Thursday, May 31, 2007

Conseil de classe - end of the year

The final conseils de classe are happening ...I'm focusing on the first and last year students, the secondes and terminales.... in the interest of full disclosure I should warn you that this is a long post...these are reflections I want to get down and as time is becoming shorter, I don't know when I'll have leisure to revisit them...please indulge me.

2°es - There are some important decisions made at the end of the school year for this level. Basically it's time to pull the trigger on which orientation the student will follow towards a diploma. The student and the parents have signed off on a list of two or three preferences concerning their diploma options, the four options most commonly selected are (in order of numbers of students selecting them) - S (science), ES (social sciences), STG (technology job training), and L (literary studies). The council evaluates the student's dossier in light of his stated preferences and then gives a thumbs up or down. Approval means the student is allowed to continue in his chosen orientation. An unfavorable opinion forces the council to consider the second choice and/or propose another option.

The patterns - far and away the most favored and prized orientation is Science. Nearly two thirds of one class opted for and were granted option S. These students represent the best and the brightest of this school. Next, a distant second comes ES, it often plays out that the ES option is floated when it is agreed that S is beyond a student's reach. Sometimes the council became embroiled in a dispute as to the fitness of a student for series S. I remember one occasion when the math teacher was quite vociferous in his concerns that we might be setting up a particular girl to fail if we accepted her into series S with her somewhat lackluster math scores. The physics teacher did not agree and in the end his position prevailed but it was interesting to see the gate keeping function being exercised on behalf of the most prestigious and prized of the scholastic orientations.
Tied for second is the STG option which will mean a change of schools for those kids. Here again though in an even more pronounced way, STG seems to be a default choice for kids who have been unable to flourish in the general high school. I can't think of a single student who was viewed as a strong student overall and who listed STG as his first option. And so it seems that the selection process is fairly darwinian which is not to say that the students who end up in STG are victims; rather, it seems as though in many cases they don't so much embrace the professional options as they out of other options and descend into these. The orientation closest to mine, L, occupies a very strange space in this whole arrangement. In one group there was only one, one, student who was put into option L. The triggering factor here seems to be competence in letters coupled with difficulties in math/science. Consequently, the L series is a mixed bag. Too many of them are kids who simply can't hack the rigors of math and science (are girls overrepresented in this group? I think maybe so). But then there are kids like Theo.
Théo is a very bright young student who could choose any option he wanted but instead of choosing S he chooses L ( he loves theatre). The problem for Théo is that he would like to continue studying mathematics too. Unfortunately the proviseur informs him that this is not possible - not enough students to justify creating a special math option for kids like Théo. I hear one of teachers in the room musing aloud at how the absence of math may adversely affect Théo career choices later. It is a dilemna created by the system which in this case penalizes one of their ablest students - but it also penalizes society, depriving it of a future source of intellectual capital and creativity.
I think of my AP Lit students back home and how many of them, perhaps even most are also enrolled in advanced math courses and how these two pursuits are absolutely not mutually exclusive but actually mutually beneficial.
One of the best pieces of professional feedback I ever received from a student came about ten years after he graduated. He had become a successful engineer, the classic math/science type but he volunteered to me an anecdote about how studying different schools of literary criticism, in this particular case feminist criticism, had triggered an epiphany for him having to do with the generative and transformative power of context. Sifting a piece of literature through a different critical prism was just like taking an object an rotating it in your hand, or taking a design problem and looking at it from a different perspective. It was, he said, an insight and a moment that stayed with him throughout his training in engineering.

There is another option which is peculiar to the French system. It`s called redoublement. Put simply, redoublement means that you repeat the entire year, that`s right, all of it. Every class contains a few redoublants, kids who are repeaters. I had one class with seven of them. The insistence on students redoubling the entire slate of courses as opposed to a more selective or targeted course of study is in keeping with a certain tendency on the part of the French to force individuals to bend to the system rather than vice versa. Every council I attended this week ended up proposing redoublement for anywhere from 3-5 students.
Interestingly it is sometimes the student who elects redoublement rather than one of the scholastic options. Benoit is one such kid. At some point early in the second trimester, about halfway through the year, Benoit came to the conclusion that he was not going to cut the mustard, at least not well enough to earn approval for series S or ES. So at the end of the second trimester when he was asked to list his preferred options for next year, Benoit listed only one, redoublement.
It is quite possible to imagine a scenario where such a decision actually represents a well thought out and constructive approach, two years to concentrer et consolider a solid academic foundation instead of only one year. Then there's the horticultural perspective, a second year of what the French like to call murir (ripening).
In Benoit's case however the problem is that as soon as he decided that he was going to redouble, he literally gave up on this year. Instead of doing work to position himself for to make even more progress next year, he has effectively ensured that he will begin next year more or less where he began this year. It's a problem with young people, isn't it? They don't always approach things with the long view in mind.
On the other hand there is Leo. He wants series S. He has made it clear that he's not interested in STG. He does not want to redouble. Trouble is he's done practically nothing all year...except be off task and not listen and generally behave like a ten year old. The dilemma for the council is whether or not redoublement will be worthwhile for this student given his attitude. In the end, there seems to be nothing else to propose except redoublement but one senses that an appeals process may soon be triggered.
On the other, other hand (or the third hand as one of my students wrote in an essay this year) there is Bertrand, the poster boy for redoublants. I remember learning that Bertrand was a redoublant fairly late in the year and being shocked. He is such delightful student, curious, smart, hard working, funny, sensitive and courteous, I can't say yet how much the new Bertrand differs from the old Bertrand and what role his redoublement played in bringing about those differences but I hope to learn more from him before we part.
The sad fact is, however, that the Bertrands of the world are few and far between and the results for the run of the mill redoublants are mixed at best. The cost of redoublements is significant and France is one of, if not the only western European country to practice it.

Standing in contrast to the councils for the secondes are those which meet to discuss the exiting class of Terminale. Here the business has a different objective. It is time for the council to pronounce an avis (opinion) on the character of the student's work and effort over the course of his entire year and even his entire high school career. This opinion is not targeted for the student, nor for his parents; rather, it's primary audience is the jury of teachers who will ultimately decide whether or not the student will his BAC. The jury's decisions are guided primarily but not exclusively by the students final BAC exam results in all of the required disciplines. In the event of close calls the jury has the right to look in that student's dossier and factor in the opinion of the conseil de classe for that student. If that opinion is assez favorable, favorable, or tres favorable it could possibly embolden a jury to grant that student additional consideration which could conceivably spell the difference between getting the BAC and not getting it. Of course of that opinion is defavorable then the student's fate rests entirely with his exam results. He has to faire preuve...prove himself.
I witnessed some pretty animated discussions about whether to go assez favorable or favorable. You get a sense sometimes of certain people in the room feeling as though others are too tight with their appreciations whereas those others often seem to regard some of their colleagues as accomplices to a debasement of professional norms. One teacher will say how Valerie does absolutely nothing, le minimum de minimum. Immediately a colleague across the room will counter with something like, "Really? She works hard in my class." It's all very matter of fact, even sincere yet somehow laced with sousentendus. It's not exactly knives and daggers, it's more like a habit of mind and discourse which sometimes approaches the level of a pastime, like baseball.

game over,
p.s. the most awesome thunder and lightning storm happened while I wrote this much as I would have like to I couldn't work it into the post...dommage.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tess la maitresse

8:30 pm.
It's closing time...which means time to start the increasingly complex and nuanced process of putting the kids to bed. This evening Beth is at gym class, Tim is reading in his room, so it's my gig. I starts well enough: I play cache-cache with them outside, they teach me a little formula for picking who is "it."
Plouf, plouf, qui sera le malaba jusque au bout de trois...un, deux, trois!
then I get their teeth brushed, and send them off to get into bed clothes (I love that they can dress themselves).
While waiting for them to get ready for books on the couch, I try to steal a few moments on my blog. (This is the moment while reading this post when Beth eyebrows will arch and she'll release a knowing sigh.) Okay, okay, I get sidetracked and a few minutes become a few minutes. Some part of me that is not composing on my blog rationalizes that I'll stop as soon as one of the kids actually requests that we read a book, not an unlikely possibility at all...they love books.
But they don't ask, instead they are in some kind of play groove. I vaguely hear some talk about playing teacher and school. I hear Colm object at first but only once or twice, then their interactions settle into something reassuringly tranquil.

At first, I ignore it, paying attention to my own groove, but by degrees Tess's voice works its way into the foreground of my attention. I listen more carefully. She's speaking French to Colm. I look up and see her holding Colm by the arm leading him around, wagging her finger at him, stationing him in front of the wall, talking into his ear. Colm appears to be listening to and understanding, if not the words then the game.
The game is Tess the maitresse - that's what I call it anyway. Colm is her pupil. He is her perfect foil, dutifully playing out his assigned tasks, and occasionally responding verbally in French, God love him.
I eavesdrop for a few moment and then I realize that I need to transcribe this for posterity...
I've included a few stage directions and translations in parentheses.

Tu n'as pas le droit. (you don't have the right to do that...this is said while leading Colm to the wall for something that looks suspiciously like timeout)
Vous allez faire le travail sur une feuille (you're going to do this on a piece of paper)
Attend-moi là. (wait for me right here)
Non, pas là! sur la table! (not there! over here on the table)
et puis on va faire ca (next we're going to do this)
At this point Tess notices me watching and she enrolls me in her class. Suddenly I'm given a piece of paper and instructions.
Tu prends ca et tu va le couloriser (take this thing and color it)
Maintenant je vais faire autre feuilles pour toi (I'm going to create some new drawings for you to color, at this point Tess is mulittasking, busily creating handmade worksheets for me and Colm while chattering at us) Tu vas couloriser les carrées et les triangles, d'accord? (just color the squares and the triangles, okay?)
Ca c'est la modèle, tu va le dire à Colm (this is the model, go and tell this to Colm)
Tu n'as mis pas ton prenom sur ta feuille! (you didn't put your name on the paper!)
Là, tu mets ton nom, tu mets ton nom là, entre les lignes!! (right there, put your name there! between the lines!)
"Tess, doucement," I say, reminding her not to yell at her brother or me. She wheels around surprised and a little hurt and defends herself.
"Mais, elle parle comme ca!" (that's how she talks!)
Suddenly I realize that this "game" is the stuff that that her real world is made of. Colm and I comply by putting our names where they belong.
Mettez les feuilles dans le casier de couleur (put them in the coloring basket)
Just to get into the game a little, I start interjecting questions. Matter of factly she handles all my queries as if she's heard them a million times. Her sense of the teacher persona is pitch perfect.
Tu vas faire les lignes pour que tu aides la tortue va à la maison (draw lines to show the turtle how to get home)
Maintenant je vais faire quelque chose pour Colm (now I'm going to make something for Colm)

We went on like this for awhile. I made a conscious decision to push bedtime back a little just to let this French language interlude play itself out. ..but not so long that Beth will come home and find us still up and about.
I don't think I've seen the two kids so unconscious and easy in the language together at the same time's like a confirmation of why coming here was such a great idea.
Au lit, couchez-vous mes petits, I say.
Without thinking, Colm starts down the hallway to bed. He's halfway there when he pauses, "What does couchez-vous mean?"
"It means, go to bed. Go to bed."
Colm smiles slyly. "Couchez-vous too!" He runs off happily.
Fifteen minutes later when Beth comes in, I'm at the computer beginning this post. The house is quiet. The kid are either asleep or doing a good impression of it, probably the latter.
"Everything go okay?"
"I forget to put my name between the lines ..You can read about it later."
There, you just did.

Monday, May 28, 2007

still life with hour glass... another poem

Still life with hour glass
by Kevin Cahill

the silver sea unfurls on the golden sands, from far off lands come migrant swans,
sea birds clamor in the heart of the bay, breezes lightly brush the queues of waves

It is August, the entire world, it would seem, has funneled down to this point, the

end of a pencil thin peninsula…day by day, hour by hour, bumper by bumper,

they pass through the bottleneck. the parisiens and the bordelaise spill

down upon the clotted fishing villages where houses bear names like

Yvonne, Penichette, Caprice… they spill down into condos and

campgrounds, gated estates with cloistered gardens, they spill

down all the way to the dunes and the beaches in places

called Petit Piquey, Arcachon, Lacanau. remorseless,

relentless spilling down, piling up, and spreading

out until everyone is assumed into one

monumental angle of repose, the

entire world, it would seem,

has been recomposed -
Paris and Bordeaux

evacuated –

all here...

the hour



It is

the tide turns

the traffic back,
the rubber tires of

Porches and Peugeots crush

empty oyster shells, pleasure boats

rest dry and derelict, tipped on their sides

in the draining basin ... the entire world, it

would seem, has been dispersed, the glass reversed.

the silver sea unfurls on the golden sands, from far off lands come migrant swans,
sea birds clamor in the heart of the bay, breezes lightly brush the queues of waves.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lights out Jesus...a poem

Lights out Jesus
by Kevin Cahill

A statue of Jesus has the high ground here
in San Sebastian,
he stands erect on a hilltop overlooking
the port city,
the index finger of his raised right hand
points up
as if to remind himself of something he was
about to say
or perhaps it's to check which way the wind
is blowing

Down below
we walk along the promenade
we turn down narrow streets
occasionally you say to me,
"Look! There's Jesus."
But every time I look up he's
obscured by a lampost or a tree
doubtful I shake my head -
missed him again.

If you don't tire easily you can get
around the other side of Jesus.
From there you can see
what it looks like when Jesus
turns his back on you.

I'm tempted to climb up there,
to look over his shoulder
past the radio antenna on his back
and to try to see
just what he's looking at.
But it's a long way to Jesus
from here and it's getting late.

Instead I stay down by the water
and watch the sun go down
while my own son works faithfully
to make miracles with his camera -
wonders of light on water,
epiphanies of ocean spray in the air,
inspirations of swelling, breathing tides

It is a Saturday night,
we forget about Jesus,
it is time to eat and we go

to make our pilgrimage
to the tapas bars,

from bar to clamoring bar

we go in search of something
we can devoutly sink our teeth into
where food is for the taking
and where nothing is written down
and all accounts are settled
face to face in perfect faith.
everyone is drinking, eating, smoking
and speaking all at once in strange tongues

It is past midnight,early Sunday morning,
when we start the long unsteady walk home,
the lighthouse on the island is dark,
the sea is dark, the sky too,
but Jesus is illuminated,
he floats magically in the void.
If you didn't know he was a statue on a hill
you'd swear he could walk on air.

And then without warning...he disappears,
lights out, gone.
I look at my watch. It's 2:00 am.
"Huh," I say to my son who's staring at nothing,
I thought Jesus was twenty-four seven.


Killing us with kindness in San Sebastian

When Beth and I were travelling in Mexico we discovered that Mexican people wanted very badly to help us or at least help us feel better. We almost never encountered a person there who when asked for directions confessed that he didn't know how to get there. It seemed important to them to give us something even if it wasn't perfect. This little episode in San Sebastian brought all of that back to me.
Tim and I took off Saturday morning and made a dash for the border, the Spanish border. Destination San Sebastian. We were there in three hours. We strolled about, had lunch, and then tried finding a pension in the old city. Everything was full so we went to the tourist office.

The woman there said the city had been booked solid for a month. She did find something outside the center of town though. She traced the route on a tourist map of the city, very faisable I thought to myself. Very helpful and I loved her Spanish accent when she spoke French to me.

We drove straight to the spot she had marked but when we arrived there was no hotel only a residence building. Puzzled, we got out and looked around. I saw a car pull up and a couple of guys begin unloading bags. I went up to them with a copy of my reservation and the tourist map and succeeded quickly in presenting myself as an abject person in need of help. Both gentleman considered the information with interest. I gathered that they were from this city but not this quarter. They seemed convinced that the hotel could not be in this part of town, I tried to explain that the tourist office lady had been very explicit about the directions. They smiled and gestured for me to get in the car and follow them. Something told me not to do it, but I did it anyway.
We tailed their bright yellow car away further and further away from the place where we had stopped. Tim and I both were laughing nervously at how this was unfolding. We weren't in a hurry to get there but we also weren't in a hurry to get completely lost either. Finally the yellow car pulled over on the shoulder of a main thoroughfare. I follow the man across the street. He asks to see the registration papers again. He looks across the street at an enormous and ugly building that sits in what appears to be an industrial commercial zone. This is it he says, pointing to the number on the building, 23. I see the number but I don't see anything remotely resembling a hotel. The man concedes my point but can't shake the fact that the number is right. Then he notices another address on the reservation.
"Ah, he says, follow me. I think I know where this is."
Now we have to follow him because we have no idea where we are anymore. Interestingly he takes us more or less back to where we started only he circles around the back and heads up a very steep hill. There are in fact hotels up here, an encouraging sign, but not, alas, our hotel.
Our friends pull over and gesture to us, "Your hotel is back that way, I am sure. Follow me. I will point to it." He makes a u-turn and goes back down the hill.
Since we don't know how to say "Thank you, but please stop helping us!" in Spanish, Tim and I decide that it's time to ditch our guardian angels so we slow down and let them get ahead of's a painless parting. They pull away and disappear into traffic. They haven't helped get any closer to our hotel but they have tried, much harder and with more goodwill than we had any right to expect.
We circle the area convinced that our hotel is somewhere nearby. Finally we park, and walk around. A few blocks down from where we originally started this whole escapade, we notice a brightly painted building up a side road. It looks like a middle school or something. I say to Tim, "Tess would love that building." We go on. At last we go into a large hotel to ask them, they're in the business after all.
The woman behind the desk looks at the reservation and confidently gets out a map just like ours and points to a spot. She traces a route on the map...not walking distance, mild surprise, alarm bells ringing. But it's relatively close to where we've been looking so we're convinced that at last we're home free....
Ah, no.
Ten minutes later Tim and I sitting in the car at the dead end of a road that is lined with condos and garages. What the...? is about all we can say.

Finally Tim suggests that we check out the brightly colored middle school. So we do. Turns out it is a school dorm during the school year...and a hotel the rest of the year, including today.
Home at last.

p.s. the statue of Jesus in one of the photos above inspired a poem which I'll post in the near future

Thursday, May 24, 2007

school...last days

Grades were due Wednesday even though we still have classes the rest of this week and next and the one after that (only three days actually). Here in France teachers have to personally enter into the official hard copy transcript by hand the students final grades along with the class average, the percentage of students scoring below the average and above, and finally your signature. These transcripts or livrets are in stacked on the table in the teacher workroom, each group's livrets are housed in a loose hard bound sleeve that is fastened with a cloth strip and a buckle. Teachers sit round the table and transcribe grades from their computer printouts onto these relics from a not so bygone era. It's these kinds of anachronistic practices that serve as odd reminders of the weight of tradition in this culture.
In the classroom the challenge for me, professionally speaking, has suddenly shifted from teaching with a hammer (grades) to teaching without one. Unfortunately, the absence of a hammer seemed to embolden one of my congenital nitwits in seconde who decided to toss a half empty chocolate yogurt container from the back of the room in the general direction of the trash at the front. His aim was errant and the results were catastrophic. Chocolat yogurt all over Arianne, a fiery little girl who instantly took offense (understandably) and retaliated by hurling said yogurt back, spilling even more of the stuff on more people's clothing, not to mention desks, chairs and the floor.
In fact, I witnessed none of what I've just described to since I was occupied with two students at the time and had my back turned. It was only when I heard the scuffling sound of chairs being scattered that I turned and saw the aftermath.
What ensued was a long and awkward series of interrogations that finally resulted in a list of names of students whose clothes had been stained and the confession of perp number one. I allowed kids to go clean up and bring materials to clean the room. All the while this was happening I was struck by how this particular group had succeeded at nothing this whole year except insofar as it had consistently lived down to its reputation as the most immature and least manageable group of secondes in recent memory here. My own demeanor was quite calm actually. I had long ago stopped feeling responsible for certain childish attitudes and had adopted a purely love and logic approach. The school counselor interrogated one of my students who was on his way back from cleaning up and she came to my room and delivered a tongue lashing to the group. I was glad to see her since it allowed me to sit back and observe this group interact with another staff member.
It seemed to be for her a last straw with this group. I could see her struggling with an impulse toward collective punishment, an impulse that is nurtured to no small extent by the practice of grouping students the way they do here. She spoke about keeping the whole group after school, she warned them about negative consequences for their future prospects regarding certain orientations they might be hoping to pursue. She harrangued on the general themes of maturity, respect and responsibility. I watched the students during all of this. They have mastered the theater of contrition and the discipline of the suppressed smirk.
In the teacher's room after the break I discover that the story of the chocolate wars in my room has already made the rounds. My colleagues are supportive and encouraging. It could happen to anyone one of us, they repeat over and over. I can see that they are alternately mortified and amused. All of them are unanimous in their characterization of the end of the term as a bit of a lost cause.
Later that day, I was hailed in the courtyard on my way to class. It was Arianne, the girl who been both victim number one and perp number two. She wanted to apologize. I was sure she had been ordered to make this apology, but I also felt that in her case the apology was sincere. All year she has swung back and forth between a precocious, adept English student and being a sly, clever cutup. I find her to be essentially well intentioned and honest, which is more than I can say for perp number one and some of his buddies. Anyway, Arianne explains that she acted impulsively out of anger and that she's sorry. As she leaves I realized that Roman, perp number one, will probably be required to deliver a public apology in class next week...I can hardly wait for that performance. I'm way past feeling touched by such displays, the bottom line for me is the old saying, "If a person says one thing and does another, watch what he does."
It is an unfortunate and discordant note for the year to end on in this particular class, but we actually meet two more times...we'll salvage something perhaps.
The next day I have a completely different experience with my class of terminales. I spend the period teaching them the rules of baseball and reading the Abbot and Costello script "Who's on first?" We even wad up a piece of paper and role play the pitcher catcher batter aspect of the game. Along the way, I inject some observations on how baseball permeates other aspects of American culture. For example, the game of pitch and catch as a metaphor for call and response in gospel churches, or the three strikes laws in effect in various states in the U.S. or the idea of hitting a homerun as being the epitome of good luck and sometimes skill and striking out in love as being the nightmare of every young person. The kids are engaged and willing, there's none of the slyness or the sliding off task behavior that my secondes bring to the table.
With ten minutes to go in the period, I go over the calendar with them, some of our final classes are cancelled due to various school activities...we meet once more I tell them.
There is an awkward silence and then one of them corrects me. No, today is our final class, apparently the last class on the last day on the last week is also preempted by a test. I look at them a bit shocked.
"C'est pas possible," I hear myself mutter aloud. They look at me with pained expressions.
I'm not prepared to say goodbye to this group and I can see on their faces that they feel bad as well. I stumble over some remarks in appreciation of their good will, their patience and their investment in what we've done this year. I also tell them that though I've done my best I know that an experience like this is likely to have caused them problems and for that I'm sorry. Then a hand goes up. It's Francois, an appealing young man who has little use for English but who has a big heart. "Why don't we play a game of baseball next Friday in the field?"
Immediately Alexandre, a vivacious and verbal (in English!) girl pipes up in enthusiastic agreement. There is seems to be general enthusiasm for the idea. I'm warmed to the bones by this initiative. Next Friday at 3:00 on!
I leave the room buoyed by this experience and feeling in a very tangible way for the first time the tug on my heart brought on by the impending close to this chapter of my life.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Big brother and the best zoo ever

My eldest son, Tim arrived here Friday from the US. Tess and Colm have been all over him ever since that moment. They love fresh meat err...fresh faces and in this case they are doubly intrigued because he's family.

Since Tim had already spent four days in Paris, we didn't feel too guilty about dragging him off with us on a two hour drive to the zoo in Palmyres, near the port city of Royan.
The weather was perfect, overcast but no rain, mild temperatures. We had been told the zoo was a good one, someone had even told us it was the biggest in Europe but that's the sort of exuberant chauvinistic claim that you expect from patriot.
So let me get this one sentence opinion out of the way right up front:
It was the best zoo I've ever visited

We left at 11:00 and got there at 1:00. We stayed for six hours. Six hours.During that time we say tons of animals, many of them housed in pretty nice digs by zoo standards anyway.

We ate a picnic lunch in the outdooramphitheater and at 3:00 we watched an entertaining show with sea lions.

After that it was more animals,

many more animals...mostly from Africa and Asia it seemed.
One memorable moment was getting to see a polar bear dive into the water,

swim right towards us, and then gather himself at the bottom of the pool and surge into the air right in front of the kids on the other side of the plexiglass. He did it over and over again. The kids just stared at him slack jawed.

The layout and operation of this zoo seemed predicated on directing visitors in a predetermined sequence or route, hence you see everywhere signs that read, "Sens de la visite" with an arrow pointing in the direction you should walk. Very French. None of this picking and choosing or walking about in random directions. Just follow the signs, s'il vous plait.

There is a systematic and well conceived experience prepared forball who come to initial annoyance at being told which way to go all the time gradually was tempered by an appreciation of the fact that I didn't have to study a map or wade into that interpersonal swamp of decision making that sometimes can taint an otherwise pleasant family outing. In the end we saw everything and we had a great time.
We ate out in St. Georges, the kids fell asleep in the car on the way home, we arrived home at about 10:30. Good day.

When is a rough draft not?

Answer: when you mistakenly hit the "publish" key without realizing it.
If anyone who read the previous blog post titled Favorite English lessons is wondering why it reads more like an informal note to myself than a finished post, the reason is because that's exactly what it is - a note that wasn't supposed to see the light of day, at least not in that form.
I thought I saved the note this morning just before heading out the door to go on day trip with the family.
It's late at night, and I just got home and discovered a "new" post on my blog...
That's the first time for me in over a year of blogging so I guess it's not too certainly could have been worse.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Favorite English lessons

Walking through time, singing the Blues (rhyme bank, sad story, diagram, quiz)
Miming "Two Roads" (reading aloud, punctuation, up talking, personal version, forking diagram)
Forrest Gump feather sequence (using present and present progressive)

finding the the tv

I finally got round to showing a film. I've been a bit deterred from using film by the difficulty I have in keeping track of which room I'll be in and for how long for any given group, let alone the challenge of finding the nearest available tv set. Some of the rooms have sets, small ones...anyway I decided to show my group of premieres renforcé Forrest Gump.
This is my smallest class and it only meets once a week for two hours in the same tiny room. Throughout the year, but on a random basis, I have noticed that when I open this room I sometimes find there a large mobile cabinet with a TV/VCR/DVD unit. Seeing it there reminded me of the possibility of showing a film to my kids. But I had no idea where this tv was normally stored and nor did I know how should I go about securing it's use. These were questions I meant to ask but kept forgetting to until last week the day before I wanted to show Forrest Gump.
I went to the CDI (media center) thinking that Mari, the specialist, might be the one responsible for such things. When I asked her for a zapper (télécommande/remote control) she asked me which machine I wanted to use. I told her about the cabinet on wheels in classroom building B. She shook her head and told me that she had nothing to do with those machines and that the remotes were inside the cabinets.
So the next day, I checked early to discover where exactly "my tv" was. It was in another room. I rolled it into my room (hoping I wasn't stealing it from someone else), plugged it in and then discovered that the cabinet was locked. On the locked door was a little sign that read, "Pour le clé, allez au CDI". So I went back to Marie and explained that I needed the key.
She looked bemused. "I don't have any keys."
I told her about the sign.
"That must be an old sign from before the remodeling of the school." She seemed finished as if that explanation should suffice to clear up her role in the matter.
I remained there in front of her and said, "So...where do I find the key?"
Marie then seemed to kick into another gear as if remembering that I needed help. "Come," she said, "Show me."
We walked back to my room, By this time the bell had rung and my students were waiting in the hallway. They had figured out that a film was in the works and so were abuzz...I began to worry that Murhpy's Law (La principe de la tartine beurrée) was going to sabatoge my ill made plans. Mari took one look at the sign on the locked cabinet door, peeled it off, and crumpled it up. She appeared satisfied once more, as it there was another matter cleared up. Then she looked at me and said, "I'll be right back."
She left me wondering whether I should hope for the best. I decided to choose hope. I let my kids in and began setting up the introductory writing excercise. W e would begin with an expository writing excercise in which they watched the opening feather sequence which lasts about two minutes. Their job was to write a factual description of everything that transpires on the screen during this sequence. They would watch it three times and then have 25 minutes to produce a written a detailed, accurate, and edited description.
As I neared the end of my instructions and presumably the beginning of the video activity, Marie appeared with the key... I thanked her profusely.
"What do I with this?" I said, holding the key aloft.
"Bring it back to me," she said.
The rest of the class went off as planned, the activity went well and then in the second hour we watched the first forty five minutes of the film. The kids, many of them at least, were familiar with it which was good as it allowed them a chance to maybe get the language a little better.
At the end of class I buttoned up the cabinet and wheeled it back to the room where I had found it, no harm no foul, I thought. If I could just repeat the experience next week we'd be able to finish the movie.
On my way to the CDI I was greeted by a colleague, Oliver. He is always ready with a smile and a quip so I took it in stride when he said in his best English, "Ahh...the right man at the right time!"
"Pourquoi?" I said innocently.
"Do you have it?"
I gave him that blank look that is perhaps all too characteristic of me at school.
"Do you have the key?"
I blushed and gave him the key. He thanked me and hurried off. I wondered how he knew I had it. As I walked into the teacher's room, Hamed greeted me and then added urgently, "Oliver is looking for you. He needs the key."
Perhaps I should just hang a sign around my neck next time saying, "I'm showing a film today, be patient with me!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Tuesday evening marked for me a kind of personal high water mark in my professional career as a teacher. I spent about an hour talking about my perspectives on American and French school systems and then another hour fielding questions and comments from the twenty colleagues in attendance.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the number of teachers who showed up for a 5 pm meeting on Tuesday evening only a week before grades were due at the end of the school year. Hamed, my colleague in Social Sciences had suggested to me early in the school year that a meeting of this kind would be of interest and he had offered to take care of the arrangements and getting the word out...all I had to do was signal my readiness to deliver the goods. It took me awhile to get to a place where I felt as though my observations and perceptions were something more substantial than first impressions, but finally in late April I went to Hamed and told him I would like to give it a shot.
Hamed asked me about format. Did I want simply a question and answer discussion type of format or would I prefer to begin with a presentation focused on a couple of large themes and then take questions and comments afterwards? I choose the latter, preferring the opportunity to structure my comments in the beginning and thus create a context for the questions to follow. Hamed was pleased by my was the more rigorous option, after all.
Shortly after this conversation I noticed that Hamed had posted a notice in the teacher's room in which he advertised a presentation about the French and American systems and an invitation to come listen and debattre the topic with me. I know the word debattre has a larger meaning which includes discussion, nevertheless it served to remind me to expect a typically French engagement, which is to say, analytical and critical.
I arrived in the teacher's room a bit early so I sat down at the table along side three colleagues, two philosophy profs and one social science prof. I can't remember exactly how the subject came up but I mentioned home ownership and the phenomenon of debt and before I knew it my colleagues were launched in a spirited debate about whether social sciences are too hamstrung by quantitative as opposed to qualitative analysis, whether statistics tend to obscure and distract us from other important considerations etc... The social scientist was on the defensive, being outnumbered, but he wasn't out gunned. I listened to the three of them go around and around, each of them in turn citing this or that writer, this or that school of thought. They were aggressively partisan while also being good natured about the whole thing. They also each seemed to take some pride in being able to articulate points that were held in common by all present.
I don't mean to suggest that this sort of conversation is standard fare in the teachers room because it's not, but neither is it out of character or somehow confined only to a few special types. The intellectual expertise that my colleagues possess within their respective disciplines is a hard won and highly prized aspect of their professional formation.
We gathered at 5:00 pm in a classroom where the desks were arranged so that we could face one another. Hamed introduced me and then I began. For many days I had been fretting over how to organize my reflections on this year and on more precisely on the theme of the two educational systems. Finally, Monday evening during play rehearsal I had sketched an outline for my remarks. Finally, it seemed, I was ready.
We filed in the room and I took a seat, not at the teacher's desk hoping to deflate my appearance as a supposed "expert" or "authority". I was very happy to see one of my colleagues take that chair as if it were just another chair in the circle. Some of my English colleagues sat next to me, I recognized teachers that I had not really spoken to all year and whose names I did not you. One of the teachers brought her five year old son...which was another pleasant surprise. He was on his best and cutest behavior though once while attempting to make and fly a paper airplane he provide me with an opportunity to compare his behavior with that of some American was good for a laugh.
I began with a short a bio and chronicled my personal path toward becoming a French teacher and being what the French call bivalent or certified in two different disciplines. This particular theme is of enormous interest to French teachers who as a group have long resisted proposals to move in this direction. I spoke frankly with them about my own formation and development as a French teacher, the provisional and sometimes expedient licensing processes by which teachers in America add certifications in order either to become more employable or to help a school district fill a specific need - my own case being an example of the latter - had Dale Wyatt, my principal, not asked me to do it, I never would have thought to try for a French certification.
In addition to the phenomenon of multiple certifications (I didn't mention the practice of assigning teachers outside their areas of certification...I can only imagine how that would have sounded to them) I spoke about the tendency for American teachers to have extracurricular responsibilities and involvements and thus to have relationships with students that were in many instances more nuanced than those restricted to the classroom.
I went on to contrast the concept of the American high school, which is typically the final common stage in the American educational system where kids from every economic and social strata all come together and to a certain degree at least, study, work, play and live together, with the French paradigm of multiple types of high schools offering different types of diplomas leading to different career paths.
These particular differences underscore a very complex and vexing question, what age is the most appropriate time to begin to sort students according to their "professional" interests? The high school where I work now is general high school. It's graduates are typically aiming at university. There are different types of professional high schools each aimed at a particular sector of the economy whether it be manual arts like plumbing or electricity or computers or hotel management etc... In this respect, French students are faced with a number of options but at a tender age and, once their choice is made, the program of study is more or less standardized. Culturally and socially a certain "tubularization" of social classes and metiers is therefore structurally reinforced.
In American high schools there is a single diploma for everyone. There are essential two discernible orientations: college bound and non college bound. American students must choose and design their own orientation within these two large frames of reference and according to the elective offerings available in their school. American students quite routinely follow a college bound orientation without knowing if in fact that that is where they are going. Conversely, many students opt for a non college bound orientation and then, later, sometimes much later, opt back into the college system often via the community college route.
On the surface one is tempted therefore to register on the rigorous focus and the very palpable anxiety felt by French students (starting even before middle school) vis a vis their career options and to contrast that with an American adolescent who is perhaps typically undecided and uncertain and generally exploratory in his or her outlook. Rightly or wrongly the Amercan student often believes that he can decide later on.
One of the teachers asked me if the sons and daughters of doctors mixed with the sons and daughters of plumbers in American high schools. I conceded that within our high school there are social cliques but that to a great extent students from diverse backgrounds are challenged by the school environment to figure out ways to live and work together.
This same teacher pointed out that French professional high schools allowed students who demonstrated precious interests in manual arts to get an early start as an artisan and that the education they received in those professional lycees was far from a second rate education. I conceded yet another point to him insofar as a certain percentage of our non college bound students seem to experience high school, especially the last year or two as a kind of holding pattern, until they can join the real world and start making money or doing whatever it is they equate with being on their own.
The sixty-four dollar bonus question seems to be, at what age do we put high stakes career decisions before kids? What are social as well as the educational repercussions of those choices?
I went on to describe a typical day at La Grande High School first from the point of view of the teacher. I realized as I spoke to them that the reality I was conjuring for them was the one in which I would soon once again be working...
I began with the contract day - the early morning arrival, the daily ritual of clearing out the email (a phenomenon which left my French colleagues clearly shaking their heads...they seem to me to be Thoreauesque in their skepticism this particular form of technology), the daily schedule of classes, the prep period. They were much more impressed with the fact that I have my own room, my own computer and that grades are networked so efficiently. I told them that quite literally my room is my office, and that I had a key to the building and could come to my office any time of day or night. This both amazed and alarmed my colleagues. I could see them considering the pros and cons of access to the workplace versus work overtaking their lives. I told them if I didn't have my office at school I would probably need to remodel my house to have a home office. This, by the way, is exactly what the French do, they have their offices at home.
American teachers tend, therefore, to work in isolation in their own caves er...classrooms in front of their own computer monitors and, of course, their own students.
French teachers tend to congregate routinely in the teacher's room, as they await the signal to head off to wherever their next class is located. But also, French teachers tend to collaborate systematically in two ways. First each discipline designs and administers and scores a common test. Test are scored blindly, that is to say, student names are replaced by code numbers and teachers do not score their own students' work. Let me just be clear about my personal opinion: I think this is sound professional practice.
The second form of collaboration occurs at the end of each trimester when the conseils de classes are held. To see a team of teachers and administrators and student delegates come together for an hour and a half for the single expressed purpose of getting a global perspective on each individual student's progress in order to counsel that student on his or her future orientation. It is in my opinion a practice that is well worth examining.
As I went on to detail other facets of teacher responsibilities I felt an appreciation welling up inside me of how much American teachers try to do, of how busy we are, of how little time there is to do justice to what it is we want to accomplish.
A hand went up and I was asked if all these responsibilities and duties and emails and mulitple teaching assignments etc...didn't they pose the risk of diluting course content and diminishing student achievement?
Emmm....yeah, I said. That is indeed a real problem.
We are incredibly busy, incredibly busy, and in my opinion quite often incredibly distracted from authentic and meaningful learning. Teaching should be equal parts action and reflection if it is to rise to the levels people mean when use the phrase "good teaching." The problem of "busyness" isn't just burnout though that certainly does occur. In my opinion the problem is one of accommodation. The busier we get the more we are forced to make accommodations to survive...those accommodations take myriad forms and represent compromises both small and great but the net effect is, I think, corrosive to the general state of education.
The French have succeeded in institutionalizing the value of reflection insofar as they have limited classroom instruction to 18 hours per week. Rightly or wrongly, in the zero sum game of public discourse, when the subject of school reform comes up, this value seems likely to be juxtaposed with a school day that is truly onerous for the student. In other words, more help and more opportunities for kids will probably be translated to mean longer hours for teachers.
But this logic is the kind of logic that drives quality people out of the profession or discourages them from considering it in the first place. I want to be paid a decent salary, but I want even more to be allowed to practice my craft in a way that is both effective and fulfilling. It seems to me that we should try to preserve the working conditions enjoyed by French teachers (the very conditions that attract the kind of talented people we want to see teaching youngsters) at the same we try to expand and improve the opportunities for our students. (Does anyone listen to Theodore Sizer anymore?)
Another teacher asked me if I would send my own child to the school where I work. I said yes without hesitation but I wondered about the subtext of the question. A moment later, I got my answer as another teacher cited a statistic about the percentage of French teachers whose children are sent to private was significant, about 30% if I remember correctly.
Someone else asked me to explain what a school board is and does. I should have said, "Whatever it wants." but by then I was getting tired and a little slower on the uptake.
The questions that were posed to me during that second hour were all marked by a keen and curious bent. It was enormously gratifying to be grilled in such a thoughtful and earnest fashion, ...their interest was palpable and I felt a certain pride in my own profession as I saw it represented by the people in that room.
The last two questions I remember stick with me because they are examples of what I'm talking about. The first came from Hamed who asked me to offer two criticisms of the French system. I tried to demur by saying that I had perhaps already expressed at least that many. There were laughs but Hamed, himself smiling, was undeterred. "Yes but not just points. I'm taking about major criticisms." There it was, the French habit of mind, what better way to value something than by taking it apart?
I obliged him as best I could by returning to some of earlier points and enlarging upon my comments.
The second question came from Francis, the prof de philosophy who was one of the first to invite me inside his circle of friends and who has been for me an irrepressible font of knowledge all year about French culture and history as well as a keen observer of American letters and culture. "How has this year affected you personally and as a teacher?"
It was very late at that point and I don't think I did that question justice other than to state what is probably obvious...this has been an experience of a lifetime and life changing experience and not just for me but for Beth and for Tess and for little Colm. This year has been for our family what Mexico was for me and Beth just before we got married. Whereas daily life back home has the unfortunate tendency to stretch families apart, here we have cocooned ourselves in a manner of speaking. That cocooning was initially enforced by the difficulties we had breaking into social life here. By the time we made contacts we had also made ourselves very happy within our own family space. We look forward to coming home, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit to some anxieties about being pulled away from the family again. Here it has been a win win situation for us.
As for me personally, I cannot say precisely what the effects of this year will be for it seems likely that they have grafted themselves onto me almost without my noticing...that's what happens when you stay in one place for so long, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, change becomes normal.
Perhaps I'll be more mindful of the value of domestic rituals surrounding food and meal time and of civil rituals like greeting people, perhaps I'll expect more of the same mindfulness from my students, perhaps I'll appreciate even more the resources (both natural, we miss the wide open spaces, and material) we have available to us at home, perhaps I'll be inclined to be more reflective and less reactive, perhaps I'll have more empathy for all young people who worry about what their future is going to look like, and perhaps I'll relish even more the opportunity to share a wider world with them and to help them acquire one of the passports to that wider world, language.
One thing is for sure I have found another place in the world where I feel as though I can pass what the French call a bon moment. The world got smaller and cozier for me this year. I owe much of what I've gained from this experience to the fraternity that is the profession of teaching.

Professional perils

For the past few weeks one of my classes, a group of secondes, has been routinely interrupted during module (half group sessions) by students from the math module coming to get math textbooks. Apparently, these books are too heavy for everyone to carry their own and so only the strongest or the smartest or the stupidest carry them, I'm not sure what they're system is. In any event, the math teacher, a young man who is a stagiaire (sort of like a student teacher), deals with this problem by sending kids to my room to get the needed books.
They come to my door make a perfunctory knock and come in and unceremoniously ask for math books. It doesn't matter what is going on in my room at the moment, my students all immediately stop what they're doing and wait for the books to be produced. It all happens pretty quickly all things considered but it's a damned nuisance and I've been nursing a little grudge about it for a little while now.
I don't run into this teacher regularly so it has sort of slipped my mind only to be resurfaced each time the kids descend ob my room for math books. Now, however, we at the end of the year and it seems too late to really do anything. Nevertheless, this morning as I was checking my box in the teachers room I ran into the math teacher and couldn't stop myself (after saying good morning first, of course) from saying that the interruptions were, well, annoying.
He shrugged and said that he needed all the kids to have books. I shrugged back and wondered what I was supposed to do about the kids barging into my room like that. He seemed surprised. "Don't they knock?" At that point I despaired of getting anywhere with him since the point wasn't really if they knocked or not. He promised that he would speak to them (about not knocking, I'm afraid). I nodded politely.
A few minutes later I'm monitoring a test in my class of premieres. My room is as quiet as a tomb as the kids work on what I'm afraid is a almost too difficult and too long a test. From my desk in the front of the room I can hear noise emanating from an adjoining room but I don't focus on it. Soon however some of my students ask me to go next door to ask them to quiet down. It is loud, I concede but I am wary of being asked to leave the room...then I remember that this room has a door at the back which leads directly into the other classroom. I walk to the door, my students watch me expectantly. I knock. I hear a muffled voice, not an adults, say, "Oui?" The noise in there continues unabated.
One of my students motions to me that the door is not unlocked. I open it and am surprised to find myself peering over the shoulders of very hooligans who've been interrupting my classes for the past month. They turn and smile their hound dog smiles as if they've been lately engaged in something very funny.
On the far side of the room I see the math teacher looking very much like a caged animal. He is pacing across rapidly across the front of the room...he seems far away. He still hasn't noticed me when I clear my throat. He looks at me; I feel sorry immediately.
"We're taking a test in here." I say it simply, calmly and matter of factly.
His room is momentarily silent. As I quietly close the door, I hear the room begin to come back to life. The door clicks and through the wall I hear the math teacher shout, "Calmez-vous!"
It isn't clear whether anyone hears him. I look at my own students. They look at me. We exchange wry smiles...I'm proud of them, not that we haven't had our own moments (we have indeed) but it could be worse for them and for me.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Home or Hide

Overheard recently:
Tess said to Beth yesterday that she wasn't coming with us when we came back to the United States. She wants to stay. "I'm going hide when you leave."
Colm heard this and chirped, "I'm not. You're going to left here."

Also, lost in the excitement of Saturday was another milestone unfortunately not caught on camera. Colm soloed on the bike and rode around the city square for about ten minutes without any (serious) mishap. The bike they've both learned on here has no brakes...did I mention that?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Fairy Magic...fete des fées

The hand made invitations that went out said, "Crois-tu aux fées?" (Do you believe in fairies?)By the time Tess's much anticipated princess/fairy birthday party was over, it was hard not believe in some sort of magic.

Beth as usual provided the vision, the creative design, and the craft work. She designated me as the fairy storyteller, a job which really intimidated me never having thought much about fairies let alone never ever having tried to divert a group of five year old French princesses with a fairy story... I worried all morning about it .

The central conceit of her party vision was to have the kids build fairy houses in the adjoining wood, to leave the houses for awhile, and then to return later to find them occupied by, you guessed it, seven fairies. Beth painstakingly and lovingly crafted these beauties you see in the photo the week before.

She installed in the yard as her central set piece a tente des fées.
This was the epicenter of that other world, the magic one. The gauzy walls kept the illusion alive and the "real world" at bay for a good three hours. The mosquito net served alternately as a an atelier for making fairy crowns, a cozy place to hear a fairy story, and delightful setting for a fairy tea party later.

That morning as I pondered the fairy house activity in the woods, I decided to mark seven trees in the woods with red roses. This would make it easy for the kids to locate sites where they could make their houses.

The Princesses, Caroline, Constance, Casandra, Pauline, and Margot had been invited to join us. They came in fine array, the only hitch being that Princess Margot was a little late (missed the group photo) which kept the others hanging expectantly about the garden gate for a time. The mothers stayed long enough to exchange a few pleasantries and then left us.
I have to say that the prospect of spending three hours with this group was far less daunting than the crew of pirates we entertained six weeks ago for Colm's birthday. As I recall that event, it seems every balloon was popped. skewered, or smashed inside of the first twenty minutes. By contrast, the princesses popped nary a single one all afternoon.

Colm being the only boy, and the only one who really doesn't operate in French, slipped in and out of the mix, often reduced to a kind of Tarzan, prankster persona in which he conveyed things by gestures such as running about madly or whacking girls with balloons or sitting tamely next to the beautiful creatures who had invaded his house. The princesses suffered his presence gracefully for the most part and even occasionally sent a smile his way.

After some intitial socializing and running about, the princesses were called into the tent to make their fairy crowns.

After that it was time to pin the horn on the unicorn. The first hour was over before we knew it.
Then it was back in the tent for the fairy story which was supposed to serve as prelude to the house making activity. The kids all sat in a circle and listened as I told them about a magic (fictional) summer when my father took me to an island near La Rochelle where there was a un bois des fées.
When I asked my father how he knew it was a fairy forest he pointed to a butterfly fluttering by.
"What is the most beautiful, the most fragile, and the most magical thing in the forest?" he asked me. Without waiting for a response, he answered for me, "The butterfly. The butterfly loves magic. It loves change. It changes from a caterpillar to a butterfly, and every night it changes from a butterfly to a fairy."

I pause and look at the kids.
"Ask yourself, have you ever seen a butterfly at night?"
They shake their heads.

"That's because butterflies change into fairies at night."
"Have you ever seen a fairy, Dad?"
"Not quite, but I've seen their houses."
During this whole story the girls and I are totally in sync but Colm, who can't understand a word that I'm saying, has become squirrelly and begun doing things like hiding behind me and putting flowers on my hat, this makes the girls laugh which in turn emboldens Colm further. My son is competing with me for the same audience...I love him dearly but the tent is only big enough for one entertainer at a time. Beth sees the problem and retrieves him. Colm is upset that he can't participate, that he doesn't understand what I'm saying, so Beth tells him the story in English. This helps...both of us.

At this point I tell the kids about fairy houses, how they're made out of things you find in the forest, how they're usually near or in trees and how especially if you ever find a red rose near a tree that it's a sure sign there are fairies nearby.
"Once I built a fairy house out of flowers and branches and leaves and ferns. When I came back to visit it the next day, do you know what I found there?"
Caroline says, "Une fée?"
"No, a squirrel." Everybody laughs.

"He was eating the nuts in the fairy house. And the next day, do you know what I found?"
Caroline tries again, "Un ecureuil?"

"Not this time. A rabbit!" More laughter. "So if you make a fairy house may not find a fairy, but that's okay because fairies love to share their houses with all the animals in the forest. Are you ready to go in the woods? Would you like to build a fairy house?"
In no time our troupe is marching back to the woods. The discovery of red roses on trees triggers a flurry of excitement. Everyone wants to build a fairy house but no one really quite gets how to do it.

Beth and I begin suggesting materials which might serve to make fairy houses. I've stashed piles of sticks nearby but really there is no need. Beth helps the girls with some cool design suggestions and pretty soon there are seven kids on the ground by seven trees making seven fairy houses. Each of them in turn calls the others over to see what they have done.

There is a sort of creative synergy that happens as each kid begins appreciating and borrowing design ideas from the others. Kids are running back and forth alternately inviting people to come look at what they've done or coming for a look. We are in the woods for an hour b
efore Beth finally pries them away with the promise of cake and punch.
It's back to the fairy tent for tea and tiny chocolate fairy cakes each with nutella frosting and a silver sugar pearl. While I oversee the tea Beth slips into the woods and secretly puts the fairy dolls in each of the fairy houses. The tea party is classic, the girls chatter away as they serve each other in their little cups...

I am so proud of Tess
and the way she carries on and sometimes even mixes it up with them in French - don't be fooled by the costumes, princesses can be a tough crowd. She is absolutely fearless and unfazed by the linguistic challenge. The other girls make no distinctions between Tess and the others...and they genuinely enjoy each other's company.

I wonder if Tess will miss this group of girls? seems plausible to me.
The tea is finished, the presents all opened - it's obvious that the kids have is time for the final coup. Beth says, "Do you want to go back and visit your fairy houses?"
It's hilarious to see the way they all remember p
ractically at the same time...the fairy houses!
Off we go one more time, over the fence and into the wood. Trailing behind I can hear squeals. When I get there everyone is jumping up
and down holding their fairy aloft. And then from Casandra comes the question for which I had not prepared an answer though we should have seen it coming.
"Ce sont des vrais?" (Are they real fairies?)
I pause, my jaw is slack, I'm stalling for time, Beth is too. Suddenly Casandra's mother who has just arrived says, "Ce sont pas des vrais mais elles sont laissées par des vraies." (They're not real but they were left by real fairies.) I look at h
er with equal parts gratitude and admiration. She shrugs as if to say - all in the day's work of a supermom.

And so the princesses
and Colm jump and run about the woods clutching their fairies until, one by one they are summoned by their mothers to come home. Each parting is prolonged by the need for each girl to take her mother back into the woods to show off the fairy houses...I can't help but notice the admiration these women obviously have for the work Beth has put into this whole thing.

As I walk out of the woods for the last time that day I pass by Tess's fairy house. Her fairy is once again nestled inside. I wonder, did she leave it there on purpose
? It's nice to think that she and Colm will be able to return to these magic places whenever they want for the next couple of months.
Princess Margot who was the last to arrive is the last to leave. She and Tess and Colm somehow have energy left to burn and they run madly about the house and the tent. Their energy and exuberance is breathtaking and beautiful.

In the mottled light under the leafy oak and the cherry trees,
they flit about like butterflies.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Night and Day

3:30 am - in the guest bedroom, can't sleep

3:30 pm - twelve hours later...


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why not Blaye?

At dinner Monday night Gerard went over the map with us and made some suggestions. He really urged us to go up the coast and see Ile de Ré and Ile d'Aix. There is also one of biggest zoos in Europe in nearby Royan...

Time is running out. We feel it accelerating towards the end of our exchange. Now more than ever we are prone to wonder what we have forgotten to do, what we we'll regret not having done, what we had planned to do etc... It's gets a little weird sometimes, we feel a bit guilty just hanging around the house even this house is a great hang out.
So Tuesday morning everybody gets up very late. I float the idea of going to Blaye, a 300 year old fortresse just downstream from Bordeaux and the confluence of the Dordogne and the Garonne rivers. I can tell right away from Beth's nonreaction that it's a little too sudden for her to handle such a chirpy suggestion. I can see the thought bubble over her head - in it I see a car, a busy highway, a ticking clock, kids strapped in car seats...
She hesitates and I sulk a little...

I take the kids out for a scooter promenade and when I come back a couple of hours later, Beth has come round to the idea of Blaye. But first we have to feed the kids lunch. This seems to take awhile and before long I'm feeling tired... the day is getting away from us.

Beth and I go out on the terrace for a drink. The air reinvigorates me.
Let's go, I say.
Okay, she says.
It's three o'clock, the skies are overcast, and there's a bit of wind but what the hell...
We ask the kids if they want to see a fort....they are game, so we load up their scooters, some jackets ... fifteen minutes later we're on the road.
Talk about a prickly process leading to a good result...we had a great time. Once we got past Bordeaux and down to the scenic river drive from St. André to Blaye we were treated to an absolutely charming drive through vineyards and port towns and tightly packed houses with impeccably kept gardens.

The road was narrow and windy and slow, so much the better for taking in the sights.

When we got to Blaye 90 minutes later we found that the citadelle is a fortified village with homes and shops and galleries. It was a great late afternoon balade, the air redolent with the scent of flowers.

We capped it off with crepes, wine and coffee.

We got home at almost nine in the evening, safe and sound and satisfied.
It was great for Beth and I too excercise that fast twitch decision-making muscle, otherwise known as impulsivity. Sometimes when you're thinking for four instead of just for yourself, you lose a little faith in the efficacy of that kind of thing, but it's good to remember that impulsivity is what our kids do best. They don't really mind if we join in the fun.