Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Autumn in the Aquitaine

We took Beth's folks to the airport

bade them farewell,

and then we visited a couple of places before going home... we couldn't help noticing that autumn is happening.

St. Macaire south of Bordeaux on the river Garonne is the site of a medeival village.

We found a campground below the old city walls...we were the only ones there.

Chateau St. Roquetaillade - inhabited for 700 years - prompted Tess to ask me,
"Where is the princess?"

A good question...where indeed?

I asked her for a little time to think about an answer.

She's waiting...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hotel Lege... part 2 The Grandparents

Warner and Charlotte managed to get here

during what the locals are calling an extraordinary last half of October. Most of the time we hung out at the beach...

One day Beth took her parents to St. Emilion. They had coffee in the square below...

Another day we all took the ferry across the bassin to Arcachon...

They're leaving us tomorrow...a good time was had by all.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Like...dude, where's my wave

We’ve had a couple of foreshadowings of winter weather…one tempete about three weeks ago and one wind storm last week, both of which left trees blown down and boats capsized in the basin.

The conditions were ideal yesterday so we took Beth’s parents to Plage Crohot for some sun, sand, and surf. We’re experiencing a golden October and we’re trying hard to appreciate it since we’ve gotten several strong hints that there’s nothing golden at all about December, January, and February. The waves were good-sized and fairly close to shore. The beach here is pretty flat. You can go out there for a ways before you’re in over your head. Aside from the riptides the biggest caution for swimmers is surfboards. In the offseason, there are no designated areas for either class of activity so it’s every homo sapiens for itself.

Usually that’s not a problem but this is the weekend and the school vacation and beautiful weather…all of which means that the bordelais are here in force. You see a few close calls from the beach with surfers and bathers heading out and surfers slicing and dicing coming in.

The Atlantic here is perhaps cool by Caribbean standards but it’s tepid by comparison to Oregon coastal waters. I made for the waves immediately. Once out there past the first series of breakers I took a shot at trying to catch and body surf a bigger wave without having the slightest idea of what I was doing.

I played around for a little while not quite getting it down but having a good time being borne up and down by the water and, occasionally, getting swamped and buffeted by waves that broke over my head. Finally quite by accident I caught a wave at the right moment, I turned and swam toward the beach. I felt my heels elevate, I thrust both hands forward like Superman…after that all I can accurately recall is the sensation of plunging. That sensation produced an attendant expectation of crashing into something but since my eyes were closed, I’m not sure I could have seen anything if they had been open, all I could do was wait.

I went along for just a few short seconds, one of my hands was pulled forcibly down to my side, my body was pummeled and then I punched down firmly on one elbow, the sand scraping my side all the way up my shoulder. When my feet came back down, I got up and looked about. I had gone maybe 15 yards…cool, I thought, only dimly aware that water was leaking out of both nostrils. I collected myself and headed back to see if I could repeat or improve upon the experience. It was a blast.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reflections on the French School System

  • According to Ahmed, one of my colleagues, between the time students exit college (middle school roughly, although the last year in college corresponds to our freshman year in terms of age groups) and enter lycée a significant percentage of them, perhaps 25%, opt for technical or professional lycées in Arcachon or Bordeaux rather than come to Lycée Nord Bassin where I work. These options all require bussing kids up to an hour away. In talking to colleagues here about this it seems fair to characterize these options as ranging from valuable and viable options (there are, for example maritime schools which prepare kids for careers connected with the fishing and navigation) which can open doors for graduates and then there are the options which are little more than holding tanks for kids who have demonstrated a lack of aptitude for anything scholastic or academic. What this means for those of us who teach at Lycée Nord Bassin is that roughly a quarter of the students who come from college are tracked elsewhere and never set foot on this campus. This helps explain why the student population here is, on balance, more academically oriented than our overall student body at LHS. It’s a generalization to be sure, but I think my exchange partner might concur that the most apathetic students here at Lycée Nord Bassin are considerably more engaged and mindful of their responsibilities as students than are the most apathetic or marginalized of LHS. Whether this is a distinction that constitutes a real difference, I’ll leave to others to ponder…from my vantage point I tend to think it is.
  • As a follow up to the previous point, I am told that there is a live debate here in France as to whether the students ought to select an orientation even earlier than they do now. Currently there are really two key decision points for a young French student. The first is the one I mentioned above which happens at the end of college. For those kids who come to a general lycée such as the one I teach in, they must declare before the end of their first year in lycée (sophomore level) which type of Bac they plan on pursuing. They have three choices: L – Literary Studies, ES – Economic Sciences, S – Science. Some larger cities, like Bordeaux have something like magnet schools which offer other types of diplomas such as International Studies/language and Applied Interior Design/Art. The course requirements, and the final exams differ for each path. One of the things I am curious to observe as the year progresses is the process by which kids make these decisions.
  • In a related but not identical matter there is also movement toward lowering the age of compulsory education from 16 to 15. (At a later date I intend to write more about the general subject of how we might redefine what we think of as a standard “academic” orientation.)
  • A blue ribbon university commission just issued recommendations (the Hetzel Report) for reforming the French university system…it’s getting quite a bit of coverage in the papers. The problem that everyone seems to agree needs to be addressed is the dropout rate at the university level. The subject is a familiar one for those of us who follow such things in the US. One in five French undergrads quits school without getting a degree. The rate is highest (60%) in the “professional schools”, 30% in “tech schools”, and 10% in general liberal arts schools. Even among those who do persist and earn diplomas, there is a significant unemployment rate. For example, among those who obtained masters/doctorates in the nonscientific disciplines five years ago, the unemployment rate is 16%. For those in the sciences the figure is 11%. The commision’s proposals include a general push to create a stronger partnership between universities and the business sector. They recommend that all university students be supervised and guided through a formal career exploration process thus ensuring that students have some clue as to job prospects and also the nuts and bolts issues of actually securing employment. Another recommendation, the one which promises to stir up some debate, is that high schoolers be preselected for university… High school seniors will be required to submit dossiers to universities early to midterm in their senior year. The universities would then review their dossiers and respond by offering their opinion on each student’s fitness for the program. It is somewhat analogous to what we would call “early enrollment”, although it’s scope and purpose here would be much broader. Hackles get raised when the possibility of denying entry to students is raised, and so a certain amount of soft shoe rhetoric is being employed…students will “counseled” into and away from certain post-high school paths. A lot of people are taking pains to say that no one will be forbidden from enrolling if they wish to do so…Clearly, however, many here in France believe that there is a problem with French high schoolers making informed choices about their post-high school plans.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Eating at the cantine scolaire

Meals at school are simple, tasty, and nutritious. There are no vending machines, no pop, no tubs of mayo or ranch dressing. There is lots of good bread. Everyone drinks water. Here’s a menu for the month of October...notice there are no Wednesday meals since school is out at noon. Sorry, no translations…get out your dictionaries and cookbooks. Bon appetite!




Lundi 2 Octobre: Salade romaine, Paupiette de veau, Salsifis sauce poulette, Saint Bricet, Fruit

Mardi 3 Octobre: Blé niçoise, Rôti de porc** de dinde,Purée crécy, Fromage blanc, Biscuit

Jeudi 5 Octobre: Tomates et Haricots verts, Cabillaud sauce dieppoise, Ris pilaf, Mousse au chocolat

Vendredi 6 Octobre: Salade mélé au fromage, Boeuf mode *(F), Pommes vapeur, Coupe tropicale


Lundi 9 Octobre: Taboulé, Hoki pane, Chou fleur Mornay, Fruit, Pomme

Mardi 10 Octobre: Salade au fromage, Escalope de poulet sauce mexicaine, Frites, Flan vanilla

Jeudi 12 Octobre: Salade russe, Steak haché de boeuf* (F), Purée de potimarron, Fromage blanc

Vendredi 13 Octobre: Pizza au fromage, Omelette parmentier, Poêlée campagnarde, Brebis crème


Lundi 16 Octobre: Betterave et maϊs, Palette à la diable** jambon de dinde, Lentilles**, Yaourt bulgare, Compote

Mardi 17 Octobre: Pomme de terre niçoise, Pot au feu sauce tomate* (F), Carottes persillées, Flan pâtissier

Jeudi 19 Octobre: Feuilleté au fromage, Emincé de poulet persillé, Epinard béchamel, Fruit

Vendredi 20 Octobre: Saucisson** Paté de volaille, Gratin de poisons, Boulgour, Saint Paulin


Lundi 23 Octobre: Salade mêlée au fromage, Navarin d’agneau, Pomme vapeur, Flan nappé caramel

Mardi 24 Octobre: Riz provencal, Chipolatas** saucisse de volaille, Haricot vert, Tarte normande


*(F) : Viande bovine d’origine francaise ** Menus dans porc

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Hotel Lege

The peitit vacances corresponding with Toussaint begins Wednesday and lasts nearly two weeks. I've been teaching here for six weeks now. In some ways it feels like it's been longer. On the other hand, I'm anxious to slow down time even further in order to get the most possible out of this experience.

Last week we hosted our first visitors, Lynne Gill and Charles Jones. Lynne was my very fist colleague in the discipline of French...she was indispensable to me twenty years ago when I was asked to teach a French 1 course at LHS on the strength of having just spent a year's unpaid leave of absence in France. I was (and remain for the most part) self-taught, but Lynne provided me with innumerable suggestions, always creative and inspired by a genuine love of language and culture. She also kept a ping pong table folded up in her classroom. We would play at lunch time sometimes. Lynne was (and is) an excellent player, her father and her uncle were once nationally ranked players...a fact she withheld from me the first few times we played. Lynne's mentoring and her friendship were precious to me at a very pivotal time in my life and career. Seeing her here was a terrific way to reaffirm all of that. You couldn't ask for a better companion to see France with...she is fearless and funny in her interactions with strangers. When Beth and I went to the movies with her last week (the film was Quand j'etais chanteur with, who else?, Gerard Depardieu) we found ourselves at the ticket booth bumbling a little with money or more precisely with the issue of who was paying. The young woman in the booth was a little confused as well by both our intentions and our accents, I imagine. Lynne noticed this and smiling warmly at her she said (in translation) "Don't worry, we are very mean Americans who've come to watch a French film." The woman looked at us, we were all wearing those goofy American smiles that cause the French to refer to Americans sometimes as les grands enfants, then she laughed and helped us sort it out. It was a signature Lynne moment. Disarming and disingenuously charming.
Charles, made the movie outing possible by volunteering to babysit the kids...this act alone vaulted him into our visitor hall of fame. He also cooked a couple of outstanding meals while here. Note to future visitors...be like Charles if you can.
Beth's parents will be here on Wednesday... the kids are very excited...more later.

Setting free the balloons

At the pumpkin festival in Cassy the kids are each given a balloon and a card on which is recorded their name, address and phone number. At first I thought how quaint...they actually take measures to reunite kids with their lost balloons...

then I saw the other kids releasing their balloons into the air, watching them float lazily up into blue sky above until they caught a breeze and drifted off over surrounding trees and rooftops and out of sight.

Even though the idea of pruposefully setting one's own balloon free initially seemed strange to Colm and Tess, the example of the others led them quickly to embrace the idea. Their heads laid back, jaws slack, their faces modulating between expressions of pure delight and alarm...

As we watched the balloons sail away, it occured to me that we had just delivered confidential information concerning our children to the stratosphere and whatever sundry and possibly disreputable types might live under it...was I being paranoid? ...it didn't matter since the matter was literally out of my hands.


Fete de la Citrouille

Last weekend there was a pumpkin festival in the open air market in the nearby village of Cassy...it's about as close to a Halloween celebration as you'll find around here. The holiday is called Toussaint (All Saints Day). We scrounged some orange scarves and shirts, borrowed pointy hats from our friends Ann and Phillip and their two kids Liam and Mila.

Colm and Liam discovered an atelier de maquillage and went to have a look...Tess followed suit.

they each took a turn

the results...a happy halloween face.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reflections on teaching

What I notice here is…

  • I almost never see the proviseur (principal) and only occasionally see the proviseur adjoint (vice principal).

  • There is a single photocopy machine here…it doesn’t collate or do double sides or staple. People use the machine but not the way we do in America. Everything that is given to students here is tailored to some degree by the need on the student’s part to crop it and glue it into his notebook. I haven’t seen long lines at the machine…I have seen a little frustration occur when the machine breaks down. We each have codes but I don’t know yet what sort of accountability is in place here…

  • Teachers come and go during the day. They have offices in their homes where they create curriculum and plan lessons. They are professionals who spend part of their time on site and part of their time in their own offices (at home). It all seems very efficient, and very sensible to me. There is an expectation here that teachers use their time at home to accomplish important work…but that expectation is facilitated by policies and work hours which free them up to do this work.

  • I don’t have my own classroom. I am a gypsy. I carry in my briefcase everything I need to conduct my daily lessons. I arrive at the designated room to find my students waiting in the hallway to be let in. I unlock the door or sometimes we wait together as another class, just dismissed, files out. At the end of class, I write a summary of the lesson in the class notebook which along with the attendance notebook goes back to the office, I erase the board, I gather my things, and I lock the door behind me. Some days I am fortunate in that I have consecutive classes in the same room. On the other hand, since nobody has their own room, the staff members bump into each other in the salle de profs quite often, especially during the fifteen minute morning break at 10 am and at lunch where we have our own private dining room.

  • When I arrive in the salle de prof (teachers’ room) I go to my casier (mailbox) just to make sure I don’t have a message. The first day or two of the school year there some class lists, but since then most days it is empty. One day I found a notice for parent night, another time there was a memo about how to download the electronic gradebook, last week a colleague with whom I’m participating in a theater club left me a photocopy version of Woody Allen’s play Dieu (God), that’s about it…not much communications traffic for six weeks of school. There is a bulletin board with the school calendar, notices about union meetings, staff absences and requests for subs (here staff can volunteer to get paid – at the sub rate - for covering classes of absent colleagues…the law actually permits the principal to mandate teachers to do sub for pay but there enough volunteers that it doesn’t happen that way.)

  • No faculty meetings. No emails. No emails from principals exhorting staff to greater and nobler heights, from vice principals announcing fire drills, from athletic directors soliciting ticket takers, from guidance counselors reminding staff of schedule changes and IEP meetings, from attendance officers reporting compliance issues, from librarians seeking overdue books, from lab supervisors posting testing dates, from technical personnel alerting staff to network closures, from secretaries trying to locate missing equipment or reminding staff to prepare progress reports, from custodians warning staff about locking doors, from coaches and advisors excusing absences, from parents seeking progress reports and/or someone’s head on a platter, from community members/faculty conducting fundraisors, from department heads seeking budget recommendations, from site council members conducting polls, from student government asking for time to conduct elections, from leadership class looking for spirit week proposals, from the superintendent announcing program and/or legislative changes, from textbook salesmen, from colleagues with the latest link to YouTube, from union reps calling meetings… none of this... - Repeat after me…No emails…no memos. In a country famous for its bureaucracy I am amazed by how free I am here to plan for and reflect upon the lessons I need to present to my students. It has taken me awhile to put my finger on just what exactly has been so conspicuously absent from my work life this year…but I believe it is the institutional white noise that envelopes the American teacher and conspires at every turn to distract him from anything resembling a sustained and coherent approach to his job. This is not to say that American teachers do not produce coherent and sustained efforts; those that do so, however, must plant themselves firmly against the prevailing cultural currents.
  • Speaking of mounting a coherent and sustained approach...I wish I could claim to be doing as much here, but the reality for me is that I'm teaching six classes, five different preps (for the first and probably last time). My own learning curve is by necessity very steep.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Still life with Tess

a corner in St. Emilion

Thursday, October 19, 2006



you look through a window

your breath collects on the pane,

or pausing at an entryway just ajar

your temple presses lightly against a doorjamb,

or peering into his eyes

your hair falls forward,

shrouds your face,

your world gets shuttered down,

not everything is for looking through

and not every aperture opens

on to a field of view,

and sometimes, as you wipe the smudges

from your lenses,

you may wonder about even wider angles,

so you pull back, get a little distance -

but that way there is only one perspective,

the unblinking blue eye, Earth,

staring back at you …coherent, cold, absolute.

back you come, in tight and close,

you dwell furtively in doorways

you linger by window shades,

faces fly by on the bus,

it all comes to you piecemeal

blindingly so,

you’re so blinkered,

so bound and bordered,

so constrained,

but nothing can prevent your looking

or your being intrigued:

a frame holds nothing in

and everything out -

you never feel where you are,

until, focused by necessity,

you are looking through something else.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Bordeaux is a river port city that straddles the Garonne...

It's a 45 minute drive from our house.

Le Grande Theatre

We're going to see Casse Noisette (the Nutcracker) here
the day after Christmas...
we called a couple of weeks ago and got the last four seats!

Our hotel, Tour de l'Intendance, right in the center of the old city.

Finally, the number one reason to visit Bordeaux according to a
couple of young world travellers we know.

near Place de Quinconces


ps - thanks to Keith Grassman for the photos of the city and the theatre.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The art of lying…or Now I lay me down to sleep

It’s bedtime. I take a break from correcting tests in my study to help put the kids down. This night Beth has Colm and I have Tess. We get in bed and as is her custom Tess asks if she can lie on my chest.

“Can I lay on your stomach?”

“Yes.” I decide to run a bit of English usage by her just to see if she’s receptive “…but you can’t lay on my stomach; you can lie on my stomach.”

Tess lifts her head. This is news to her.


“You don’t say ‘lay’. You say ‘lie’.”

“You not supposed to lie.” It is an assertion that we both know has originated from my own mouth. She looks at me and waits for an explanation.

“It’s okay if you lie on my stomach. It’s what you’re doing right now. It’s okay.”

“If you lie…” Here she pauses as if to organize her thoughts. When she does this, it usually signals a rather complex discourse is to follow. She grabs a breath and continues…”Colm, one day, he said he wasn’t going to go upstairs and I went with him and he took your red pen and he did and he wrote something it was not his paper and I told him but it was very bad and then he came down and he said he wasn’t going to go up there.”

“Did Colm go up there today?”

“He said he wasn’t going to.”

“But he did?”

Tess nods. I think about the test papers up on my desk in the study. I’ve been laboring over them for the past couple of days, trying out my new red ink pen. I have to fight an urge to go up then and there and see what it is that my son has done. Tess is looking at me, waiting.

I’m not sure about what motivates Tess in these moments…it could be free association, it could be more…self-serving?...I know, however, that she is telling me the truth, which is to say she is faithfully reporting an event that transpired today. Colm meanwhile has been acting on an urge lately to experiment with a verbal proposition (usually couched in the negative, “I’m not going to …”) by then doing the opposite, all the while keeping one sly eye on us to observe our reactions. He finds it immensely entertaining.

Meanwhile Tess is still waiting for me respond.

“I see. Well, lay your head down close your eyes…”

“Can I lie on your stomach?”

I think to myself what a minefield language can be and how nimble she is…good thing for her, though maybe not for Colm.


Later, after Tess has fallen asleep I go upstairs. Anxiously I survey the desktop and then I see one test paper off to the side. It is covered in jagged red ink lines and irregular, broken shapes. Colm’s handiwork. I’m relieved to see that he has at least had the consideration to mark the reverse side of the student’s test paper.

He said he wasn’t going to do it. Then he did it. He lied. That’s how Tess sees it.

Colm sees it differently, I’m sure. I imagine that he’s fascinated by the whole notion of saying one thing and doing the opposite. Does the sky fall down in thunder on your head? Or do words and acts only know one another coincidentally?

Now he’s lying asleep in bed. He has no idea he’s been given up by his sister. For all he knows, this is the way words and the world works. I’ll lay odds that tomorrow, when asked, he’ll be vague (lie?) about having done this deed…if Tess is present, she’ll be sure to refresh his memory and set the record straight. I probably won’t ask him though…best to let some lies lie where they are.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Food, glorious food

Today is market day...

The first couple of days in Lege our fridge looked like this...

Since then we've discovered the Friday market in Andernos les Bains.

Eating the food (and Beth's cooking) is such a pleasure.

Today's haul:
salade, figues, noix, carottes, haricots beurres, tomatrs, poires, oeufs, pain, clementines, poivrons, courgettes, concombre, fromage (de brebis, brie de vache, de chevre), confiture d'abricot et peche, bourru, saumon*, des gavettes de canard*

For most things it's cheaper to buy food at the market than at the supermarket (cheese being a notable exception). At the supermarket it seems like we drop 80-100 euros each time we go shopping...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


And another thing…

Lycée Francois Magendie

One of the classes I observed in Bordeaux at the Lycée Francois Magendie furnished me with a great example of how to read the riot act, à la francaise, to a class of upstart underclassmen...this is roughly how it went down.

It doesn’t take long for Madame X to become disenchanted with her class. Right off the bat she observes that a handful of students have not brought their books, a couple more do not have their cahiers. (It’s worth noting here as an aside, that not even the most irresponsible French kid fails to bring writing materials.) This prompts a scolding leveled at the offenders but clearly intended for the benefit of all present. The gist of it runs along the lines of “we’ve been at this a month now…I shouldn’t have to be reminding you that it is impossible to do your work without your materials.”

Madame X is a slim, middle-aged woman with short hair and narrow spectacles. Even though she wears jeans, there is a stylish air about her, it could be the dangling earrings, the scarf draped loosely over her shoulders and about her neck. She paces across the front of the room like a caged panther.

Then swiftly and without fanfare she begins the lesson, They have been given an ad from an English newspaper, The Guardian. The bold print asks, “Are you ashamed of your English?” It’s selling one of those prep-for-success kind of books. Madame X peppers the class with questions about the ad. Things are going reasonably well, students are raising hands volunteering answers, and then the class founders on a question that hinges on knowing whether certain English words in the text are nouns or adjectives. What are some positive nouns in this text?One student after another fails to deliver the expected answer. “Better?” volunteers one. Is that a noun? “Comprehensive?” says another? What is that word?Doesn’t anyone know what a noun is? Didn’t you do your homework?

Madame X seems surprised and bemused. She tells the class to get out their homework which presumably contains work illustrative of the point in question…there is a noticeable lack of activity in response to her prompt, noticeable to me and to her. I can see the lines along her jaw and neck tighten. She begins circling the room confronting individual students, Did you do the homework? She demands a yes or a no from each one. A couple of students attempt to mumble something affirmative. In both cases Madame X refuses to take their word for it and demands to see the work. I did it, but I didn’t write it down, is the barely audible reply. Then it isn’t done, is it? Not properly. She continues remorselessly around the room until she has extracted the truth from every one of them.

Having thus assembled the evidence before their eyes in convincing and meticulous fashion she then proceeds to explain to them the significance of this evidence for their miserable lives. If allowed to continue, this sort of thing can only lead to catastrophe for each of them, she says. This is not serious work. You’re not in college (middle school) anymore, are you? You’re in lycée. She heats up. She switches to French. It is now a tirade. She alternately punches the volume and then turns on her heels to go back to her desk as if she were about to wash her hands of the whole lot of them. There are some here who want to learn. It is a pity…you have no right to deny them...most of the kids keep their heads low but that does not save certain individuals from being directly challenged,.. show me your work…this isn’t serious work…do you call this serious work? you’ve copied this wrong from the board…were there two “l’s” in this word? …no, you must concentrate, you must try harder and do you work properly. When she has the entire class cowed and silent, she finally relents a tiny bit. Madame X looks at me, we make eye contact. She appears genuinely distressed about what is happening and about the fact that I am witnessing it. She takes a breath and then takes a different tack. “we” (the school, adults in general, me and her perhaps?) are not against you; rather, you are your own worst enemies. Your very futures hang in the balance, but it is you who must accept responsibility for your own future…she is impassioned and earnest as she advances this line of argument. It occurs to me that she really means it, and that while she might be good at sarcasm, she doesn’t necessarily prefer it to more civil discourse.

And then as sometimes happens in the classroom, a student delivers her an opening by which she can reestablish some sort of rapprochement with her class. A hand goes up. “What does this word mean? asks a girl right in front of me. Madame X appears to stifle an impulse to reprimand her for deflecting her tirade. She goes to the girl and asks to see the word. The girl points at it. Madame X’s demeanor changes perceptibly. this is a good question. Can you say it louder, please?

“What does “wordpower” mean?”

What is word power? Do you know this word? she asked them.

Silence…not surprising given the circumstances.

Madame X writes it on the board. It’s a mot composé (compound word) the sort of thing that happens a lot in English. Look.

She writes “word” and “power” separately. What are these words? Nouns or adjectives? I tense up, we’re back to parts of speech. From the class come a couple of voices, soft and ever so tentative, “Nouns…”

That’s right. she says. I’m a bit surprised that she isn’t making a bit more of the victory, such as it is, but she clearly has no intention of celebrating until there is something more substantial to feel good about. She gestures at “word”. But look here where this word sits, just before the noun “power”. She pauses as if recollecting something. Do you know what power is?

One kid offers the French word “pouvoir” but Madame X doesn’t even look at the boy. She isn’t the least bit interested in French, this is after all an English class.

More silence. I suppose you know who Jacques Chirac is, don’t you? How about George Bush? Heads nod. They have a lot of power, political power. They can do what they want with the world, can’t they? I notice a mischievous smile on her face. There are many kinds of power. I have power don’t I, power over you…I can make you do things. The smile is broader now, she is conceding to them that she knows her own power is contingent, but is a tacit concession probably lost on most of the kids…I can try at least…but you know, I don’t want power over you. I’d rather have power with you. As she says this she extends her arms outward in invitation. But it is decidedly not an invitation to a group hug; it is, rather, a proposition, a notion founded on bedrock Republic principles. She is not asking them to love her; she is imploring them to join with her in doing the work that needs to be done… a distinction with a real difference.

She then turns back to the board. Look at where this word sits, right here before the word “power”. What do we call words that come before nouns and modify them?

This time a small chorus answers, “Adjectives.”

That’s right! She is animated. She draws an arrow from “word” to “power”. It’s a noun normally but here it functions as an adjective. It tells you what kind of power we’re talking about. Wordpower. Do you understand?

More nodding.

Madame X looks at the girl who posed the question and regards her with approval…and gratitude, perhaps? She has recaptured the golden thread, la ligne directrice, which seemed irretrievable a few moments ago. There is in the class a palpable sense of relief, something akin to a collective epiphany that Madame X is both terribly smart and terrible, and that the former trait is far more desirable to spend time with than the latter. The bell sounds. Madame pauses. It is up to her to dismiss them. She looks at them gravely and in French she warns against the folly of repeating today’s mistakes. There is suspense in the room, the clock is ticking, could she be heating up again? “You have lost much time today. I did not lose it. You did. Come prepared the make up for lost time next time. If not…measures will be taken. She falls silent and inclines her head.

Everyone gathers their things. The students are gone in a matter of seconds.


A few days later, I’m standing in front of a class of secondes (sophomores). I look sternly at a young woman and I hear myself say, “This is not serious work. You’re in not college anymore, are you?” She is visibly contrite. “Do you understand?” She nods. I go on with the lesson, but I am strangely elated by the way those words came to me all at once, a set piece. I feel armed - not dangerous - but armed and ready.

Permission to impose myself upon my students…?

Permission granted.

Thank you Madame X.


Monday, October 09, 2006

La trace écrite...writing as religion

I’ve recently returned from a Fulbright orientation in Bordeaux…overall an excellent experience. The reflections which follow are derived from what I saw and heard but to the extent they might be simplistic or distorted I don't wish to attribute them to anyone else...on the other hand if they have merit...

In every lesson there is a hierarchy of experience as well as of knowledge. There are those things which have merely transpired during class time and then there are those things which must be understood to have been the raison d’etre for the time to have passed at all.

In France, a notebook is not a notebook…it is a sacramental object, a cahier de cours. It is in no case a source of paper. Asking a student to tear a page, even a blank one, from his notebook is to ask him to commit an act of desecration. He would rather recopy an entire essay by hand that do such a thing.
A cahier de cours is, first and foremost, an artifact. The student-as-artisan recreates in his cahier that which the teacher has conceptualized and elucidated and, perhaps, elicited as well. It is the sacred duty of each student to render with red, blue and black ink, with highlighters, and with straight edges and glue the sacred scripture known as the “trace écrite”.

In an educational system where writing is a religion, it is the religious practice of the trace écrite that sustains the faith of student and parent alike that something is being taught and their certain knowledge that all will be tested.

The teacher may say many things in the course of a class period, he/she may even write many things on the board, or even distribute things to the students but the French student has been warned to keep his head up, he’s been warned against covert and copious note taking…he has been conditioned to wait patiently for that moment which arrives in every class period when all that has transpired is then framed and put into perspective. When it does arrive, the student opens up his trousse and goes about the business of making art out of what he has witnessed.

The blackboard, a kind of hieroglyphic playground for a lot of American teachers, is the platform on which knowledge is laid out and coolly, professionally dissected. New vocabulary, key concepts. formulations of model sentences. At the proper moment, and only then, students open up their their trousses and break out the tools of their trade (colored pens, straight edge, white out, scissors and they get about the meticulous business of reconstructing the essence (trace écrite) of that day’s lesson in the pages of their notebooks.

The failure on the part of the teacher to provide the “trace” is tantamount to an admission that nothing of substance happened that day. But it is also no better to require students to take notes on all and sundry that transpires …such a lack of discrimination invites the suspicion (which will soon harden into a certainty) that there is no governing logic at work in this teacher’s mind or in his course…an equally damning judgment.

There are, clearly, Cartesian habits of mind that are essential to being (or at least being perceived as being) an effective teacher. Those habits are I think already in place in my arsenal, though they may not be arrayed front and center to the extent required here. I may have to rearrange my mental furniture a bit, a bit of an inconvenience but also an opportunity to live in new digs for awhile.

Then there are the physical, technical habits and skills…and here is where I despair…how to manage a blackboard, how even to write in neat horizontal lines across a blackboard, in neat legible handwriting, how to calibrate the time needed to write on the board versus the time they will need to copy things in their notebooks at the end of the period, and how to graphically code information on the board so as to properly highlight the essential from the nonessential stuff.

I feel sorry for my students who, confronted with my blackboard skills are then required to make something aesthetically acceptable out what I have presented them. Indeed, as I walk up and down the rows watching them I am put to shame by their technical prowess…straight lines everywhere you look, perfect figures. It’s a good thing, I tell myself, that I’m a teacher here and not a student…my notebook would hardly be a work of art, let alone something sacred.


October 9, 2006

Friday, October 06, 2006

Colm in love


My wife and I were there
when it happened,
right under our noses,
swift, silent, secret-
but not surreptitious -
our son left us for a time,
we saw him, we cared for him,
made sure he did not
step in front of the tram
or drop his fork from the table,
but he seemed not to notice
that we loved him so very much

he had gone,
his world a shiny new place
even as it shrank,
her face all he cared to know,
what he knew rendered
in the upturned gaze,
in how his steps marked hers,
in how he contrived at every turn
to be where she was,
her every move a first cause,
the distance between them
elastic and impermanent,
if I were to ask him
what is it?
he would not hear me,
besides, I already know -
not so easy to say as it is to see,
not so easy to explain as it is feel,
nothing quite so sweet as knowing
something you cannot tell

she opens her hand down by her side
bravely he reaches up,
he will not let go, not willingly, not soon,
her smile makes my own heart glad,
my son will be well with her
and by the time he is four or five years old
he won't remember her name
though his fingers may retain
an impression of something
neither he nor I will be able to explain,
especially not to ourselves.

October 7, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them. 5

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

Postcards (cont.)

A highlight for me was definitely visiting the caves of Lascau where you can see replicas of wall paintings thousands of years old. (No pics unfortunately) The story of how the caves were discovered is quaint...boys looking for their dog discovered the entrance to an underground cave. They found their dog and, as it turned out, a stunning collection of prehistoric artifacts. The original caves are now closed to the public to protect them from the ill effects of too much exposure... but Lascau II is an amazing experience....five years went into the creation of the cave replica and then another six years to duplicate the paintings, using authentic materials and techniques. It's impossible to convey the impact of being inside that space in the flickering light with the images of bison and horses suspended overhead ...still images that are nonetheless charged with dynamism....cool, very cool.

500 years ago some of the aristocracy of Perigord lived in large houses cut into cliffs along the Vezere.

The site of a troglodyte village dating back thousands of years...later on a refuge for Huguenots and others seeking to escape the turmoil and dangers of the Hundred Years War

The chateau Castelnaud built in the 13th century.