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 scene...social 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 week...one 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 though...as 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.


Anonymous erin said...

I love these stories about your school and the kids! I wanted to share a bit of my school day- 1)it's a valid excuse for being late to say, "there was a moose in my driveway". They are dangerous and immovable. 2) I dodge many new piles of fresh/frozen moose droppings on campus everyday. They are everwhere! 3) Our snowbanks are taller than my truck. We've had 76" of snow, and we still have 4 months left of winter!
I wonder what your students would think of that!

12:25 AM  
Blogger kc said...

probably something like...c'est cool!

3:14 AM  

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