the water; hence someone who pulls amazing times on the erg might not make a boat move particularly fast. (For an example of this, watch this video.) As a result, I was concerned that it might be tricky to make changes to technique on the erg, rather than in the water. This turned out to be the case, but we still managed to make some progress.

The mysterious-looking thing to the left of this sentence is the monitor on an erg. It shows you several things: for our purposes, we're looking at the number of strokes taken per minute (top right) and the projected time it would take you to row 500m at your current pace (middle). The person who's recorded on this machine has just done what I tried to teach the benjamins: you can go at the same speed, far more efficiently, by pressing harder on the drive phases and relaxing the recoveries. Plus, you don't get tired nearly as quickly. (As a bonus point: for the curious, my score for the same test is fairly similar ...)

And with that in mind, the challenge was on. Each rower was given a cadence (stroke rate) and split time to aim for, and things started to change. I'm looking forward to working with them more on this in the coming weeks, since it seems like we may have stumbled upon a way to put my constant calls of ralentissez la coulisse ! into action.

While we're on the subject of putting-oars-in-the-water-and-moving-on-a-sliding-seat, I'd also like to take a minute to mention the heroic efforts of all the Cambridge crews at the Henley Boat Races yesterday. The results may not have gone the way we'd hoped, but from what I've heard everyone involved has a right to be proud all the same. Plus, the Clare College representation in the squad was phenomenal. Andrew, Ania, Claire, Esther, Jess, Moos, Rachel, Steen: absolutely inspiring.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Where does students' English come from?

As my teaching placement has progressed, I've found that I've been getting better at estimating the level of students. Naturally, I'm still not perfect at this, and the dreaded words 'I don't know' still rear their ugly heads more often than I would like, but when I look at a class there are definitely fewer blank faces staring back at me than there were back in October. This development, this building on what my students do know as opposed to focusing on what they don't know, got me thinking about another question in English language learning: where does my students' English knowledge come from?

The most obvious source of English knowledge is perhaps the most closely associated with a school environment: their teachers. Although I'm treated as a teacher by the school's administration (and hence get the benefits of the staff coffee machine and a shorter queue in the canteen), the day-to-day work that I do differs quite substantially from what a fully-paid-up, agrégation-qualified teacher does. In many ways, I've got it easy: while teachers have to work through areas that many students find quite dull, such as grammar, we language assistants are employed to enrich students culturally and to get them speaking. As a result, we don't have to worry too much about grammar, whereas teachers are constantly having to strike a balance between intriguing students and teaching what has to be taught. Generally, though, they're very good at this, meaning that some classes in particular are (a) very motivated and (b) in possession of an impressive grammatical knowledge. So if, in a lesson, I ask them about the phrase 'I would have wanted' and they identify it as a conditional perfect, the teachers are the ones I should thank.

But in this increasingly-interconnected world, there are plenty of other sources of linguistic and cultural knowledge. It's hard not to notice the presence of the English language in France, whether it's in shops (Monoprix's 'We love babies' ad campaigns springs to mind) or on billboards (see my friend Dominic's commentary on this here). Then, of course, there's the Hit Parade, France's version of the Top 40. The sheer number of English songs present among its ranks is still surprising, even six months into my time in France. The café I'm currently sitting in is playing one of the music channels, and in the past hour we've had Tinee Tempah, Rihanna, Olly Murs, Nicki Minaj … the list goes on. All this English music can be a boon for language teaching - I've listened to Adele and Taylor Swift with my English club - but it can also pose problems. I was surprised to discover yesterday that the current number 1 single in France is none other than Thrift Shop, an irritatingly catchy ditty about vintage clothing whose lyrics are definitely not repeatable in polite conversation. Inevitably, these lyrics were being sung with impressive enthusiasm (thankfully without complete comprehension) by the ten-year-olds around the rowing club yesterday.

And of couse, no discussion of language acquisition would be complete without a mention of the technology. YouTube and Twitter in particular are excellent distributors of the English language, and as a result quite a few of my lessons have begun with a YouTube video of some kind. Then there are the computer games: when we were discussing gun control in the USA a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover the depth of my students' knowledge of different types of firearm, and their ability to describe them in English. Surprised, that is, until I remembered about Call of Duty. And Battlefield. And Medal of Honor.

But actually, it was a rather more sedate word that got me thinking about the provenance of my students' vocabulary*: specifically, their awareness of word 'harvest'. Thanks go to Harvest Moon, a Japanese strategy game, for that one. And it was at that point that I said something to my students that, back at the start of my assistantship, I don't think I could have said: 'I don't care where your English comes from. As long as it's good.'

And that feels like progress.

On an unrelated note, here's a piece of advice for you. If you're committed to producing short- to medium-form content a couple of times a month (such as, for instance, a blog), and you fail to produce anything for a couple of months, just try not mentioning this fact at all during your next publication. That way, no-one will notice.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Things I like, no. 1: the SNCF

For some reason, I seem to like writing blog posts on the train. In fact, I'm doing that right now, speeding along towards Paris in the first step of getting home for a couple of days. I just feel generally more productive while travelling, perhaps because it makes me feel like one of those suited-up businessmen, refusing to waste a single moment of my precious time. (Let's not mention how much of my time I do waste when I'm not on the train.) Or perhaps it's just because, quite simply, the French railways are good places to get work done.

Okay, so that last point might need some explaining. I'm used to National Rail: perfectly serviceable, of course, but not exactly conducive to relaxing and enjoying yourself. If you've gone into London from Reading at any point, ever, you'll know about the challenges of finding a seat. Coming to France, I expected something more or less the same. What I found, though, was altogether different. Different, and if I dare say it ... better. In some ways, at least. If you can spare me a few minutes of your precious time, I'll justify my opinions (to quote the GCSE French marking scheme). Part 1 of this new mini-series, then, on things about France that I like: ladies and gentlemen, the Société nationale des chemins de fer français.

The SNCF logo. This one is the newest version, with a
couple of changes from the one before it: for the graphic
design nerds, try to spot the three main differences ...
(Old version here)
When it comes to why I like the SNCF, the name itself is a good place to start. Unlike in the UK, every aspect of the railway system is nationalised, including both the tracks and the trains. And the system works, too. Fares (which I'll come onto in more detail in a minute) are by and large less expensive than in the UK, and recent projects like the construction of the TGV-Est line out towards Strasbourg have made the French very proud of their railway company. Of course, they get private companies to do things like their graphic design work, but almost everything else is 100% owned by the French government. At the risk of generalising a little too much, it taps into that spirit of solidarity that I find to be so strong in France, encompassing as it does everything from the numerous mutuelles that offer personal and professional support to the adorable signs on the buses in Reims that advise you to give up your seat par solidarité ou par courtoisie.

Because it's state-owned, the government retains control over fares, which in turn means that some of the reductions they are able to offer are superb. One of the SNCF's slogans is une carte de réduction pour chacun, meaning that everyone is able to make some kind of saving with a savings card. In my case, it's a Carte jeune, which guarantees me at least 25% off all my train travel. If you book far enough ahead, the savings are ridiculous: €28 return between Reims and Paris, anyone? It gets better, though: that was in first class. The SNCF appears to have adopted the attitude that first class should be accessible to everyone, rather than using it as a tool to leech money out of commuters. Very often, first class tickets only cost a couple of euros more than standard class; occasionally, due to the mechanics of my Carte jeune, they're actually cheaper. For comparative purposes, I went and did a little bit of research into the price of equivalent journeys in France and the UK. Booking one day in advance and using a young person's railcard, a first-class ticket from Reading to London Paddington (30 minutes) is £41. Do the same thing in France (over a slightly longer journey, 45 minutes from Reims to Paris Est) and it's €25 (£21, or almost half the price).

But the best part of the SNCF is probably the trains themselves. There are so many charming things about a train journey in France that I couldn't possibly list all of them, but personal favourites include the flat caps worn by the ticket inspectors; the wifi that, even if you don't buy access, will still show you your destination and time of arrival when you open a web browser; and, most notably of all, the sheer speed of the things. The TGV (Trains à grande vitesse) is the national high-speed rail network, which regularly reaches speeds of up to 330 km/h on the Reims / Paris line (trust me: it literally just happened). The TER (Transport express régional) system is not as quick, obviously, but it still takes a surprisingly short amount of time to get to Épernay from Reims. And the time spent on the train is made all the more pleasant by the voitures themselves: there's always a spare seat, and even second class is likely to have a power point near to your seat. First class is quite the experience : you can lounge over seats big enough to accommodate a family of four, and handy screens show you how far away you are from your destination.

Now, I'm not saying that the SNCF is perfect. Of course, it has its problems: like any rail operator, it faces challenges with track maintenance, and recent reforms in its loyalty card structure have riled a few people. In light of all its positives, though, I'm far more likely to forgive its foibles than I am with Network Rail. So as the train glides into Paris Est, I'll leave you with this, a fitting tribute to the single-bar ditty that's heard from Calais to Montpellier:

Sunday, 27 January 2013

How does a lycée work?

Last time on this blog, I said I'd take a look at the French school system. With that in mind, and an empty Sunday ahead of me, I thought I'd deliver on that promise. I've said several times now that I'm "teaching in a lycée", but what exactly does that mean? What is a lycée? What do the students study there?

At its heart, a lycée is broadly similar to an American high school or a UK sixth-form college, in that it forms the last part of secondary education (l'enseignement secondaire) before universities, or other forms of tertiary education. Students are split into three years: seconde (15 - 16 years old), première (16 - 17) and terminale (17 - 18). The first of these is effectively a continuation of the collège, but also marks the point where an element of student choice enters the system. Students can opt to take different enseignements d'exploration, which will likely inform their choice of specialisation in future years. Arts-inclined students will likely take littérature et société, budding economists will be more attracted to sciences économiques et sociales, and so on. For this reason, the seconde year is also sometimes called the cycle de détermination.

Coming into their première year, students must make this choice. There are two main decisions to make here, the first being which voie (literally "route") to take. There are three to choose from here: général, for most traditional "academic" subjects; technologique, for more "applied" options; and professionel, which often leads directly into a work placement (and which is selected immediately after collège, without a cycle de détermination). Each of these gives its name to the kind of baccalauréat exam that the student will take at the end of their terminale year.

Within their chosen voie, students must also select a série ("series"), and then potentially a further specialisation in their terminale year. There are quite a few of these, so I thought the best thing to do would be to summarise them in a handy diagram:

Regardless of the specialisms chosen, the baccalauréat exam itself differs from A-Levels in number of ways. The most important of these is that it is a single qualification, incorporating a range of different subjects: students receive a single certificate, rather than four different ones for each subject. Also crucial here is that some subjects are still obligatory, including (in almost all the séries) at least one modern foreign language. This is a huge contrast from the UK, where a student might have dropped modern languages altogether two years before the Bac even starts.

The school I teach in is a Lycée générale technique, meaning that it offers a mixture of général and technologique series. In this case, it offers ES and S qualifications from the général series; a large number of the seven technologique series; and one professionel series (traitement des surfaces). This does, of course, mean that none of my students are doing the bac L, and that hence none of them will go on to study English at university. Although this can be a little discouraging, it's more than balanced out by the fact that the school does have a section européenne. This means that one class in every year will, in addition to having extra English lessons, be taught one other discipline non linguistique in English. Since my school is largely scientific, our section européene is in the sciences, but this varies between schools.

"But what does this matter to you, Edward?", I hear you say. "Surely, if English is obligatory for almost everyone, you end up teaching more or less the same thing to all students in the same year group?" And that's not entirely wrong - although there are some minor variations in the programme, I'll likely find myself teaching the same lesson on Robin Hood to a group of 16-year-old economists as I would to a group of 16-year-old human resources specialists. However, all of this does have one very, very big impact on my timetable: acronyms.

Riveting, I know. But when your timetable says something like "2D Euro at 10am, followed by 1STMG1 at 11, then TSSI3 at 2pm", it's worth deciphering what all these mean. Plus, it really helps when it comes to getting to know your students. So let's break down a couple of acronyms together! (Note that I don't actually teach any of these classes.)

  • 1SSI4 - Premières (1), Bac scientifique (S), sciences de l'ingénieur (SI), fourth class (4);
  • 2D3 - Secondes (2), cycle de détermination (2), class 3 (3);
  • TMerc3 - Terminales (T), mercatiques (Merc, a specialisation in STMG), third class (3);
  • TSB4 - Terminales (T), sciences biologiques (SB, a specialisation in S), fourth class (4).

Fancy a challenge? Try working these out (some of these are actually classes I teach): 2D Euro, 1STMG1, TSTAV3, 2D9. Hope you enjoyed this essay / blog post: now, lesson planning beckons ...

1. 'Wikipedia' (sorry!), Le Baccalauréat en France,
2. ONISEP, Les enseignements d'exploration en seconde,
3. Ministère de l'éducation nationale, Le baccalauréat,