My study abroad program seeks to immerse its students in French language and culture to the greatest possible degree. Indeed, we live with French host families, take courses in French at Parisian universities, and even have the opportunity to work at a stage—a French internship. The first week, we were presented with numerous internship options, ranging from working in a wine store to taking photos of French cheeses for a fromagerie to hanging paintings at a Parisian gallery. Since I have been a tutor in Poughkeepsie schools during my time at Vassar, I chose to try a stage as an English teaching assistant in a French elementary school. “How hard could it be?” I thought, “I’m fluent in English!”
As it turned out, I greatly underestimated the challenges of my new job. After expressing my interest in the position, my program director called me into her office to discuss the details—I would be working at a school on Rue Lepic, a street in the northernmost part of Paris, in the wee hours of Friday morning, giving English lessons to two fourth-grade classes. The next day, I snoozed my alarm several times after being jolted awake at the painful hour of 6:30 a.m., and set out to find Rue Lepic, giving myself ample time to spare in case of Metro disasters or wrong turns. After a lengthy, crowded journey on the Metro, I emerged at Place de Clichy, a stop in the eighteenth arrondissement right next to the famed, hilly Parisian area of Montmartre, former home of many famed artists, such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Dali. I navigated the winding streets until I found Rue Lepic, a tiny road leading up the side of a steep hill.
One of the professors met me at the door of the school and led me upstairs to the classroom where I was met by the stares of 25 French fourth-grade students who were waiting, pencils in hand, to start their English lesson. The next thirty minutes were a blur of anxiety and stuttering as I tried to teach them how to tell time in English by drawing clocks on the board and trying to explain why the United States doesn’t use a 24-hour time system in a combination of English and broken French. Every time a student whispered to a friend or laughed, I was convinced that they were ridiculing me, already aware of my painful awkwardness and lack of teaching experience. Their teacher spoke very limited English, and thus could only watch as I bumbled through the lesson, smiling encouragingly at me when I looked especially panicked. After the class, he gave me a book of possible ideas for my next English lessons and told me to try not to be so nervous.
I came back to the Lepic School week after week, gradually growing more confident in my lessons and teaching skills. I searched online for simple worksheets about body parts, pets, and clothes that I could use to teach the students basic vocabulary. Each week, the students grew more and more comfortable with me, maybe a little too much so; they became no longer afraid to ask me questions or speak up in class, and started correcting my French as I tried to explain English concepts. They even started getting up in the middle of the lesson to chat with friends, smiling slyly at me when I told them to return to their seat.
I started searching for fun, easy games I could use to help the students practice vocabulary while also engaging their competitive, social energy. I brought in simple lyrics to English songs and had the students learn them and sing them to me—having a group of fourth-graders serenade me with an off-key version of the Beatle’s hit “Yesterday” definitely made the weeks of difficulty seem worth it. When their professor suggested that I teach the students about “American” foods, I created a lesson about S’mores, which do not exist in France (perhaps due to the non-existence of graham crackers in the country). After repeating the ingredients and steps to help the students practice vocabulary, we made a “French” version of the S’more, using Speculoos cookies and German chocolate to replace the graham crackers and Hershey bars.
As my stay in Paris and my time as an English assistant come to a close, I realize that I have had a unique opportunity to observe the workings of the French elementary school system, which are structured much differently from the experiences I remember from my early school years. French students, even at age nine or ten, take meticulous, color-coded notes, studiously writing down everything the professor says with lightning speed. Their English is impressive—even though Lepic has less funding and fewer resources than other Parisian schools, it is evident that the students have had considerable exposure to English. Learning other languages is a huge part of a French education, and the system’s dedication certainly pays off—my host mother speaks French, English, and German, and all of her children speak at least two languages at an advanced level. I am happy to leave knowing that I could contribute to this education, and am thankful to have been welcomed so readily, despite my inexperience.