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A Post-Mortem of Student Politics

A few weeks ago, my university’s students’ union held its annual elections for the executive body. Positions such as Vice President of Welfare and Diversity, and Vice President for Union Affairs were contested by two or three barely distinguishable candidates, and subsequently divvied out based on who had won the most student votes, as one would expect. This has happened each year for as long as I’ve been an undergraduate, and for the many decades preceding my arrival.

What separates this year from other iterations of these elections are some unfortunate oversights that epitomise and harshly reveal a growing problem in the sphere of British student politics.

The problem is a self-perpetuating feedback loop of apathy, ignorance, and disenfranchisement; it has fundamentally undermined the efficacy of student politics to the point where it now fails to amount to anything more than a farcical popularity contest wielding nominal power at best.

In order to understand what has brought the situation here to a head, I must draw your attention to one particular man, a fellow undergraduate student at my university, who drunkenly assaulted a girl in our students’ union some months ago. His punishment came in the form of a ban from the union, but his victim suffered no lasting injuries, and the police were never involved.

This should have been the last we heard of this incident, but over the course of these elections, it has been dug up and publically displayed like a monster on a morgue slab, and couched in terms not dissimilar to those of a Nixonian smear campaign.

The reason for this is that the man, who assaulted a fellow student and was consequently banned from the students’ union, has just won the executive presidential candidacy, and is now the president elect of our students’ union.

Since this announcement, the mood among the student body here has been one of chaos-tempered confusion. The discourse witnessed on social media and around campus is mind-boggling, because no one really knows how this has happened, and no one can decide what should be done next, if indeed anything can or should be done.

Part of this discourse has manifested itself in the continual assertions from a vocal minority that he was democratically elected, and that we as students had the right to vote for another candidate, and the chance to contest his nomination, but that we chose not to take it.

Some did, but to ascribe his victory to some functioning model of democracy is to assume too much, and gives a wildly undue amount of respect to the feeble mechanism of student politics.

While some may choose to believe that these elections are indeed the noble efforts of people wanting only to serve their fellow students, the reality is that this is simply not true, at least not in any ascertainable way.

I don’t mean to imply malice or corruption, as this isn’t the case. What I mean is that the students’ union has an increasingly negligible impact on the lives of undergraduates and, from my perspective, has been little more than a gaudy background event happening in another room, in another sector of society, and one that does not affect me.

I do not recall the names of the incumbent officers of our students’ union. I do not remember a time at which anyone I know has had reason to contact them, nor they contact us for reasons other than promoting upcoming discounts on alcohol at the union on a Friday night. It seems to be an ineffectual body; it does not serve any apparent purpose other than nominal leadership of an institution that appears to have no real need of it.

This is demonstrated no more effectively than by the ‘union exec’ election campaign. The weeks preceding the polls are a meaningless and omnipresent Vaudeville of high-publicity events and personas; the ludicrous performances put on by candidates, in an attempt to win votes by merit of their entertainment, and not their policies, which receive only passing mention, if any at all.

In order to entice more students to support their candidacy, petty bribery in the form of sweets is commonplace, as is an organic undercurrent of casual nepotism – friends voting for friends, and friends of friends and so on. What few policies and politics exist are made conspicuous only by their absence.

It is this culture of performance and social manipulation – coupled of course with self-perpetuating apathy – that prevents many students from considering running for a position in the Union Executive.

If one is not attractive enough, or doesn’t have enough friends and connections in their halls of residence, or doesn’t ‘play the game’ and engage in the ritual degradation of the campaign and hustings, or isn’t a member of the BNOC – Big Name On Campus – circle, then one is virtually barred from the realm of contemporary student politics.

This is the root of the problem. All but the most socially popular, the most extroverted, and the most attractive students are ostracised from representation.

I consider myself a politically active person. I am a long-time supporter of a national political party, and I have no compunction in advocating policies I support when appropriate, and rationally debating with those who do not share my views.

I would be lying if I said that the thought of running for a position in the Union Executive had not occurred to me during the naïve early days of my first year, before I joined the ranks of the indifferent.

However, despite my political activity, I am innately and totally disenfranchised from student politics, because I am not a Big Name On Campus. I do not have a persona that precedes me in the university, either through my reputation in my halls of residence or my prominent presence on a sports team.

I do not have an army of sycophantic gilet-clad friends to charm and sweet talk people into voting for me. I do not have the desire to encase myself in a neoprene broccoli suit and parade myself around town as one candidate did a few years ago.

This, to me, is grotesque, infantile, and a stark indication of how truly divorced student politics has become from genuine, respectable political discourse and activity.

To return to the subject of our new president – who fulfils many of the above criteria, – there have been some developments since the announcement. In the last couple of days, a friend of mine started a petition on campaigning for the president elect’s immediate resignation. The support for this campaign was enormous, and was matched only by the simultaneous vitriolic backlash it received from his friends and those who support him, despite this violent incident and his ban.

Many students are appalled that a man attacked a woman, ‘got away with it’, and is being rewarded with a presidency. Many more are appalled that a student attacked another student, and now supposedly represents all students, even if only symbolically.

Myself, while I agree with both of these complaints, I think the real issue is that his candidacy was ever allowed to continue this far, by either the union’s policies or the students at this university themselves. The fact that it did is simply indicative of the failures of the union, the BNOC culture pervasive in student society, and the apathy and indifference towards representation that follows in its wake.

It is true that he won the election, but this does not mean that he won it democratically, and it certainly does not mean that we, as a student body, should not subject ourselves to hindsight. The fact is that his electoral victory is an unfortunate accident, an all too familiar fluke of the system, something that comes to light no more clearly than when one accurately and succinctly describes him as both the leader of the union, and banned from the union simultaneously.

Ultimately, whether or not our president is forced to resign is immaterial. His actions in office will have virtually no impact on my life as an undergraduate on the peripheral radar of the BNOC scene, and I would be surprised if I heard his name more than a few times before next year’s elections, had it not been for this incident.

The chair, for all intents and purposes, could be vacant, and student life would continue on. It is entirely meaningless. Sadly, this apathy is not unique to me, but pervasive among the student body, save for the precious few who aspire to these offices for reasons of egotism, desire for attention, naïve interpretations of the union taken at face value, or whatever else spurs people to seek power in a short-term institution such as this.

Having said that, the fact remains that the president of a body purportedly representing me and my peers to our university is someone who was banned from that very institution of which he is now president, for violently assaulting a fellow student. From a symbolic perspective, this is highly disturbing.

His continuation as union president would be a death rattle of student politics at this university; the tacit admission that it simply does not matter who represents the students, because no one cares, and more worrying still, no one is concerned that this is the case.

His resignation or removal, on the other hand, could show that students do care about their union, and their representation to the university. It could, if one were inclined to a certain level of optimism, lead us to more effective, interesting, and cogent elections in the future, in which less well known students do not shy away from nominating themselves and their beliefs, and the student electorate would vote for candidates based on their politics and policies, not their puerile performances.

While I advise retrospection on the part of all students, regardless of your university or college, I would also advocate a degree of introspection as well. If we as students want to form truly effective representative bodies, even if it is just within the inconsequential microcosm of the campus, then we should not bow down and be absorbed by this culture of transient social popularity, the debased and degrading campaigning that accompanies it, and the meaningless soap opera of campus life in which we can either participate, or ignore and be ignored in return.

Student politics should not be the unattainable echelon occupied by a pitiable and transient social elite, one that only the loudest and most socially popular can achieve. Instead, it should be a purely democratic process, in which students vote for the people who represent them and the policies that would help them, and are not afraid of putting themselves forward as candidates. It would lead to a much greater positive involvement by the union in their university careers.

Sadly, it is not, and no one seems to care.


Around this time last year, I was packing and preparing for – not to mention panicking at – the prospect of a year spent working in France. In a few months, it will have been a year since my initial frantic blog posts about lesson planning, poor communication from my department, incessant bureaucracy, and the pleasantly overwhelming amount of cheese.

Purely due to chronic stress-induced tiredness – or tiredness-induced stress – and a lack of anything I deemed sufficiently interesting, I stopped posting after a while, and I regret it now. Looking back at these old posts, I wish I had continued writing, as I enjoyed the job exponentially after the initial few months of dust-settling, and almost none of my posts adequately reflect how I came to feel about the job after a while.

In order to compensate, I’m going to condense the last couple of months down to my top-five favourite moments. I know some would rightly say that a bullet-point list can’t make up for my rambling ranting negativity before a stony six-month silence, but I hope when you read the ecstatic tone with which I write some of these things, you’ll see why I think they could.

(These aren’t really in any real order, other than the thing in the first position.)

Number five: the national anthem. Secondes are amazing classes; they’re fresh out of collège and usually – usually – eager to learn new things, but far enough away from important exams to maintain the bright-eyed enthusiasm of children awed with the world, rather than the morose eyes of a student faced with exams. I was once working with some seconde classes whose teacher had been teaching them the British national anthem and, as a ‘gift’ to me, they would be singing it for me. I wasn’t too impressed by their lack of enthusiasm, so I employed one of my favourite teaching tactics: maximise ludicrousness to minimise awkwardness. Those social psychology modules I had to take appear to have paid off. I told them to sing loud, really loud, like at a rugby match. I opened the classroom door and told them I wanted the whole school to hear, and that they mustn’t fail Britain in front of a Brit.

They didn’t let me down. It was raucous, and I honestly felt a twinge of pride. I never thought this would happen, but it took 30 French kids to make a patriot out of me. I then asked, for the sake of my own curiosity, for them to sing La Marseillaise – the French national anthem – and that was truly deafening, and a great end to the lesson.

Number four in the countdown is something non-school related. Late last year, I was invited by a colleague to have dinner with him and his family. He used the French word gaver, which should have given me an indication as to what was coming my way during that evening.

Food in France is serious business; meals can last for hours, involve a seemingly unending number of courses, an inordinate amount and variety of beverages, a stark lack of vitamin C, and constant mental calculations regarding calorie consumption and the rapidly increasing probability of a sudden heart attack.

I lost count of the number of courses after the Tartiflette, which I think was number five, but however many there were between the foie gras and the eventual emergence of the digestif at around 2am, it was nothing less than glorious.

Taking third place is Shakespeare. Not the man himself, but the premières’ performance of selected scenes from Romeo and Juliet on La Journée des Artes which took place on my final day as an official staff member at Méchain.

We spent countless hours rehearsing, with the help of two rather unhinged actresses from Amiens; I was basically there as the resident English consultant, listening for pronunciation errors, helping explain things, assuring everyone that this isn’t the sort of language you’re likely to hear in modern-day Britain. The ‘modernisation’ of the text was basically a find-and-replace butchering in Microsoft Word perpetrated against my recommendation, replacing a handful of olde worlde English terms – specifically ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘thine’ – with their loose modern equivalents.

The performances weren’t bad; there were some forgotten lines, a bit of uneven pronunciation, and one class just didn’t perform at all, but it was fun nonetheless. Honestly, most of the students’ parents couldn’t speak a word of English, so the students could just as easily have got up there and recited lines from Star Wars with the names changed (‘Help me Romeo-Kenobi, you’re my only hope!’) and no one would have been any the wiser, but I thought it went well.

Really it was the rehearsals that I enjoyed, even if the end result wasn’t great, though I think that was caused more by the peculiar actresses our department procured, and the students’ collective unease around them.

Second place, something about which I’m proud in a slightly cruel way, I suppose. The last three weeks at Méchain were difficult for me, but not difficult in the same way that the first few weeks were. By this stage I was really enjoying teaching; I’d found my rhythm and a style that worked for me – light-hearted anarchy, strictly in English – but the time eventually came where I had to inform my students that I was leaving. This took the same form in most classes; me simply saying that this would be my last or penultimate lesson with them, and that they should make the most of it.

In most classes, this was met with strong disappointment, and at least two students cried. Sad, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little bit good about it, because I guess it means that I was doing something right.

Finally, something about which I’m proud on less contemptible ground than the last, and probably the most important part of the last six months for me: the Première class I took in late April. Just a few weeks before I stopped my regular teaching duties, one of my colleagues asked me to cover a class on a Monday afternoon. You may remember from my earlier posts, me complaining about the crazy Belgian teacher. This class was one of hers, and I spent the preceding weeks being grilled relentlessly about what I would be doing with them, a grilling which usually turned into a veritable roasting in which the epithets and criticisms flew thick and fast.

After what must have been the hundredth iteration of the same agitated conversation, I just said quite plainly, ‘I have a plan, it’s a good plan, I’ve done it with other classes, it went well.’ ‘OH NO but you should be doing this and that and not doing this because of some bizarre and contradictory reason I’ve just half-baked in a split second since you began speaking before I didn’t bother listening to you etc.’. As usual, I ignored her. I don’t want to dwell on this part, because it eclipses what was to come.

The lesson itself was perfect. Literally perfect. We had a great time, the class was very responsive, very immersed in what we did, and the results were better than I’d hoped. Even now, as I write this, my face is locked in a rictus grin at the memory, and I don’t even care what the people sitting opposite me on in Filigranes must think.

(Filigranes, by the way, is the second most incredible bookstore/cafe in Brussels, after Pêle Mêle. There’s a pianist playing behind me, and I’m trying to restrain my inane smirking so as not to distract the other people here.)

We began with some conversation questions – fashionably bizarre; like I said, maximum ludicrousness, minimum awkwardness – which were hilarious, then some listening comprehension involving a scene from Sherlock, and a rather competitive game and quiz based on the scene, which involved students explaining and reasoning things they saw and so on, all of which I tried to orchestrate in my usual style of cheerful, yet focussed anarchy. When the bell rang at the end of the period, the class groaned in unison.

It was soon after this lesson that some of my students sidled up to me in the corridor, and quietly announced that they were going to submit a petition to the principal asking him to fire the crazy Belgian teacher and give her my job. Obviously this couldn’t have actually happened but on the back of that class and others like it, I wouldn’t have turned it down if it had.

The hour I spent with these students really solidified my love of teaching; it didn’t always feel like this, but it’s worth enduring the pile of bad classes for the sake of the great ones that stand out.

Working so closely with high school students throughout the year, I couldn’t help but think about myself as a high school student – the good old days of ridiculous long hair and a short list of responsibilities – and wonder how terrified the 16-year-old me would have been knowing that in just five years, he would be on the other side of the teacher’s desk, on the other side of the Channel.
In a way, I’m glad that my getting this placement was a result of one of my characteristically unplanned impulses; it’s true that I had been looking for something like this, but having time to think can be as dangerous as it is advantageous, as it also provides plenty of time to over-think. I don’t think I would have bottled it at the last minute, but I’m glad that I never had the chance to do so.

Speaking of my flaws, I have an uncomplicated relationship with nostalgia, inasmuch as it completely owns me. The days I spent in Laon last week have only reminded me of this aspect of my personality. I met up with old friends and colleagues, as though nothing had changed, as though my three-month sojourn away from Laon in England had simply not happened. It was quite odd going back to all these places that had been so integral in my life but, for the past three months, had since been consigned to memory.

Above all, coming back here has made me realise the extent to which I miss living abroad, and teaching. There’s something oddly comforting about being a stranger in a strange land – yes, France is hardly exotic, I know – living under the label of ‘foreigner’, not to mention having a new interesting country at your feet.

As for the future, I’m still uncertain. A few weeks before I left Méchain, I met a theatre consultant/English teacher working on a project at the school. After a couple of minutes speaking in French, he blindsided me with a thick cockney accent; ‘why don’t we just speak English?’ He’d been living in Amiens since the 80s, and had never gone back to the UK. His advice to me boiled down to this: ‘if you can cope with teaching, teach English abroad. You’ll probably never be rich, but you’ll never be unemployed.’
The idea of travelling from place to place, picking up teaching work to fund my travel addiction, and seeing the world in this way is very inviting. The lack of long-term stability is the only thing putting me off. I don’t want to live the placid suburban life, but at the same time I don’t think severing ties to the UK indefinitely is advisable, at least not yet.

I have a year. Two years, if I do postgrad, – which seems probable at this rate, – plenty of time to come to some kind of description. It’s ironic; one of the reasons I wanted to do a year abroad was to figure out what I wanted to do long-term; this has only added one more option into the mix.

A bientôt.

(This is the last post I will submit on my year in France. I really wanted it to end on a high note, but it seems to have finished with my tepid open-ended musings about the future. If you felt, as I do, that the end was a little anticlimactic or unenthusiastic, please feel encouraged to go back and read the number-one item on my top-five list, and know how joyful and satisfied that lesson made me.)

The Wolf of Wall Street

Wake up and smell the Scorsese!

Wolf is a crime epic, following the life of naive wannabe Henry Hill, as he realises his dreams of getting a foothold in a major, slightly criminal organisation. Hill climbs the ladder fast, soon becoming a seemingly unstoppable force. However eventually, the power, money, and drugs begin to go to his head, and his effortlessly ostentatious life begins to crumble around him.

… Wait, something’s wrong here. Oh sorry, It’s not Henry Hill, it’s Jordan Belfort. Henry Hill is in Scorsese’s other crime epic, Goodfellas.

To be honest, the two films are so similar that I find them hard to tell them apart in many ways. Both have a naive young lad trying to break into a new career with criminal intentions, both portray their lives in a fabulous gloss of conspicuous hedonism, and both share many plot points on the traditional rags-to-richs crime story. Luckily, Wolf borrows only the best from Goodfellas. The characters are solid, the story is satisfying – if a little turgid in places – and there are underlying veins of humour and terror expertly intertwining throughout the narrative.

The role of Henry Hi- sorry, Jordan Belfort is so uniquely suited to DiCaprio’s persona that one could convincingly argue that even the book had been written just for him. DiCaprio portrays Belfort with such magnificent character that it’s impossible not to innately believe in him as a person.

Similarly, the cast is filled by one solid character portrayal after another. Matthew McConaughey plays the wonderfully sleazy mentor figure Mark Hanna, Rob Reiner is cast as Belfort’s foul-mouthed battleaexe of a father-cum-enforcer ‘Mad Max’, and Margot Robbie expertly fills the Eye Candy/Slutty Wife slot and actually turns it into a legitimately interesting character, something which can not be said for most instances of this character archetype.

My only major complaint about Wolf is Jonah Hill. Hill’s character Donnie comes across like a character lifted straight out of the Hangover franchise and dropped haphazardly into what is otherwise an exceptionally well-executed crime drama. He provides a good comic vibe, but has the unfortunate ulterior role of perpetuating this cinematic fad of including a Jonah Hill/Seth Rogan-type character, who provide easy laughs for idiots, smoke pot, waddle around in their 42″ trousers and talk in that stereotypical nasal dudebro dialect. But even that is reasonably smoothed into the film, but it is a little jarring at times.

Kyle Chandler’s portrayal of FBI Agent Patrick Denham seems rather hollow; he’s just there as an ever-present pest for Belfort, popping up on screen every now and again to warn Belfort that he’s being watched. Even when Denham seemingly has the upper hand over Belfort, I can’t tell if Chandler’s being deliberately inscrutable, or characteristically flat.

Overall, the narrative is very gripping, the characters work very well together, it’s impressively put together, and it’s generally a very satisfying film.

(Original review of mine on Letterboxd.

En Route Vers Chez Moi

Yep, another late post. I’m not even going to apologise any more.

The last two weeks have been good ones; kicking off with a bit of travel, some good lessons, a bit more travel, some more good lessons, and the prospect of Christmas in England. I’m on the train to Paris as I write this, the first part of a three-part journey back to Angleterre. I should be in Paris at around 16:00, then on the Eurostar at 17:something, then finally back in Leicester by 21:00 local time.

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The Brussels Christmas Market from the Ferris wheel

I spent last weekend in Brussels with Mon, which was great. The Christmas Market in Brussels is very Christmas-y, which is exactly what you want from a Christmas market. It’s not quite as prestigious as the one in Paris on the Champs-Elysées, I think, but nice enough anyway. There were loads of stalls selling everything from Greek olive oil to bucket-loads of spices, a 155m-high Ferris wheel, and an ice-skating rink which I avoided like a crocodile-infested swamp. There were a couple of guys shooting around with effortless ease, and a most people staggering around like drunk toddlers. I know what happens when lurching, uncoordinated man-ogres like myself strap metal blades to their feet and try to move on ice, so I avoided it.

Although I prefer Paris, Brussels is definitely my second favourite continental city. Other than the architecture, the interesting nightlife, and the veritable stench of European federalism, you can count on most people to speak at least some English. I never know whether to speak English or French in Brussels, and so I usually settle on an embarrassing mix of both. Being an eager aspiring francophone, I start in French, but they usually realise that I’m English, and switch to English. That’s great, but it confuses me, so I end up doing daft things like saying half a sentence in English and finishing it in French, such as asking for a coffee in English, then ending the sentence with ‘s’il vous plaît.’ The worst, however, is not fully switching back from French to English and as a result, I accidentally speak English with my horrific faux French accent which I use to help me pronounce French words. It’s hard to explain, but imagine an English person speaking English with a strong stereotypical French accent to confused Belgians/French people, then suddenly realising what a tit he’s making of himself, and that’s about it. Languages are hard.

The train journey from Paris to Brussels is actually quicker than Laon to Paris, which surprised me at first, but when the Thalys hit its top speed, I could understand why. I made a Vine (video) to demonstrate, but it was pretty fast, and so smooth too. I made the same comment on Twitter when I went to Paris a week or two ago. The TER Picardie trains – Laon to Paris – are hybrid trains; most of Aisne doesn’t have overhead power lines, so the trains are diesel. They’re quite loud, you can feel the vibration of the engines in the floor and so on. But when the train hits Crèpy-en-Valois – a town near the Picardie/Île-de-France border – it switches to electric, and the difference is phenomenal. The sudden absence of sound and vibration is quite alarming. You rumble slowly into Crèpy, and glide smoothly out. I didn’t even realise we were moving until I looked out the window to see the French countryside whipping by.

It worries me how satisfying I find a fast, quiet train journey.

Okay, enough about trains, on to school.

I said this fortnight was good, that I had some good lessons, but in reality I just don’t remember anything bad happening. I’m sure the lessons were average, as usual, but nothing memorably bad happened, which is always a good thing. I got through all my classes without wanting to quit or commit a felony, and my students mostly didn’t seem despondent and apathetic, which is a nice change.

Most of my classes are really warming to speaking English, and I’ve noticed a marked improvement in several of my students. In my first couple of weeks, getting almost any of them to speak English was like trying to get a toddler to recite ancient Chinese poetry, but now they’re used to me, I’ve taught them lots of commonly used phrases and encouraged them to use them in class, and they’re getting the hang of it.

By commonly used phrases, I just mean the useful little sentences which they aren’t taught as part of their usual education. In most of my classes, I would hear them use French phrases like ‘c’est quoi, ça?,’ ‘qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?‘ and even little things like ‘ahh ouais.’ I’ve spent some time teaching them to say these in English; ‘what’s that?,’ ‘what does that mean?,’ and ‘oh yeah!’

Most importantly, however, a lot of them are no longer as scared of making mistakes. I noticed that many wouldn’t speak if they couldn’t think of the entire sentence first, but now they’re making a better effort not to do that, and to try to speak naturally. Thankfully, my French is adequate that I can help them translate a bit, and understand things better, so if they run into difficulty in a sentence, I can jump in and help them out, or encourage the class to work it out amongst themselves. I always tell them to be confident, and I always say n’ayez pas peur – don’t be afraid.

I don’t think favouritism is a great way to manage students, but there are a couple of students who I’ve privately encouraged to continue with English as far as they can. I have around ten students who are extremely capable and very eager to improve and practice their English. Even in France, being reasonably fluent in English will quadruple their chances of employment in any even slightly international field, as well as open up a huge number of opportunities for them. I don’t want to come across as pushy, but being fluent in English in this era is an enormous benefit. Being bilingual in English and a native language is a huge advantage

This week has been pretty good so far. I had to take Monday off though, as I was quite ill in the night and the morning, and I thought my students would prefer me being ill at home.

I was quite disappointed though, as I had to cancel my staff discussion group/conversation class, which has now tripled in size since I began it. I asked one of the teachers in the last session why he’d decided to come along. He said that the other staff liked me, that his students had given me high-praise, and that he wanted to see what the fuss was about. Quite flattering, and I was only a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t actually planned for that lesson, we’d just talked about random things. The staff classes are very difficult indeed; I’m an unqualified, untrained teacher teaching veteran high-school teachers in their own school, it’s hugely intimidating. Also, I wish I could split the group into two; there are three members who could accurately be described as bilingual – or close to, – then there are a few more who just listen and contribute the odd word or phrase, as such I never know how to gage the group or what to teach. I don’t want to condescend the better teachers, and I don’t want to alienate the weaker ones, which is why I find discussion a fairly beneficial thing to do. I usually focus on the French news, or current affairs in some way, which means they often know about the topic, even if they aren’t completely able to explain in English. Overall, they’re alright, I just dread the group because it’s such a mix, and I don’t want to patronise them by treating them like students in their own school, even though that’s basically what they are.

Most of the department is away on a trip to London, and won’t be back until after I’ve left, essentially halving my workload this week. I’m not legally allowed to teach an entire class of Première students solo, so that cuts three classes. I swapped my hellish Wednesday of Secondes for a morning of covering the assessment of oral presentations and helping some 1ère-S students make posters in place of their usual English teacher. The trip is for Terminale students, so those groups are a bit lighter than usual too.

I’m a tiny bit worried right now, as the train to Paris has stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was an announcement, but she spoke so fast that I didn’t pick up a single word. I have no idea what’s going on. Luckily, I planned for exactly this, with over an hour’s buffer in Paris before the Eurostar, then again in London in case the Eurostar’s delayed. I am prepared for everything. I am my father’s son.

This will be the seventh consecutive weekend that I’ve been in Paris for at least an hour, or maybe the eighth, I really can’t remember. I don’t mean to sound like an snob, but it’s got to the point where going to Paris is almost a banality for me; just a regular occurrence. I love Paris, so it’s not a problem.

Ah the train’s moving again. we’re just pulling into Crèpy-en-Valois, so I can enjoy a smooth end to this leg of the journey, I should be in Paris in about half an hour, or so. I hope my next post will be on British time, but knowing me, if my apathy doesn’t get the better of me, my forgetfulness will.

A bientôt.

(Also, for anyone who needs to know, that characteristically abstract photo of mine is of the Eiffel Tower, taken last weekend. There are a couple more photos on my Instagram account. As one of these annoying people who paid a lot of money for a good SLR, I’ve never had anything but contempt for Instagram, but it’s certainly an easy, quick way of sharing photos while out and about.)

Au bord de la Seine

The last couple of weeks have probably been the best so far.

I wrote the majority of the last post while on the Eurostar a few weeks ago. It stayed tucked away on my laptop for reasons unknown – laziness/forgetfulness – so I think another updatWaffles_with_Strawberriese is in order. But, as usual, I’m an idiot, and I’ve left it too long to post, so I have a couple weeks’ worth to catch up on. In order to break up the monotony a little, I’ll be making two posts. This post will cover up to the end of last week, and I’ll post again on Friday covering this week. That’s assuming I remember, of course.

As usual, there’s a lot of waffle in this post, so here’s a photo of some waffles, just to get it out the way.

Aside from a revitalising trip en Angleterre a few weekends ago, the last few weeks have been the best yet for one very specific reason: good lessons. For my Terminale groups, I put together something on schools and school conduct. It sounds boring – and it is boring on its own – but it’s the kind of subject that’s good for asking questions, spicing up with some humour, and most of my students had stories to tell, which was interesting.  Overall, it went down very well in every group – except the really weak IRIS group, which was an unmitigated disaster. You can expect a bit of ranting about that later.

The Secondes are currently studying ‘True Brits’, so I’ve been giving them a crash course in British stereotypes of food, personality, culture, and Europe, of course. I only have them for 25-30 minutes per session, so I’ve had to boil it down quite a lot, but I plan on reconstituting it for lessons with the weaker Terminales in the next couple of weeks, just in case they burn through my plans by being dense.

Finally, the second years are studying the American civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King. This gave me a good opportunity to talk about Nelson Mandela and the fall of Apartheid, which turned out not to be the best idea. As I’ve said before, I’m not supposed to teach, I’m supposed to elicit conversation. Getting people to talk about something they know nothing about – and in a foreign language – is like trying to get blood out of a brick. One or two groups contained students who knew enough to answer questions and volunteer information, but I had to explain a lot of things to most groups, and then cram in some kind of fact regurgitation nonsense at the end. There were no blank stares, no behaviour issues, and no real problems with comprehension with them, so I’m counting those lessons as a success, insomuch as I didn’t leave the classroom feeling like I wanted to quit.

I promised a rant, so here it is. My scale of classroom success has been proven inaccurate. I said that I could judge how well a lesson was going by how quickly I got through my material. If I rip through it like a bullet through butter, then the lesson is probably going badly, whereas if I barely touch it, then the lesson is going well. I stuck to the plan with the IRIS class, trying to help them to understand the tasks – and the words, – but they simply couldn’t do it. I really tried, I explained things as best I could, then once again as best I could in French, but they just didn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to respond. That was a tough lesson. I’ve spoken to the Head of Department, and she agrees that I shouldn’t be teaching them solo. Sadly, this just means that I’ll have to add to their teacher’s stress levels, and have him include me in the actual lessons.

As someone struggling with a second language myself, I truly empathise with these kids. My French is improving, but still a fair distance from perfect; in fact, some of my students speak better English than I do French, which is encouraging. It’s really helpful as a teacher to be able to empathise with the students, to let them know that everyone has issues with learning another language, and that they’re probably doing better than me. I really don’t like to be seen as a teacher, because technically I’m not, but also because I think it creates a sense of distance between me and the students. Instead, I try to be just some English guy in a hoodie who talks to them for an hour or so every other week. I think letting them know that I’m in the exact same position as them is a great way to do that.

For example, I had a great laugh with some of my Terminales this week; I was trying to help them improve their pronunciation of the ‘th’ and ‘h’ sounds in English, which don’t exist in French. Some students have mastered this and they’re starting to sound almost English. Most are the opposite. There was one girl who belligerently refused to try again after she repeatedly mispronounced ‘thought’, so I asked the class to give me some French words with the hard ‘r’ sound. The guttural ‘r’ sound doesn’t exist in English, so I knew this would be a challenge. They suggested words like rarissime, and ronronnement, which are extremely hard to say correctly for a native English-speaker, so they had a good chuckle at the dozy Roast Beef trying to say them. She tried again, and didn’t do too bad. I’ve since modified this into a game – well, a fake game, where the students’ points go up by 0.1 for each correct pronunciation, and mine increment by adding a zero to the end – which I’ve done with most of my groups this week. It’s always gone down well, even with the worse groups, but again, more on that next time.

(Also, ‘Roast Beef’ is the French nickname for the English, like the English refer to the French as ‘Frogs.’ Sadly this is not a reference to the deliciousness of Sunday Roast.)

Okay, enough about school. I got a little bored of Laon last Friday – okay, very bored – so I hopped on a train to Paris for the day. One of the two things I love most about this placement is that I’m €11.40 and 90 minutes away from Paris, one of the most culturally and socially significant cities in the world. The other is that I’m never more than two minutes and 80 cents away from a fresh baguette.

Admittedly, I did denounce Paris as overrated a while ago, but it’s really growing on me. It’s still overrated, but between the abundance of cafés, unlimited metro travel with the Mobilis ticket, and never a shortage of something to do, I’m beginning to like it. The city has a really great atmosphere; very active, very alive, very European, and very proud; proud of its history, its culture, and its people, and rightly so.

Without much of a plan, I started walking from Gare du Nord. I had a couple of places I wanted to visit, but no real order, and no time constraints. I got as far as the Place de la République before hopping on the metro and heading off to start on my list.

Place de la République
Place de la République

I won’t ramble on about the miscellaneous places I went to, but I want to make special mention of one place in particular. Just across the Seine from Notre Dame, there’s a small, unassuming bookstore called Shakespeare & Company, which is probably my favourite shop in the world. It’s an English-language bookstore in which books are stacked high in the narrow rooms, which flaunts the historicity of its building, and has a tangible ambience unlike anywhere I’ve been before.

The upstairs area is mostly antiquarian books – both fiction and non-fiction – but also includes a reading area in the top, street-facing room. One of the people up there had fallen asleep over her book, which describes well the atmosphere of the place; very tranquil, very calm. I stayed for an hour or so, spent nearly €60 on books, before heading back out into the busy street.

One of the typewriters in Shakespeare & Company.
One of the typewriters in Shakespeare & Company.

Sadly, such a well-known English-language bookstore in Paris attracts a lot of tourists – I know, I’m one of them – and the ambience was sadly shattered by two tourists hollering at each other from different floors of the store. Until they announced their entrance, the shop was reverently silent, despite it being crammed with people. After they entered, the mom went downstairs, her 20-something daughter on the first floor, and they were loudly discussing what books they should buy. I won’t say what nationality they were, but if you were to guess that it rhymes with ‘flamerican’, that would not be wrong.

After more coffee, more books, and wandering along the Seine for a while, I decided to head back to Laon before I missed the last train and ended up stranded in Paris for the night. The photo I chose for this post, I took on the way back to Gare du Nord.

The weekend was sadly unproductive; my first assignment is still looming over me. It’s an 800-word reflective piece about my experience in France so far, all in French. It sounds easy and short enough that I don’t feel like it’s important, but since I started it, I now know that it’s really a bit more difficult than that, and now I’m simultaneously panicking and procrastinating.

One of the history teachers at Méchain invited me and one of the English teachers/drinking buddies around for dinner on Saturday at his house in Barenton-Bugny, just outside Laon. He speaks a tiny amount of English, his wife too, but his kids speak none whatsoever, so we had a fun evening talking to each other in our poorly-practised second languages. My colleague – who, being an English teacher, speaks English, – told me that he would not be helping me translate or understand. That was kind of him, but a great opportunity to speak some French in a less pressurised environment.

French dinners go on for hours. We arrived early at 7:30, and started on the apéritifs and appetisers. The main courses were served at around 11pm, and we left at just after 2:30am. Being a true Frenchman, our host insisted we try several of their indescribable alcoholic concoctions, so along with the traditional Aisne and Picardy dishes we tried, the evening was punctuated with cognac, Armagnac, and impossibly strong fortified wines. Overall, not a bad night at all.

Back in work world, this week’s not going too bad. My classes this week have an emphasis on pronunciation, which is an essential part of them doing well in the oral assessments later this term, so I’m doing my best to help them practice. Sentences like ‘I thought he thinks they’re thankless’ and ‘Hopeful humans help hungry hang-gliders’ are now my favourite things challenges to my better classes. I’ve had to roll out the reverse pronunciation exercise with a few too – where they make me say difficult French words – just to loosen them up a bit. So far so good.

I spent last weekend in Brussels with Mon, which was great, but you’ll have to wait for the next post for more details.

But now, it’s time for breakfast/lunch/dinner, or whatever you’d call a mix of all three eaten at 16:30. Brunner, I suppose.

Just off to L’Atelier du Pain – my local boulangerie – for some bread.

A bientôt !

Une Mise à Jour Tardive

I do love to ramble on this blog, but I’ve got over a month’s worth of shenanigans to cover, so I better get started.

It’s been an interesting few weeks. My last update was quite unnecessary, in that I just waffled on a bit about being ill, possible lesson plans, and how boring it is to be ill in a foreign country.

My last involuntary hiatus was due to an absence of anything interesting to write about. This involuntary hiatus is due to having way too much to do. Everything that’s not entirely essential hasn’t been put on the back-burner, so much as shoved off the hob onto the floor.

Between teaching, planning, assisting other teachers, my Erasmus assessments, and my ever-present freelance rent-a-geek work, I’ve barely had time to shop, let alone dedicate any time to this drivel.

Now, I have two-and-a-bit hours of train journey sans 3G to kill, so rather than persevering with the painfully boring book I’m currently trying to read, this is the best alternative. Between boredom, boredom, and blog, I choose blog.

Well look at that, I managed to waffle anyway.

The second week of the holidays was just as boring as the first. My cold/manflu/Freshers Flu is still taking its best shot at knocking me out, but I’m feeling much better than I was back then.

During the holidays, I just dossed around Laon, got some work done, dedicated some time to getting paperwork and lessons in order, and got increasingly bored waiting for the other assistants to get back, or something exciting to happen in this town.

I was absolutely dreading the first week back at Méchain. The previous term had not ended well at all. I briefly mentioned the reasons why in another post, and I have no desire to go over them again, but I was fully expecting to have lost the respect of every teacher at Méchain, because of a rather vindictive decision made by a tired, stressed colleague.

Thankfully, he apologised to me, we’ve agreed to pretend it never happened, and we’re moving on with our lives and jobs. I’ve learnt to always err on the side of caution when it comes to an ambiguous/incorrect timetable. I was late to a session I didn’t know about, and I was reprimanded for my ignorance, so if there’s even the slightest chance of me having to be somewhere, I’ll be there, because I really need the staff on my side.

Despite this, I didn’t heed my own words, and very narrowly avoided being skinned alive by an enraged Belgian woman. Due to another convenient timetabling error, I very nearly stayed at home when I should have been at a lesson. It’s only because I went into school to check my post that I was lassoed by the teacher I should have been with, and brought to the class.

Lovely as she is, I know that had I been late or not there, I would have paid for it dearly. I genuinely shudder thinking about it.

My Terminale groups have been a mixed bag, as always. The weaker groups make me want to quit my job, the better ones make me want to teach forever. I know that sounds extreme, but it’s absolutely true. Some classes, I burn through my material because they simply aren’t biting, leaving a horribly awkward 10-15 minute gap at the end. In others, we don’t even touch on my prepared material because it’s just too fun talking to them about anything else. We lost quite a lot of one lesson because my students and I couldn’t stop laughing at things. That was a good lesson. The one before it was horribly tense and boring, which is the exact opposite of the kind of atmosphere that I try to create in my classroom.

The IRIS group isn’t my worst group. It’s the 1emes. Two of my 1eme groups – which I only teach for 30minutes each, mercifully – are the most incompetent, apathetic students I’ve ever met.

But let’s concentrate on the positives.

I’ve settled into life in Laon quite well. I know the town, I know its transport system, its cafes and restaurants – obviously, – I know a bit of its history, where things are, some of the nearby towns and so on. It’s a small town, and a quiet one at that, but it’s nice enough.

One thing I just can’t get my head around is the accent. I complain about this all the time on Twitter, but here it is on my blog as well. The Picard accent is impenetrable. Some of my students described it as the ‘redneck of France’. Being English, I’d equate it more to the Scouse of France.

I can have decent conversations in French with my colleagues and people who are from Paris or Lille, but when it comes to talking to a local, I revert back to my GCSE French days of not even getting the gist of what they’re saying. It’s almost nostalgic, but really embarrassing. I was in a restaurant while waiting for a train to Paris the other morning, and the waitress spoke so fast and with such a thick accent that I just couldn’t understand. There with my suitcase and passport, I felt like the biggest tourist. After her second indecipherable repetition of the menu, I just wanted to jump on the table and bellow, ‘I LIVE HERE! I WORK HERE! I SPEAK FRENCH! YOU JUST SPEAK IT WEIRDLY!’ But that would be bad manners, and I’d probably break the table. And I wouldn’t get any food. And, being English, I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to dodgy accents.

I bought a TV, and I have BFMTV on round the clock. BFMTV is basically the French equivalent of Sky News 24; 24-hour news, flashy graphics, and the occasional slice of sensationalist filler. It’s not bad, and having it on the background is really helping me get used to some of the more difficult cadences and patterns in the language.

Sadly, the Golden Rule has been broken. My resolve to never speak French to students has been shattered, as I cracked under the strain of a really difficult class a while ago. Since then, it’s only happened a few times, but I try to keep it to a minimum. I hate seeing the dull, vacant glazed expression of people who don’t understand a word you’re saying. I enunciate, I speak clearly, I deliberately use very basic English, but you could be a speech therapist on valium and these kids wouldn’t understand, just because they don’t even know the basics.

Language assistants aren’t meant to teach, per se, they’re meant to improve conversation skills. I shouldn’t be taking the role of a teacher, as I’m not a teacher, but hey ho. One of the classes is basically unteachable, as they don’t even know how to tell me what they did at the weekend. There is no conversation, because not only can they not speak, they can’t understand. My last lesson with them was painful. I actually felt sick during and after it. I plan on speaking to the head of department about them.

Speaking of which, I learned the other day that the legal maximum number of students we’re allowed to teach solo is eight. My smallest solo group is nine, and my largest solo group is 16. I could easily use this to cut down the group-size, and have more one-to-one lessons, but they’re so far into the term now that my mentioning this slight legal transgression would cause a huge amount of annoyance for the whole department. Like I said, I need the staff on my side. I’d rather have large, unwieldy groups, than 100 annoyed French colleagues. I don’t want to rock the boat due to my own laziness or ineptitude. Let’s just hope we don’t get inspected any time soon.

After all that negativity, I was really pleased when one of my teachers had a nice surprise for me. I had three hours with one of the 2nde teachers. The 2ndes are genuinely too weak to be taught solo in English, so I often just assist in class. Their teacher brought me into the class, and announced with a grin that they were going to perform for me. The week before, he had taught them God Save The Queen. I was treated to groups of French teenagers timidly singing our national anthem.

In the third class, I got a little bored of hearing the same mumbled singing, so I told them that if they were at a rugby match in England, they would be singing so loud that their throats would hurt. I opened the classroom door, and told them I wanted the whole school to hear; I didn’t care if they sang badly, only that they sang loudly.

They did well, and I felt oddly proud to be British. It took a group of French teenagers to make me a patriot. Didn’t see that one coming.

I got them to sing La Marseillaise after, for my own benefit and curiosity, which they really enjoyed.

Other than the odd bad lesson, or altercation with a colleague over lessons or timetabling, it’s been a reasonably standard couple of weeks back.

I originally wrote this post a while *cough* two weeks ago on the Eurostar back to London. With the help of my sister and her fiancé, I made a surprise visit to my parents, which went down very well. I also managed to get up to Lufbra for a bit, and see some friends in Leicester. I was only around for a couple of days, but I really appreciated being back in the UK after two months of living in France. I realised that I’m now so used to living here, that I kept greeting English people in French, even in good ol’ South Wigston Tesco. The look the cashier gave me was priceless.

My knee-jerk reaction to people sneezing is to say ‘bless you!’ That’s fine in England, but people in France look at you as though you’ve just recited the opening passage from the Necronomicon. After she sneezed, I said ‘bless you!’ then I had to explain that I sometimes forget to speak French. Checkout assistants bare the brunt of my bumbling ineptitude.

Anywho, I have a class in a few minutes. They have a little green triangle next to them on my timetable, so I know they’re a decent one. Yay!

Les Vacances

I’ve gone nearly two weeks without writing a post, but for once it’s not due to apathy, at least not entirely. Truthfully, not a lot has been going on, and I was worried that I’d probably bore senseless anyone who’s not already been done so by my blog.

In France, there is a two-week holiday for every seven weeks of actual teaching, which is great, as that means that I’ve had three weeks in the school, before a two-week break. I had hoped that I’d have time to travel and what not, but this holiday, I’ve not really done much. Again, not for lack of motivation; Freshers’ flu seems to have followed me to France, so I’ve not gone without my annual bout with headaches, tiredness, and a cold that could bung up an elephant. It’s making me feel oddly nostalgic. I miss Loughborough!

The weather isn’t fantastic here either, as you can see by the photo. In fact, it seems to be tormenting me slightly. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit less ill, and it had been only slightly cloudy all day, so I went for a walk in the evening. As soon as I got my coat on, it began to rain. Today, the wind’s intense, and the sky oscillates between blue to grey with unnatural frequency. It’s 16:30, and what little light there is at the moment is going fast. Sunset’s not till 7pm, technically…

Like I said, I had been hoping to get a couple of trips in. Lille maybe, at least the local cities, but I’ve not really felt well enough to get to Carrefour to top up my cheese supply, let alone hop on a train to some unknown city for a day or more.

I have one week of holiday left to me, so once I’ve shifted this cold, I hope to get out a bit more.

One of my aims this holiday is to get enough lessons planned that I don’t need to plan for a while. I have some started and finishing activities sorted for most classes, it’s just the 30-40 minute gap in the middle which is difficult to fill. The IRIS class is, like I’ve said, very technology and IT-oriented, so I’m working up some lessons around Open Source software and philosophy, which I hope will be interesting. I might have to plan a lesson or two on the subject of Minecraft, just to inject some excitement into these nerds.

The terminales are moving from Immigration to Power in Art. From what little has been explained to me, I’ve gathered that this is about artistic depictions of power. How they’re teaching English through this, I’ll never know. I might do some lessons on visual semiotics, which would serve the dual purpose of drawing upon my degree, and also being at least a bit interesting. I can use plenty of clips and stills from TV shows, which will help lessen the dullness.

The premières are moving from Tourism to ‘Stand up for Your Rights!’ and the subject of racial equality and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. I’m trying to think of how I can weave in some South African history to my classes without waffling too much. Like I’ve said before, the purpose of my lessons are to improve comprehension and speech, so I want to avoid talking too much, as they’ll only get one of those, and even that’s debatable.

I literally don’t have a clue what the secondes are doing. The terminales are studying immigration, the premières are studying tourism, so extrapolating downwards, I guess they might be studying racism or something. I don’t know. I wish the teachers were a tad more helpful at times.

Well, that’s all folks. I’m really just posting to let you know that I’m not dead, just dying a bit, and that this holiday isn’t really going as I planned. Oh, and my usual dose of complaining and thinking out loud, of course. Sorry!

A bientôt !

Vouloir, c’est pouvoir

This week has been simultaneously the best and worst of my time in France so far.

Rather than spewing a few thousand words of solid complaining, I’m going to split this post up into sections for each day respectively, so four nicely delineated segments of complaining.

Monday was a baptism of fire. Actually, I would have preferred being literally submerged in flames than face the BTS students on my own.

First though, I had a group of Terminales – final years – who were frankly brilliant. There were five of them; they were competent, confident, well-behaved, and we got on very well. I’ve not met any of the Terminale groups before, so almost all of my lessons this week have involved me introducing myself, having them do the usual routine of asking me questions, and so on, then moving on to what I had planned. This was the first class I’d ever taught on my own, and it went very well.

The second class consisted of half of the BTS class; thirteen noisy, irritating post-adolescents who wanted to be in school about as much as I want to be in a Sudanese prison. Their language abilities are painfully lacking, so it was hard for them to even understand me, let alone do the activities I had planned. I managed to maintain a tenuous grip on the class until the end of the period though.

I had two more Terminale classes in the afternoon, and I was hoping that they would be as good as the first one. They weren’t. In fact, they were actually worse than the BTS lads. I think my expectations were just too high, and I was disappointed when they turned out to be awful. Their only redeeming feature was that they were far better behaved, and didn’t react as badly as the BTS class when they didn’t understand something I said. I prefer polite confusion to vocal annoyance any day. Still, we got through the classes, had a bit of a laugh, I helped them discuss and understand some articles I’d brought and so on.

Monday was tough, and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it.

I was woken on Tuesday at 8:15am by my neighbour/landlord (‘Mop Guy’) banging on my door. I answered it, and he smugly asked me if I knew I was late. I said no, of course not. (Late for what?) He nodded and said ‘yes, you are.’ Tuesday morning, I’d agreed to step in for Nico and assess some English oral exams in other departments. I’d spoken to one of the guys the day before, who had asked me to be in the room at 10am, so I was planning for that. Turns out I was actually supposed to be there at 8am to assist with another teacher first. I hadn’t known this, so was aiming for a bit of a lie in. The smug look on my flatmate/landlord/perpetual pain in the neck’s face put paid to that.

After I got rid of Mop Guy, I rushed to get dressed and get into school. I was only 20 minutes late, and we managed to get through most of the oral exams, but I was still in post-wakeup daze and wasn’t really up to deciphering the teacher’s impenetrable Picardy accent, which led to a lot of annoyance on both sides. After the two hour marking session – well, 1 hour 40 minutes… – I met up with the second teacher, the one I’d been expecting to meet with.

He too didn’t speak any English, and was wielding a similarly strong strain of Picardy, which only served to double my headache. Again, we got through it. He was much more patient with me, and was happy to speak in a more measure way, so that I could properly understand him. The first teacher thought – erroneously – that simply repeating what he said in thick and fast Picardy would suffice. The students really weren’t very strong, but their presentations were nothing if not entertaining, and the looks on their faces when I asked them questions were priceless. I imagine that’s what my face looks like when I’m talking to someone in French.

After that, I had the BTS IRIS class. I’d spent the previous 36 hours sweating spinal fluid just thinking about the prospect of teaching them solo, so I was very nervous going into the class, which is definitely not the best mindset to be in. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, but it wasn’t much better either. Two of the class simply didn’t speak any English whatsoever. They didn’t understand a word I said, and they refused to speak at all. The rest gave it a fair shot, and we just about made it through the class. I’m slightly lucky, in that I’m a nerd, and the IRIS students are also nerds. They were one of the groups who asked for my Steam ID, and gave a collective gasp when I said I occasionally played Minecraft.

Thinking about the BTS, BTS IRIS, and the other weaker groups, I know I’m going to have real difficulty teaching them. I know I’m here to here to help increase their confidence and abilities in speaking English, but I don’t know how best to go about doing that when they often just don’t understand me. The golden rule of the ELA programme is not to speak any French. I usually let slip a word or two in the initial interview classes as a joke, but with the weaker groups, I’ve occasionally had to resort to explaining some things entirely in French, which is completely not the point of my job. It also gives them ample mockery fodder, as my accent in French is pretty horrific.

The title of this post is vouloir, c’est pouvoir which is basically the French equivalent of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ I want to make my lessons more than just a flagrant waste of everyone’s time, but I need to put more thought into how. (Suggestions are always welcome!)

The IRIS group was thoroughly draining, and I went straight from that to another weak Terminale group, which successfully KO’d me. After I escaped that particular hell, I went to the staff room and just sat there for an hour not doing anything. It was around then when I started weighing up the possibility of just packing it in and heading home. The DintS qualification isn’t massively useful, and this early on in the term I might be able to just slip back into my uni course without many problems. If I’m not enjoying myself, and I’m not able to contribute anything to the students I’m meant to be teaching, then what’s the point of my being here?

My last two classes convinced me that this probably wasn’t necessary. The 4pm class was very good, and the 5pm group was undoubtedly my best group so far. We quickly hit a great rapport, they were happy to discuss things among themselves while I guided them, and they were keen to listen and participate. They weren’t particularly better than some of my weaker groups, per se, but they were much more willing to participate, which is 75% of the battle. In my weaker groups, I quickly exhausted my repertoire of content in an effort to keep things moving, but in this group, we didn’t get past the first task as they got so involved in it. If I can pull together my weaker groups to something even remotely resembling the success of this group, my job will be so much easier. I doubt that will happen, at least not to the extent that I would like, but knowing that not all of my classes are difficult and borderline hopeless is quite a relief.

Wednesday was fine. I was working alongside another teacher, meeting the Secondes – first years – who were generally great. Yeah, one of the groups was quite weak, but the other two were brilliant, and the lessons were fun.

This particular teacher is a very frenetic, high-energy teacher, and she can be quite hard to share a classroom with; during the usual Q&A session with the students, she’d keep interrupting me and the students mid-sentence – one of my pet hates, – and also got rather angry with students when they didn’t know words. Still, she’s a great teacher, and very keen and able to help the kids practice and learn.

She got out lots of 2012 Olympics paraphernalia, which was interesting, and also gave me the opportunity to give her a playful slap with one of those inflatable batons the crowd had at the Olympics. I think that won the class over to me, as they found it hilarious. The teacher’s reaction wasn’t as good, but I apologised after and she said she was just playing along. I shouldn’t act on impulse, as that could have gone a bit wrong.

Thursday (Today)
This morning, I was with the same teacher and another batch of Secondes, helping them prepare their presentations on the subject of tourism. They all basically said the exact same things, so I was trying to help them inject some individuality into their presentations. It worked, to an extent, but I think a lot of them took this as criticism. Of course, I explained that I was trying to encourage them, not criticise them, but then I don’t think a lot of them understood what I said, so that didn’t work. Anyway, they generally spoke quite well, so I was happy with that.

After that, I was chairing a ‘debate’ in another Seconde class, again, on the subject of tourism. This teacher was trialling debates in her classes as a good way of getting her students to talk. It is a very good way to get people talking, and I was actually really impressed with how well they dealt with it.

The motion was ‘Tourism is a curse.’ We split the class into two; one group arguing for the motion, and one against. I helped – prodded – both groups to come up with some arguments and examples to support their argument. Then, we arranged the chairs to face each other across the room, I introduced the debate, then they began. Like I said, it went quite well, and I was quite happy with them, even if the teacher was getting very annoyed that just the same five kids were talking.

In short, this week has been very tough, but also very good. My worst classes are an uphill slog through the mud and rain. But when I have a good class, teaching is the most enjoyable job I’ve ever done. I can’t decide which side is winning just yet.

With lessons finished for the day, I stayed in the staff room for a while, doing paperwork – as per usual, – and helping out some of the other staff with things. I’ve now fixed two staff members’ laptops, and am currently helping track down the sender of a rather inflammatory email from an ‘anonymous’ student to a teacher; I’m already getting back my familiar geek reputation. If I didn’t have to rely on my language-transcendant charitable nature to keep the rest of the staff on my side – I don’t dare speak at length to any of them in French – then I’d probably charge them. I’ve already heard a catchphrase going around; ‘Jon’ll Fix It!’ I really hope that doesn’t stick…

Now, on to the good news.

Firstly, I finally have a functioning French bank account, which means I can get paid! WOO! It’s currently completely empty – well, it’s €3 overdrawn – but that will change when I’m able to transfer some money from my good ol’ UK account. I even have a French bank card. If I didn’t keep getting PPI calls – yep, they followed me to France – then I’d feel much more in touch with my expat life.

Secondly, I now have two weeks’ holiday! I have no classes tomorrow, and nothing now until November 4th. I will need to dedicate quite a lot of time to lesson planning, but more than anything, I want to travel a bit. The French rail network is redonkulously cheap and efficient, and if I can arrange some CouchSurfing hosts, I’ll hopefully be able to visit a city or two. I’d like to visit maybe Lille and Strasbourg at first, maybe Bordeaux at some point, so I’ll have a little look later for available hosts. It all depends on time, and hosts.

That’s pretty much it, I think. This week has been a very mixed bag, but it’s over now, and I now know what to expect with certain groups, so I can at least try to plan accordingly.

Well, time to head over to Carrefour to stock up on cheese and whatnot.

A bientôt !


Until I moved to Laon nearly three weeks ago, I had never been to northern France. I’d passed through on a trip to the south coast in 2008, but nothing beyond that. After yesterday, I can tick ‘visit Paris’ off the List of Things To Do Before I die, which everyone seems to adhere to. We planned a day in Paris last weekend, but cancelled it at the last minute due to collective exhaustion after traversing the blizzard of paperwork and protocol that was the orientation day in Amiens, so this weekend we went well rested and eager. Giorgia and Alice have been several times before, so I was definitely the muggle of the group.

I’m quite proud of us really; we managed to cram most of the major tourist things into just one day. We went to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre – where we were fangirling out over a scene from Amélie, which was partially filmed there, – Pont des Arts, Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe. We arrived at 11am and left just after 5pm, so I think we did well to successfully shoehorn such prolific tourism into about six hours.

I have to be blunt and say that Paris is overrated. Yes, the Louvre is nice, the Champs-Elysées is a beautiful bustling boulevard, and the Eiffel Tower is certainly a tower, but essentially, Paris is just another enormous city punctuated with some nice historical architecture, and overrun with tourists. Yes, I am self-aware enough to realise that waving my camera around and rushing between sightseeing hotspots probably makes me chief among the tourists. I heard very few people speaking French, but then it’s a little hard to hear anything when you’re surrounded by swarms of people clamouring to get a snap of the most photographed landmarks on Earth.

So apart from the tourists, the realisation that Paris is perhaps not as glamorous as we’re told, and getting basically mugged by a “charity collector” – who physically helped herself to the €10 note and the British £10 I had in my wallet when I went to get out a €5 for her, then expertly vanished like Macaulay Culkin’s career – it’s an alright city. There are some quite conventionally photogenic areas, as well as some unconventional ones; the transport systems are good, and the history and architecture is actually quite stunning in places.

I would never want to live in Paris. It’s nice to know that it’s just 90 minutes and 12€ away, should I want a day there, but getting back to my quiet little town in the middle of rural Picardy was such a relief.

At the risk of sounding incredibly boring, what I loved most about Paris was the Pont des Arts. The Pont des Arts is an ordinary bridge in central Paris over the river Seine, which has become the epicentre of a recent fad, whereby people – mostly couples – attach padlocks to the bridge’s wire fences, then throw the keys in the river Seine. This has apparently only been going on for a few years, but the fences are covered in locks on both sides, and I spent longer than I want to admit taking photos – such as the header image for this post.

I’ll post the photos as a separate gallery on my blog sometime tomorrow.

I start actual lessons this week. I’m not looking forward to it.

Aside from the fact that I don’t really understand the undecipherable timetable I’ve been given, I don’t know what topics I need to be covering, at what level, and in what manner. I’m working on some more icebreaker activities that will help me get to know both the students and their curricula, but I’m really disappointed at being left swinging in the wind by the department. One of the first things I said when I arrived at Méchain was that I didn’t want to be just left to my own devices in the lessons; I want to be able to aid and assist the teachers with their topics, and give lessons that paralleled the main studies. They agreed wholeheartedly, but have yet to actually brief me at all, or provide anything more substantial than single sentence answers when I ask them.

The teacher who covers the BTS and IRIS classes has been quite helpful, so I know more or less what he’d like me to cover, but as for the rest, I’m just going to blag my way through this week then work out something more concrete later.

My first lessons are at 10am tomorrow, with the terminales. Terminales are the final year students; their English is generally quite good, which certainly makes my life easier, but that is counterbalanced slightly by the fact that I’m still at a loss as to what to actually do with them. The icebreaker Q&A session is so far my best idea, so I’ll likely be going with that as a temporary solution. I have at least six groups of terminales tomorrow – I think; it could be three, it could be nine. My timetable isn’t the most helpful – so I can improve it as the day goes on, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The first lesson will not be fun though. I also have the BTS group tomorrow, which isn’t going to go well. I should be being optimistic, I know, but without any real information about the curriculum, the students, the staff’s expectations, I really don’t have much to go on.

This isn’t a new worry really; since I first applied for the Language Assistant programme, the actual roles and duties of the assistant are described in the most vague, unhelpful terms possible. The main duty of an ELA is ‘to help improve the competence and confidence of students in speaking English.’ Everything else is up to the school, and the entirely untrained assistant.

I should maybe stop complaining, I’m just nervous.

Conveniently enough, this week is the last week of school before a two-week break; I have 13 hours of lessons this week, then a fortnight’s holiday to regroup and recover. I’m not yet sure what I’ll do, but I hope to plan a CouchSurfing trip or two in France.

I think I need to dedicate some time to teaching one of my flatmates English. The guy is the incoming accommodation manager, from what I’ve gathered, which basically makes him my landlord. So far, I’ve only heard him say two words in English, which are ‘clean’ and ‘floor’. The first phrases I’ll teach him are ‘could you please’ and ‘old boy,’ just so that he doesn’t sound quite so rude when telling me to mop the floor.

At least he gave it a shot, but I was a little annoyed at how he just mimed everything else – including putting the mop in my hands. I eventually asked him politely to just explain in French what he wanted me to do. I understood him, which surprised him. He’s not around at the weekends, so I have two days to get the place looking spotless before he comes back and presumably mimes angrily at me some more.

I have some good news though: I finally have the internet in my flat! Yay!

After some polite words with the school nurse, I was allowed to put a wireless access point in the infirmary office which is just down the corridor in the boarding annex. I’ve bridged another wireless router to it (thank you, DD-WRT,) and I can now connect my stuff to the interwebs. The amount of content filtering is quite excessive. Facebook and Twitter I expected to be blocked, but not Wikipedia and Google, but that’s easy enough to get around with a little nerd magic. I can’t get Skype to work, which is disappointing.

I’ll probably write another post on either Wednesday or Thursday – depending on my being awake, and maintaining the will to live – so I’ll say how well the lessons went then.

Until then, à bientôt!

Les Lycéens

My routine teaching duties have yet to start properly, but I’ve now met a couple of my classes, and done some icebreaking activities. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that I really have my work cut out for me. My students’ levels of English range from good conversational knowledge to almost nonexistence, and their willingness to participate is equally varied. Some classes have been literally painful to talk to, others have been difficult to shut up.

In France, most students will do some form of the baccalaureate, which is a rather intense programme of all-round study in several fields. Whereas the UK A Levels system encourages students to specialise at the age of 16, the French system – European system? – encourages further deeper study in a range of areas.

For those students who are, let’s say, not naturally equipped for such exhaustive study, there are the BTS courses – brevet de technicien supérieur – which are more vocational courses of study. They still study English, but they really don’t want to. I had my first BTS class on Monday morning, and it was a nightmare. I’ve managed to strike an early rapport with most of my classes so far, and the same was certainly true of the BTS group, but their knowledge and confidence in English is so lacking that I really had to rely on Michel – the teacher – to help out a bit.

The Académie advises assistants not to just tell students what a word means, instead we’re supposed to be encouraging the students to discuss it among themselves, but sometimes they simply don’t know, so I have to write it down, or whip out the dictionary. Overall, the BTS class were happy to talk, maybe talk too much, but understanding what they were saying was a challenge. I thought one kid was asking me where the rivers are in England and France; turns out he was asking me why England and France are rivals. But that’s why I’m here; to help them tune their conversational English skills, and gain confidence in speaking the language.

They were very interested in national stereotypes. 'Roast beef' was shouted by several of them at once, when I asked them what they thought about England. (Also, I know 'monkeys' is spelled wrong. I can't spell under pressure!)
They were very interested in national stereotypes. ‘Roast beef’ was shouted by several of them at once.
(Also, I know ‘monkeys’ is spelled wrong. I can’t spell under pressure!)

It was only a disaster because they were so hard to guide and control. While the other interviews were quite calm and ordered, being interviewed by the BTS class felt like I was a scandal-ridden celebrity being chased up a street by a pack of tabloid journalists. Most of the other teachers are combining my introductions with some kind of writing project – like a newspaper article – so the students have a reason to listen, and ask appropriate questions. The BTS kids didn’t have any incentive, so they were less than enthusiastic about asking pertinent questions, and instead asked whatever weird and random questions came to mind. We ended up having really bizarre conversations which weren’t even slightly relevant to anything in their studies.

At one point, I looked over to the teacher, shrugged, and said ‘you want them speaking English, right?’

The second disaster class was the IRIS group, though it was disastrous for the opposite reason. IRIS stands for Informatique et Réseaux pour l’Industrie et les Services and is basically a BTS in IT. Again, really for students without a natural aptitude for studying, this is an IT-oriented course with an emphasis on IT systems and networking in organisations and service industries. I was quite looking forward to teaching this class; having worked as a rent-a-nerd for a long time, I thought we’d have ample conversation fodder.

I forgot to account for the fact that people attracted to this kind of course might not be as sociable and outgoing as my other classes. After half an hour of barrel-scraping, I began to realise that they probably wouldn’t have been any more talkative even if I were speaking French. 45 minutes in, and I was doing my best to keep some semblance of a conversation going, but eventually the teacher stepped in and tried – in similar futility – to discuss their homework assignments. They really didn’t want to be there, and I could almost feel the resentment. All of my other classes – including the BTS group, in fact especially the BTS lot – I felt welcomed, as though the ice had been broken, so to speak, but the IRIS group seemed to want the opposite. I’m seeing them again next Tuesday… wish me luck.

I’m currently being told when my classes are by text or email; everyone else in the lycée seems to know my timetable except me. I don’t tend to know when I have a class until an hour before, which isn’t really ideal, as it doesn’t leave me long to plan things. Thankfully, everything I’m doing at the moment is just icebreaking and introducing, so it’s not too difficult, and I can reuse all the same material. I’d much rather change the audience than the content, so this works out well for me.

I’ve been promised a timetable – un emploi du temps – so hopefully one will be on its way soon.

I’ve only had five classes this week. The class on Monday was the BTS group, on Tuesday I had the IRIS debacle, and today I’ve had three classes taught by the head of English at Méchain. Thankfully, these classes were as good as the three I took last week, and orders of magnitude better than IRIS and BTS. Most of the students were happy to talk, some were almost coherent, which was a nice change. The questions were mostly the same questions – family, friends, hobbies, qualities and faults, ‘do you like France?’, ‘are you going to Paris already?’ etc. – and they were willing and able to answer most of my questions about the school, the town and so on.

After eight hours of talking about myself, I’m looking forward to starting my normal classes in which I can talk about something other than my favourite type of cheese. I shouldn’t complain though; Alice – the English assistant at Lycée Claudel – has done about 19 hours of the same. I still have to meet the classes for three other teachers, so I may still be competing for the top spot yet.

Right, I’ve gone on about school for long enough.

In general, life in France is going pretty well. Things have slowed down a bit, as I’m getting more settled here, and I’m getting quite used to the town. Laon is nice, but it’s quite apparent that there’s not much going on here. In most classes, I’ve asked my students if there’s anything fun or interesting to do in Laon, and the immediate answer is almost always ‘no’ – or ‘rien‘. That’s not exactly true; there’s a cinema, bowling, iceskating – my favourite … – not to mention the cathedral, and the medieval city on the mountain top, but I suppose it doesn’t really measure up to the nearby cities like Amiens and Reims. There are lots of cafés with free wifi, and plenty of photo ops, so I’m happy.

We’re hoping to go to Paris on Saturday, but that may well be cancelled due to a sudden bout of collective apathy, as it was last weekend. It only costs about 12€ per person to get there by train, which is unbelievably good. The French rail system is too good to be true. I got a carte jeune discount card for 50€, which gets you a guaranteed discount of 25% on any rail ticket anywhere for the year, and up to 60% reduction on off-peak tickets. It pays for itself after a couple of journeys; I’ve nearly paid mine off already.

I’m sitting in McDonalds at the moment with Alice, and we’re getting stared at by three girls who were in one of my classes this morning. That’s one of the problems with lycée Méchain; it’s the only high school in la ville basse – the low town – and so wherever I go below the mountain, I’m likely going to bump into some students. I don’t mind this, as I usually chat to them a bit, but other times it’s just awkward. Like I said in an earlier post, I tell all my students that I don’t speak any French – a half-lie, at best – so they think they can talk about me with impunity almost to my face, so we were casually eavesdropping on their not-so-sectret conversation.

I can see that little white lie turning out to be quite handy in the future. Is that moral? I’m not sure.

French people don’t half love to stare though…