Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Earlier this week. Tess set about creating an illustrated story...she drew and colored the pictures and then narrated the text to Beth. It's called SparkleRose. A classic in the genre, don't you think?

SparkleRose was a unicorn. She is smiling and frowning because she doesn't like the mean guys. She is possible because she can do it. she can save her baby TwinkleStar. TwinkleStar is sad because he is scared that they might catpure him.

The baby is crying. The fairy is saying, "I should help that baby."
The mean guy is saying, "Errr!"
Mama unicorn is angry and entering stage left.

The unicorn is smiling. TwinkleStar says, "Thank you mama for saving me."
The fairy says, "Maybe I helped a little bit."

The End

unreasonable numbers and intimations of infinity

A couple of weeks ago we went to the local vide grenier, which is a communal yard sale where people reserve a spot in the square and bring their stuff to sell. That's where we found these two trottinettes for a grand total of 13 was perhaps the best purcahse we've made all year to date. They love em. The fact that each scooter is distinctly different from the other has prompted the kids to trade back and forth continually. The irresistable novelty of whatever someone else has in their hands remains a constant in their lives.
Of course we don't always get things in pairs, just as often things belong to the house or the family.
Hence the need to share things, the importance of possession vs the legitimacy of ownership ...these are the issues that animate and agitate our kids on a daily basis. Often they are able to sort out their claims without our help, sometimes they are so free and generous that we burst with pride. But just as often, they snarl at one another, and/or they come crying and complaining about how they've been wronged by the other.
We've pretty well established the "don't grab things, use your words" protocol, but that doesn't preclude either one from responding to a very nicely worded question like, "Can I play with the red car, please?' with a curt, "When I'm finished." Each of them has come to understand how to wield this answer and neither one of them has yet learned how to accept such an answer in good faith... (perhaps because they sense that it is seldom given in good faith?)
In order to help them not be overwhelmed by the utter vastness of open ended responses like, "When I'm finished," Beth has introduced the use of a timer. It works pretty well actually. If a dispute arises, the plaintive has the right to ask for the kitchen timer to be set. When it goes off, the possession arrow changes. Initially, Beth would set the timer...usually for five or ten minutes.
It was inevitable that the kids would become interested in the mechanism of the timer and that they would want to set the timer themselves. This of course led to further explorations into the correspondance between numbers and the experience of time passing. Being further advanced in numerology Tess was the first to get the concept of big numbers and doing serious time, while Colm remained primarily intrigued by the technology and the act of turning the dial and watching the lighted display change numbers. The end result of course is that Tess is better at gaming the system than her brother, but since he is not yet aware of that fact, no big deal.
But numbers are beginning to take hold of their imaginations. Just this morning Tess asked for the biggest number. Googleplex, said Beth. They loved that name and repeated it over and over. I threw out the word infinity and Tess gave it a moment's consideration but clearly she preferred googleplex.
Later, we overheard Colm ask Tess if he could play with something.
"When I'm done." A pause, then she added. "After googleplex."
Instantly Colm sent up a hue and cry. Clearly he understood his sister's intentions.
Beth suggested the timer. Colm agreed and went to the kitchen. On his way we heard him say, "Set the timer for zero."
I thought to anyone up there keeping score?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

So goes the lyric from the song that I played and sang for one of my classes a while back. For that group I prepared a short set of three tunes, Sound of Silence and The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel and One More Dollar by Gillian Welch. The overarching theme was immigration and/or alienation, more or less.
Playing the songs was well received, there is always a songbird or two in the room that wants to sing along. The kids had to choose one of the three songs to memorize, the vast majority chose Sound of Silence . Several of them told me their parents owned the cd (in one case they actually had the vinyl!).
With a different group I played Israel Kamakawewo'ole's Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Jack Johnson's Taylor. I urged the kids to go to YouTube and see both songs done by the original artists. Many did and so we were able to talk about that as well. I gave them a biographical sketch of Israel and we did some writing about the tension between hope and sadness that exists in each song.
With yet another group I used some other songs to initiate some paraphrase excercises...I played November Blue by the Avett Brothers, Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, and Desperado by the Eagles. It's also interesting to get kids to imagine what English teachers call the rhetorical situation, who's talking to whom and about what. Man breaking up with girlfriend but hoping somehow to appear the victim, Man at the end of the road and the end of his rope, Woman trying to talk sense to a about excercises in futility.
The technological environment is so dramatically different from when I began teaching. Imagine me playing a song on my acoustic guitar that I have learned by caturing the lyrics and chords on the internet, and by putting the song on my Ipod and also by watching YouTube videos. Several of my students in the room are filming my performance using their cell phones...a bit nerve wracking, and maybe against school policy...oh well. To top it off, three or four kids ask if they can bring their guitars some day to join in the fun. What the heck, I say. I'm not sure what to make of all this serendipitous energy but at times I imagine this is what surfing a wave must feel like, things kind of come together in a very tenuous and contingent way. You either catch it or watch it go by.
The first time I played here I was nervous but since then it's become something I look forward to doing. There are kids who perk up with the introduction of music to the's far from a panacaea but it's also not just cheap tricks. I'm nursing some new found flickerings of attention from some previously unengaged kids and a generally better connection with many others. One afternoon, I took my guitar out to the far end of the courtyard - I had an hour to kill before a meeting - I thought maybe there I could practice a little in the sunshine. About ten minutes later there three or four kids hanging around, five minutes later about ten kids, by the time I left we were about twenty strong. Many were from my classes but not all. I know that I'm something of a curiosity here but it's nice to be something more than merely odd.
Each week since I've picked up a song recommendation from someone. The last two for example were Creep by RadioHead (covered by Korn in acoustic) and 74-75 by the Connells. The point is not really whether I share their musical tastes or's a bit of a stretch to be honest; rather, it's about another kind of exchange, the one in which the teacher allows the students to reciprocate.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

from ear to ear ... singing French

It's a strange and wonderful coincidence but Colm's turning four has become synonymous with Colm beginning to speak French. It's almost as if a switch has been flipped. What comes out of his mouth is almost always the fragment of a song or a jingle that he's heard at school or here at home either on a CD or from Tess who is delighted by the way with Colm's new found interest. She has undertaken to teach him a song where two people hold each other's chin while singing and then upon pronouncing the final word "tapette" they deliver a tap on the head.
It goes like this,
"Je te tiens, tu me tiens
par la barbichette
le premier de nous deux
qui rira aura une tapette."
It's funny how hitting your brother or sister becomes good clean fun when it is done in the service of music. They can hardly wait to get to the "punch line" and when they do the effect is always the same...giggles. I did it with Colm a couple of days ago and neglected to "tap" him. He was indignant and demanded to do the whole thing again. I made sure not to repeat my mistake and gave him a playful knock on the bean. He was satisfied.
The two of them now sing together or back and forth, repeating them so often that the words become second nature to them even as they seem to lose their meaning. At the dinner table last night for example, Tess began singing one her many little jingles-
"Faire, faire mon cheval
pour aller à Montréal
faire le bien ou faire le mal
ca m'est égale."
She repeated it a couple of times, possibly more (Beth and I have become somewhat inured to the phenomenon of repetition, hence two times, a dozen times...what's the difference?) Then from across the table Colm starts up. His version is not exactly textbook but his accent is a dead ringer for his sister's, which is to say, excellent.
Beth and I have been wondering when or even if this would happen for Colm this year. But he's chirping now... along with the rest of the spring birds who sing in each new day here on the penninsula. It hasn't yet crept much into his speech patterns yet, though increasingly he is willing to hear and respond nonverbally to French statements.
Later, as I was putting Colm to bed, he sang a rhyme to me. I didn't recognize it, so I skipped over to Tess's room where Beth was and asked her for the words, she gave me some clues but said she hadn't heard it before and that he must have got it in school this week. As best as we can make out from Colm's account of things, it accompanies a game where the kids crawl between the legs of an adult while singing:
"Passe, passe, passera
la dernière, la dernière,
passe, passe, passera
la dernière restera!"
It took Colm a few tries to teach it to me in bed. He was patient with me, and when I finally repeated it correctly he told that we would play the game in the morning. Sleepily, I assented. Colm then added, "But we have to crawl under your legs because if we go under mine I might fall down."
"That might be funny," I said.
He laughed at that. We both laughed. Colm's then idly lapsed back into humming and singing it again. I joined in as best I could. These sounds we were making, originating as they did from Colm's memory, part music, part poetry, invested with sensations of scuffling knees on carpeted floors, of kindred and disparate voices chanting mostly in unison and partly in key, they were beguiling and strange, not his mother tongue. A little later he was sleeping.
There are times when the passage from wakefulness to sleep is as sweet and dreamy as any image conjured by a lullaby...this was one of those times.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Seeing Oregon

My eldest son, Tim, who is an aspiring photographer, just sent me some of his photos shot during a tour of Oregon with his mother and sister. Beautiful work, beautiful subjects. Makes me a little wistful... and proud.
(click for larger view)

Mt. Hood with a wild mustang on the Warm
Springs Reservation.

Dead Man's Cape at the mouth of the Columbia

Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach on the
North Coast of Oregon.

Lavalands off Hwy 97 south of Bend.

The Malhuer Wildlife Refuge in SE Oregon.

Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon near
Redmond and Madras.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Are extraterrestials polygamous?...French TV

Beth and I are watching The Ring Trilogy (version francais). We're halfway into the second one. It's fun. The quality of the dubbing is excellent but sometimes the names get in the way. Some names such as Frodo and Gandalf and Sam and Gollum are kept so it's just the pronunciation that causes one to smile a little. Other times the producers opt to go for a French equivalent (not necessarily a translation). Who do you think "Grimpeur" is? Or Poilgris? (answers at the end of the post)
I stayed up after the movie to watch a little television. I caught about an hour of a show whose title I can't remember but which has fairly unique format. It combines elements of formal debate, with studio audience electronic voting, and panel discussions of such hot topics as "has the sexual revolution gone too far", "is polygamy the future for male/female relationships?", "have extraterrestials already visited us here on earth?"
The show opens with two lawyers each making brief opening arguments. There is an affectation of seriousness but in typically French fashion this affectation is heavily laced with a sense of irony and smirking.
After the lawyers comes the first audience poll. The results are instantly flashed onscreen. In the case of polygamy, for example the initial vote was 75 percent against it.
Next comes the panel and the host who attempt to flesh out the subject according to their various points of view and expertise. The polygamy discussion included feminists, a beauty contest representative, a mayor, a researcher, a journalist, and a the leader of a group representing immigrants from Mali who are in fact advocating for the right to practice polygamy here in France. The latter figure was an elderly black man with an utterly engaging persona, soft spoken but very articulate, a ready smile, and that kind of sage Mandela look about him. It was therefore a bit disconcerting to try to connect the rhetoric of not only polygamy but arranged marriage to this charming fellow. The feminist tried to counter his compassionate conservatism with some chilling stories of young girls sold into arranged marriages.
In an attempt to furnish a homegrown Europen version of polygamy and not just focus exclusively on the subject as a subset of multiculturalism, a professor emeritus at the Sorbonne who is a practising polygamist (sort of) made an appearance on the show. He explained how he maintained three different households and relationships, in the cities where he works -Paris and Brussels. All of it was above board, no secrets, he said. He was only officially married to one of them but it was a very satisfactory arrangement for everyone involved, he said.
A sociologist was also there to cite statistics on marriage and divorce. Statistically, half of marriages end in divorce, he said. When you finish accounting for all the factors that weigh on the question, he said that the odds that someone will end their lives with the same partner they started out with is about 30%.
At the end, the lawyers came back out for closing arguments. Interestingly, the lawyer against polygamy chose as one of his principle arguments the proposition that mulitple marriages are bad because they multiply the negatives of an already seriously flawed institution. In other words, marriage is more often than not a mistake, so why compound the mistake several times over?!! It got a lot of laughs...and when the vote was taken, he had conserved the 75 percent vote against polygamy...but the breakdown by gender was interesting...80 percent of the women in the audience were against it while only 56 percent of the men held the same position.
As I got up to turn off the television the next topic (extraterrestials) was announced while the theme music for the X Files was played. Much as I wanted to know the truth of this matter, I couldn't stay up to find out.
I went to bed secure in the belief that extraterrestials have not only visited us but they have enrolled in high schools around the world.

p.s. the answers: Strider and Shadowfax

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Reflections on French and American school systems

If you're in seconde (sophomore year) then this is the time of year you declare your "major" for the remainder of high school. The types of BACs you can obtain here at this high school are these: Science (S), Lettres (L), Economic and Social Sciences (ES).
By the time French students reach high school they are all too familiar with the fork in the road concept. The final year of college or middle school (troisieme) results in a large percentage of students, perhaps as many as 30 -40%, opting for specialized schools with technical diplomas in the manual arts or in hotelery, tourism, fishing ... many of these options require students to either take long bus trips to Arcachon or Bordeaux or to board during the week in dormitories. For some families this is a tough choice, weighing the dislocation against the potentially appropriate academic orientation.
For those who choose to come to this lycee which is a general lycee, the next fork in the road is right now. They must declare which BAC they will pursue. It is up to each conseil de classe to decide then, based on the student's performance, whether or not he will be recommended for that option. If you look at the three options: S, L, and ES what you notice is that there is a rough division between students who favor the hard sciences and math and those who don't.
The conseil de classe examines each student's grades and then makes a recommendation concerning whatever option the student has requested. Basically the conseil makes one of the follwowing three decisions: favorable, unfavorable, wait and see the third trimester results. An unfavorable decision probably triggers a meeting with parents about choosing an appropriate orientation for their child (again, this could include leaving the high school for a different school). A wait and see decision is simply an attempt to challenge the student produce a positive result by the end of the year.
At the year's end, the conseil makes its final recommendations. If, at that time, a student's choice is turned down, then he must either take the year over or change his plans (this sort of change is pretty traumatic for the French...selecting a career path is fraught with all kinds of stress and expectations...the sort of pressure and expectations one might attach to the process of finding a mate to marry). Or, he and his parents can appeal, first to the proviseur and failing that take his appeal to a committee made up of staff members not affiliated with that particular conseil de classe. That committe reviews the student's dossier and renders a verdict which is final. Remember this is the sophomore of high school.
I asked the proviseur how many appeals like this happen each year. He seemed a bit uncomfortable with the question but he finally said about four or five each year, sometimes more, sometimes less.
It is a signature characteristic of the French system students starting from a young age are periodically subject to high stakes evaluations which in turn lead to high stakes choices about academic orientations and ulitmately career paths.
It is a signature characteristic of the French professional ethos that these evaluations are usually administered as a "common" test, which is to say that the entire class of sophomores or juniors or seniors is given an exam (written or oral) in a particular discipline, a test designed and corrected by the teachers of that discipline...who correct the exams of their colleagues' students but not their own students. This is part of what the French proudly and with justification refer to as rigor. Professional standards are not just assumed nor are they mere boasts, they are exposed and put to the test regularly in very tangible ways.
I am beginning to get a clearer idea of some of the things I don't like about the French school system, I think. One can, for example, argue about the role high stakes testing should play in an educational system but I find it very hard to find anything wrong with the way my colleagues go about the business of developing well coordinated and calibrated notions of quality student performance.
It is one of my biggest frustrations as an American teacher that this notion of common assessments as a tool for both assessing student performance and maitaining professional standards has not gotten any real traction at the department or building level. Most of us look warily out from our own classrooms, we're deeply skeptical of initiatives that somehow obligate us to one another in critically important ways or that require us to relinquish certain idiosyncratic grading practices in favor of professionally normed processes.
In America, getting high marks is in no small part a question of figuring out the man or woman who is standing up in front of the class. What does he/she want? In France, while that element is also present, the challenge is really more figuring out how to successfully pass the BACs at the end of the year... exams which will be corrected not by the student's own teachers, not even by teachers from his own school.
As I scan the previous paragraph it occurs to me that these differences are in some ways examples of highly adapted strategies which are important within the cultures where they reside. In France, one must become hardened to the structured society, bristling as it is with beauracracy and hoops for all and sundry to jump through. In America, it still helps a great deal to have that kind of social intelligence that allows you to adapt to different personalities and groups and thus develop a kind of radar for hidden agendas.
Anybody out there resemble these remarks? of course, I meant to say "resent".

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The secret to comedy

The first thing my Terminale class see when they arrive in class is this short dialogue on the blackboard:
- What is the secret to comedy?
- Timing
I look at the class and tell them to read it. I wait for a few seconds and then I say, "This is funny."
They look blankly.
"Read it again. Do you understand all the words?"
They nod warily.
"I'm telling you this is funny." I scratch my head. "I know. Let's try it out loud."
I ask Louis and Ysoline to read it aloud. They do.
"What is the secret comedy?"
I applaud,"Funny! Yes?" The room is quiet. I feign frustration. "Ok, ok, I'll take Ysoline's line." I motion to Louis. "Go ahead."
"What is the secret..."
"Timing." Louis is discombobulated by the interruption. His table mate chuckles. I seize on this reaction.
"See! It's funny!" Louis is still trying to figure out what went wrong. I don't give him any time to reflect. "Again Louis. Ask me the secret to comedy." Louis is a good sport. He obliges me.
"What is..."
"Timing." Chuckles all around now, Louis too is smiling. He gets it.

I'm teaching an excerpt from a short play called "Sure Thing" by David Ives. It appears in a colleciton of his work entitled "All in the Timing". It's a clever little piece whose central conceit is roughly that of the film "Groundhog Day".
The scene takes place in a cafe. A young man approaches a table at which is seated a young woman. It's the stereotypic cafe moment, the ritual "is this seat taken?" gambit which is supposed to lead to greater things.
In Ives' version, the scene falters almost immediately at which point a bell rings, and the scene restarts with the young man attempting small but consequential variations. Each reprise inevitably falters however - the young man always says something wrong - he reveals he's sports fan or he misidentifies the author of The Sound and the Fury as Ernest Hemmingway or he says he graduated from Oral Roberts University- the woman is instantly nonplussed and the bell rings sending him back once more to square one. It is funny look at how even superficial social interactions between men and women can be like walking through a mine field.
Choosing this text was a bit of a stretch seeing as how humor can be such an elusive and culturally contingent thing. Some forms of comedy transcend language, physical or slapstick is easily understood...a good example of this happened in my room last week. A student named Flaurent tipped his chair back too far, fell and bonked his head on the floor. I think it actually hurt him but of course the initial reaction from everyone was laughter. Two days later he did it again, more laughter. While he's rubbing his head (again) I tell him in a voice loud enough for the whole class to hear. "If you don't learn how to master the operation of that chair you're going to have to sit on the floor." I get a few laughs. Cheap tricks.
Aside from this sort of thing, however, humor can very subtle... wit is after all closely allied to intelligence. Complicating the issue enormously for the language learner are the cultural references which are often a kind of code or short hand leading to and illuminating the punch line.
In the Ives piece my students encountered references to Harvard, the Mets, Faulkner, Hemmingway, and Oral Roberts University. I challenged them to try to come up with French equivalents for all of these references. Harvard was easy...the Sorbonne.
The Mets took a little explaining, a little background about America's pasttime, the World Series, New York baseball teams, the miserable Mets, the hated Yankees but when I had finished all that the students felt pretty comfortable with the following soccor analogy: Mets = Paris SG and Yankees = Lyon.
I thought that finding equivalents for Faulkner and Hemmingway would be fast work but I was in for a surprise. When I asked my class to give me the names of three important French novelists from the 20th century they couldn't come up with a single name for quite awhile. Finally someone said Stendhal (not 20th century). I must have looked flabbergasted because after a few more seconds a student seemed to feel compelled to explain. We don't read contemporary literature in school, she said. She said that they mostly read authors like Diderot and Montaigne and Moliere. Ok, I said, but even if you haven't read them surely you know some names...? Not one name. So I offered Camus up for consideration. They had heard of him. I was a little stunned. This is the sort of anecdote that oftens gets served up in America to support the claims of the likes of E.D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy) .
Anyway, the we concluded our excercise with Oral Roberts University. It took some doing to try to explain the kind of cultural phenomenon represented by ORU and in the end it seemed a reasonable proposition that this one had no obvious French other words, Oral Roberts University is perhaps a peculiarly American institution...I have no trouble believing that to be true. Funny huh?
The bell sounds. As my students gathered their things, I signal everyone to wait a moment. "Louis!" I said. I point at the dialogue still on the board.
"One more time, Louis, but this time we change roles. Ready?" He nods.
"Louis, what is the secret to...."
"Timing," he interjects with a big smile on his face.
"Now that's funny," I say.
Everybody laughs and heads for the door.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

FOUR ever Colm

The weather was spectacular for Colm's birthday. With the guest due to arrive at 2:30 we began the day by opening family presents...Beth made a doll for Colm (he named it Charlie) and we also gave him a toy golf set that he loves.
We hung up the pinata. I blew up about forty balloons - I didn't have a coronary. The kids colored the pirate poster for the pin-the-eye patch-on-the-pirate game, and then while Beth prepared to bake the cake, I slipped off into the woods behind the house to bury the treasure chests.
When the invitees arrived I got to see something I haven't witnessed much this year, Colm playing with other kids especially other boys.

First there was Alex, a sweet tempered classmate whose company Colm enjoys tremendously, a bit later came two more boys, Liam and Maxime, who together raised the physical energy of the gathering about tenfold. Then there was Constance from across the street, who along with Tess alternated between pirate and princesse personae. Colm was absoluted delighted by all of the company. The language barrier which has enforced on him a certain silent if not altogether solitary existance away from home seemed to dissolve before our eyes.

The kids got their faces painted, were issued pirate hats and eye patches, swords and sashes, and sent into the yard to let them develop their pack identity. They ran about occasionally cohering as a group other times subdividing like amoeba into pairs. After a bit we began attacking balloons with swords, a tricky proposition that ultimately forced some kids into popping balloons with their bare hands, each pop was saluted with "Vainquer!"
When the balloons were all gone we tried pinning the eye patch on the pirate. Six kids was a good number, nobody had to wait too long for a turn and everybody pretty much stayed involved with what was going on.
After that we went over to the pinata for some more whacking with swords. Beth did a good job manipulating the pinata up and down to preserve the pinata through the first round of attacks and then in the second round the bird was cracked open by Liam the Terminator.
After that it was to the table for chocolate cake which sailed in under the Jolly Roger.

The kids hoisted apple juice cups and sang Colm both Joyeuse Anniversaire and Happy Birthday. He blew out his candles and then we all sat around the table and told poop jokes in French and other funny stories like,
"Tu sais quoi? know what? what if you ate a cow!"
"Arhhh, aarhh, aarhhh...."
"yeah, and what if you ate crocodile!"
"what if you had poop in your cake."
"what if poopy pooped on the crocodile?"
"Arhhh! aarhh! aarhhh!...."

It was pretty hilarious to see these 4-5 year olds guffawing at the table like a bunch old timers.
As the table scene wound down I leaned forward, got everyone's attention ande asked them a question, "How would you like to know a secret?"
They all nodded.
In my most conspiratorial tone of voice, I whispered, "There is a treasure buried somewhere here on this lot."
Instantly everyone was energized. Liam was particularly vociferous, " I know where it is!"
"No one knows where the treasure is...not even me!"
"Yes I do!"
"No you don't." This isn't what I had envisioned, arguing with a four year old over the whereabouts of buried treasure.
"Yes!... I"
I cut him off, "Only Captain Hook knows where it is!"
"No, I..."
I cut him off again, "The rest of you, do want me to fetch Captain Hook?"
Instantly I left the table. In the background I could hear Liam still protesting to his mates. I passed Beth who murmured to me, "He saw you in the woods."
"What? How could he?"
"They drove by earlier this morning. He saw you digging."
Dammit. This pirate business was treacherous. I quickly put on my "costume" which had the effect of making me look like a Hells Angel...but I felt like Captain Hook. I reappeared and accosted the group with a flourish.
"Avast there ye scallywags, I'm Captain Hook an' ye'll never get me treasure not the likes of you ye landlubbers...what're ye take me for?"
Swords were raised. They rushed me. I caved. "Alright, spare my life an' I'll give you this." I brandished a rolled piece of paper. "It's not the map but it's the first clue to finding it. Who wants to look at it."
They all yelled, "Me."
They gathered round as I unrolled the paper. Before I showed it to them I said, "ye'll have to work together now mates. Tis dangerous work finding treasure."

Beth had drawn a picture of the bike and trailor. "Look at this! This where ye'll find the next clue on a sheet just like this one. There was a beat, then, "Now go and find it!" Off they ran, Tess led them directly to the bike but Liam didn't stop there, he seemed bent on heading behind the house. I called him back. "Find the clue! Find the clue!" Liam bit on the challenge and came back.
And so it went. Beth had hidden clues all over. They had to sort through a basket of cannonballs (balloons) to find the one with a clue hidden inside - Constance picked the correct balloon right away but was afraid to pop it. She sat demurely on the terrace with the prize balloon in her lap while the rest of the kids committed mayhem on the remaining balloons. When they had popped the last one they turned and looked at Constance sitting with her little silver balloon, Liam of course rushed her with his sword determined to make short work of the balloon, but I got there just in time and explained to Constance how she held the all important clue in her hands, we coaxed her into standing on it with both feet on it and popping it. She went from princess to pirate in about the time it took for the sound of that pop to trigger more shouts of glee.
Inside one of about a dozen cardboard fish was a clue, on top of the swingset, attached to Colm's bedroom window...the final clue was found on the back terrace. We unrolled it and saw a map in of the woods with an "X" between two trees. At last. The end game was on.
The kids poured over the fence and into the wooded area behind the house. I watched Liam closely and was relieved to see that while he knew the treasure was in the woods he hadn't the faintest idea where exactly to look. The kids searched everywhere mostly keeping together like a school of fish. Finally I pointed out the branches laid out like arrows on the ground.

In a matter of seconds they were there and on their hands and knees burrowing with their hands, no one even asked for a shovel. They looked like little jackals feasting on a carcass, their heads all together facing down. At length they got a hold of the plastic bag that was wrapped around their treasure boxes.
They worked furiously and mostly in concert, not always a strong suit of four year olds, and after awhile they had it out.

Tess carried it back into the yard where they all got their fair share of the booty, trinkets, toys, candy and more candy... a French custom, we have grudgingly surrendered to.
At the end, Colm opened the gifts his guests had brought him. He seemed to genuinely love everything and everybody at that moment.

Beth had masterminded a successful fete. Even better she and I had enjoyed ourselves immensely. We were relieved and pleased that we had managed to pull off a three hour event without any injuries and with so many smiles.
My personal high point was when Tess came to me and said, "Dad, you were a good Captain Hook!" I can quit the theater now in complete satisfaction...Beth just reminded me though that Tess has a birthday coming up in six weeks...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Beth has chosen a pirate theme for Colm's birthday party which is tomorrow.

We've been ramping up for this event for some time now...check out the invitation that Beth created. There will be six kids all told.

We got supplies a week ago and since then Beth has been masterminding the preparations, antiquing the invitations with candles and tea, planning the treasure hunt and the games, painting a parrot pinata, making hats and treasure chests, presiding over sword play practice, experimenting with eye patch designs, putting shovels in the kids' hands and urging them on to deeper depths of treasure hunting and generally communicating in that snarling dialect we fancy as pirate talk... too much fun really to reserve simply for a single day.

We looked at Colm at the dinner table tonight and realized this was the last time we'd ever see him at three years old...sigh...of course the facial hair painting doesn't help.

Beware the Ducks in March? ... deal me in

To all my lunch room colleagues (you know who you are) is my March Madness bracket (Click for a larger view). As you can see, I'm playing the be true to your state card...bad idea, betting with your heart but this is my year of living dangerously...
If there is a pool, I want in, I don't care if it is illegal, I want in. of you front me the money to get in, please. I'm good for it. Just because I'm not in the country doesn't mean I can't win this thing one more time, or does it? Oh, and don't tell me that nobody organized a pool or I'll be forced to sit down and actually learn the rules of rugby.

Speaking of which, the previously undefeated French national team lost its match last week to lowly England. To put this in perspective it would almost be better win only one game all season as long as it was against England than to lose only one match if it was against England.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The rule of precedents...follow 'em, don't make 'em

Twenty five plus years in public education and six months here in France have made very (sometimes painfully) aware that there is such a thing as an administrative temperament and that this temperament is defined by one ... shall I call it a principle or a fear?... ok, one rule - avoid breaking with precedents, avoid setting precedents. In practice this rule comes out in language like the following:
That's not how it works.
Our hands are tied.
We've never done it that way.
If we do that for you, it'll open the floodgates.
What if everybody did that?

School administrators are trained and groomed to think inside the box even as they are trained to parrot cliches about getting outside that same box ie. ...
to develop lessons that open young people up to new experiences,
inspire them to surpass their own limits and transport them to new heights,
unleash their potential; engage their whole being etc...
Administrators usually don't put things in such terms; rather, they tend to say things like,
if you miss school you miss out,
hit benchmarks and improve student learning outcomes,
promote school spirit...
Their vision of success is a well run ship, calm seas, a smiling crew and passengers safely in their cabins and delivered to port. This vision is relentlessly and remorselessly and systematically pursued.
Now I've had the good fortune to work with some able skippers. I've also had the misfortune to work under some who might conjure associations with Captain Ahab and/or Gilligan's Island. I've been fortunate in my personal efforts over the years to be granted permission to pursue certain unorthodox lines of professional development. All in all, I've heard the word "Yes" from administrators as often or more often than you might expect. Not nearly as often as I would have liked, to be sure, but nevertheless...
This is all by way of prefacing my first experience with "No" from a school administrator here in France. It began with my noticing a posting on the wall in the salle des profs about Tuesday classes for all premieres (juniors) being cancelled due to final research project presentations called TPE (travaux personnels encadrés). These are juried presentations made by students in small groups of three. The jury consists of three faculty members in the social sciences. At the beginning of the school year, students choose from a menu of possible topics and then they form groups. They are required to do research and produce both textual and graphic documents. For the oral part of the project, each group member is required to speak for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 minutes. At the end, the jury may pose questions to the students if they so desire. I was very intrigued by this and I mentioned to my class of juniors that I would love to sit in one such presentation. On the day of the presentations a couple of my students from that class waited for me outside the salle des profs to tell me what time and in what room they were presenting. I was touched by the invitation, so I said I'd love to come. They told me to check with the profs in the jury. So I went to the cantine where they were eating. I said hello and then asked them if they were in the jury for Sophie, Charleine and Corantin One of the teachers jumped to the conclusion that I wanted the students that afternoon. "I can't let them go this afternoon. They have..."
"I know. I don't want you to let them go. I want you to let me watch them."
He was surprised by the request but not put off at all.
"Their theme is Propaganda." I added.
"Ah yes..." The teacher seemed to suddenly remember precisely who we were talking about. "They're going in flames today, I imagine." He looked at his colleague across the table for confirmation of this supposition. His colleague smiled and shrugged noncommittally.
"Really?" I couldn't help sounding surprised since at least one of the three students was far and away one the best ones I have although one of them was also definitely not one my most committed or serious students.
"We'll see." he said with a good natured laugh. "But be warned, an execution may be in the works."
In the cloistered environment of the teacher's cantine his humor, though black, was nothing that shocked me, accustomed as I was too the same genre of commentary in our own lunch room back in the States. Still, a part of me did note the emotional distance separating those who take the tests from those who administer them.
I arrived about five minutes before the appointed time and found the three students in the hallway surrounded by their props, a banner, a couple of posters and name tags. Their specific task involved demonstrating propaganda techniques in support of the proposition that the Soviet Union experiement had not been a failure; rather, it had been a success. The three students were pretending to be attending a conference on the subject, two of them were pretending to be historians, the third was coming as a member of the Communist Party.
I chatted with them in the hallway. They seemed cheerful, a bit keyed up, and glad to see me.
I asked them if this was a high stakes event. The response was strangely mixed. It depended, they said, on whether you needed these points badly or not. This was part of an ensemble of grades that were required to pass the Baccalaureate. In other words, if you had blown the term up to this point, this could be a make or break proposition. I looked at the one who was not such a serious student and I thought I detected a kind of false bravado in his manner. I found myself rooting for him but also wondering what the next hour would execution in the works?
Suddenly the door opened and out stepped the teacher whose words I had just conjured. He saw me and said, "Did you get authorization?'
"I got authorization from you."
He smiled. "We'll have to talk to the proviseur adjoint." He gestured for me to accompany him.
Off we went. Two minutes later, we're in vice principal's office. Apparently he's already been alerted to my request because he immediately puts to rest any hope of my attending the presentation. He then hastens to explain by citing past requests deinied and a long standing policy desgined to prevent outside parties from unduly influencing or interfering with final exams tied to the BAC. He finally closes by expressing (sincerely, I thought) his regrets but repeating the necessity of preserving the integrity of the policy. He doesn't relish saying no to me, and I wish I could invite him to take advantage of my special status - that of being unprecedented - to give himself the cover he covets to give me permission without feeling like he had opened the floodgates. After all, they've never had a Fulbright exchange here before, and may not have another one anytime soon. Instead, I thank him for his time and leave the office with my colleague.
He mutters under his breath as we leave, "Here is the other side of la Belle France."
I tell him that administrators are guided by the same concerns where I live. As I watch him go back without me, I am genuinely disappointed that I won't get to watch my three students make their presentation.
I had been looking forward to gaining some insight into the school culture here; instead what I got was insight into the school culture here.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The nominees are...

Thanks to everyone who contributed suggestions for a film to show my French students here. I'm still open to more suggestions, of course, but I thought I'd let folks see what's been proposed so far. The list below pretty eclectic, westerns, sci-fi, teen flics, social drama, romantic comedy, documentary, independents, blockbusters...
Part of my process of narrowing down the list will involve finding out what's available here. DVD's in Europe run in a different format from North America whereas VHS is universal. I'll have to see what I can find. Thanks again!

Ferris Bueller's Day Off,
Never Been Kissed,
Almost Famous,
School of Rock
Stand by Me
Can't Hardly Wait
Dazed and Confused
The Breakfast Club
American Beauty
Dead Poets Society
Hoop Dreams
The Shootist
Erin Brockovich
Napolean Dynamite
Forrest Gump
In the Heat of the Night
A River Runs Through It
Sling Blade
Cider House Rules
The Wizard of Oz

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The face of love

Colm has lately been on a charm offensive, constantly giving out hugs and kisses and declaring his love and then accentuating the depth of his intention by repeating "so, so, so, so, so....much!" Tess by constrast has been more independent and, shall we say, pricklier. It is almost as if Colm is running for office or the position of "favorite son" whereas Tess is done with the PR side of politics. She's moved on to direct action.
Last night I'm putting Colm to bed. We're lying side by side on the bed.
He throws an arm around my neck and says, "I love you Daddy. I love Mommy too and I love Tess."
There is a tiny pause then he says, "But Tess doesn't love me."
Another pause. "Well, Tess loves me, but she makes this face."
He draws his face back a few inches so I can see it. He has put on an enormous frowny face that is a pretty darn good version of the one made fairly frequently these days by his sister.
Finally he lets the frown go and smiles sweetly at me.
"But I don't make this face," he says.

p.s. coming soon... a roundup of the film recommendations made by all of you. can see them firsthand on the comments section of the previous post.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The perfect American film...for French students

Ok reader(s)... Perhaps I'm about to find out just how many of you there are.
I'm looking for suggestions. I'd like to show a film that offers an authentic and valuabel insight into American culture in a way that might be interesting to French high schoolers. I don't have any other criteria per se...any decade, any subject, any genre. It doesn't have to be an adaption of a literary work though if it is that might open further avenues for teaching the film before and after viewing. What can you suggest?

What goes around...

This actually happened, I'm sorry to say.
The kids loved the nearby public garden in Arles. It is situated on a slope that looks down on the main boulevard. Just beyond the garden are Roman ruins. We went there every day. There were always other kids and parents there so not surprisingly things happened there, mostly sweet things, but not all.
During one visit, I was seated on a bench near the merry-go-round where Tess and Colm had been playing. They had just scampered off to another part of the playground when a little girl about 4 or 5 years old climbed on the merry-go-round. Her older brother pushed her round and round while an elderly man in a shabby suit seated himself nearby on a stone wall. The boy and girl amused themselves for awhile. At some point I noticed that she had a scrap of paper about the shape and size of a business card in her hand (although what it actually was remains a mystery to might have been a piece of trash). She was lying on the merry-go-round, her arm dangling down letting the paper scrape lightly along the ground as she whirled around. She seemed mesmerized by the sound and perhaps the sensation...her brother unflaggingly kept her going round. I saw the old man get up, his eyes fixed on the girl. It was only a matter of a few steps to her but his arthritic gait drew out his approach and captured my attention. At length he reached the merry-go-round. The boy backed away as soon as he felt the old man, but the little girl was oblivious to his presence swinging past him two, three, four times. The man stared at her and then made an abortive gesture at grasping her arm but the speed of the merry-go-round carried her beyond his reach. Momentarily thwarted he watched her come back by her one more time and fly away once more like one of the park's white pigeons. He stared at the contraption, conjuring an approach or perhaps a memory and finally, clumsily he succeeded in bringing it to a stop. As the girl came slowly to a stop before him, she felt him grab her arm. She turned over on her back and pulled her arm away from him, the paper still in her hand. The man's whole demeanor and bearing seemed to instantly coil and stiffen. He reached blindly for her hand, and she instinctively protected her possession stretching her hand across her body. Mute and furious, he wrestled her hand, finally grasped it with one hand, pulled her up to sitting position and then snatched the paper from her with his other hand. He stuffed the paper in his pocket and coming from far off and with a force that took me utterly by surprise, he swung hard and slapped her full across the face, knocking her off balance and back into the center of the merry-go-round. The sound was more like one of those fake theater slaps except that this had been all too real. In less time than it took for me to register this observation, the man had released the girl, turned and begun limping back to his furtive perch on the wall. The entire event had taken no more than twenty seconds, not one word had been uttered. The girl recovered her balance, sat open-mouthed and breathless for a few seconds, her hand cupping the side of her head. I knew what was coming; I could see the cry coming from deep inside, lagging behind the shock. But when it came it wasn't the piercing shriek I had expected; rather, a soft keening, like a sound muffled by pillows. She sat there alone on her haunches. From my vantage point I had both her and her grandfather in my sights. Hunched over and crab-like, he did not look at her, his pincer hands ceaselessly turning something over, the paper perhaps? In the foreground of my vision sat the girl, abandoned and desolate on the merry-g0-round where only moments earlier she had been spinning dreamily in space.
I stared at the man, who though only a few feet away was as remote as the Roman ruins behind the park. My own anger contended with other feelings of confusion and helplessness. I noticed a couple standing off to my side. They were staring too. They had arrived just in time to see the slap. At that moment my kids came running back to the merry-go-round all smiles and ready to get on board for another ride. I got up to join them but also to get a closer look at the girl. She hadn't moved, tears streaked her face, her hand remained pressed against her head. Her cry continued unabated but softly. And then she was spinning away as my kids took hold of the merry-go-round. The other couple's son jumped on board. They were oblivious to the little girl's plight and she regarded them blankly. She seemed not to register the merry-go-round's movements. She swung passed me, was carried away and then brought back again. . . I asked the couple, "Did you see that?" They nodded.
"C'est pas beau," said the woman.
I looked to them for some sign that perhaps we might say or do something but their intentions were manifestly to remain aloof. I felt out of my depth, but at least I could stand here for awhile and simply be present. I wanted to reassure the girl but part of me wondered if even that might lead to trouble with the old man. And what if it did? So I stood there simmering watching her pass by again and again. At length the girl's brother returned and coaxed her off to come and join him in a different part of the playground. I lost track of her, but the old man remained there in full view. I sat there almost obsessed with him for several minutes. Finally it was time for us to leave. Beth and the kids walked ahead of me past the old man. I followed slowly and as I passed in front of him I stopped and stared directly at him. He was haggard and unshaven and nervous. I needed to go. I needed to say something.
"Bonjour monsieur."
He looked up and seemed puzzled to see me there. He did not answer. I looked at him for a couple of seconds, I didn't know what I was going to say. And then -
"Soyez gentil avec la fille." It was part admonition, part plea.
He looked at me, his head jerked a little as he was stifling a response, then he looked away. That was it. My family was elsewhere; I went looking for them.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Les Baux and la Camargue

Later in the week we made another excursion in the car, this time inland to Les Baux and St. Remy.

Later in the afternoon we backtracked and headed for the coast.
Arles sits on the Rhone at the point where it enters the marshy delta region known as the Camargue, famous for it's white horses, it's fighting bulls, and a large population of flamingos. The flamingos migrate to and from Africa, though a certain percentage remain in the Camargue year round. Beth and I had the good fortune to see another major flamingo nesting area in southern Mexico a few years ago, so this was a nice treat.
The area is windswept and covered by shallow ponds, some quite large. The Mediterranean Sea coastline forms the southern watery border of the Camargue.

Arles and the Camargue are also famous for their mosquitos but they come right about the same time as the tourists. One of the locals told me you could always tell the German and Dutch tourists in the summer by the big red welts on their torsos. Another reason I'm glad we came in late February.

We were lucky with the weather. We had a good visit here in Provence. I'm glad we came.

On the way home we drove past these two nukes purring (is that what nukes do?) away in the countryside...wierd but perhaps a glimpse of things to come?

When we got home we were treated to a 70 degree day on the beach on Sunday. A beautiful way to wrap up a two week vacation. Some time in the future I plan on posting a few more reflections on the amount and frequency of vacation time in France (for teachers), suffice it to say for now that it feels very nice. In about and hour and a half I'll be in front of my secondes thoughts bend back toward school, luckily I'm ready!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

At home in Arles

Note to readers: this post occurs out of sequence... it should have been published right after the one about Carcassonne but somehow I misplaced it in my mind. Actually if you continue reading the next post (Seeing Arles) after finsishing this one then you get things in the proper order after all...confused? Sorry.

When we finally decided on Provence as our vacation destination, Beth undertook the task of finding an apartment to rent for a week. It didn't take her too long to amass quite a list of possibilities but it was pretty easy to narrow our choices down to two or three. In the end it we chose an apartment in the oldest part of the city of Arles.

We drove through the windy streets, found the river which became our major reference point, and then finally found a parking spot a few blocks from home. We walked up a tiny street called Rue Louis Pasteur and found our apartment and our host waiting for us with the key. She told us that we were the first renters this year.

We entered the building and started up the spiral staircase. Our place was on the top floor, Tess and Colm, who have lately been intrigued with seeing how high they can count, seized upon the occasion to count the steps out loud. We arrived sixty odd steps later at our door. We went inside. It was, to say the least, very satisfactory. This would be home base for one week. By the time the week was over, the kids and Beth and I would all be calling it home. We never did arrive at a clear result for the number of steps however - so much for the idea of manual recounting.

I set up my guitar by a table near a window. By the end of the week I had pretty well learned four Jack Johnson tunes...I'm fetching up a little performance for some of my classes. (When I asked my students here who they liked to listen to his name came up as much as anyone's.)

Beth and I spent some quality time out on the terrace sipping wine or Lillet, looking out over tiled rooftops, watching birds migrate overhead, the sky a dynamic tableau over which the mistral blew clouds, misty rain, and just as often, scraped the slate clean leaving an impossibly blue sky upon which to paint a new day.
The kids slept in a loft with three single beds (and a mosquito net!). It's tricky carrying a sleeping child up the steep steps to the loft and coming down in the night time is no mean feat either but we managed the week without any mishaps. Our room was cozy and comfortable.
We ate almost all of our meals in the kitchen. Once we got Vietnamese takeout and once we bought some curry chicken from a nearby traiteur. Other than that we made our own meals...
The kids played with their toys and books and a deck of cards...war and concentration are the games of choice...I'm going to introduce checkers any day now just to break up the routine and the quarrels over who gets the jokers.

There was a small tv. The kids contented themselves the entire week with a single video (chosen over 101 Dalmations, The Lion King) which they watched almost every day. Kirikou, a French children's video set in Africa. Because it is in French we let them watch it outside of Sundays, our special movie day. Until this week Colm had never seen the end of the Kirikou because he always falls asleep but in Arles he broke through the zzz barrier and saw the whole thing. The main character is a tiny boy called Kirikou, the chorus of the theme song sums him up pretty well.
Kirikou n'est pas grand, mais il est vaillant!
Kirikou est petit mais il peut beaucoup!
(He isn't big but he is brave/he is little but he is able)

Tess loves quoting lines from the show. She goes around chanting "Malheur!" or "Le chapeau n'est pas magique!" Colm watches her intently, when his sister breaks into French like this he is always a little wary but curious too. She often enlists him acting out the story usually casting him as one of the Sorciere's fetishes. While watching the show, she delights in keeping Colm abreast of what is going on in the video.
We did leave the apartment ... more about that later.