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.