Midyear report: On butterflies and other feelings

Alison Graham
English Teaching Assistant, Lycée Robert Doisneau, Vaulx-en-Velin

It’s hard to believe it’s been four months since my start at Lycée Robert Doisneau. I can easily recall the funny combination of nerves and excitement I felt on my first day, especially since the latter part hasn’t gone away. Today, by total coincidence, I led a class discussion on the “Love of Fear”—an appropriate one to have with a roomful of reckless, lovesick, terrified and feigning confidence teenagers—and found myself listening to their musings on the thriller genre while stopping every so often to explain idioms such as “to sit on the edge of one’s seat” and “to have butterflies.”

My own butterflies still flutter about from time to time because my position here is ever-evolving, in the best way. As my schedule has become regular, I have managed to learn many of my (many) students’ names, a feat that has made our interactions much freer and more sincere. I’ve increasingly had the opportunity to invent my own lesson plans and lead classes independently for the whole hour, thereby growing more confident as not just the token American or the smiling assistant, but as a teacher who engages her students. Shy students are speaking up more. Chattier students are learning that it’s not just a matter of participation or of what you say, but rather a critical matter of how you say it.

I am most fulfilled when my students speak, in English of course, whether to each other or to me, because as they do I can see their wheels turning and what makes them tick (two more idioms there). It’s a beautiful thing, watching them string words together; the thoughts that come out are raw, messy and honest. Sometimes, I think, I succeed in moving them to speak, and often when they do their words move me. Yes, this is a “Priority Education” school, but the priority should allude foremost to their potential. These kids are clever and kind, some absolutely brilliant, and I am touched by their trust in me. I am grateful for the teachers who continue to mentor and support me, allowing me to not only stand up and teach these students, but to laugh with and learn from them too.

I’ve recently started a collective photo project with a class of Terminale “Littéraires” (the equivalent of high school seniors specializing in literature) who happen to be a group of all girls. Given that their energy is often akin to that of a giddy, gossipping book-club, I decided to shepherd their sociable, share-all nature into an Instagram hashtag, #vaulxenphoto, asking them to document and reflect on their everyday lives in Vaulx-en-Velin. I share my own posts with them as well.

I am working to both broaden and deepen this project with a new prompt each week (e.g. portraits, street life, light/shadow) to encourage different ways of looking at the everyday along with peer reviews so that students may share and critique their findings aloud.

Daring to share, to speak and to write, is fundamental to learning a language—we have to start somewhere, and learn from our mistakes—and it is even more essential to developing our voice in this new language. It’s been five years since I began studying French and I still hesitate when reading aloud numbers (ninety-nine, for example, is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, as in “four twenties plus ten and nine”); now imagine my trying to give a nuanced argument or merely tell a joke in French! I can write an academic response to an obscure French poem, but speaking candidly and spontaneously in day-to-day situations is sometimes still a challenge.

These students have a similar grasp on English. They write essays and reports, but when I ask, for example, what they think about that book they’re reading, many of them freeze. Their impediment is not that have nothing to say; they are clearly very opinionated. Many of my students hesitate to speak for fear that they will be misunderstood, especially when the subject is something they care about, when their response is personal. So, with this group, my hope is that asking them to write just a short caption with each of their photos will be an occasion for them to get to know their “English selves” from behind the familiar shield of social media. With the comfort of this project being casual and the freedom of it being their personal platform, the students will gradually become more at ease putting their thoughts into English, perhaps even thinking, without translating, in English. Thus, and again I hope, one day they will find themselves confident enough in class and in life to both answer and ask open-ended questions, to put feelings into words and to state their opinions.

One week in, some of their musings have already been delightfully nuanced and insightful. Featured below along with a few of my own photos, with the students’ permission, are a selection of their first posts, ranging from the hopeful and romantic to the brutally honest. I look forward to what more is to come and will likely share an update on this project in time.

Alison’s photos are below. Hover the mouse over each photo for the caption.

Some of her students’ photos are below. Hover the mouse over each photo for the caption.

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