Thursday, October 20, 2011

Students: First Encounters

My schedule will change after Christmas, but right now I am working with ten classes. Two of them are sécondes, which are roughly the equivalent of American sophomores; they're all fifteen or sixteen, and this is their first year of high school. They are shy and bright-eyed and braces-wearing and make me feel old, because even though sixteen does not feel that long ago for me, they seem SO young. But they're my favorites, because they're so polite and energetic and enthusiastic about learning. The rest of my classes are BTS, which is, as far as I've figured out, a two-year, post-high-school professional degree program; they are studying things like electronics and combustion engines and product design, and they are anywhere from eighteen to older than me. Most seem to be around nineteen or twenty, but I stopped asking them to tell me how old they are after finding several who are my age and at least one who's twenty-three already. They are overall less interested in English, but there are at least a few in every class who do want to improve and who try very hard and at least a couple of classes that seem legitimately motivated. I've been struck by how little difference there is in level between the sécondes and the BTS students; my responsable explained it to me as a result of two factors. She thinks that speaking gets emphasized more in middle school than in high school, so they get here doing well but lose some of those skills as they progress to higher grades, and also, the BTS students are required to take English even though many of them don't want to and don't understand why they need it—plus they're college-age and just don't want to do any work.

My job is to get them to talk, which means finding a way to engage them. Some of the more artistically-oriented programs of study have a lot of girls, but in some of the more technical/mechanical courses ALL of the students are boys. Some of them are very nice and polite and both interesting and interested. Others are big, macho boys who play sports and ride motorcycles and play violent video games. Not to fall into gender stereotypes, but their fields of study and their hobbies are things about which I have very little knowledge—they want to talk about their cars, and I'm like, “Uh... what color is your car? Is it big or small? That's great, want to look at these pictures of historic buildings in my hometown? No? Okay... what else do you like about your car?” I love boys, I think they're great fun, and a part of me was really excited about teaching mostly boys, but it's also going to be a challenge. Many of these particular boys are not like the boys I've always hung out with—instead, they're the boys I didn't talk to much when I was in high school myself—and it remains to be seen how much we have to discuss that's interesting to them but still within the realm of things I can understand and teach them words for.

The other challenge with them, and with all my BTS students of all genders*, will be how to relate to them. Do I try to set myself apart and be teacher-like, or do I try to act like one of them and be pals? It's tricky. Part of my job is to be fun; if I try too hard to be their teacher, they'll hate me. But if I don't try hard enough, they won't respect me, and that's no good either when half of them don't want to do any work.

I suppose “not wanting to work” is relative, though. Almost every class has asked me outright whether I speak French, and it would be difficult to pretend not to anyway, since sooner or later most of them will either hear me speak French to a teacher or at least notice that I understand a lot of what's going on when the teacher speaks French to them or vice versa. However, I have yet to have a problem with students trying to speak French to me. Sometimes, they ask, “How do you say ____ in English?”; in front of the regular teacher I usually try to let him or her handle it, but if it's just me and the students, I usually acquiesce, especially with the sécondes, although I have offered my dictionary to a BTS student on occasion rather than feed him a word (also a good strategy if I don't know the word they're asking!). Technically, I'm not supposed to speak anything but English to them, and had always intended to be strict about that even if about nothing else, but as long as there's no pretense about my knowing at least some French, I am willing to translate provided they ask the question in English. Sometimes when I see the BTS students outside of class, even off of school grounds, they still speak English to me, which makes me very proud. (Sécondes tend to just avoid speaking to me at all outside of class, but maybe we'll get there.) My two favorite interactions concerning the language barrier were both boys in BTS. The first was my first day in a classroom, and went something like this:

Student: Do you speak French?
Me: I speak a little French, and I'm hoping to get better. But you have to speak English to me.
Student: So we can speak French to you?
Me: No, there are plenty of French people for me to talk to if I want to practice French. In here, we speak English.
Student: Say something in French.
Me: Je m'appelle Erica.
Student: Say something longer. With more words.
Teacher: She has to speak English to you! Drop it!

She rolled her eyes at me and told me later that he's always going to be “the cheeky one.” I thought it was great. He wasn't being rude about it or anything; he just wanted me to prove I could speak French. He also later became the first student I ran into outside of school and we had an entire conversation all in English, which he initiated. I told the teacher about that the next day, but sadly she did not seem as impressed and proud as I was.

Anyway, the other was a boy in one of the more difficult classes I'm working with, who asked about my French and then told me almost immediately that he doesn't speak English. I said, “Well, you're in an English class, so you have to speak English to me.” It turns out he speaks English quite well once he starts talking. He speaks better than he understands, as a matter of fact, and with most people it's the other way around. When I caught him translating something for the boy next to him, I said, “See, you do speak English!” and he said, “No, no, I speak Italiano.” I laughed. 

He later asked me if I'd brought any girlfriends with me to France.

My first day in each of the classes I'm working with this term has been introduction day. I introduce myself briefly, make the students introduce themselves to me, and then give them free rein to ask me questions. (The younger classes get a few minutes to think and write down some questions to ask; the older ones just have to go for it.)

Classes vary a lot in terms of their level of interest in interrogating me; sometimes there a lots of questions, and sometimes only a handful of students speak up while the rest just sit and shake their heads if I ask if they have anything they want to ask. There does not seem to be a pattern to this related to the age of the students, to what they're studying, or to whether the class is mostly boys or mostly girls. The things they ask are interesting. They all want to know why I'm here, how long I'll be here, how I like France/Brest/French people/French food, if I've been to France before, if I speak French, what my hobbies are. Many want to know what I studied, what my hometown/home state is like, if I've been to New York (and/or California), what my favorite movie/book/kind of music is, what 9/11 was like. Sometimes I get asked about Obama or about DSK**. But some of the questions I would have thought most obvious don't get asked very often—only one class has asked about siblings or pets, only a couple about my car*** or whether I can speak any other languages, and less than half about whether I'm homesick or about how I think living in France is different from living in America (SUCH a hard question to answer!). I've also gotten surprisingly few questions about what American high schools are like. I have, fortunately, not gotten any inappropriate questions, even from older students, and I've only been asked once whether I have a boyfriend (I decided not to consider that an inappropriate question as long as there aren't any dangerous follow-up questions)--and then it was a girl who asked. I have been asked a few times about whether I eat hamburgers a lot (because there's a stereotype that Americans all eat fast food all the time), and I get “What is your job?” embarrassingly often, because they don't seem to understand that my job really is just to sit there talking to them. (I suppose it's possible that at least sometimes they mean my job in America, but if so, no one has actually succeeded in asking that yet... and I wouldn't really have an answer anyway.) Some of the better/more original questions I've gotten have included “Have you seen any French movies/Do Americans watch a lot of French movies?”, “Could you see yourself staying in France forever?”, “Why did you choose Brest?” (I always feel awkward when I have to explain that I didn't), “What is your favorite part of France (and/or of America)?”, and “What are your origins?”****

I've now been in the classroom officially for two weeks, so I've met all my classes and started taking the lead in most of them, though there are only a few where the regular teacher lets me take on lessons without supervision. I'm starting to plan real lessons now (my first real lesson without a real teacher present was this morning, in fact), and it's a little intimidating, but also a lot of fun.

On a slightly different note, I was told today that my French has already improved. I replied that I'm just having a good day. If anything, I have a lot of lost ground to regain (from months without French classes and with French classes in which I never spoke if I could avoid it) before I'll be able to acknowledge any real improvement.

* There's my inner Obie coming out [no pun intended]. I think the actual likelihood of encountering anyone with a nontraditional gender identity at a French tech school is exceptionally low. But now that I've thought about it, I'm curious about how one handles such issues in such a rigidly gendered language...
** The first time this came up, I was not only embarrassingly unprepared, but embarrassingly confused. It stands, of course, for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but I had never heard him referred to by only his initials before. The students were understandably shocked when I had no idea what they were asking about, and an incredibly awkward explanation ensued, and I'm still not sure how successfully I conveyed the fact that I had, in fact, heard about the case and was only confused because of the way they asked.
*** This oversight is interesting to me because they clearly have the idea that everyone in America drives, and drives a lot, and drives big cars.
**** This was also initially a confusing question. I'm sure I looked puzzled, and the teacher said, “She's American, she just told you,” but he explained [to her] in French that Americans come from all over and he wanted to know where my people lived originally. Then I was pretty proud of him for being so insightful, and also pretty proud that I got to rattle off six countries in response while they all looked impressed.

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