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The second semester

28 Feb

The second semester started of like the first, with one significant difference. Instead of feeling confused by my place in the classroom, my role with most of my new teachers is now well-defined: I am charged with helping the students prepare for things, specific things. In my class of BTS, it is their certificate exam this summer. For my terminals, we are preparing orals for the Bac. In one class of seconds, I am helping them work on a project about gender discrimination. With another, we are preparing for the Cambridge certificate.

These exams are quite difficult. Students are given a document. It could be an advertisement, a text, a cartoon, a role play. They are given 10 minutes to prepare and then must talk for 10 minutes. At first, the teachers told me to “practice” with the students. They’d provide a document for the student. He or she would prepare for 10 minutes and then come with me to play it out like an exam situation. I would be the stand in for the examiner. After the 10 minutes, the student would scurry back to class and I was to provide feedback for the teacher, including the range in which I thought the student would have scored had this been the real deal.

Ideally, each student should talk alone continuously for three to four minutes, after which the examiner, or me, intervenes to ask questions and deepen the discussion. The scenario rarely plays out this way. In fact, most presentations fall flat in around two and a half minutes. This, I find, is due to lack of a plan. The students are given 10 minutes to prepare, and I am not sure they know what to do during that time.

The teachers often look to the assistant to help the students refine and reformulate what they say. My question is: how can I correct them if they do not know what to say? There are many battles that come alone with the work of a language teacher. As a language teaching assistant, one has the right to choose which of these to take on. The one I’ve chosen is strategy.

Even when the teacher asks me to “play”, I more often than not abandon my role as examiner to offer tips to the student. It’s all a formula, and that is what I want the students to see. The information they need is right there on the document, regardless of its nature. They could easily, and with no loss of credit, burn through an entire two minutes of talk time simply describing the document in detail, which, of course, is something they are expected to do.

I work well using lists – my tasks always seem less daunting when I have them laid out in front of me – so I am testing this strategy first. I give the students a list of very straight-forward questions, almost an order of operations, to help them figure out what to say. For example, when looking at an ad, they must say who is advertising the product, what product is being advertised, and for whom is it being advertised, among other things. If they answer each question as thoroughly and detailed, which they are more than capable of, they will have plenty talk about on their own until the examiner takes over.

To my surprise, this tactic is working well. First of all, they actually copied down the questions I gave them. Secondly, they asked questions as we worked! There is nothing more satisfying to me at this stage than a student who is invested enough in what we are doing to ask questions. I am thinking that I will even type up the “formula” for all of my students. I can try to tell them something about how, next time I see them and we practice, I better not have to remind them about the method, but I don’t want to push it…

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Teaching English in France: Take 2

29 Jan

Originally, I wanted to write a post about my teaching experience once a week. It’s been difficult, however, to find substantial material to discuss because my work week has been somewhat unpredictable. My schedule is ordinarily sporadic, but, for the first few weeks of November, I was not even able see most of classes. In some cases, the students were taking exams. In others, the professor was out. As a rule, assistants are not to be left in charge of the whole class, so to make up for teaching hours lost, the teachers would gave me alternative tasks to complete, such as acting out and recording a dialogue at home.

I last left off writing about my new-found teacher mentality and my decision to make planning and preparation a priority. Thus, each week, I kept my word and put forth a concerted effort to consult each professor and outline the session beforehand. In a retrospective self-evaluation, I gave myself a 9/10 for preparedness. As it turns out, having a plan was only half the battle.

The English classes I teach in France are organized differently than my French classes were when I was in high school. I remember concentrating on practical units, such as talking about family, travel, transportation, how to order at restaurants, etc. In France, the units are centered on very complex and exhaustive topics that can be difficult for even a native speaker to elaborate. These include street art, the suspense thriller and India. This caused me to overestimate the students’ speaking abilities, resulting in lessons that fell flat.

The primary example is when I brought the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s Thriller to one class of seconds and asked the students to watch the video and choose words that corresponded to “thriller” – words such as darkness, moonlight, scream, scared, etc. They were completely lost. Then I brought video clips containing no dialogue of Alfred Hitchcock scenes – one was the famous Psycho scene and the other was the final attack scene from The Birds. I was very excited about this one! I planned all night, writing discussion questions and researching Alfred Hitchcock, if anything just to open the door to this kind of cinema. I found out that the more excited I am, the more disappointed I will be. They were completely unimpressed.

In addition, my role (I say my role because each assistant I’ve talked to has a different experience from the next one) in the classroom changes with each professor. For the most part, I do just what my job title implies: I assist the teacher.  They either, as with the seconds, ask me to find a specific kind of activity to work on separately with my small group of students, or I go to class with them and do any number of things for them. So far, I have recorded students’ assignments for the teacher to grade at a later time, supervised and helped with group work and just observed the class session. In other words, I haven’t done much teaching, and I haven’t felt very good about it.

The first semester is over which unfortunately means I only have three months left of my contract. It also means, however, that I get the chance at a fresh start with new classes and new teachers, as well as the opportunity to do work I feel better about. I already do feel better, in fact.

Just after the Christmas holiday, I began working on test preparation with one of the BTS real estate classes I talked briefly about in my first observation post. (They were out on internships for the months leading up to Christmas.) The students will be taking an important exam in June that determines future successes in this field. I work with students individually practicing the tasks they will be asked to complete the day of the exam. In this class, which is different from my experience in most of my other classes, I feel … useful. I will also be working with two new professors. I have already met with one and discussed the plans and goals for the upcoming semester. With his class, we will be working on an interdisciplinary project on discrimination. I am very interested to see how this will turn out.

I’ve noticed that these kids apply themselves more when their effort has a direct effect on a grade, a project, an exam, etc. In addition, the classes I will keep from last semester are much more comfortable with me know. They know that I speak French and can help them translate a word or a phrase into English, and sometimes they even have a little bit of fun. I am also more comfortable now. I know the system and am in a better position to make use of the time I have with the students.

I have got the hang of it now, and my goal is not to let myself get so discouraged when things don’t work out exactly as planned.

The adventure begins…

26 Sep

My name is Nicole Horne. I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. I attended Ursuline Academy High School, and I am a recent honors graduate of Louisiana State University with a bachelor of the arts degree in French. Today, I am headed to Rennes, France, as a member of the first class of Escadrille Louisiane.

Escadrille Louisiane is a brand new scholarship program sponsored by the Center for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) in cooperation with the French government. Targeting students from Louisiana who are interested in being English language assistants in France, this program offers them the unique opportunity to receive training in pedagogy while in France so that upon their return they qualify to teach in in the state of Louisiana, either in a French immersion program or French as a second language program. The program was named for Escadrille Lafayette, a group of 200 Louisiana men who trained as pilots to fly for the French during World War I. The idea behind Escadrille Louisiane: to train Louisiana teachers to become teachers of French back home.
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