Cydney Chibnall, ETA in Bischheim, France
As I walk through the halls of my lycée, I hear voices exclaiming, “Hello Cydney!” in timid but excited French accents. I look up in time to see several students walking past, smiling with pride at their abilities to express something to me in English. I respond with an eager “Hello! How are you?”
While I often hear “hello” or “hi” as I walk through the halls, these particular “hellos” are special: they come from a group of students that I work with once a week, and they are all part of the SIFAS program for students with disabilities. The fact that the say hello to me in the hallways is exciting for two main reasons: 1) it means they recognize me and are excited to share experiences in my own language, and 2) they are retaining something in English! It may not be much, but I find it pretty awesome that students who often struggle with communication and self expression in their own language are willing and excited to speak another language. Learning another language is difficult for anyone, and progress of any kind for these students, even just a hello in the hallway, is impressive in my opinion!
My personal project for Fulbright was to learn about and hopefully get involved with special education classes in France, and by chance my placement high school offered me such an opportunity. In the SIFAS program, there are two groups of students: one group that is at school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and one group on Thursdays and Fridays. The two groups vary in their abilities; those on Mondays and Tuesdays are higher functioning, with a variety of disabilities, while those on Thursdays and Fridays are all students with autism.
Since my second week of teaching, I have been joining another English teacher on Monday mornings to give lessons in English to one group of SIFAS students. Every student in the class has some kind of intellectual disability, and some are higher functioning than others, but all have been able to succeed at learning at least a little bit of English. And watching them succeed, and be proud of their own success is amazing! (I know now exactly why teachers do what they do!) Our lessons with them are basic—greetings, numbers, days of the week, parts of the body, and questions meant to aid in identifying vocabulary. While they seem to be able to retain the majority of the vocabulary words, at least collectively, they struggle with the grammar and questions. For example, most recently they struggled to grasp the difference between “what is this?” and “what are these?” and when to use each. This is because in French, there is one question, regardless of it is singular or plural, for both of those in English: qu’est-ce que c’est? It is interesting as an English speaker, who also knows French, to see what mistakes they make in English and to think about why they make those mistakes. Questions and ideas that require more abstract thinking are objectively more difficult, and watching them process the information and correctly give an answer feels like a success for everyone. Being a part of this class has also been interesting on a personal level, because I’ve had the opportunity to see how two other teachers, the special education teacher and the English teacher, go about teaching. From this class, I’ve learned the importance of repetition, patience, and thinking outside the box to teach complicated ideas.
Since my third week of teaching, I have also been working once a week on Thursdays with the group of students with autism. This group of students are lower functioning than the other group, and I thus join in on regular classroom activities, in French (which has been good for my own language skills! Speaking to the teachers in French, but also trying to decipher what the students say to me in French has most definitely helped my listening comprehension!). When I work in this classroom, I usually aid in arts and crafts activities, giving instructions and making sure the students follow the instructions. A lot of the students struggle with fine motor skills, so I also help with activities such as painting or colouring inside the lines, as those can be difficult for the students.
After several months of working with this class, I can finally see the impact I’ve made. Every time I walk into the classroom, I am greeted with several voices ecstatically shouting “Bonjour Cydney! Ca va?” followed by handshakes (their attempts at socializing and being polite—people with autism often lack basic social communication skills, so hellos and handshakes such as these can actually be a big deal for some people). When I’m in the classroom, students ask me questions often and reach out to me for help on difficult tasks. Seeing the positive impact of my presence in class has been really special, and I love hearing the resounding “à jeudi prochaine! (See you next Thursday!)” as class finishes each day.
As for the differences between special education in the US vs that in France, a few things have stuck out. First, however, disclaimer: I am not a special education teacher in the US, nor in France, but I have worked in special education classes and programs in both countries now, and I can offer observations from my personal experiences. In the US, there seems to be a lot more positive reinforcement with tangible rewards. For example, in the pre-school classroom that I worked in one semester, the children received one M&M occasionally for good behavior or following directions. Usually every student would get an M&M in the end, after much positive reinforcement and praise such as “thank you [student names] for following directions!” or “I love the way [student names] are following directions!” until everyone was following directions. This doesn’t seem to happen with the groups I work with in France. However, the teachers are always encouraging in France, and are very creative in getting answers or comments from students. The group of students with autism in France often have lessons on social interactions, emotions, and how to act in situations, something that I’m not sure happens in all special ed classrooms in the US. As for similarities, both countries use picture representations everywhere—in assignments, directions, class rules, etc., and students often get individual attention as there is more than one teacher in the class.
I know that many more differences exist, but those go deep into the systems and ideologies and would take much more than an already too long blog post to explain! I thought that some of the small things I’ve noticed, though, both different and similar, were worth noting.
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear! I’ve very much enjoyed my experiences working in the special education classrooms in France as part of my Fulbright.
Thanks for reading!