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.


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