Sunday, January 30, 2011

A new constellation of children

Well, the year is half-way over, or just begun. It depends on how you look at it. And my house is filling again with teens and pre-teens. From one sad child this fall with suicidal tendencies (she's now elsewhere, which I must say is rather a relief -- I was out of my league with her), I'm now the happy receiver/care-taker for three well-adjusted and pleasant young folk. The first was expected -- a 16 year old exchange student from Switzerland who's already spent 6 months in New Zealand, and is now getting her French up to speed. Joining her relatively quickly with the New Year is a young boy Leo's age, now in his class, part Belgian, part Dutch, and not a little dyslexic, but quite polite and friendly. And, the surprise, a friend of my 'suissesse' who was unhappily lodged with a different family in the school.

Apparently, the deciding factor is my somewhat abundant and generous welcome. The girls find me warm, funny, easy to be with, and my boys interesting company (particularly Jonas these days who is turning into quite the sociable and entertaining 9 year old). The house is comfortable, I'm not far from Avignon, I've yoga cds to borrow (plus yoga mats), my home-made bread is a hit (as are the cereal bars). The girls like my cooking -- a bit more adventuresome with them here: green lentils with bacon, swiss chard, onions and a pinch of cloves, diced root vegetable soup with Chinese noodles, cast iron stove baked sweet potatoes and sausages, twice baked mashed potatoes, home-made gnocchi... Yup. I do enjoy feeding a small horde. And, appreciation is what all cooks need, something my two boys are quick to give me for brownies and chocolate muffins, but less often for lentils.

With the weekdays filled with prep and corrections for my class I've less time at home to garden, clean, cook, bake (t'is been a long time since my last batch of muffins! then again, the stash of Swiss chocolates we had to get through after Christmas dissuaded me from the need for more sweets for quite some time). There's nothing like being a new teacher -- I'm paid for the 16 hours I teach, but I put in 2-3 hours before every class. This is not a complaint as I am fully aware that this is the classic ratio, particularly for someone as green as I. But on top of this are the weekly meetings with colleagues and students and... Ah well, what's a few hours in the day? At least till the tourism season kicks back in, I've the time and energy to devote to my charges, both at home and in class.

Teaching Evolves

As they say, you learn as much from your students (and at times more) than you are able to teach them. Gone are such thoughts of O'Henry or Edgar Allen Poe, enter Harry Potter and Soprano's new song about the Japanese time traveler Hiro. But enter as well Martin Luther King's speech I Have a Dream (which they all found on the net in translation and handed in with nary a spelling nor translation error to be found... impressive eh?). This bit of translating cheating did however enable them to follow the spoken text (on my Iphone and played on my portable speakers) remarkably well, and they adored his Southern accented, "Dooooowwwwwn in Mississippi...", not to mention my rendition a capella of My Country T'is of Thee. Thankfully I've a decent singing voice.

I've learned my lessons: don't give a popular English song to them to translate as homework, only on a test. As in the first situation, they are all smart enough (and only 3 of the 18 honest enough to resist) to copy it off a professional translation web site. However, a popular and brand new French song (as mentioned above) is a definite hit, and a remarkable way to work on the Past Conditional -- If I had had I would have... etc.,

So, taking this new information into account, I thought I'd throw another American accent at them, and another well-spoken speech, the last 6 minutes of the 1961 John F Kennedy Inaugural Address. And I told them that it would be easy to find on the net, so go and read it in translation, absorb it a bit, and I will play it for them with the English in front of them tomorrow as a bit of Listening Comprehension practice.

In place of Edgar Allen Poe's Raven/Nevermore, I've given them the far shorter text of Invictus -- a favorite poem of Nelson Mandela, and the source of his biopic movie's title. Great fun getting them to work their tongues around 'Unconquerable' and 'bludgeoning'.

I'm not the kind of teacher who puts a thousand 'mots dans leur carnet'-- a discipline technique for our school. Generally it is a 'mot dans le carnet' (note to the parents basically) each time they don't do their homework, get out of hand in class, are rude, etc., It's one way to control them. But, I just can't quite glom to this way of disciplining, etc., Rather, I try to speak to their better natures (they are in there somewhere) and question them as to their lack of mutual respect, their inability to hold themselves quiet when another speaks, etc., Where they want to go in their lives, what this education is for, etc., And, I've decided to come down hard on cheating on tests, etc., No excuses, Zeros for both the cheater and the assister. And no, I don't need to argue about proof, etc., I just give them back with their notes, or, I refuse to take a homework that is clearly copied from the Net. Honor Code anyone? Is this such a far-fetched notion?

I've discussed my fierce attitude towards cheating with my colleagues, and they are of mixed minds. I describe the Princeton University Honor Code (you won't cheat and you will turn in anyone you see cheating, signed, agreed to, or out you go, no diploma, no entry onto that hallowed Ivy campus), and I get back looks of shock and horror. That just wouldn't go over here in this world where your class notes are all that count for getting ahead, so do whatever is necessary, and if that is cheating, so be it. Gulp. I come from another planet.

I've started giving work in-class on the so-called easier elements of English that they did poorly on as a whole on the mid-terms. And in this way I've a bit of calm during my two hours Friday afternoon, and I can go to each student to help them with their answers, answer questions, personally advise and be alongside. And when clearly the vocabulary hasn't been learned (quickly seen on the vocab tests) it is now my rule that they take class time (or go into another class for that time) and write the vocab words 4x each -- as clearly they didn't do so at home.

My connections to the individual students are improving. The girls I had difficulties with in the beginning are now warming up to me, and me to them. But I'm losing a couple of the boys -- bright ones too. From frustration, from annoyance that I do not as yet have the perfect quiet class, from boredom. It's not easy. I'm relatively able to handle the class when I do a 'teacher talks and kids listen' session. But, I lose them when I ask them to speak individually, or when I ask for questions about the homework etc., planning on working with their questions for at least 10-15 minutes of the class. Once there is dispersion of any sort, they nearly all (but for perhaps 2 of them?) start talking to their neighbor(s).

And so, I pile on the homework. My thinking is that there is a good half of the class that actually wants to learn (maybe even a bit more) and at least by doing lots of homework, as long as it is useful and interesting, they will absorb some English this year. I'm working to get back the bright kids who are losing interest, going to them individually, checking in, letting them know what I'm seeing and interpreting, encouraging.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I've already given them vocabulary (over the past 2-3 weeks) to learn from the first 4 pages of the first Harry Potter. I've asked them to read 4 more pages, and to underline, list and translate all new words, to show me this list, and to answer some very easy questions whose answers are directly in the text. Thus forcing them to actually read, think, use a dictionary.

Meantime, with Soprano's song, we'll be discussing more English speaking world heroes (Malcome X, Gandhi, Mandela...) and exchanging on cultural issues.

Perhaps, just maybe, I'll succeed in bringing them somewhat up to speed in English this year. I hope so. In the meantime, I received a dear and very earnest compliment from one of my harder-working students, "Madame, merci pour ton courage et ta patience."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The kids are back

The holidays when you are divorced are always a bit strange. The week from Christmas day till New Year's day I spent either with a girl friend, or alone at home working on the walls of the downstairs' room, or out dancing the tango. More about these last in future posts.

And then, at last, normalcy came back to my house. From quiet, alone time, time for meditation, yoga, listening to Women on the Edge of Evolution tele-series on my ipod, deepening my soul, my understanding of life, eating minimally whatever was within reach... I became a mother again, a head of household, responsible for others besides myself.

The boys are back, gifts in hand, filthy and in need of baths both, filled with more chocolate than a Swiss citizen, in good spirits, content and at ease. They enjoyed their time with their papa, and they're happy to be home. From the little princes that they were for a week, they're back in the world of emptying dishwashers, setting tables, cleaning their rooms, putting away laundry, washing pots, and generally helping out.

But they're also back to Mom who has movie nights in bed on her Macbook. And this week's choices were Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and the Lucille Ball version of Mame. And they being my sons, even though Leo's first choice for a film was Bad Boys II (Will Smith et. al.) they totally got into my selections.

Leo was riveted to Al Gore's analysis. Jonas got quite a bit of it, and discussions ensued as to why their Mom has chosen to live so small when friends back in the US have so much and it's such a cool thing to have all that. They learned what a glacier is -- and that they may never see one. They learned about automobiles and emissions, about rising water levels (no Jonas, it isn't equivalent to a huge meteor hitting Earth). They paid attention, particularly Leo, and absorbed what they could. A film to be revisited perhaps next year?

And then Mame, songs and all. Open a window and let the air in, be open-minded, be your own person, live life, accept all challenges with a smile and grace and creativity, find like-minded people, don't be a snob....

I didn't do it on purpose, but I do think I've begun this New Year by sharing with my two children my deepest self, my most profound philosophy, my personal heroes and what makes me tick.

Where to from here?