Last friday, I met the director of pedagogy at the Velizy school district. The first thing that struck me about Catherine was that she was dressed in bright red from head to toe, which is even more striking than usual because most French women dress with a subtle color palette. It isn’t unusual to see Parisian women entirely in black. Cyril gave me a simple black sweater dress for my birthday and after a few days in Paris I understood how useful it will be when I want to pass as a local.
The director was wonderfully nice and spoke French slow enough that I would be able to understand her. She didn’t have any illusions about me being fluent in French already, due to experiences of working with English language assistants every year. Last year, the language assistant became so homesick that she left after Christmas. “She was just 20 years old, very young, and even worse, young in the head. She missed her family too much.” But she was from England and therefore close enough to go home every other weekend if she wanted too!
When I asked the director how many English teachers they have between the three elementary schools, she faltered a little bit, embarrassed. “We used to have one, but she left us a few years ago… which is why we are so grateful to have you here!” The normal elementary school teachers are expected to teach their students English, but many can’t speak it well themselves. They rely heavily on songs and worksheets from the internet or from textbooks.
Before I dive into my account of my first week of teaching, it is necessary to explain french school grades names because they are a bit different for anyone who has gone through the american school system. At first they threw me for a loop but now I have the hang of the elementary school ones. When I first met Cyril, he convinced me that the french school grades were all named after animals (1st grade = zebras, etc). I’m gullible, I know.
Cours préperatoire CP = 1st grade (6-7 years old)
Cours élémentaire 1ère année CE1 = 2nd grade (7-8 years old)
Cours élémentaire 2e année CE2 = 3rd grade (8-9 years old)
Cours moyen 1ère année CM1 = 4th grade (9-10 years old)
Cours moyen 2e année CM2 = 5th grade (10-11 years old)
6e = 6th grade (11-12 years old)
5e = 7th grade (12-13 years old)
4e = 8th grade (13-14 years old)
3e = 9th grade (14-15 years old)
2nde = 10th grade (15-16 years old)
1ère = 11th grade (16- 17 years old)
Terminal T = 12th grade (17-18 years old)
I teach CP, CE1, CE2, and CM2, so 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th graders.
I don’t know what it is about them, but French children are the cutest. The CP students are the most adorable, and the most shy when it comes to talking out loud in class. I had to coax them to get them to say “My name is ___”
At the orientation they told us assistants that we would just be observing for the first week. When I arrived on Monday I was expected to jump right in and start teaching. Luckily I had something prepared just in case. Many teachers also expect me to completely take over the lesson from them when I am in the classroom, which I don’t mind. They act as translators and disciplinarians as needed.
At the orientation I was also told to never speak French to the children, but that proved almost impossible to do. Most of the students are complete beginners, and therefore don’t know even the simplest commands in English. By the end of the week, I began translating a few words here and there for them just so they would be able to follow me easier. Some of the kids were a little bit concerned that I wasn’t speaking french to them. One boy in the front row kept asking me in a whisper, “Do you know how to speak French? Why don’t you speak French to us?” At the end of that class, some girls came up to me, gave me hugs, and told me, “You will teach us English and we will teach you French!”
For the first few classes I taught, I tried to show them a slide show of pictures about Minnesota and my family and the family farm, but it was hard to get the message across to the students in just English. I also took for granted how young the students are. When I showed them the first slide, a map of the United States, they would guess, “England?” “Canada!“. And then they would raise their hands and say things that were totally disconnected like kids do, such as “My mommy went to Canada one time.” With most of the classes, I worked on colors, animals, the ABCs, and/ or basic classroom commands like look and listen and point. I only have one CM2 class with one year of English under their belt so we worked on numbers 1-100. They had a lot of difficulty hearing the difference between numbers like 15 and 50 which is understandable.
The kids are very excited to have me here, especially the younger ones. In one class, after they introduced me, a boy in the back yelled out excitedly. “THE UNITED STATES?!?! THAT IS MY FAVORITE COUNTRY! I WOULD LOVE TO GO THERE!” One girl slipped me a drawing as I walked around to check on the students’ coloring progress.
I gained a new appreciation for elementary school teachers this week. I haven’t seen any in action since my days sitting behind a mini desk myself. They are creative, kind, endlessly patient, but do not hesitate to put their foot down when they have to. They were very welcoming to me.
I especially enjoyed working with the teachers at the Mozart school. They had already begun to teach their students English and had prepared dynamic lesson plans for my first day. One of the teachers assigned her students English names, like Harry, Emily, Suzanne, John, and Adam, which she had taken out of an English textbook. I did a double take when a boy introduced himself as Eden; I have never heard Eden used as a first name before. Maybe it is common in England? I learned a few games and songs that I used for the rest of my classes this week. If you want to have a song stuck in your head for eternity, I suggest looking up ABC Rock on YouTube:)
À bientôt mes amis!