Before I tell you exactly what I do, I would like to tell you a little about the school system.
In France, students must be able to communicate in at least two modern foreign languages by the end of their secondary education, the time at which they are required to take the baccalauréat or the « bac ». Essentially the high school diploma, the bac is the exam taken at the end of high school that a student must pass in order to enter into a university in France.
Because the language portion of the bac will now include an oral component, oral communication has new-found importance in the classroom. Part of the initiative of the French government to strengthen the teaching of foreign languages, especially in terms of the practice of oral communication skills, is the incorporation of language assistants. There are more than 5,600 language assistants from more than 48 countries who come to France to intervene at all levels of education, from primary school through high school. France has accepted foreign language assistants for decades. Their role now, as native speakers of the target language, is to practice the language orally with students, to improve their communicative competence, as well as deepen their understanding of different cultures.
In Rennes, I am an English language assistant at Lycée René Descartes, a high school located in the southeast portion of the city. I teach at least one class at each level in the school. High school in France is made up of three levels: seconde, première, and terminale. La seconde is the first year of high school. The majority of the students are around 15 years old. La première is the second year. Students in première begin their studies in a concentration, such as literature, economic/social studies, the sciences or any of the eight other technological specialties, including hospitality and music and dance. The concentration the student follows determines which baccalauréat exam the student will take at the end of the third year, or terminale, which is the equivalent of senior year in the United States.
At Descartes, there is also an additional level, BTS, or brevet de technicien supérieur. Students in BTS have already completed high school and taken the bac. They range in age from 18 to 21. In lieu of university training, BTS is an alternative program that allows students to receive professional certification in a specific field (for example, real estate, of which I teach four sections).
I am a full-time teaching assistant at Descartes, which means I work at Descartes for 12 hours a week. (Sometimes there is the possibility that an assistant’s schedule, always 12 hours, will be divided between two or three schools.) This semester, I teach for four hours on Monday, six hours on Tuesday and two hours Thursday afternoons. On Wednesday afternoons, I take my class at the university. (On Fridays, I don’t work!)
Every hour at school, I am with a new class: I have six hours with various classes of secondes, four hours with four sections of BTS and one each with premiers and terminals. That means that each week I see 12 different classes. I assumed my job as an English assistant would be easier. As it turns out, my work is one of the more challenging aspects of my life in France.
My true interaction with the students depends on the teacher as much as it depends on their level. For two of my sections of BTS, I have met with the students individually for five to seven minutes each, where they get to know me and I get to know their level. When I work with the other sections, which are taught by someone else, the teacher sends me pairs of students with whom, so far, I have worked on exercises in pronunciation and role play chosen specifically by the teacher. They are preparing to take an oral exam at the end of the school year, and I will mostly focus on helping them prepare for that for the rest of the semester.
Working with the secondes and terminals is much different. The typical class size is 36 students. Some classes are divided into modules, meaning there are only 18 students in a class room at a time. Because there are so many students to attend to, most students don’t have the opportunity to speak the target language in class. The job of the language assistant is to give them that opportunity.
I usually take small groups of four to six students at a time into a classroom separate from the rest of the class. Sometimes, the teacher will give us a specific topic to discuss. More often, he or she will simply say, “Just tell them about yourself and get them to talk to you…” This was my assignment for the first week of class. Every class, every day for that week was comprised of more or less one thing: I introduced myself and tried desperately to get the students to take interest and to talk to me. Very quickly, I became exhausted and discouraged.
“Tell me about yourself” isn’t exactly the best way improve conversational skills, and it’s hard to move forward when a student stares blankly after the question, “How are you doing today?” The majority of the students were unimpressed and mostly silent. I’d ask myself: Do they not understand me, or are they bored? I mean, I was bored, and if I am bored, how can I expect them to be interested?
I started my own class at the university shortly after. The class reminded me that part of my problem was that I wasn’t thinking of myself as a teacher. Being a teacher involves planning, organization and extreme focus. If I want to feel useful, I can’t just blindly strike up a conversation like I had been trying to do. I need to teach. I need to have specific and concrete goals for each activity in each session.
The next week I got the opportunity to work with one of the teachers instead of alone. Before each class, she gave me a run through of the activity she planned for the class and the specific goal she had for the students that day. I studied the way she taught and how, through the activities she planned, she was able to manipulate the session to achieve what she wanted. She taught me the most about teaching. After working with her, things started to get much more fun, for both me and my students.
That week, I made my first attempt at a lesson plan. Many of the teachers were planning on discussing a film, so I went with them to the cinema and watched it with the classes. The name of the film was Exit through the Gift Shop. It was about Banksy, a graffiti artist from England who is known worldwide. The previous week, they were discussing the concept of a rebel, and the next week they would work on describing street art. After seeing the film, I was already a step ahead of where I was last week. I knew what questions to ask, what expressions to clarify and was better able to control the direction that the session would go in.
I had them recount all the “big moments” of the film in the order that they happened. We then talked about their opinion, not only of the movie but of art itself. The kids really enjoyed themselves. For most of them, it was the first film about art or an artist that they had seen. They told me it changed the way they felt about street art and caused them to have a more positive opinion towards it. They also gave really insightful comments on what makes someone a true artist. For example, they said that Thierry, one of the main characters of the video, was not a true artist because he only copied others’ work and was only interested in making money. I gave the same lesson on the film to many groups of students. After each session, I adjusted my lesson for the next group. The sessions gradually became narrower and, as a result, more and more successful. I felt like a teacher.
The next week, there was a 10 day vacation in honor of All Saints’ Day. That’s something else unique about the school system: every six weeks or so, there is around a two week break from class. My first week back after the break, the majority of my classes were cancelled. Either the students were taking an exam or the professor was absent due to a workshop. I am now preparing myself for next week.
My personal goal is to continue the momentum from the week before class. I have already started to be more proactive, asking the teacher to tell me their lesson plans for the upcoming week so that I can prepare. As an assistant and as a native speaker especially, I have a special place in the classroom and particular knowledge to transfer to these students. I am realizing what is required of me. If I want to be of service and fulfill my role, the first thing I need to do is act like a teacher.