Wednesday, November 10, 2010


46˚ and raining

So we have just passed the halfway mark of our stay in Grenoble. And the kids have reached what I hope is the nadir of their stay. For me, we are not here long enough, for them, they can't get home soon enough. They are very down on school. Very down. Very homesick. Not that they don’t complain about school in Boulder too, but it does seem especially difficult here. One of the benefits is that they will likely appreciate their Boulder situation more when we return. One of the big problems with growing up in Boulder is that you think it is normal….

So, if nothing else, at least they’ll get some perspective, but I don’t want it to be all bad. At the moment, everything associated with France and French seems to be a turn off. I have never seen Rees so enthusiastic about things such as Dominos pizza and Kraft macaroni and cheese. We are in the land of lovely food, so what is up with that?

I am hoping that we are here long enough for things to turn around for them. But it could go either way, it’s kind of a coin toss.

While I have mostly heard good memories from adults of living abroad when they were young, this is not always the case. Greg has a colleague in Boulder whose wife has forbidden sabbaticals abroad because she was so scarred by her year in Switzerland as a child. (Meanwhile Switzerland has taken on godlike status with my kids because it is not France…)

And Rees has a friend who is here because his mom, who is French, is back to take care of her mom, who is ill. They don’t know anyone in Grenoble, but are living in the city because it is where the American school is. His mom didn’t want to put him straight into the French schools. She had a friend (also French) whose son (grew up in America) was in France for his 6th grade year. He was not used to the school system and, while he understood French, his writing and other academic skills did not match up to what was expected. In France, the students are all ranked from best to worst and he struggled all year and was at the bottom of the class. It crushed him, she said, and though he is now in his 20s and supposedly recovered, it was many years before he once again felt confident in school. Whoa!

And it does seem to take a thick skin here in school, something my kids are not versed in. Carina went to her back to school night and her son’s (3rd grade equivalent) teacher began her presentation by saying what a terrible bunch of students she had this year and how careless they were in missing their punctuation marks and how they had forgotten all their manners over the summer. She said she would give them each an X for a mistake and when they had 5 Xs the parents would be called in for a conference. Most of the students already had about 3 Xs so “expect a note from me soon.” And so on. She went on to say that in PE, though they should be doing swimming, it was just too much bother because she would have to wear a swimsuit and she couldn’t take the whole class in at once and didn’t know what to do with the rest of the class, so instead, they would be doing long distance running. This is one woman who loves her job! She seems to be thriving on her resentment of everything.

To be fair, that teacher seems to be exceptionally bad. At my back to school night (same school), Kadin’s teacher started out by saying what a great group of kids she had and how she was very impressed by their hard work and intelligence, so it is not all grim, but it’s not all touchy feely and cushy either. (Recall Kadin’s first phrases learned from her were “Ce n’est pas d'accord!” “Ce n’est pas amusent!” and “Silence!”)

When I took my placement test here I tried to tell the teacher what I thought was a funny story from my French studies in France the summer of 1986 (I took a one month intensive, the last time I studied French….). My 1986 teacher would do these long dictées where he would read something in French and we were supposed to write it down. I have already talked about all the homophones and silent letters in French, so as far as I am concerned, such an exercise is nearly impossible. He would give 30 points per dictée and take off 1 point for each error. Now, there were hundreds (thousands!) of letters in each dictée that I got in their correct, proper places. With accents! I was really excited when I would correctly decipher some phrase that I had never heard or seen before in my life. But the results were always the same: 0. Sure I might have only made 80 errors instead of 100, but there was no acknowledgement of my progress. At one point I even tried to ask him if he was proud of how much better I was doing, but he didn’t seem to understand the question…

The recount of this story fell flat too. I thought it might have been my poor ability to relate the story, it's outrageousness, but when I went to a potluck at the American School, I learned that what I thought was absurd was the norm, not the exception. French teachers routinely give dictées with a fixed number of points, 0s are common, and there is no acknowledgement of progress. A 0 is failing no matter how much improvement is underneath.

In my French class here now, I also got a taste of this more critical style. I like my teacher, she is young and knowledgeable, has lived in many places, and seems open minded and forward thinking, not a terrifying old school rap-you-with-a-ruler type at all. Not one to give dictées. But one class a few weeks ago, she came in in a foul mood. It was the only time I was slightly late and she was berating the students for not coming prepared with the homework (I always do the homework as I need to learn all I can!).

Then, a couple of students needed to leave early, they said because it was too cold to walk home later. Then my phone rang and it was one of the kids, who were home alone, so I had to take it. I apologized profusely, explained, and excused myself. (Of course it was just Rees asking where something was…arrrrrgh, but what’s a mom to do?) Then another student got a phone call, so the teacher started telling us we should not take calls in class, fair enough, but I felt justified (once I tell the kids to only call me if it is an emergency!).

Finally, near the end of class, she laid into one poor girl who seemed to be struggling, more due to extreme shyness I felt than lack of ability. In front of everyone the teacher asked this student (in French of course) if she understood what was being taught and if she didn’t think that perhaps she was in too high of a level, that she was overwhelmed, that perhaps she should go down to an easier level. The teacher asked her what level her assessment test had put her in and wondered if there hadn’t been some mistake. She kept asking questions in rapid fire French and kept asking the student if she understood. Whoa! That just seemed so inappropriate and counter productive to me.

But maybe that is a taste of the traditional French way. Luckily, that night seems to have been the exception, so I am inclined to think the teacher was just set off for some other reason. I’m thinking it was a remnant of a style that is on its way out. I’ve heard that the EU is going to have a more standardized curriculum across the board, so that will be an impetus for change. Still, it does seem that part of the French training is in getting a thick skin. You either thrive or are scarred for life. And if everyone who runs the system successfully develops a thick skin and succeeds, change will be slow. But you do have to admire anyone who has been through the French school system and survived.


Mom said...

Your description of the teachers in France reminded me vividly of the French teacher I had in college. She was French, and she terrified me. I got a D that term. Even with the D, my grade-point average was high enough for the honor roll. But no one was allowed on the honor roll with a D or F.

Jill said...

Reminds me of those French nuns we had to live with! Nothing I said would ever make them happy!

Dais said...

I took a French literature course in college. It was above my level, without question. We had to read (of course) and that was very slow for me. Then the teacher would discuss the text in class, and ask us questions. I tried my hardest to communicate my thoughts on the book and the story, and time and again the teacher would just reply, "Non" Very discouraging!