When I first arrived at my school, école Bel-Air, I was greeted by the “directeur”, who is the equivalent of the Scottish head-teacher. She informed me that for the first week I would be given the opportunity to observe in different classrooms at different levels. The first classroom I visited was “cours préparatoire” or “CP”, which is the equivalent of Primary 1 in Scotland, where the children were 6 years old. The CP classroom was very different from what I expected and very different from an early years classroom in Scotland.
The layout of the classroom was very basic as the children sat in pairs and had their own individual desks that faced the front. I think this is helpful for the children as their desks have a shelf underneath (see images below) containing all their books, jotters and writing materials, which created the sense of an individualised place they are responsible for. Also, the children hardly ever had to leave their desks to retrieve anything as all the resources they needed were in front of them. From an organisational point of view, this is a good set up as it helps to make transitioning periods much smoother. However, as I observed throughout the day, this layout does not facilitate effective paired and group discussions, something which is valued and encouraged in the Scottish classroom, but is lacking here.
Also apparent was the lack of shared spaces in the classroom; the only area present was the library, though this was not set up in a way which encouraged children to go and read, it was merely a display of the books on offer. In Scotland, a lot of emphasis is placed upon play and experience to facilitate learning, but in French classrooms there are no areas for explorative play, no toys present and no carpet area for soft play. The classrooms in this particular school are quite limited for space and I feel as though teachers in Scotland work harder to ensure they are maximising their space and designing their classrooms to fit the contours of the room.
The structure of the school day is very different from the school day in Scotland and this is largely due to the cultural differences between these two countries. For example, the school day is much longer, beginning at half past 8 and ending at half past 4. These longer days mean that the children receive two 15-minute long breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, then lunch, which lasts two hours, beginning at 11:30. In France, Lunch is a very important part of the day, with French sociologist Thibaut de Saint Pol (cited in Ditton, 2016), describing lunch as “an important social time” and “family identity, work teams or friends are built around these moments”. This is a concept that I am struggling to become accustomed to as, in Scotland, lunch is very much viewed as a refuelling step between breakfast and lunch and so, we eat fast and with convenience. As a result, lunch for me feels very long and causes the day to drag. However, one aspect of the French school day I actually prefer is that Wednesdays are a half-day and school finishes at 11:30, the first time I experienced this, which made the lessons that morning more concise. I thought finishing early midweek broke up the week nicely and it was nice to have time after school to be able to do things.
Today was also my first opportunity to talk to the children about themselves and their work. I did find this difficult to do, as my current level of French is quite minimal and vice versa with the children and their level of English. However, I managed to pick out key words and phrases to respond to some of their questions and the children were also very imaginative in their ways of communicating with me, as they drew pictures or pointed at books to express to me what they meant. One thing I loved seeing was the children’s clear curiosity for language, as they were showing me pictures from books and asking me to say what they were in English. By the end of the day, they were attempting to use English to communicate with me. This love of language is something that, as I teacher, I want to foster in my future classroom by introducing foreign languages early on and partnering them with social or picture cues to excite the children.
Today, I observed and aided in an English lesson given to the CM1/CM2 class. At the beginning of the day, the children were given the instruction to ask me questions in English. These questions ranged from “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” to “What is your favourite movie?” and “Where do you live?” I knew that what was important was that the children were hearing how I pronounced specific words, and so I made sure to repeat the stem of their question in my answer, for example, if I was asked, “What is your favourite colour?” I would answer, “My favourite colour is…”. This will also help the children to form sentences rather than one-word answers, which was something that the teacher was keen for them to do.
One thing that is very different about teaching a foreign language in France than in Scotland is that in France, the teacher tries to conduct the whole lesson in that foreign language, i.e. English, therefore the instructions are in English as well as the disciplining. I found this was a good way to teach the children as they were fully immersed in the language and they seemed able to follow and understand what the teacher had said with minimal clarification. As instructions are often common phrases in many lessons, the children are constantly exposed to these phrases and the repetition will continually improve their overall understanding. Another important aspect of learning a language is relying on context, which I have found has improved my French over this week.
Most of their lessons throughout the day were very short sessions of French language/literature and Mathematics. I found out today that a large portion of the timetable consists of French and Maths, as children receive French lessons twice a day, a total of 10 hours per week, and they study Maths at least once a day, totalling of 5 hours a week. Other aspects of the school curriculum include a lot of focus on English and Sports. This particular school provides a variety of opportunities for the children to take part in sports taught by specialised instructors, as I accompanied the CP/CM1 class today to the local swimming pool for a swimming lesson.
Another interesting aspect of observation I did today was looking through the different jotters of the pupils. They had several jotters for different subjects; however, one jotter that peaked my interest was a jotter entitled, “Discovering the World”. The jotter was divided into five sections (see picture below), and seemed to equate with Environmental Studies/Social Subjects, which we teach in Scotland, as well as incorporating elements of Maths and Science. The last section, “vivre ensemble”, presented work done on society and ethics, which was the first example I had seen of Religious Education’s replacement in the French curriculum.
As Friday was St Patrick’s Day, I observed the teacher of the CM1/CM2 class teach a lesson on the day and it’s history. The teacher provided a worksheet for the pupils to read, which had passages of text in both French and English. The teacher asked me to read out the English for the children so that they could listen to my pronunciation. She then picked out some of the key vocabulary from the text to form a list in their jotters for future reference. This teacher informed me that because these children are the stage before high school, the teachers at the high school had requested that the children gain more experience of reading and writing in English. This highlighted to me that the rate of progression expected in children learning a foreign language in France is very fast, as when children first begin school, a lot of emphasis is placed on hearing the words not reading the words.
Before this lesson, I hadn’t really witnessed a lot of learning outside of French and Maths, and so this lesson began to feel more similar to the style of teaching practiced in Scotland, specifically the cross-curricular potential, which the teacher fully exploited. Throughout the lesson, the pupils were receiving an immersive experience regarding St Patrick’s Day; they were looking at pictures and they were watching videos, whilst also reading and listening to text in both French and English.
After lunch, I then visited the CE1/CE2 class. This class has two teachers, one of whom is also the head-teacher of the school. With this class, I visited the local sports centre, where they were learning how to fence. To get to the sports centre, we took a short bus journey, which gave me the opportunity to speak with some of the children, mostly them wanting to practice their English on me.
Overall, I have observed a large majority of the classes in the school during this first week and although I would have liked to have observed a bit more English and have been more involved in the lessons, I am hoping that this is something that will happen over the coming weeks.
Ditton, H. (2016) ‘Why do the French take such long lunch breaks?’, The Local (France edn), 28 April. Available at: https://www.thelocal.fr/20160428/why-do-the-french-take-such-long-lunch-breaks (Accessed: 14 March 2018).