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,

Friday, 18 January 2013

The first two weeks back

As Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire put it, Christmas holidays always seem much longer before 25th December than they do afterwards. This year, it didn't help that I only had two days at home before Christmas; and so it came to pass that, after what felt like the shortest holidays ever, I was back at London St. Pancras, helping out old Belgian ladies with their bags and waiting for the Eurostar.

The shortness of the Christmas break didn't stop me enjoying it: being back in the UK for more than a couple of days was, after all, a very pleasant experience. It was good to see friends, to spend time with my family, and to see in 2013 by playing Scrabble. While back at home, it was also good to be able to play the full-sized guitar for a change. I mean, don't get me wrong - I love my travel guitar, and will possibly be using it in a performance one day soon, but I do miss the bass response on the full-sized version.

Once safely ensconced at the lycée, lessons began again with an almost-alarming speed. Fortunately, I still had a couple of lessons left over from last term to finish, so for a few of my classes there was next to nothing to prepare. Before too long, though, I was again sending out those interminable emails to teachers asking what they wanted me to work on. By and large, my new lessons have worked rather well, particularly the one about emigration to America which consisted of analysing the Pogues' seminal 1988 classic Thousands are Sailing. It's not all been plain sailing, though (get it?): the lowlight of the term so far has been a lesson which took an absolute age to prepare, including recording an interview with two Australian exchange students; a lesson which, it transpired, did not get a good reception. Still, you live and you learn, and I'm definitely going to think a bit more about different groups before starting my lesson plans.

One other lesson merits mention. To get my premières students back into the swing of things after the Christmas break, I gave them a semi-creative writing task that involved deciding who to put on the back of a new £10 note. The idea was to encourage them to think about British heroes, since one of the units on their curriculum is called "mythes et héros", and to justify their hero status by explaining why they should appear on currency. Two groups came up with reasonable suggestions - Churchill and Shakespeare; another group settled on Molière (decidedly not British, but okay). The other group was a little more ... interesting. I shot down their first idea, Woody the Woodpecker, by pointing out that fictional characters don't usually make it onto banknotes. Ten minutes later, when I came back to check on how they were doing, they'd made their decision.

To be fair to them, they produced the best writing in the whole class. Unfortunately, I don't think the Queen would be very pleased to find herself on the same banknote as Tupac.

But it's not all been classroom antics here in Reims: other, arguably more exciting things, have been happening here too. Particularly worthy of a mention here is a visit I recently made to Paris, in order to meet up with a good friend and to see the King's Singers in concert. He describes it better than me, so please do read his blog to learn more about a wonderful evening. I've also been trying to see a bit more of the other assistants this term, which has led to a couple of wonderful (and cheap!) dinners. Who would have known that enchiladas were so delicious? Or that I could make such a mess of pumpkin pie?

Tune in next time on Reims and Repeat, where I'll be dissecting the French school system ...

Obligatory geeky Harry Potter referencing, MLA style: J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), pp. 377 - 378