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Le prof de franÇais

Posted By Denebola On March 23, 2011 @ 12:01 am In Denebologues | Comments Disabled

DENEBOLA sat down with French teacher Sebastien Merle to ask him about life in France.

Denebola: Where in France are you from?
Merle: I grew up in Southwestern France, in a small town, with 25,000 people, an hour west of Toulouse, which is one of the biggest cities in France.
[It is] a very rural region. In my town you have pretty much nothing around but villages and farms.
I grew up there, then I moved to Toulouse, and lived there for four years before I moved to the States.
Denebola: How did everyday life in Toulouse when you were a high school student compare to everyday life in Newton?
Merle: It’s very different; I would need a full hour just to describe how different it is. Students have a lot more freedom in a lot of ways; everything is not as structured as it is here.
I feel like you have more responsibilities at a younger age. I didn’t go to very good schools, either, especially my middle school.
Also, my typical high school day would start later, and when I had a free block during the day I would either go to the library or I would go to the student center.
Something that would be really shocking to a lot of Americans would be that this little café was right around the corner, and [my friends and I] would spend our time there, chatting, drinking coffee and playing cards. We didn’t get into trouble, we just spent a lot of time there.
We usually had a 45 minute to a one hour break for lunch and my high school was downtown so it was very easy to go a variety of places, or eat lunch [at school]. The school day was a lot longer; it was very common for me to have classes until 6:00 at night.
Kids in France, they got two weeks [for vacation in February and April], so I remember teachers complaining constantly about the fact that the curriculum was not going to be completed by the end of the year.
Because the curriculum is set up by the government, as opposed to the state, [defining the curriculum like they do] here; it’s much more centralized because it’s a much smaller country.
In France, you hear teachers complain a lot about the fact that you need to wrap up the program by the end of the year and that they don’t have enough time.
Denebola: Are schools structured differently in France than they are in the U.S.?
Merle: No, they’re pretty much the same, except preschool is more developed. Public school starts when you are two or three, because it’s a welfare state, so you pay a lot of taxes, but then the government takes care of your kids from an earlier age.
The other difference is that high school started in tenth grade, the way it used to at South, and then they added a year. But that’s the way it was where I grew up.
I remember growing up, when I was in elementary school, I had Wednesday off, the whole day, and I had to go to school on Saturday morning.
Then, when I switched to middle school, I had school on Wednesday morning only, [in addition to] Monday through Friday. It’s give and take.
Denebola: Newton South has a reputation for being very rigorous academically. How does South compare to your high school experience?
Merle: There’s no comparison; I had pretty bad school experiences. It’s very different [now].
Public education in France is comparable in its advantages and disadvantages to what’s going on in the United States right now.
It’s definitely a buzz word now; you hear “public education” in France when you talk about what’s broken, what we need to fix.
I have the French Channel at home, and they did a pretty interesting documentary about that. You get to college and these kids are so humiliated because they’re so not ready, and a lot of them drop out of college because they can’t handle it.
So, the same problems are right here, with American public schools. My middle school was a zoo. Teachers were extremely violent.
It was a while ago, and I’m sure there have been improvements, but there was this really antiquated system where teachers would be protected to a degree that was really disgusting; they didn’t have to be accountable for anything, so most teachers were absolutely horrendous.
Then, I was fortunate enough to have really amazing teachers in high school, very inspiring. Still a lot of really bad teachers, too, but I had some teachers that really made a difference, and my high school experience was a lot better because of it.
Denebola: South has a lot of extracurricular activities. Are those kinds of opportunities available in France?
Merle: Not at all; it’s because the school day’s so long, there’s no time for anything else. There was a Theatre club, but that was really late, from 6:00 to 9:00 after school, and then you had to go on the weekend.
If you wanted to do sports at the level that you do them at South, or in a lot of American high schools, where you have Varsity [level sports], you have to go to a special school in France, where the afternoon is dedicated to sports, so you have classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon, but that’s a much bigger commitment.
Here, that’s really one strength of the system: you can be such a well-rounded individual.
It gives you much more opportunities to shine in so many different ways, and even if you’re not academically a brilliant student, you can always feel like there’s one area where you’re going to be able to feel good about yourself. So if it’s arts, or sports, that’s a great strength of the American system.
Denebola: Most South students choose to continue their education at college. Is that true in France?
Merle: No, because the system is so based on tracking; you’re tracked at a much earlier level.
You have to choose a specialty at an earlier stage in your academic career. Already when you’re in tenth grade you need to know whether you’re more of a science person or [not].
The emphasis is on sciences; the “smart” kids are the kids who do math and science. It’s a stigma that has always existed in France and will continue for a really long time.
They give you a little bit of flexibility; they tell you that you can take maybe one more math class if you’re on the humanities track, but it’s very limited.
Really, if you’re good academically [in America], you can be a much more well-rounded individual than the French system would allow you to be in a lot of ways.
There’s also the vocational track. If you’re not doing well academically, you’re going to be systematically offered to go into the vocational track. For example, half of my high school was what they call “Générale,” humanities and sciences, and half of the school was vocational. You can get started on a vocational track in eighth grade.
Denebola: A lot of American students worry about SAT, MCAS, and all kinds of standardized testing. Is that a major point of concern in France?
Merle: No, there’s no standardized testing in France.
Denebola: What about the [Baccalauréat (bac), an academic qualification test in France]?
Merle: The bac is not standardized. With standardized tests there’s a very specific set of skills and knowledge that’s being tested. With the bac, there’s no multiple choice, for example.
[The bac] is all essays. You have to come up with a thesis and then organize an essay according to your thesis. It just teaches you a certain way to think.
[You are tested on] your ability to come up with a coherent argument based on you knowledge. In France, you never, ever, give your opinion on anything, because nobody cares.You have to be extremely unbiased. You have what they call the “thèse-anti-thèse”: you take one side of the argument, you argue for that side of the debate, and then the “anti-thèse,” when you have to argue for the exact opposite. Everything has to be backed up by your knowledge, your articles, the data.
That also affects the French mentality. A lot of Americans, when they travel to France, and strike up friendships with French people, [Americans] say, “It’s funny, I say one thing, and French people, they always say the opposite.” And it’s almost that mechanism that’s forged by the educational system.
It’s not that [French people] want to antagonize you, it’s just that they want to debate; it’s just a playfulness.
It’s a very conversational culture. Debating, discussing things is very much a part of the French mentality in a lot of ways.
Denebola: As a teacher with outside perspective, what universal qualities do you notice about students who are both French and American?
Merle: Just that kids are kids. I really feel like there is such a thing as globalization. French teenagers are a lot more similar to American teenagers now than they were in the 1950s and 60s.
[French and American kids] listen to the same music; there are cultural differences of course when it comes to food, make-up, those kinds of things, but there seems to be a common understanding of the same things.

Denebola: Where in France are you from?

Merle: I grew up in Southwestern France, in a small town, with 25,000 people, an hour west of Toulouse, which is one of the biggest cities in France. [It is] a very rural region. In my town you have pretty much nothing around but villages and farms. I grew up there, then I moved to Toulouse, and lived there for four years before I moved to the States.

Denebola: How did everyday life in Toulouse when you were a high school student compare to everyday life in Newton?

Merle: It’s very different; I would need a full hour just to describe how different it is. Students have a lot more freedom in a lot of ways; everything is not as structured as it is here. I feel like you have more responsibilities at a younger age. I didn’t go to very good schools, either, especially my middle school. Also, my typical high school day would start later, and when I had a free block during the day I would either go to the library or I would go to the student center. Something that would be really shocking to a lot of Americans would be that this little café was right around the corner, and [my friends and I] would spend our time there, chatting, drinking coffee and playing cards. We didn’t get into trouble, we just spent a lot of time there. We usually had a 45 minute to a one hour break for lunch and my high school was downtown so it was very easy to go a variety of places, or eat lunch [at school]. The school day was a lot longer; it was very common for me to have classes until 6:00 at night.Kids in France, they got two weeks [for vacation in February and April], so I remember teachers complaining constantly about the fact that the curriculum was not going to be completed by the end of the year. Because the curriculum is set up by the government, as opposed to the state, [defining the curriculum like they do] here; it’s much more centralized because it’s a much smaller country. In France, you hear teachers complain a lot about the fact that you need to wrap up the program by the end of the year and that they don’t have enough time.

Denebola: Are schools structured differently in France than they are in the U.S.?

Merle: No, they’re pretty much the same, except preschool is more developed. Public school starts when you are two or three, because it’s a welfare state, so you pay a lot of taxes, but then the government takes care of your kids from an earlier age. The other difference is that high school started in tenth grade, the way it used to at South, and then they added a year. But that’s the way it was where I grew up.I remember growing up, when I was in elementary school, I had Wednesday off, the whole day, and I had to go to school on Saturday morning. Then, when I switched to middle school, I had school on Wednesday morning only, [in addition to] Monday through Friday. It’s give and take.

Denebola: Newton South has a reputation for being very rigorous academically. How does South compare to your high school experience?

Merle: There’s no comparison; I had pretty bad school experiences. It’s very different [now]. Public education in France is comparable in its advantages and disadvantages to what’s going on in the United States right now. It’s definitely a buzz word now; you hear “public education” in France when you talk about what’s broken, what we need to fix. I have the French Channel at home, and they did a pretty interesting documentary about that. You get to college and these kids are so humiliated because they’re so not ready, and a lot of them drop out of college because they can’t handle it. So, the same problems are right here, with American public schools. My middle school was a zoo. Teachers were extremely violent. It was a while ago, and I’m sure there have been improvements, but there was this really antiquated system where teachers would be protected to a degree that was really disgusting; they didn’t have to be accountable for anything, so most teachers were absolutely horrendous. Then, I was fortunate enough to have really amazing teachers in high school, very inspiring. Still a lot of really bad teachers, too, but I had some teachers that really made a difference, and my high school experience was a lot better because of it.

Denebola: South has a lot of extracurricular activities. Are those kinds of opportunities available in France?

Merle: Not at all; it’s because the school day’s so long, there’s no time for anything else. There was a Theatre club, but that was really late, from 6:00 to 9:00 after school, and then you had to go on the weekend. If you wanted to do sports at the level that you do them at South, or in a lot of American high schools, where you have Varsity [level sports], you have to go to a special school in France, where the afternoon is dedicated to sports, so you have classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon, but that’s a much bigger commitment. Here, that’s really one strength of the system: you can be such a well-rounded individual. It gives you much more opportunities to shine in so many different ways, and even if you’re not academically a brilliant student, you can always feel like there’s one area where you’re going to be able to feel good about yourself. So if it’s arts, or sports, that’s a great strength of the American system.

Denebola: Most South students choose to continue their education at college. Is that true in France?

Merle: No, because the system is so based on tracking; you’re tracked at a much earlier level. You have to choose a specialty at an earlier stage in your academic career. Already when you’re in tenth grade you need to know whether you’re more of a science person or [not]. The emphasis is on sciences; the “smart” kids are the kids who do math and science. It’s a stigma that has always existed in France and will continue for a really long time. They give you a little bit of flexibility; they tell you that you can take maybe one more math class if you’re on the humanities track, but it’s very limited. Really, if you’re good academically [in America], you can be a much more well-rounded individual than the French system would allow you to be in a lot of ways.There’s also the vocational track. If you’re not doing well academically, you’re going to be systematically offered to go into the vocational track. For example, half of my high school was what they call “Générale,” humanities and sciences, and half of the school was vocational. You can get started on a vocational track in eighth grade.

Denebola: A lot of American students worry about SAT, MCAS, and all kinds of standardized testing. Is that a major point of concern in France?

Merle: No, there’s no standardized testing in France.

Denebola: What about the [Baccalauréat (bac), an academic qualification test in France]?

Merle: The bac is not standardized. With standardized tests there’s a very specific set of skills and knowledge that’s being tested. With the bac, there’s no multiple choice, for example.[The bac] is all essays. You have to come up with a thesis and then organize an essay according to your thesis. It just teaches you a certain way to think. [You are tested on] your ability to come up with a coherent argument based on you knowledge. In France, you never, ever, give your opinion on anything, because nobody cares.You have to be extremely unbiased. You have what they call the “thèse-anti-thèse”: you take one side of the argument, you argue for that side of the debate, and then the “anti-thèse,” when you have to argue for the exact opposite. Everything has to be backed up by your knowledge, your articles, the data. That also affects the French mentality. A lot of Americans, when they travel to France, and strike up friendships with French people, [Americans] say, “It’s funny, I say one thing, and French people, they always say the opposite.” And it’s almost that mechanism that’s forged by the educational system. It’s not that [French people] want to antagonize you, it’s just that they want to debate; it’s just a playfulness. It’s a very conversational culture. Debating, discussing things is very much a part of the French mentality in a lot of ways.

Denebola: As a teacher with outside perspective, what universal qualities do you notice about students who are both French and American?

Merle: Just that kids are kids. I really feel like there is such a thing as globalization. French teenagers are a lot more similar to American teenagers now than they were in the 1950s and 60s.[French and American kids] listen to the same music; there are cultural differences of course when it comes to food, make-up, those kinds of things, but there seems to be a common understanding of the same things.

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Article printed from Denebola: http://www.denebolaonline.net

URL to article: http://www.denebolaonline.net/2011/03/23/le-prof-de-francais/

URLs in this post:

[1] Parlez-vous francais? Moi aussi: http://www.denebolaonline.net/2011/02/15/parlez-vous-francais-moi-aussi/

[2] South students enjoy French culture over April break: http://www.denebolaonline.net/2009/05/13/south-students-enjoy-french-culture-over-april-break/

[3] Countering Stereotypes: France: http://www.denebolaonline.net/2010/03/24/countering-stereotypes-france/

[4] Cultural differences should not be overlooked with burqa: http://www.denebolaonline.net/2010/11/02/cultural-differences-should-not-be-overlooked-with-burqa/

[5] South speaks: French: http://www.denebolaonline.net/2010/10/28/south-speaks-french/

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