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.


Anonymous Brenna said...

Wow! French high schools seem intense. I thought taking the SAT was horrible, but I cannot imagine going through one of the tests which you have talked about. It's hard to imagine having to pick a particual field of study at such a young age. I'm a junior in college and have just recently changed my major (again). I am thankful to have that option. I found your last comments to be very interesting. I agree that the US has very different priorities as far as education is concerned. Especially in the state of Oregon it seems as though having "things", meaning material objects within schools, is more important that having qualified teachers and more focuses on language and culture. I began to ask myself why our society would choose to favor having nice "things" over learning about other cultures. Is it that we are simply lazy and assume that other people will learn English because it's "easier" or expected? There seems to be a lack of appreciation or possibly motivation to learn about other cultures and encourage students, especially in high school, to learn another language. I was blessed of course, by having an amazing teacher in high school who motivated me to continue my language studies and in fact, I'm two classes short of having a French minor. I would have loved to have taken more langugage classes in high school. Now I think I've gone off onto something else. Point being, it's great to see that there are other places around the world that take education seriously and are willing to use their money wisely. It's time for change and I am acutally very glad that you are not here to see what is going on here as far as politics and issues such as public education, although I'm sure you read about it and hear about it from other people/sources. It's a mess! 2008 cannot come soon enough. Besides that...I hope every one is healthy and well. Take care.

2:12 AM  
Blogger kc said...

Oh to be young again and to be able to say with all sincerity that you cannot wait for this year to be over... (I know you were speaking of politics) I on the other hand am doing everything in power to drag my feet and slow time down...I'm on the wrong side of fifty after all.

9:22 AM  

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