Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Note: I intended to post this on 4/1, as mentioned somewhere below, but decided to go for a walk with my hallmates to Montmartre following our Easter Monday (federal holiday) lunch since it was a sunny, though still rather cold, day. This delayed my writing/editing/posting schedule signficantly, so I ended up going to bed and making this post a birthday present to myself. Enjoy!

As many of us just finished celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ over the weekend, I am also making an attempt to bring back to life my France blog, which had probably been pronounced “dead” in many of your circles. Truth be told, I don’t know why I stopped writing; the blog just kind of fell off of my radar, I guess. I told someone in an email recently that I should not have let this happen out of respect for you, my readers. And my parents (independently of one another) definitely dropped some not-so-subtle hints about how they thought they were doing something wrong technology-wise that was preventing them from accessing the new posts that they were sure I had written, but that they could not see. So, in an attempt to restore your faith in me and to share some exciting bits of life from the past I-don’t-know-how-many-weeks-or-months, I’ve put the knowledge about using automatic electronic defibrillators (AEDs) that I’ve gained through various health or CPR classes to use in order to revive my momentarily-lifeless blog… metaphorically speaking, of course…


“Keep Hope Alive”

Yesterday (Friday 3/29), during the second to last period of the school day (4-5 pm), I worked with a group of 10th graders whom the lead teacher has kind of written off as being…”unfocused” or “lacking in motivation,” to use her words. There’s this one boy in particular who always seems to be in trouble for fighting, so he has only gotten to come to my breakout session once because part of his punishment was having to miss a session, and we switch groups every other week anyway. (This is a class that I only started working with in February, and we had a two-week vacation at the beginning of March. More on that soon, I hope.) So yesterday, it was FINALLY his turn to come back to my class again. And he was SO excited. He greeted me like six times when he came in the main teacher’s classroom where she takes attendance before we split off. Then he wanted me to “shake” with him “like Americans” (think of the way in which young men and/or men of color greet one another). I was like, “Let’s listen now while the teacher takes attendance” because he was becoming a little disruptive, albeit cute. He is not a person of color, by the way; he told me in our other class session that he is Polish. It’s more common here than in the U.S. for people to talk about their heritage/country of origin as a way of introducing themselves; most of us Americans just stick with a city+state identification.

Once I found an open classroom (unfortunately, one without a computer/projector) for my nine students, I wrote our “agenda” on the board, and we got to work. I had a worksheet about iconic American places to visit: Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge, Statue of Liberty, St. Louis Arch, umm…whatever you call the carving of those 4 Presidents in South Dakota?, etc. (Shoot, I’m the one need to be doin’ the worksheet!) Anyway, the students had to read the descriptions and choose the right illustration on the accompanying U.S. map. It was part of a resource book I’d gotten with our Fulbright orientation materials. Obviously, this activity worked better when I had I classroom with a computer and projector so that I could show the students large, color photos of what they were reading about once they completed the worksheet, as I’d done in another class, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

Much to my surprise, after silently listening to my instructions, which I repeated like three times because I thought they didn’t understand due to their blank stares, all three groups of students got to work like busy little beavers. They were speaking French instead of English as they discussed the answers, but at least they were processing the information they were reading in English. When we went over the answers, my favorite part was the Yellowstone response when someone didn’t understand the illustration (supposed to be steam, but very small and hard to make out). I described to them the process of making tea and successfully got them to say « Ah, vapeur! » Then the “troublemaker” himself, who had been eagerly participating all along, took it a step further by saying « Ah, ceuxsont des geysers! » I was then able to go back to the description of Yellowstone that a girl had just read and point out the word “geyser” in English, which is spelled the same, but sounds a whole lot different, so that he could see that we were talking about the exact same thing. So yes, I use my French knowledge to listen to what the students are saying and assess their understanding, but I try to avoid speaking it with them. 

One more thing from this class yesterday: have I already told you about the storytelling exercise I’ve done with several of my classes, especially the younger ones? Oh, wait, you can’t answer me ;) Basically, the U.S. Department of State gave us Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) 26 large color photos of various scenes from the U.S. for use in conjunction with English language learning. [Due to my hiatus, perhaps this would be an opportune moment to repeat the required disclaimer that I included with my initial blog post: My name is Morgann A. Lyles. These are my words and opinions about my personal experiences. This blog is not officially associated in any way with the Fulbright Program, the Franco-American Commission, or the U.S. Department of State.] One of the suggested activities was to have the students use a set of photos to create their own stories. I’ve tried this in several classes with mixed results based on the language ability levels of my students. Plus, you kind of have to be a creative person anyway for this exercise to work. I make the students choose the photos for their group at random, and then they have to find a way to weave a storyline that links them somehow.

My man – the “troublemaker” – came through again during this activity! His group’s story (which he totally made up with very little input from his two classmates) was like the plot for a movie or something. He originally told the whole thing excitedly to his friends in French. When he was finished, I gently encouraged his group to try retelling the story in English since they only had a few minutes left before each group would come forward to share their stories with the class. Okay, so I’ve given you the photos that the 3 boys had to work with below; lemme see if I can re-create what they said, loosely:

Classic, small-town storefront strip downtown

Immigrants taking their oath after becoming Americans

Some sort of underwater scientific endeavor, perhaps?

A Native American dance competition, as evidenced by the numbers they're wearing

A street band, probably playing jazz music

*WARNING: This story is rated PG for drug references and mild language.*

Once upon a time, in a peaceful town in the mountains(they asked for the word “peaceful” in advance), there was a Mafia gang called “La Gringa.” Their leader’s name was _____(they pointed out some random guy in the photo). One day, some « chimiques » (they meant “chemists”) invented « cannabis » aquatic (this should be “aquatic marijuana”; oh the important things we discuss and learn in my class…). When people took this drug, they did dances – but not normal dance:crazy dances – and played music – but not normal music, not jazz: crazy music. From that time, there was fighting between La Gringa and the « chimiques » and the little mountain town became hell.

If you had heard half as many lifeless plotlines as I have by conducting this exercise over the past several months with different groups of students, you would’ve been grinning from ear to ear by the time these boys finished as well. I guess the moral of the story I’M trying to tell is that it is crucial that we, as teachers, but also parents/guardians, principals, counselors, coaches, and others involved in the lives of young people never determine that a student is a lost cause and allow this assessment to color our interactions with that individual. I’m not saying that the teacher did anything wrong in this case because she has been working with him for a lot longer than I have; I’m simply saying that he was a joy to have in class and shows great promise in the subject area of English in particular compared to many of his peers, especially for his age. (Did I mention that he randomly broke out into a Jackson 5 song while they were working on their story? As I was helping another group, I heard “A, B, C. It’s easy as 1, 2, 3….” I was like, Excuse me?

So, as the saying goes, “keep hope alive” for the youth of the next generation. They may not always dot every “i” and cross every “t” the way you want them to, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of our love and attention. And I must always keep in mind that it’s a two-way street, which means that I’ve got to bring my “A” game if I expect the students to bring theirs. James 3:1 says “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (New International Version). So this is serious business! And you know who will pass the most “strict judgment” of all, in many cases? Your students. In the class session that I’ve been describing, we only had a few minutes remaining after these 2 activities, in which I talked to them about St. Patrick’s Day (getting pinched if you don’t wear green), a very secularized version of Easter (painting eggs or hunting for them), and April Fools’ Day (nothing to do with putting paper fish on people’s back, as in France). Then I told them they could leave, and they thought they had misunderstood me. They clarified that it was time to go and said something like “That was fast, Madame!” (Some of them still refuse to call me by my first name even though that’s standard procedure for teaching assistants here.) That’s exactly what I like to hear a student say at 5 pm on a Friday: that my class seemed to go by quickly. Unfortunately, they then started whining about having to go to Spanish, I think, (the students generally rotate through classes in the same group throughout the day) so I felt bad for that teacher. Awkward…

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Lemme take you, briefly, to 2 instances in which I was like, WHAT…IS…HAPP-EN-ING?!?!

1. On Thursday, February 28, one of English teachers with whom I worked asked me to complete a task that sounded disastrous from the get-go during the 10-minute break between the 3:00 class period and the 4:00 one in which I was supposed to work with her group. I have grown quite accustomed to her throwing a last-minute curveball at me in terms of telling me what I’m supposed to discuss with my half of the class, but this time she asked me to help the students practice for the oral portion of their upcoming « baccalauréat » exam (major graduation/college entrance test) ONE-ON-ONE with recordings on my laptop during our regular class meeting. And there’s very little I can do in my role as a teaching assistant to oppose what a teacher wants me to do since they are the ones with curricular pressures and priorities.

While it is true that this is an activity that I’ve been doing with another group of students in « Terminale » (12th grade), the teacher for the other group has been sending students to me one-by-one from her classroom in order to complete a mock oral exam, which I record on my laptop in order to provide my own feedback and then allow the real teacher, who is much more familiar with the grading system and ability level of the student, to provide feedback at a later time. Having other students in the room at the same time just doesn’t make sense for this sort of a process. But this – one-on-one recording sessions on a topic drawn at random while the other students “prepare what they are going to say” – is what the teacher wanted me to do. I did distribute a handout on Black History Month to this group of students, whom I was only seeing for the second time after introductory classes with them and their colleagues in the other half of the class since my schedule changed at the beginning of February, but I don’t blame them for getting bored/antsy, especially once their turn was over AND because we were meeting towards the end of the day, towards the end of the last week before a two-week vacation.

Still, I did not expect to hear the metal legs of a chair scooting backward very loudly against the tile floor causing me to break eye contact with the somewhat-nervous young man who was trying to explain what he’d learned about “Myths and Heroes” or “The Idea of Progress” or whichever “notion” he’d selected from the four that form the backbone of the national English curriculum. I looked up to see a young man storm out and slam the door behind him as the others watched in silence. No one else seemed upset in the least. Rather than freaking out, I remained completely calm and asked as clearly as possible “What’s going on?” (I don’t think I remembered to pause the student’s recording until after I said this, so his sound clip includes the chair + my commentary.) Another student explained that they had been arguing about a video game. It really didn’t seem like a crisis situation, so I simply repeated “A video game?” with more than a little judgment in my voice. You could almost compare the body language of the boys who remained in the classroom to that of dogs with their tails between their legs. 

I shook my head, and continued with the 3-minute mock exam that had been interrupted just because I couldn’t really think of anything else to do, to be honest. When it was over, one of the other boys who had been involved in the argument said, in English, “I go get him” and pointed to the door. I consented, and he soon returned with a very huffy storm-out-boy, who gathered his things and left, because the period was almost over anyway. I didn’t feel the need to say anything to him because I had at least seen that he was alive and well, albeit unhappy, so at least he was accounted for at the beginning and end of my class period. Their main teacher ended up coming in to check on me at the very end of the period, as she normally does, and she already knew that something had happened with him without my having to say anything. I have no idea how. She apologized on his behalf and said that she would ask him to do so the next time we had class together. She said they were probably just acting up because of the approaching vacation period. We’ll see if he indeed apologizes the next time that I work with his half of the class.

2. The other moment in which I was taken aback by an occurrence in the classroom was actually during one of the one-on-one mock oral exams in which I was working with one student who had been sent down the hallway to me for the first half of a class period. We were supposed to simulate the exam conditions in which she will have to choose a “notion” (we would probably say theme or idea) at random and, after a bit of prep time, relate what she’s learned in class this year to that notion during a 10-minute oral presentation without any intervention on the part of the examiner. After that time, the person giving the exam will ask questions about what the student has said or on other related topics in order to carry out a conversation of about 20 minutes in length for a total test time of 30 minutes. And remember that this is all in English, which is a foreign language for these students! And in this case, I was working with a class that specializes in literature (as opposed to natural sciences or social sciences etc.), so they are held to the highest grading standard in their foreign languages. 

Okay, so I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now: the kid comes in, I greet her, ask her to write her name down to prevent misspellings (if I mistake the “m” key for the semicolon one more time…curse you American versus French keyboards!!!), get her to choose a notion, and give her some prep time. Then, we typically get started and have a semi-decent conversation following her presentation, all of which is recorded. But on Thursday, March 28, the girl sitting across from me stopped after about 2 or 3 minutes of speaking and said something like « J’en sais rien » (“I have no idea”). I’ve heard similar complaints, so I just said something like “You’re doing fine, just continue with whatever you know,” even though I’m not supposed to talk during this part. Too bad she burst into tears at this point. I quickly turned off the recording stuff and switched to speaking French so she would feel more comfortable.

Told her it wasn’t that serious, was just for practice, that what she’d said so far was fine. Frantically looked for Kleenex in my bag since the classrooms aren’t stocked with them like at my alma mater. Thankfully, she found some before I did. She was still going strong crying-wise, so I asked if she wanted to go for a walk to clear her head. She said she would just open a window to get some air. She stood there for a while as I racked my brain for what to do next. Remember, I “know” these students on a very surface level; I’ve met with her half of the class for 25 minutes per week since October with various interruptions due to vacations. So we’re def not best friends or anything. After a while, since she was still standing at the window, I asked if she was nervous about the test or…and she said it was something else, which I’d pretty much figured out. So then I asked if she wanted to see the nurse, perhaps? And if there was someone in the other classroom – a friend – whom I could go get and ask to accompany her? She said no to the nurse part but spoke right up when I suggested that I get a friend. She gave me a name and asked me not to tell the class that she was…(gesture to face).

So then I had the fun task of interrupting the class to get this student. I just kind of smiled my way through it, asking the teacher if this particular student could come with me for a moment. It was kind of awkward, because this student was in the middle of answering a question that the teacher had just posed when I came to the door. She asked if everything was okay, and I said it was. Actually, I first used the verb “to borrow” – “Can I borrow _____ for a minute?” – before realizing that this might have been a colloquial expression with which they were not familiar. But I did speak English on this occasion since that’s what they’re used to hearing me speak. Thankfully, she let the student come without making too much of a scene. In the hallway, I said to the very-confused girl « Ton amie a besoin de toi, en fait » (“[Actually,] your friend needs you”).
As soon as I opened the door, Girl #1 burst into a new spell of tears upon seeing Girl #2. I decided to leave them alone for a few minutes. After all, what good was I going to do in the room? But after about 5 minutes of shuffling my feet in the hallway, it was almost time for the next student to go through the mock oral exam process, so I knocked on the door and asked how things were going. They said they needed to go for a walk and would go back to class by the end of the period. (By the way, if you’re worried about my trusting the students in these two stories, first of all remember that they’re in 12th grade, not 6th grade. Plus, there’s only so far they can go because the “campus” is gated, and they aren’t allowed in or out between classes. They have to check-in with their teachers at the beginning of each period and get in trouble if they aren’t there. So, yes, I believed these girls, and no, I didn’t go chasing after the boy who stormed out in the other story.) Once the girls left, I went back to the classroom and stood in the window of the door until a student noticed me, then pointed to my watch, trying to show that it was time for the next mock oral exam. Even though my goal was NOT to interrupt the class again, the teacher came to the door and asked if everything was okay (again, I just kept smiling), then said she would send the next student right away.

Thankfully, the next student was a pro, and I had to tell him that the period was over because he was ready to keep talking longer than 30 minutes about governmental abuses of power in the U.S., in France, and in Germany. (“Places and Forms of Power” was one of their notions, and they learned in particular this year about Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban in NYC.) Again, the teacher was already “in the know” regarding what had happened by the time I saved the audio file and made it down the hallway to her classroom. I may be putting words into her mouth a little, but she essentially said that some students tend to carry minor burdens with them for too long until they become major crises. She apologized for sending me that student and said that had she known she had been dealing with life issues outside of school, she would not have made her do the mock oral exercise on that day.

MORAL OF THESE TWO ANECDOTES: Students are human beings with delicate socio-emotional makeups and lives – sometimes difficult ones – outside of the classroom. I mean, who knows why a silly argument about video games made that boy blow up like that? And I still don’t know what’s going on with the girl, but that doesn’t mean I can’t pray for her. I was reminded of this need to lift my students up in prayer again last Wednesday when one of my best students in History/Geography came up to me with tears in his eyes just before class started (only moments after he’d approached my desk to get a handout from a class session he’d missed before the vacation) to say (in English) that he couldn’t stay because he’d just received a call from home and…I told him he didn’t need to explain, and that I hoped everything was okay.
As I transition into being a realteacher with more occasions to interact with my students on a regular basis, I hope that I learn from the compassion that Christ had for his “students” – the many thousands who followed Him in order to benefit from His teaching and healing presence. I don’t presume to have that kind of impact on others, of course, but I want to have the same kind of attitude that he had, not seeing crowds, as his disciples often did, but individuals:

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’”
                But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
– Mark 5:24b-34, New International Version

Speaking of my future teaching career, as I try to bring this write-up to a close in an effort to get it posted before midnight tonight (4/1), I wanted to let those of you who may not be friends with me on Facebook or be in regular contact with my family know that I have made a decision regarding my next step upon returning home from France in about 40 days (!), Lord willing. After much prayer and reflection regarding the four programs to which I was accepted – and even a brief foray into the U.S. for an event for folks admitted to the M.S.Ed. program at Northwestern that I mentioned in my last blog post, I believe – I decided to commit to the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). STEP – Secondary will allow me to earn a Master of Arts degree in Education + initial certification in the teaching of French for the state of California in an accelerated, 12-month format: June 2013-June 2014. Since my schedule will consist of classroom observations/student teaching by day and graduate courses by night, I expect this to be one of the most challenging and time-consuming, yet exciting and richly rewarding experiences of my life thus far. But I am thrilled to enter a community of scholars who feel just as passionate as I do about educational justice and who want to make a difference, not at the policy or administrative level at this point in their (our) careers, but as classroom teachers.

After all, I may have learned a thing or two over here at my high school in Aulnay-sous-Bois, but I’ve got a whooooole lot more to discover about myself as an educator and about the field of (foreign language) education, the threshold of which I’ve only just crossed. If you’re the prayin’ type, I ask you to keep me lifted up in prayer as I wrap up my experience here in France and transition into a new adventure, after spending a lil’ bit of time at home, of course!

I hope that you were able to reflect on the newness of life that we have in Christ during the Easter holiday, and that you were not the victim of too many April Fools’ Day jokes. 

Signing off here for the last time as a 22-year old…(hint hint…)

Peace and love,
Morgann A. Lyles :)

P.S. I hope that subsequent posts (?) will include photos from my actual life. But it’s a slow process of bringing something that was once dead back to life; I’m already surprised that I’ve done this much!

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