Tuesday, September 08, 2009

BBC fail

Sometimes I really wonder whether the country the BBC reports on is the same as the one where I live. According to Aunty, we are all "gripped" by a "row" over Sarkozy's height. I can't find anything on it on Le Monde's website, and it's hardly news that he's a bit vertically challenged. If he wanted to surround himself with people who didn't make him look short, why didn't he marry Wee Jimmy Krankie?

Yet the same BBC don't appear to have picked up on the alleged bust-up between Thierry Henri and Raymond Domenech ahead of tomorrow's qualifier against Serbia. I reckon that's probably gripping a lot more French people right now.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Warning, rant ahead

I've just discovered this interview on BBC World with American expat Laurel Zuckerman. As you'll see from the interview, she's made a name for herself by writing a "docufiction" which roughly recounted her experience as a student preparing the Agrégation, which is one of the exams you can sit in order to teach in the French education system. Actually, it's not really news as the French edition of the book came out in 2007, as reported in The Guardian with an extremely misleading headline, although they, at least, interviewed other people. Here's why I think BBC World have given a deeply skewed picture of the situation in France.

Patrick Cox starts by saying "If you want to become an English teacher in a French public school, you have to go to a university and take an exam." Er, yes, just like if you want to become a lawyer, doctor, architect and so on. Why should teaching be any different? But what the article fails to mention is that Laurel Zuckerman took the Agrégation, which is the elite version of the CAPES exam I took. No mention of the fact that many "Agreges" go on to do PhDs or teach in Higher Education, where a more in-depth knowledge of the subject is required. The vast majority of teachers take the CAPES, so if you want to discuss teacher training in France, you should talk about the exam most would-be teachers actually take.

I described how the written part of the CAPES works a while ago so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that an oral presentation in English accounts for one third of the marks, while another third is based on your ability to evaluate teaching materials and discuss them with a panel, and the remaining third comes from your performance in the written exams, so Zuckerman's assertion that the ability to write a dissertation in French is more important than your level of English is just not true. In fact, being a native English speaker gives you an edge in some of the tests. And if you're going to work in the French education system, isn't it reasonable to expect a good level of French, so you can talk to your colleagues, take part in meetings, write reports and so on? If Mr Cox or Ms Zuckerman took the time to talk to any actual teachers, they would have known that there is a lot more to it than just the time you spend in front of the kids.

Patrick Cox goes on to say "it's a fairly standard assumption in language teaching circles that you're better off if you're being taught by a native speaker." I don't know where he gets that from, and in any case, it's a wrong assumption. You're better off if taught by someone who knows how to teach; at lower levels, it can even be an advantage to be taught by someone who's gone through the same process, who can understand and anticipate the problems. Zuckerman claims "In France, they constructed this whole, let's say, this idea that if you're a native speaker because you've never taken the time to really take apart the language and understand what kind of obstacles a learner might encounter, you can't explain the grammar properly." She dosn't seem to consider that that might actually be a fair point. I certainly couldn't have answered a lot of my students' questions without having done some study of the English language. When I ran a language department in an FE college in England, I was snowed under with CVs from peope who thought that just because they were native speakers, I would offer them a job despite their absence of any teaching qualification. It led to a pretty full waste paper bin.

She peppers the interview with anecdotes, like an inspector who thought that the plural of duck was duck or a teacher who mispronounced the extremely frequently used word Lutheran (because native speakers never mispronounce words ever, oh no...), but there's no evidence that this kind of thing is endemic. It's certainly not the case with any French teacher of English I've ever worked with. They may make the odd slip, just like I did when I taught Spanish, but they certainly weren't above coming to me with questions when they had a doubt about something.

Yet it is true that the level of English in France remains low compared to other European countries (though not, I suspect, as abysmal as the level of your average Brit in any foreign language). The assumption is that it must all be down to bad teaching, but I wonder. Having taught in a state school myself, I see teaching materials that encourage plently of oral practice, and not just traditional grammar-translation. In fact, the biggest resistance to more communicative approaches actually came from parents, not teachers. In the meantime, I've spoken with teachers from Holland who tell me that the approach in Dutch schools is very traditional, yet the stereotype is that they speak English better than your average Brit. Maybe it has something to do with cultural attitudes; the Dutch understand that few foreigners speak their language, so speaking foreign languages is almost as important as being able to read. Also, their foreign TV programmes aren't dubbed, so they get a lot more exposure. The French, like the British, speak an international language and the sense of urgency isn't the same.

If anyone at BBC World happens to come across these lines, feel free to leave a comment. I'd welcome the opportunity to point out to their viewers that the reality is more complicated than Laurel Zuckerman suggests. And I don't have a book to plug.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Happy new year

Like most teachers, my year starts in September, so technically tonight is New Year's Eve and I should be out getting plastered, but I'm far too old and sensible for that kind of organised happiness. And I certainly can't go out on school nights any more.

Anyway, in case you've been wondering where I've been, there are two main reasons for my absence over the last year. It's partly because university students just aren't as blogworthy as teenagers, but mainly because I became a dad in the spring. That's right, M. and Mme le Prof now have a proflet of their very own! This means I've spent the summer having to get up in the middle of the night, and spending much of the day keeping him quiet. If you've ever taught teenagers on an English language summer school, you'll know the feeling only this time it feels much more rewarding.

Anyway, my resolution for this year is to try and be a bit more regular in my blogging. Hope all the teachers reading this have got decent timetables without too many gaps (I'm still waiting for mine). If you're just starting your new year, have a good one, and if you've just finished a summer school then you have my sympathies.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

We're (nearly) in the money

Last January I saw on the government's website for teachers that I'd gone up a scale point.

Three months later, I get a letter to say I've gone up a scale point.

I'm still waiting for the money....

God bless fonctionnaires.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Long time no see

Real life has kept me away for far too long. That and university students just aren't as blog worthy as adolescents. Anyway, where was I?

  • University teaching has finished already. The upside to this is nice, long holidays (even longer than schools) but the downside is very intense teaching terms (one reason for the silence on the blog front) and loads of exam marking.

  • Lots of strikes in the French university sector, but not where I work (unfortunately) in protest against Sarkozy's latest reform plan, that would give a lot more power to Vice-chancellors and punish researchers who don't publish enough by making them do more teaching. You can imagine how people like me who only teach feel about that attitude to our work, but, frankly, it only reflects what far too many researchers feel about lowly teachers.

  • Oh joy, a suspected case of swine flu in the Paris area. People returning from Mexico should be made to wear big sombreros and shake maracas wherever they go so the rest of us can avoid them.

  • Biggest reason for my absence: Mme le Prof and I have become proud parents. The Proflet, as he shall be known on this blog, is doing very well and the race is on to see if his first word will be in French or English. I've also found out just how fantastic maternity care is in this country, and will never moan about my tax bill again.
Anyway, I'm now on Twitter, so you can keep up with my bletherings here, or on the new feed in the right margin.Tweets are so much easier than blog posts, so I'll probably update it more often. Don't expect it to be all France/teaching related though.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Apologies for absence

Sorry you haven't seen much of me lately. Here's the reason why:

Yup, it's good old midterm exams again!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Internet gambling

I've just settled down to mark some homework essays, yet I find myself spending more time on the web than at my desk. Not out of procrastination, but because some of the writing is suspiciously good. A quick search for a phrase on Google usually confirms said suspicions.

If you are a student and happen to read these lines, heed this warning: If you are a RHINO¹ in class and you suddenly turn in an impeccable essay with perfect spelling and grammar, alarm bells will ring². And if you can find it on Google, so can I. Just because I'm over 25 doesn't mean I don't know how to use the Internet. If you're going to plagiarise, for crying out loud, do it properly. Especially if you're studying for a Masters.

1. Really Here In Name Only
2. This applies even if the essay is hand-written. How stupid do you think I am?