First Impressions

“Ah, les États-Unis—ils existent!” As possibly the only American living in this small industrial town of 6,000 people in eastern France, I have encountered several such reactions to my presence here, both joking and serious.

One of the things which has surprised me here so far is that people can’t necessarily tell that I am American. Of course, they know immediately that I am a foreigner when I speak French, and usually that I am a native English-speaker, but my American accent isn’t as easily recognized as I originally thought it would be.

It took me three days of continuous travel by plane, train, car, and foot to make it to this French town, where I will be teaching English for seven months. I have been living here for exactly one week now and it has been one of the busiest weeks of my life, second only to final exam week at William and Mary. I have been extremely fortunate to have had several people affiliated with the lycée here help me with the transition. Not only did one of the teachers from the lycée let me spend my first night here at her house, but she also reserved my apartment for me in advance, assisted me with setting up utilities, and helped me to open a French bank account.

My first few days here were a whirlwind of paperwork, moving into my apartment, meeting teachers and students at the lycée, and filling out more paperwork.

I am living in a valley surrounded on all sides by the Jura mountains. Apparently, I arrived during a rare period of sunshine. This town is known for gray weather, great ski slopes, and of course, la lunetterie (glasses-making and optics).

To give you a sense of this petite ville, here is a picture taken of the view from my apartment balcony:

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I won’t begin teaching right away. I have un stage (an orientation) this coming week in Besançon, France. After that, I will observe classes at the lycée for several days before teaching on my own. There are at least five teachers with whom I will be working. I will teach primarily English conversation to high school students and to students in a two-year post-high school optician program. Each teacher with whom I will be working has different expectations for me as an assistant d’anglais, which will make my job all the more interesting.

The town doesn’t sell very many goods apart from food and glasses. I needed a cell phone. Thus, it was necessary that I venture out this week by train to a nearby town in order to buy one. Seizing this opportunity to buy other exotic goods, I not only bought a cheap prepaid phone, but also towels, a commodity which I honestly had not been able to locate in my new town.

Despite the difficulties of living in such a small town, I am glad that I’m teaching here. In the larger cities in France, not only is the cost of living higher, but so too are the chances that people will switch to speaking English with anyone they detect as having an American or British accent. Aside from teaching French students English, my objectives here are to learn to speak French more fluently, to determine the similarities and differences of the French and American education systems, and to challenge myself to create a new life in a place where I am several thousand miles away from anyone I know.

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ESL Lesson Planning for France: Pre-departure Edition

As my departure date to leave the U.S. and go live in France for seven months grows nearer, I’ve entered into a serious photocopying, planning, and packing frenzy. Having never packed my entire life into one suitcase and a carry-on before, I find it tricky to decide which items are critical to my survival and sanity, and which ones will just weigh me down as I run to catch my next train. The one aspect of all this preparation that I genuinely enjoy, however, is lesson planning.

How does one lesson-plan when one has never met one’s students and is unsure of their level of English comprehension? By grabbing a variety of materials that are versatile enough to be used with learners of different levels, and then thinking about how to differentiate instruction using those same materials. (I realize this is easier said than done.)

Another aspect of this teaching job that is uncertain at the moment is how much freedom I’ll be given to plan my own lessons. I’ve heard from previous TAPIF assistants in various regions of France that some teachers tell their assistants to “teach whatever you want as long as it’s in English,” whereas others give their assistants prepared lesson plans. In the event that I’m expected to create my own lesson plans, I’ve compiled a list of materials that I’m bringing to France. In a few cases, I’ve written how I plan to use those materials to teach English conversation.

Note: These materials do not necessarily constitute full lesson plans in and of themselves. Most of them are general ideas that are best used to support your regular lesson plan theme (i.e., “Thanksgiving”).

Materials:

1) Newspaper clippings and magazines.

Specifically, I plan to use clippings of sports sections, non-obscure political cartoons, advice columns, horoscopes, community events specific to my town, hot-button issue articles, and political opinion columns. Classifieds, fashion ads, and comics can also be useful for generating student discussion as well as for use in comparison/contrast exercises with the French versions of those publications. Regarding my town’s local newspaper, I’m staying away from articles on obscure topics that involve a lot of jargon, while still gathering articles that reflect the flavor of the town.

2) Movies.

If the teachers with whom I work are fine with me screening movie clips in class, I plan to introduce an element of pop culture with clips from movies like The Pink Panther (the 1963 version that is made excellent by Peter Sellers’ outrageously fake French accent), Star Trek (2009), Ocean’s Eleven, and Madagascar. I think movies chronicling typical high school antics would also be popular among older students, although you would have to be careful since French teachers may have a different idea than teachers of your nationality regarding what material is appropriate to show in school.

3) Music.

Nearly any song can be turned into a conversation exercise, in my opinion. However, some songs are definitely more useful than others! I will definitely try to use classic songs with easily understandable lyrics, such as “Yesterday” by the Beatles, in order to discuss grammatical tense. I also want to use songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel to springboard a more political discussion. Students will most likely have heard current Top 50 songs, but those can be a good way to get conversation going by starting on familiar ground. Since I was at Bonnaroo (a music and arts festival in Tennessee) this summer, I can’t resist using music I heard there that has a distinctly American flavor, such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ song “Home” and The Lumineers’ song “Big Parade.”

4) Books.

There are so many from which to choose, most of which will not fit in my luggage. Consequently, I’m selecting just a few. My top choices are:

Cajun Night Before Christmas by Trosclair. This story must be read with your best imitation of a Cajun accent, of course. Books like this are just one way to introduce students to various regional accents and dialects from your country.

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I plan to select passages from this popular teen novel and ask students comprehension questions. I may also ask them to create alternative endings for the selection.

-Barron’s A Dictionary of American Idioms by Adam Makkai. Students want to learn how speakers of [insert your nationality] really talk.

5) Money.

As I found with teaching American elementary school students about French culture, kids love money. Just as the American students were all over the euros I brought into class and let them handle, French students will be interested in your country’s currency. I plan to do role-play exercises, where students have to buy something at a “clothing store” and give exact change in USD.

6) Other ideas…

I plan to introduce random aspects of American culture throughout my lessons, ranging from presentations on American roadside attractions (Beer Can house, anyone?), to vanity license plates, to geography activities using road maps so students can learn how to give directions in English.

As I teach, I will blog about more lesson plans I’ve created and which ones are the most successful with my particular group of high school and young college-age students.

I hope you find this list helpful. Please feel free to post additional lesson plan ideas in the comments!