Monday, February 19, 2007

Bethday...dawns a new dream

Beth turned some mystical and unpronouncable number on Monday.

The preparations included everyone (except me of course) getting coiffed by a professional coiffeuse...she looked at the results of our home cuts, shook her head as if I to say I'm a hair stylist not a miracle worker.

Saturday night Beth and I went to the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux to see Rigoletto by Verdi. We drove into the teeth of a very impressive lightning and rain storm (talk about life imitating art)...It was our first opera production. The element of spectacle was handled to great effect. The set design consisted primarily of two concentric and revolving discs, each of them raked at a steep angle, sort of like titled carousels. The discs revolved in tandem or independently providing a variety of floor arrangements in very smooth efficient transitions between scenes. This production opened with a sequence somewhat reminscent of the debauchery scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, needless to say, no one went to sleep right off the bat. We had the lowest level balcony seats literally hanging over the orchestra pit. The musical elements were terrific, the singers and the orchestra...two enthusiastic thumbs up from each of us.
Afterwards in the lobby as the crowd slowly exited, we went to purchase a program (about 10 euros) as a souvenir but the young woman at the corner informed us that this was impossible, programs could only be purchased before and during the show, not after. She gave us that serenely diffident look that I've run into more than once or twice over here (someday I'll tell about my encounter at the swimming pool with the surveillant).
Disappointed, we turned to leave when a woman interposed herself in front of us. She was petite, grey haired and quite impeccably dressed. She held a program out to us. "It's practically new," she said smiling. "Here, take it." Utterly disarmed, we stumbled over ourselves to thank her. She was benignly indifferent to any offers to pay for the program.
It was a sweet punctuaiton mark to a lovely theater experience. We went to a nearby cafe for a glass of wine and an almond tarte, walked back through the old city to our car and drove home.
Then yesterday we went to have a Sunday meal with Hamed, his lovely wife Sophie, and their adorable twin eight year old daughters whose names I cannot spell but which sound like magic spells. We sat outside in the jardin for awhile...our kids took awhile to ease into the situation but thanks to the sweet dispositions of our host in a short time the kids were playing happily together. We arrived a little after noon and left for home around seven. It seemed effortless passing the time with them. Amazingly there was almost always food and drink present. For dinner we had a provencal soup called pistou, followed later by basque dish featuring veal, onions and garlic.... in between there was pate and after the last course there was the cheese plate. We capped the whole thing off with a yummy chocolate gateau made by Beth. It was wonderful, good food and even better people.

Today was sunny so we went to the beach. Tomorrow we are leaving for a week in Provence.

We've rented an apartment in Arles. We're hoping for decent weather. We'll be in the country of Marcel Pagnol (Jean de Florette) and Jean Giono.
We asked Tess what we should pack for the trip - her response, "Underwear and toys." A natural born traveller.
I'm leaving the laptop at home, taking a week off from blogging so I'll catch you up as best I can on the other side of this vacation...much love.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Huck Finn in Bordeaux

Thursday night I was invited by my colleague Francis to come to Bordeaux and speak to a group of people on the subject of Huckleberry Finn. These are men, professionals, academics, scientists and artists who get together every month or so to hear presentations on diverse topics. It is the sort of thing that one might call a salon, I think. There were about a dozen of us present. I must say that going in I had some anxiety about whether or not I could deliver, but Francis' friendly and peristent encouragements gave me the courage to accept the invitation. I'm so glad that I did.
We gathered at eight in the evening in a photography studio belonging to one of the group members in the heart of downtown Bordeuax. We sipped some champagne and mingled for a while. Then chairs were brought in and arranged so that I was seated facing the rest of them. I really had to calm myself before beginning but the group was so impeccably courteous and welcoming that I was able to find my footing pretty quickly.
The topic, Huckleberry Finn, was of interest to them in part because of their curiosity as to why the novel is accorded such a high place within the canon of American literature. Some of them had read the novel (in translation) and at least one of them brought a copy with him. There was also a woman present who had studied Mark Twain as part of her work for her Masters. There is a perception of Twain's novel that it is rather a young adult novel (like, for example, Tom Sawyer) than a serious literary work. Everyone of course knew about Hemmingway's claim that American literature begins with Huck Finn and that, in his opinion, it was the best book written by an American writer, but the question remained as to why that might be.
(To step to the side for one moment, I have at various and sundry times during this exchange wished that my French was better, or to put it more precisely, that my formation in French had included some formal training and not been such an ad hoc affair. In the beginning especially, I worried about this. I have come to a point, finally, where I no longer worry for two reasons: first, such worry is pointless and second, my French, while not textbook, is good enough. In addition, I have discovered that I my formation as a literature and writing teacher has enabled me to bring something more to the table than language proficiency.)
So I was more than happy to join in a discussion of Twain's novel as long as everyone present was willing to indulge me in my sometimes unorthodox attempts to express myself.
My own remarks centered on a few themes, the first of which was life on the frontier, which is to say that cultural space right on the edge of the novel it is the river. It is a place that allows one access to civilization without being constrained by it, a place perfectly suited to Huck's ambivalence about the whole notion of being "civilized".
I also talked about cultural debates in the U.S. concerning whether the novel should be taught in classrooms. We begain, of course, with the problems some readers have with Twain's use of the word "nigger". There was considerable interest in the group on the potency of this word and other terms denoting, african-american, negro.
But we also talked about the novel's ambiguity on the subject of slavery, how the issue was personal for Huck, based on his friendship with and loyalty to Jim and not on any over riding political or social principle. Jim's situation is not so carefree as Huck's and his quest for freedom is laced with far more serious implications. And this is what makes the relationship between the two of them so interesting. Can calow youth escape it's own self absorption and muster enough empathy, can it gain a perspective wide enough to become invested in the sufferings of others? For me the answer is yes, but a qualified yes. Huck is for me a great example of a character who embodies perfectly the imperfections of humanity. Huck's lets the river carry him along, come what may, he makes decisions in the moment and he prefers being on the move to being "engaged" in any larger struggle or effort...the original American road trip story.
As a footnote to the presentation, I also brought up the subject of Huck Finn in translation. I had with me a copy of a French version, the only French version I know of, translated by Andre Bay in 1971 (surely there is another version...?). The translator's note concludes with the following caveat: (my translation)
In this version, I have tried to perserve the original rough hewn and informal aspects of the story without employing nonstandard or nongrammatical language.
It is, I suppose, easy for an American to smirk about the obvious contradicton embedded in this proposition. It's hard to imagine Huck Finn absent the colloquialisms, the dialects, the nonstandard syntax, spellings, the pecular lexicon of the Missippi River boat culture... On the other hand, dialect is a tricky thing. It can be a tool for developing characters, giving clues about his/her social class, origins, pretentions etc... this is something that one can do in French as well as in English. But dialect can also be a method of situating a character in a specific world. This latter function poses the problem of cultural equivalency. Can one find in France a dialect which evokes a subculture roughly equivalent to that of the Pike County? And if one tries to do this what kinds of wierd reverberations result from having a character speak some provincial French dialect for example while floating down the Mississippi in the antebellum South?
I've read of some Spanish translations of Huck Finn that have attempted this very thing, perhaps somebody out there knows about it? I'd be curious to hear what the result is.
The discussion wrapped up a little after ten. We then headed out to find a restaurant where we could have dinner. I hope my American friends are appreciating that last sentence. Try this next one...We walked a few blocks toward the Garonne River where we found a Spanish restaurant in full swing, tables full of people eating dinner at eleven at night. We spent a couple of hours eating, talking...simply marvelous. I felt extremely privileged to have been allowed to spend such an evening with them.
I drove home from Bordeaux in the wee hours of the morning riding on an emotional high...some of that dissipated pretty quickly about four hours later when I found myself in front of my classes Friday morning trying to remember what exactly it was I was going to do with them that day...!
One last little tidbit...I find it interesting to learn which Amercian writers are read here. Jim Harrison is very, very well regarded here as is Paul Auster. I like Harrison a lot but I haven't yet sampled much to read, so little time.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Batten down the hatches!...coup de vent

We had what is called a coup de vent yesterday. Winds were forecast in the neighborhood of 60 miles per hour. I'm not sure how fast they actually were, but it was impressive nonetheless.

As you might expect, things like trash cans get blown about, doors burst open, nails get loosened and screws get unhinged.

I did some temporary repair work on the terrasse roof just to batten down the hatches! Nothing serious.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Their own words...I found joy again

Another excerpted essay from my class of secondes...a spirited girl.

If I want to speak about my teenage life I have to begin with the death of my great-grandmother who bred me: my great-grandmother when she died I feel like in a black hole. I quit my boyfriend who loved me, I hurt him and do bad things to forbid my grief. I had lost my motivation, but the help of my best friend I found joy again.
Today I live my life day after day and I don't want to answer me about the future. I spend my free time seeing my friends or playing volleyball. I found in the death of my great-grandmother a reason to live - for her. If I need to be brave I think at her and find courage, all the little difficulties of my teenage life are less important.
I am the leader of my volleyball team and I want to be better every day, I want always to progress because when I play I can forbid my problems. I am free. I need freedom. That's why I don't like to be in class. I am not free and I can't see my best friend C. She plays volleyball with me, she is always with me, we need to be together, she is like a little sister for me, in every difficulties of my life she is here and I am here in all hers.
I want to have friends around me but I keep my real bad feelings in me, hide inside my smile because I am too proud. I take advantage of my life because I think I have a very good life with true friends, a lovely and big family, and a good situation.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The missing tooth and the silent "e"

Tess just concluded her first deal with the tooth fairy. Her loose tooth had been wobbling around in there for quite awhile now, the permanent one was pushing it's way in. Tess awoke to discover her tooth had disappeared. She was a little alarmed, as if she'd been burgled, but we found it in our bed. That night we pulled the switcheroo, putting a 2 euro coin in a heartshaped case under her pillow. She was delighted. Colm is a little concerned however since none of his teeth are the slightest bit loose, but he's a good sport about it (having a big sister has impressed up0n him the notion of waiting and biding his time). Already Tess has another loose one!

On another front,
Tess and Colm are starting to cipher their letters.

Colm has been writing his name for a couple of days. It's fascinating to watch him attempt to simulate the likeness of a letter like "k". He usually constructs something that looks like a highback chair...but it's what he sees. His concentration is impressive. He wants badly to be able to do what big sis does.

This morning at the breakfast table, Tess took a pen and without any textual clues in sight, she first pronounced and then wrote these words.

It's really interesting to watch how this whole notion of readiness can play out. When Tess is ready things move very quickly.

Tess and I did a few more words, sounding them out, some of them real some invented, and then, on a whim, I showed her the silent "e". She was intrigued. Pretty soon we were making all kinds of words, first with the short voyel sound and then the long sound signalled by the silent "e".

Not to be outdone, Colm began composing things
like "IOV" or "MCO" and then asking me, "what is this?". As long as I gave an energetic effort at sounding out his "word" he was satisfied and proud.
Their little minds are so cracks me up!

Friday, February 09, 2007

death in real life

As you know if you're a regular visitor here, I've been involved in the theater club. The play we've been rehearsing is a playful and irreverent piece about death, more specifically a restive bunch of fair weather friends who have come to observe traditional rite of viewing the body of a recently deceased. In this play the customs of civility inexorably give way to candor and then degrade further in to a sort of orgy of aspersions . It's all very witty and clever...the cast has had a great time with the lines and with the challenges of bringing characters to life, a prime example being an unfortunate character who finds herself trapped in this scene needing to find a toilette but being thwarted utterly in her attempts to get relief. Her ultimate solution is disagreeable to say the least. One character, played with great relish by the German teacher here (Jean) who is also the theater advisor, tries in vain to restore some dignity to the proceedings by uttering the following line, "On parle d'un mort ici, un peu de tenue, merde!" ("We're speaking of a dead person here, show some respect, for chrissake!") It is a line he utters at least a dozen times in the piece. Jean has a genuine flair for theater in general and he manages to deliver this line a little differently each time, but each time to great effect and with a playful twinkle in his eye. The kids obviously very fond of him, and he of them. It is great to see this kind of relationship between kids and teachers.

And then early this week the shocking news that Jean's partner had died suddenly in the night of a heart attack. Jean, of course, did not come to work for a few days. Our troupe met and it was decided that we could not go on with this particular play. The whole idea of so diffidently mocking the corpse and the memory of a dead person, seemed suddenly beyond the pale. Even harder to imagine was Jean puffing himself in feigned indignance to utter his signature line. In short all the fun had gone out of the play and had been replaced by an unexpected chill from the real thing.

Marie, our director, had promised to find a new script but it is late in the year... this will prove to be quite a challenge for everyone involved.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bac Blanc Biology/Geology...Darwin lives!

I monitored one hour of a three hour Biology/Geology exam last Tuesday. The kids who take this exam are self selected. They have opted for the series S which means they are embarked on a life path in the sciences. Needless to say, there weren't quite as many kids in the room as for some of the more general subjects.
I did my best to decipher the contents of the exam, a daunting document since it was both in French and in Biology. Some of my friends and readers are reasonably fluent in Biology however so in the hopes of shedding a little light on what goes on here in that particular discipline here's the lowdown on the exam these kids had to take:
1. In a rigorous and well developed manner, explain individual variations within a Sardorian system focusing on types 2222 and 44. 10pts
2. Study the two graphs (displaying information about sedimentary layers) and based on those documents construct an agrument justifying a biological crisis. 4pts
3. There is a phylogenetic tree (otherwise known as an evolutionary tree - I looked it up!) featuring in order: carp, rat, tortoise, lizard, crocodile, and chicken. There is also a grid displaying 14 traits/characteristics which can be either marked present or not present. The traits include such things as: aminos, appendages, functioning lungs, skulls, scales, hair, jawbones...
The student is first asked to inventory these characteristics with respect to two creatures: the coelacanth (check him out in Wikipedia) and Tyrannosaurus.
Next, the student is asked to explain adaptations particular to the tortoise. Finally,(I wouldn't bet the house on my translation of this one) the student must construct an phylogenetic tree including 14 examples of tetrapodes and/or amniotes and properly locate coelacanth and Tyrannosaurus on this tree.
Three hours, sharpen your pencils everybody and hunker down...I watch these kids working carefully, meticulously over their papers and I think...I'm not in Kansas anymore!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Professional collaboration... à la francaise

Last evening I sat at a table for a couple of hours with my four colleagues in the English department at Lycée Nord Bassin. Our purpose for meeting was twofold. First we needed to distribute the Bac Blancs (English exams taken by all the seniors) amongst ourselves for correcting. The only rule governing this process was that we not grade our own students' tests. We accomplished that in about ten minutes (I was given twenty exams to grade). Secondly, we had to work collectively through the exam and work out criteria for correcting and scoring each item on the test. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this excercise, and professionally speaking I found it to be a very credible approach to a very real problem, how within disciplines to adequately norm evaluations of student performance?

The exam we were discussing had not been designed by any of us, but it had been chosen by us. In France there is a large collection of what they call test subjects- excerpts from fiction or nonfiction works- which are accompanied by test questions. The questions involve reading comprehension and require a close reading of a text and often asks the respondent to cite specific textual lines to justify answers. There is also usually a translation section where the student is required to take an English passage of say four or five lines and translate it into French, the objective being to demonstrate both a nuanced understanding of the English and an ability to make the necessary adjustments to find an appropriate rendering of that same content (not necessarily the same words) in French. Finally, there is an essay or free response section in which the student is expected to produce a written response of about 250 -300 words. The exam lasts two to three hours and is taken by every senior in the school.

We took each question in turn and identified the responses we were looking for and then decided how many points to award for each element. Since many of the questions were short answer types there was also the question of whether to award or deduct an additional point or two for fluency/awkwardness of expression. In practical terms this involved all of us taking the test together and rehashing the text together. Along the way we became aware of certain ambiguities that might produce unintended student responses. Relatively straightforward questions like "Where does this scene take place?" is likely to trip up the lazy or uncritical reader if he does not unpack the text for the most specific and precise information available. The thing about language teachers is that for them the words matter, it's often not good enough to be more or less correct. Put a bunch of us together at a table and before long there will be some hairsplitting going's an occupational hazard of language teaching.
We discussed how to mitigate such problems. There were good natured discussions about the pros and cons of certain approaches and of point values. The quesiton always arose, "So how much do we give for this one?" Somebody would offer a number, say 6 points, and then the group would weigh in. "C'est bien payé!" I remember that chiding response which provoked laughter around the table. It took us time to work through all the questions.
The last question was the translation section. For me this was fascinating. Here is the English passage from Having it all by Maeve Haran, 1992:
If they did hear, nothing was ever said. But as she looked at the empty mantelpiece this morning, where their only child's Graduation photo should have proudly stood, she felt so ashamed that she had to look away.

Some people might wonder what the big deal is, asking a French kid to go from English back to his native language but in fact the challenge of translation is pretty complex. Most students have to fight the temptation to simply convert the passage word by word back into their language. The result will almost always be an utterance that no French person would ever make or write...which is to say English dressed up as French. My colleagues offered my a front row seat from which to observe the translation process unfold. They began by trying to reflect the syntaxe of the English passage and so started with, "S'ils en avaient effectivement entendu parler, ils n'en avaient jamais rien dit." This approach did not work so well for the next portion of the passage. Beginning with a roughly equivalent opening like "Mais en regardant..." seemed to led into a linguistic deadend. Ulitmately they opted to reverse the syntactic elements and begin with the information that it was morning.."Quand ce matin là son regard se posa sur le dessus de la cheminée vide..." And so it went on...These kinds of distinctions would never have occurred to me. Needless to say, I followed this discussion with great interest.
And then of course there was the maddening problem of making all the assigned point values add up to one hundred. This necessitated a review of the entire test and a tweaking of point values and their criteria until we hit the magic number... I won't mention how many times we had to do the arithmatic until we all agreed that we had 100 points... even here in France there's something to that math/science - humanties split.
At one point Helene warned the others at the table that I would probably be blogging about this... more laughter. It's funny, when I started this blogging thing I never imagined that my colleagues here might become part of my audience. I'm not sure how many visit it or how often, but I'm happy to have them on board ... coucou!

And now for a little editorial comment:
In America, the classroom teacher is permitted to sidestep that question to the extent that he usually is left entirely to his own devices when it comes to both describing and assessing student performance. To be sure, he is encouraged in various ways and from various corners to adopt certain practices but in practical terms he is never really obliged to square his notions and his practices with those of colleagues.
It is that obligation (an obligation that is not only felt but which is externally and objectively real) to adhere along to a common set of criteria that helps, I think, provide impetus for professional collaboration on the subject of standards.

A final observation... in a school roughly the same size as La Grande High School there are five English teachers, in addition there are also faculty in Spanish, German, Portugese, and Latin. I'm tempted to say that budgetary priorities reflect philosophical values that are different here than they are in the US. We have nice gyms, playing fields, theaters, weightrooms, wood and metal shops, rehearsal rooms, AV auditorium, plenty of high powered xerox machines, computers and televisios they offer a wide range of language courses and they have specialists teaching every one of them.
Apples and oranges? Maybe. You tell me.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Activities vs School ...a French perspective

My students' essays about their lives reveal how here too in France most teenagers understand on a very abstract level the importance of preparing for a future, indeed the idea of education being tied to getting a good job is pounded into their heads from a very early age. Many of them experience this truth as a form of free floating anxiety, a kind of cloud hanging over them.
But when it comes to envisioning in any concrete way the path that will lead them from the present moment to a particular career many kids can't quite wrap their heads around it. One kid wanted to become a doctor, in part, he said, because the parties at medical school were reputed to be great. Another kid also wanted to be a doctor though he admitted that the Bac in science was very hard to succeed in and that he might settle for being a BMX champion instead! The most poignant ones for me are the kids like Steve who is earnest and extremely hardworking but also mightily challenged. He says he will be a veternarian. He admits that the Bac S series will be very difficult and that he might not succeed. Then again there are the kids who give every indication of seeing exactly where it is they want to go and how they're going to get there...Life certainly deals different people very different cards.
Another fascinating revelation of these essays is the importance, indeed one could even argue the centrality of extra-curricular activities to a large number of kids here. This is an interesting phenomenon because these activities by and large have no connection with the high school consequently they must carve out their existence on the margins of the school schedule which is 8-5 M,T, Th,F and 8-12 W.
The menu of options available to kids here is distinctly different in content and in character from what is available to American kids. First consider the following list of organized activities that my students participate in at the club level:
ping pong

handball not the game played in a raquetball court - this is a cross between basketball, soccor and waterpolo...a big deal in Europe - in fact the championships were just held in Germany where France had a goal disallowed in the final 14 seconds of overtime (a scandal! they were robbed, I saw it on TV) in its match with the host team.
horseback riding
music lessons

What I can't report (not yet anyway) is the percentage of high schoolers who engage in one or more of these activites or who engage in none of them. While many of these activities are quite competitive in nature (some individually, some team-based) there seems to something available to everyone, if one can manage the logistical challenges of getting the kids there and home again. There is another dimension to club sport/activity contacts. These kids are run through their classes in pretty tightly knit groups with limited opportunities to interact with a wider population. Doing a club activity offers a kid a chance to broaden his/her social horizons.
There is clearly a percentage of students who do not opt for any of these club activites, who hang out with friends, play computer games, and go shopping etc... but very few of them have jobs. The world of work is by and large closed to teenagers unless they have entered an apprentice program or a technical school.
Obviously, due to the length of the school day, all of these activities are relegated to the margins of time and as far as I can tell matches and competitions and concerts and recitals are not allowed to conflict with class time. Wednesdays and weekends are, therefore, typically loaded up with activities, although there are also late evening sessions for some activities during the kid tells of basketball practice at 8:30 in the evening (I'm not sure how many times a week, maybe only once). Theater club meets on Thursday evenings from 5-7 pm.
Many kids express a strong desire to have more time to engage in these activities. They are envious of the time American teens have for them and stunned frankly to learn that most such activities are carried on the campuses of American high schools. Seen through their eyes, our system appears to be incredibly well funded.
What has surprised me a little is the extent to which parents here also want to see greater opporutnities for activities for their kids. My sample is too small to considered representative but several parents have expressed frustration with the length of time students are required to sit in class versus the time they have to explore more physical and/or artistic pursuits.
One funny thing much as the kids here drool over the typical American highschooler's daily schedule- and they really were incredulous- when I laid out the vacation time to them they all recoiled in horror. For many of them the lack of vacations during the school year was a complete deal breaker...I'm not sure I blame them.

Monday, February 05, 2007

the horror... my own heart of darkness

A confession: sometimes I feel like humiliating certain students because...well, because they did it first... no matter hold I get I can't seem to completely escape the "neener neener" impulse that is the province of the child and the immature. For a teacher, this is a dangerous impulse. In it's most "refined" expression it becomes sarcasm, a tactic not altogether unkown to teachers here and back home. I was once given good advice about using sarcasm with teenagers - "it's like wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."
And then there just plain old meanness. That's not something I've ever felt seriously inclined toward...then again a couple of weeks ago, I indulged myself in a way that might be construed by some as mean... at the time I thought it was funny....well, at least it felt good for a few moments.
There was Anthony sitting in the front row conspicuously ignoring me, blatantly talking and joking while I was attempting to carry on with my lesson without feeding his behavior with any kind of attention...but my efforts at extinction were failing spectacularly. And then, I flipped, almost before I was aware of having consciously changed tactics, I bored into Anthony, in flat, disspassionate, matter-of-fact, ratt-a-tatt English, full speed and nonstop.
Even on his "good days" Anthony doesn't get me at one third speed so I knew he wasn't understanding me at all, I also knew that the faster and the longer I talked that probably no one else in the room was understanding the words although my "performance" was pretty unambiguous in its stone cold intent.
At the beginning of my solo Anthony gave me that silly grin he wears when he thinks he's being funny, but it soon was displaced by a look of confusion. He shook his head, and shrugged, as if to signal me that he wasn't getting it...I nodded, smiling coldly, and continued my stream of consciousness riff unabated ...something like the following.. "you don't understand a single word I'm saying do you I know because not only do you not listen or pay attention or even care about what we're doing in here but you don't ever do your homeword either so it's really no wonder I'd be surprised if you did understand me and since you don't I'm going to continue to talk at you like this so at least you'll no what it feels like to truly be the sole object of someone's attention and also to know what it feels like to be quiet for ten seconds while someone else is talking I hope this experience is sufficiently uncomfortable for you to make you think twice about being such a pain in the butt all the time although it would be foolish and naive of me to hope for so much from someone who has displayed so little interest or aptitude in the subject at hand..."
Anthony had long sinced stopped looking at me or anyone else for that matter. He was doing his best to disappear altogether... I stopped and looked around. It was very quiet. Very strange circumstance, I thought. What I had just done had on one level been absolutely meaningless and on another level been an excercise of brute power and perhaps on another level an authentic (though self absorbed) linguistic performance such as they could never ever get from one of their home grown teachers here. Most curious of all was the fact that this event had only one witness who could unpack the verbal contents of what had Had I sworn like a sailor (which I didn't do, I swear I didn't) no one would have been the wiser. The whole episode left me wondering about myself, a bit like Marlowe going up that river...okay, that's a bit melodramatic. I don't think what I did was terrible, but neither am I comfortable with indulging myself in that way. I've told myself to not fall in love with this story.
A slightly related anecdote...good Kevin comes back.
I tried something with my students Friday. I had come to the conclusion that they needed some intensive oral and listening practice and that my conventional approaches were simply not creating the requisite level of concern and therefore investment in English. So I did a long dictation in English of the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. It's a full twenty lines. The assignment was simple but labor intensive. First, record the words first via dictation and then recopy the text into the correct poetic format given the following two clues: nine syllables per line, four verses each with a rhyme scheme of abaab.
The dictation was painful for them because they were obliged to listen hard and for a long time. I went slowly, repeating words as often as necessary and spelling (but only in English) them when needed. When they finished they had to learn how to pronounce the words properly to verify the rhyme eg. both/undergrowth.
Eventually I'll have them read the poem aloud for a grade, I think.
Anyway at the end of the activity I congratulated them on having concentrated for so long in the target language. I then tried a little levity with them by offering to let them hear perfectly good English pronounced with a French accent. At first a couple of kids thought I might be making fun of them but pretty soon everyone was laughing. The funny thing was that they seemed to understand me better when I spoke English this way... the same thing happens in my French classes at home where inside the insular world of my classroom we develop a language that we call French but which no French person would readily recognize as his own. When your only points of reference in the language are your classmates who practice the same faults as you do, it becomes a perfect system for amplifying and embedding bad habits. One teacher is a rather thin line of defense against such environmental influences.
I told them that having an accent was not a problem, but that speaking clearly and precisely was. Make bold choices and you listeners will have a much better chance of understanding you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Life with Tess...up and down, back and forth

Two visits to school separated by three months time. Each time Beth arrives at noon to pick up Colm and bring him home. Each time Beth catches a glimpse of Tess outside in recreation.
The first one:
Tess is sitting alone on the teeter totter. All around her, kids are running about, loosely knit together in knots of three, four, five. Tess is solitary and silent in the center of the yard. Suddenly she gets up and walks away from the teeter totter, her purpose seems unclear and there appears no one at the end of the line she is following. Behind her, the teeter totter has already been quickly claimed by two children. It is suddenly a focal point of energetic play.

The second one:
Tess is standing in the middle of the yard but you can barely see her as she is surrounded by a group of kids, mostly girls. Everyone is chatting and touching each others clothes and hair. Tess is talking sometimes. When she isn't talking she is smiling and reaching out with her hands, taking up a sleeve or a lock of hair.

From a parent's perspective such voyeuristic glimpses into the life of one's own child are alternately painful and comforting to the point of bringing tears to your eyes.

We adjusted Tess' school schedule slightly about three weeks ago. The new arrangement allows her to come home at noon on Fridays (the same time we pick up Colm). The decision was prompted by a couple of considerations. On the one hand, Beth and I had begun to observe what looked like a certain level of fatigue setting in with Tess. She goes from 9 -4 Mon, Tues, Thurs, Friday. Colm always comes home at noon which initially was sometimes difficult for Tess because she occasionally caught a glimpse of Beth arriving or leaving and would be upset by that. She's been over that for some time now, but still there have been signals from Tess that it's all a bit much. We've wondered if any of it could be attributed to her teachers style. He is a very nice man who is, I think, earnest and professional. His demeanor is a bit standoffish however, especially when contrasted with Colm's teacher who is the classice preschool animatrice, smiling, always crouched down and eyeing the kids from their level, sing songy voice that articulates every sound and every word as if it were a delectable treat.
Tess' teacher by contrast speaks over their heads, both literally and figuratively, he seems to regard the children as interesting little specimens. Personally, I find him among that group of French speakers who require a little extra effort on my part to understand them. He speaks softly, without very much emphasis, and fairly rapidly. I imagine that Tess has difficulty understanding him too.
Wednesdays off are huge. But a month ago after hearing Tess complain more frequently about going to school we decided to give her the choice of coming home early on Friday. She took the offer without any hesitation, and so far it seems to working just fine.
Then in the last few days a new development...Tess, out of the blue, announced at the table that she didn't want to go back to the United States. Beth and I looked at each other and then at her waiting for the rest.
"If I go back to the United States I won't be able to play with Pauline anymore."
Tess seemed genuinely troubled by the thought of leaving her classmate at the end of the year. Beth and I were encouraged. Tangible evidence that school here retains for Tess a genuinely positive value.
Yesterday, after taking the kids home from school (Friday). The kids and I went to the playground in Lege to give Beth a little time to get ready for company that evening. While we were at the playground, I noticed kids filing out of the public library just across the street. It was Tess' class. I made eye contact with her teacher who was leading them; he smiled at me. Then Tess saw them. She bolted from the swingset and ran to the sidewalk, stopped and waved vigrously as if singnalling goodbye to a ship sailing from port. Several of her classmates recognized her and stopped, seemingly bewildered by the sight of one of their own on the other side of the street. The file was momentarily brought to a halt as they waved back. Then they were brought back into formation and resumed the walk back to school.
Tess ran back to me, a big smile on her face. "Pauline waved," she said. "So did Lilu and Margaux but Matisse didn't."
"He probably didn't see you," I said, but I needn't have bothered trying to explain, because Tess had already moved on to the swings and was pumping her legs furiously trying to get some air between her and the ground.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Their own words...I'm nearly ready

Here's another essay from my group of secondes...this kid is one of those quiet, confident types ... one of those lead-by-example kind of young people... a real pleasure to have in class.

During the transition period between infancy and adult life, I'm learning something job, communication with adults, life's a way, I'm learning adult life. My teachers are numerous: my parents and all my family, my school teachers and adults who surround me.
To learn adult life, my parents got me to work in my grandparent's farm. I picked up a lot of plums, I gathered a lot of apples and I cut and piled up a lot of wood. I was paid for this work but it was hard.
Also, in troisieme (ninth grade) we had to to an introductory course in entreprise to see a firm's system where we envisaged our future career.
I haven't another experience about job but I think school is a good manner to prepare us to adult work because we learn a lot of work values: punctuality, team spirit, and life in society...
Equally, I spend time to play basketball and it is very important for me because when you are playing you forget your worries. You just think to win, all the other things are forgotten: school problems, failures... It's important to let off steam. Also we learn sports values: respect, competition, sacrifice...
During my remaining time, my free time, I'm reading books (I love history and detective novels). I'm playing on my computer or I'm riding my bike in town or along the bay, when the weather is fine, to take photos (it's my hobby) about our beautiful area. But I love lazing and sometimes I'm put to bed and I think of my existence and project in my future life...
...I nearly ready to shove the door which opens on the adult life.

french immunity

I took the kids to McDonalds (groan) a while back. While there I met an American with his French wife and their son. You know the old cliche about the best way to learn a language is to get a girlfriend/boyfriend who speaks it? Well consider this guy. He's been married for fifteen years to this woman, a native of this area, and he can't make a sentence. I'm not kidding. He joked about it, said the only word he knew was doll, "poupée, right honey, it's poupée isn't it?" He seemed perversely proud of his achievement.
Obviously the wife is bilingual but still...sheesh!

P.S. - if you saw this post earlier you may have noticed that I misspelled McDonald's (MacDonald's) ...draw your own conculusions.

au revoir neige

Two parting images of the most memorable snowfall in this area's recent history. Not hard to tell which direction is north is it?

a propos de neige...Beth left this morning for a ski weekend in the Pyrennes. It's a group outing organized through the aerobics class she is in. They took a bus this morning at 7:30. They'll stay one night and come back Sunday evening. Don't know if they'll find a lot snow there. More later

Friday, February 02, 2007

I think therefore I have to pee ...Bac Blanc...Philo

Today is the day our high school begins administering exams called Bac Blancs in all of the subject areas. These exams are intended to give students a chance to see how they are likely to do in the end of year exams. This morning I monitored for one hour a group of students taking the exam in Philosophy, a course that is required for all French highschoolers, even those in technical schools.
When I entered the room, they had been working already for two hours. Everyone was hunched over their essays. The woman I relieved whispered to me that no one was allowed to leave the room. I nodded.

The test lasts 3-4 hours. Here are today's writing prompts (translated by yours truly):
1. Can one legitimately criticize a work of art as being immoral?
2. Work, is it only a struggle with nature?
3. Respond to a passage of about 600 words from the philospher Rene Descartes (letter to princesse Elizabeth, August 4 1645) in which Descartes discusses the relationship between reason, virtue and desire in the pursuit of happiness.

By the end of the third hour there clear signs that mental fatigue had set in. The boy directly in front of me had begun doodling on his scratch paper. As far as I could tell he was finished. He was chewing on candy he had stashed in his coat pocket. Discreetly, he asked me if he could go to the restroom.
I said no. He smiled but looked pained. A few minutes later a girl asked me the same question. By all appearances their requests seemed sincere, but I had been given my orders so again I declined, citing the words of the woman who had preceded me. I wondered to myself how they would last the next hour.
At the end of the hour my replacement showed up. He came in smiling, he's one of the friendlier types at the school. He was immediately presented with the same requests I had turned down. He looked at me; I smiled and told him it was his call. He shrugged and said, OK. Immediately there was a stir in the room as if an evacuation was about to take place. He throw up his hands and said, Slow down, one at a time. The girl was up and out of the room in a flash, practically sprinting down the hallway. I stood next to my replacment, smiled at him and the class pointing to my colleague and said, "Good cop." I then pointed to myself, "Bad cop." I was happy to see it work out this way, rather than me be the one to risk being the one who broke protocol.
I wonder what Descartes would have done in my place?