Saturday, April 29, 2017

Turning the page....

Back to my weekly teaching spot in the village school; like many a village no one in sight at 9.00am in the morning, except a curious ambling cat and a solitary baguette buyer. I rattled the rusty bolt on the old school gates to cross the yard with the trepidation that always fills me after an enforced absence, back in the UK. Its been an even longer gap, some six months, due to  my elderly mother dying and  some medical issues, so like all first days there is anxiety.

Door open and faced with sixteen smiling, anticipatory faces, a jolly 'Bonjour Md Machin' from the Maîtresse and I was back in my natural habitat, at ease and happy.

Now the lesson today was, on the maîtresses request the initial one to a theme about  different school activities and equipment. I had planned a lesson looking at key equipment found in their pencil cases and the prompt sheet I had produced was to aid their visual memory with the final written exercise.

I try to teach much of the lesson in English, so the children can get practice in both, listening to and speaking with,a native speaker. But for instructions I have to  use French to confirm what I want them to do when it comes to any written or read work.
So, when I asked them to make sentences based on the key nouns in the photos on the  prompt sheet I asked" Ouvez votre cahier anglaise et ecrivez". Simple and understood but the problem was that they immediately stuck the sheet into their notebooks and wrote on the next page, which for some meant turning over to write the responses. Now this had a duel result; for some  it instantly made the task more difficult because they had to memorise the key spellings, where as others had an easier task and  for those who had to memorise the whole word, it meant they had the advantage later in recalling that word.
I think in England the majority of pupils would not have stuck the prompt sheet in first, unless specifically told to do so, & hence would have found the easier way. But my small French class (mixed ability aged 7 to 11) all stuck the sheet in and it was pure chance which page they stuck it in hence,for some it was more  difficult and some a more easy the task.

The result was a confusion between them as some of the younger or less able completed the work faster or more accurately simply because the sheet was constantly visible to them, they didn't need to keep turning the page over & back. The maîtresse too was confused, then she said she thought this was a very clever teaching way and that it made the children think and work harder....what my Granny would have called, 'all that sense and little nouse'.

So working on the accidental development of visual work memory I decided to extend this. We'd looked at the  'pen, pencil, pencil case, pencil sharpener, coloured pencil' compound words so I thought I'd extend the 'paintbrush'...'brush, hairbrush, sweeping bush, toothbrush, paint bush', to help them remember. Now these do have a link with the action 'Brosse' in French but sadly I started with the wrong one. So 'Brosse, brosse a cheveaux, brosse a balayage, brosse a dents' all fine, but paint brush no, 'pinceau'....hence I had a class of blank faces looking at me, not so good.

And as if that was not sufficient I decided, for reasons beyond the wit of man, to get them to breakdown the word 'Paint'. The ideas was for them to see 'Pain' the French word for bread, but this didn't really work. Then suddenly one of them registered and sai, in English, "Oui cant eat paint you can eat pain"...I know but that's was their  primary humour.
I should have quit while the going was good, but no, I thought I'd point out that 'pain ' is also a word in English; pain = douleur, something is painful, it hurts.
In order to explain this I acted  the stubbing of a toe, the banging of my thumb, a bad headache....all with sound effects.

Now French classrooms, particularly in  sleepy villages are quite quiet affaires, with set work and steady outcomes, so now both the children and the teacher were aghast at my antics. And just when I thought I'd lost it, I was saved by a flash of infantile humour "I love 'du pain', but its a 'pain' to eat 'paint'. Result laughter all round & much nodding of heads, who says the French don't have a sense of humour!!

Returning home I received up a copy of the French English-Language  newspaper, 'Connections' and chanced on an article by a Nick Inman about learning a language. A brilliant piece of prose and one phrase in particular jumped out at me and summed up my day,
"There are many varieties of French....The opposite of 'perfect' is not 'incorrect', it is 'creative' "

Oh and to finish my school day, just as I left the teacher handed me  a set of hand made and coloured Christmas cards that the children had made. Over four months on from the event  it all seemed a little bizarre, but by all their smiling faces and then later reading their written sentiments I realised it really didn't matter...they'd got creative too

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Something different....Fresnay Grange

My submission to a local Franco Anglo newspaper: What makes your house unique in 250 words
Fresnay Grange French & Family History:
It started with a small child and an old man.

“Tell me again Gramp”; the story of a pink granite farmhouse in the hollow and a pretty young lady called Irene. A young dispatch rider, missing in action and sheltered, he fell in love. The girl knew every detail the buildings, the kitchen, its range, the pewter jugs and brass candlesticks

Then came Le Fresnay a pink granite farm and barn & the girl remembered. The old barn was the original house; there was the hearth and the chimney space, the low walls of the first thatch, it all fitted.

So began our renovation of Fresnay Grange and every step was one history. All the work respecting the builders of 300 years ago and  the detail honouring the stewardship. The mantle had those candles & jugs via vide greniers, the stairs of local oak and the hearth stones relaid again.  There is a spirit to our house, we call him Pierre and imagine him as an old  French farmer. There’s no ghost it’s the spirit of the very stones, the privilege of rediscovering , reinhabiting & those stories from long ago.

And it’s a homage to the story of that old man, who never forgot that French family and later named his daughter, Irene, after the girl he had met. That daughter named me, an old French name, Pauline.

My Grandfather can’t tell me the stories now, but as I look across the farmyard, history lives and I smile.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The House of the Three Bears

After several weeks of teaching 'English Fairy Stories' and much fun, my final lesson of the summer term was based on the story of, Goldilocks & The Three Bears'.

A simple story at first thought, it would seem. A more complex one, linguistically as ; 'eating, sitting, sleeping, more than, bigger, smaller, who has' are all concepts requiring comprehension. Then finally, there is the social dimension of a young girl lost in the forest, breaking into a house, causing wilful damage and finally falling asleep in a strangers that's all a little bizarre.

Ok visual props i.e. 3 bears, class chanting, a story peg line and even a little drama...I finally got the story going. But you're never certain that the children have fully grasped the language or if you've totally developed all the spoken opportunities. But this time I got an unexpected check; a living recount of a lesson well learned.

You see on the last day of the school year, in our small village, the children all walk the boundaries. Akin to the old English ways of walking the parish boundaries, these lively 7 to 10 year olds walk the 'bourg' boundaries. They follow the traditional footpaths around the locality bordering the two villages which feed into the small school.
Knowing this was happening and ,that their walk would go up the 'randonnee' beside our land, and directly in front of our house, I decided on a small surprise. I made a name plate for the farmhouse, 'The Cottage of the Three Bears' and sat said , three bears, proudly outside to await the children's arrival.

Their response to such a small action was wonderful, squeals of surprise and a torrent  of English; phrases, words and sentences. This was a lessen review like no other. Better than any Ofsted comment or peer assessed note. If I'd had any doubts as to their understanding it was vanquished by their vocal outpouring. Munching away on their 'bear sweets' (Gummy Bears) and clasping the small gifts (Winnie the Pooh notepads of course), they left in a hail of, "Goodbye Madame, see you next year".

It seems that this story, like all of its genre, had its own  happy ending. This time I was the, 'Goldilocks' and their English language skills, will live, 'happily ever after'.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Pigs

Not been back to France since January and have had three weeks of catching up with jobs, entertaining Art Guests and enjoying the easy pace and ambience of French living.

But there comes a point at which you realise you have to start upping the  pace and get back to contributing to the village and, the way I do that best is through my weekly teaching visits to the local primary school. Its only an hour a week, but I like to do the very best I can and fit in with the school day and curriculum.

Hence I sent an e mail to Madame the maitresse telling her the dates that I could attend and asking what topic she wanted me to cover. Now I have to explain that this is not a joint lesson, no team teaching or shared planning, she simply takes my copy of the lesson plan and gets on with her paper work, only contributing if I ask something specific. Her written reactions are much like her verbal ones so I was not surprised when the initial email reply was somewhat curt. Apparently the timetable has changed and they now go swimming on Tuesdays, which was my previous allotted day. Fair enough I'll do  Mondays same time I thought? Second e mail response, no that time clashes with dance! OK give me a day & time and what topic you want me to cover till June.

Now that's when the real trouble started, because she asked for 'histoire anglaise' plus pronunciation & comprehension of simple texts. Wow I thought, there's only four Mondays left this month, one of which is a national holiday and she wants me to teach the entire English History to 7~11 year olds in three hours. My mind was racing; what were the key points, I must do justice to our complex history, how can I put all that into simple text? I spent a  night considering how and which of the stories of Boudica, Roman Britain,the Magna Carta, Religion & Empire, the Industrial Revolution or two World Wars (to name but a few) I could compress into an understandable text for 'les eleves'. Ignoring the comments of my husband  to, start with Agincourt and explain how certain parts of France really belonged to the English throne, I finally came to the conclusion the task was impossible in the timescale allotted. So I e mailed again & explained that the topic of English History was 'enorme' and suggesting I could do something about the different countries within the UK and the regions.

She replied the next day that she understood and could I teach,  'd'une histoire d'un livre' . Now here's where my second mistake was made. Now 'livre can mean book or pound (as in weight or old currency) so I took her to mean she wanted  either a potted history of currency or worse still a three week topic around key literary books in English history? ! A spent a night scouring my brain to decide which were the key authors of our magnificent literary history, or how much I knew about the history of our currency. Dreams with Shakespeare and Dickens arguing about coinage or weights & measures followed, leaving  me even more confused.Finally, the next morning , a further mail arrived giving me times and clarifying what she really meant.

In French there are what teachers of this fine language call ' faux friends', these  are words in two or more  languages, that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. For example, in English you go to a library to borrow books, but  in French a 'Librairie' is a bookshop. Similarly,'L'hotel de Ville', does not accommodate passing tourists wanting a bed for the night but is the municipal town hall. Most extreme of these faux friends is 'gymnasium; which refers to 'a place of education' in German and 'a place for physical education' in English, where as in its Greek origin it meant 'a place for naked exercise'...not to be confused. And 'livre' in French can mean book, pound (weight) or pound( money)

So my 'histoire' and 'livre' were faux friends, she neither wanted me to teach English history or the history of books or money, but children's stories and for them to read & understand simple texts. Clarified and relieved I acknowledged her e mail and agreed the dates.All this before I even set foot in 'l'ecole'.

How to move from 'Magna Carta' to 'Three Little Pigs' in one sentence, well I suppose it all the same really ; all about power, corruption, security for everyday people and words.
What was it my husband said once about this wonderful language? "I think French is like half empty boxes but you never sure what's  in them"...well mine were definitely half empty!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Bretegne v Brittany.... Keep learning

I write two very different blogs; this one, 'French Chalk',  about my experiences in France, in particular in relation to teaching & education, and the other ' The Grey Jigsaw', about my personal journey through & with cancer.

These are quite disparate blogs, but just once in a while the two overlap and what occurs in one is relevant and applies in the other. And his occurred this week on a visit to one of my cousins and his wife, who now live permanently in Brittany, France.

Now to explain I have to give you some background, if you like set the scene. This cousin is one of two brothers, who I am close to from my home town of Gosport in Hampshire and both brothers now own property in Brittany. Starting with a big renovation job of a country cottage over years and now a further renovation of a village town house. They have worked together, played together and holidayed together and in 2015 the eldest one decided to settle permanently in France.

Now this is a big move for anyone, with the arrangements, the legal stuff, the systems, the language and the culture, but for my cousin  and his wife this was an even bigger step as he is diagnosed with Parkinson's and she has longstanding health problems.

We arrived for our stay excited but unsure how they would be coping, its a tall order to take such a big step and challenge yourself, but what an amazing thing they have done. The house is a delight and made so homely, the plans are afoot for work and they are slowly but surely getting embedded in the local community; learning French and joining groups, it great to see!

We visited the area and its delights; had coffee in it village bars, ate in a local restaurant and puzzled at the signs written dually  in French & Breton. We had three days of pleasure in a very different part of France, a real holiday on holiday, it was lovely.

So what has this to do with education or cancer, well its all about determination and  belief. They have not sat back and thought , 'we can't do anything', ' we have to just put up with what life has dealt', no they are up and fighting. Its not easy, but they are taking on a new life and moving forward, brilliant. They are not accepting the limitations, they are seeking solutions and adapting to a new way of being.

Children learn & accept they won't get it all right, but keep trying. They immerse themselves in what needs to be done, seek solutions and eagerly engage in change. There is a fundamental conflict underlying learning; starting with not understanding and driven by and desire to comprehend, to reach stasis. The old adage that, 'conflict causes change'' is the leading reason we are motivated to learn or retract from learning. We are curious, want to conform, mature  or understand, solve a problem or feel an emotion, but all too often we let this drive stall and seek to withdraw. The young of all kinds are  endlessly drawn on, continually curious and want to grow, they are hard wired to learn.

So how great to see my cousin and his wife, despite all the problems and strains choosing to grow, to step out and question the world, make a new life, progress.
What's that other adage, oh yes........If you are not moving forward you are going backwards. And as my cousin said, "Its not me , its everyone else that's moving". Never too late to learn, we've just re-met a couple who are living proof of this.They say,'you can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends', and we are proud to call my Brittany cousins both.
Merci mes amis

Thursday, January 14, 2016

L'annee dernier, rabbit in the headlights

 Every Tuesday that I in France I attend, as some of you will know,  the local primary school, to teach English. Its what started me on this blog and its what continues to motivate many of the ideas & observations about our life in France, deep in the Loire countryside.

You see, as those of you who are teachers will know,  having an audience of eager, interested, but unforgiving students, be they five years or twenty five, is a sure way to enhance your own learning. The old adage that, 'if you want to learn something well, try teaching it', may sound odd , but is a real truism; nothing puts you more on your metal than the prospect of having to explain it in detail to somebody else. This is  especially so, when that somebody has the enquiring mind of a student, particularly a primary age student!

Children do not necessarily have the social niceties to go along with what you are saying, they ask the awkward  question and have a lack self consciousness. Both singly and collectively they, like water, seek out the flaws. This is not to say I think 'les elves' are scheming to undermine my lesson, it is just their natural state; they are in a learning environment all day, questioning, willing to make mistakes, self driven to understand and they don't take 'prisoners'.

 So nearly six year on from my initial uncertain visit to the school I was in again this week; teaching to the topic of 'The Human Body'. Now this could be a perilous area if I were back teaching in the Secondary sector, open to all sorts of anxieties and, even at the simplest level, could evoke a potential mine field of 'awkward or embarrassing' questions. But in that small rural classroom it was a delight, the children were interested, the subject visually engaging and all became  engrossed in the activities. From word matching & action games and worksheets to illustration I seemed to have geared the lesson right. My French explanations, my English questions all seemed to go down well.

Great I thought maybe I'm actually cracking this language, adapting my teaching and understanding the cultural nuances? I'd got through my hour and a half, the children seemed to have absorbed the key words & were prepared to verbalise in  English, so I packed up my things and prepared to go.

Now my years ago after my first basic French course, having travelled through the country over years, I finally felt I was getting a handle on things...its always when things go wrong. On a campsite somewhere near Calais, feeling quietly confident in my day to day French, I was greeted by an elderly lady commenting on the weather; "Il faire beau?" she said ( it becomes sunny). I panicked, what do I answer, is there a set reply. So what did I answer? What did my linguistic brain come up with. "Trois", yes like a rabbit in the headlights I froze and for some unaccountable reason said  the number 'three'! Since that day I have always been aware that just sometimes, for some unaccountable reason my 'French Brain' is quite likely to just malfunction.

And what happened at the end of my successful English lesson, just when I was feeling quietly confident? Well, I meant to say " a la semaine prochaine" ( See you next week), but what came out was " l'annee derniere" ( last year)! Both the maitresse and the children suddenly looked at me, quizzical, ' what does she mean? Is she telling us something?" . No just rabbit in the headlights syndrome!

What is it they say, 'pride comes before a fall', well all I can say is, "Tois"...Oh bugger!

Whats in a phrase...tellement!

Strikes me people come out with the funniest things when you least expect them. Sometimes they're known sayings, like this summer when a friend staying with us announced that, on her journey through France, she was, "So hungry I could eat the leg of the lamb of God". Or sometimes they're impromptu, as later in the holiday and out walking the beautiful Colmont river, she was desperate to use the loo. On spying a workers Portaloo nearby, she quipped, "Well any port a loo in a storm will do" and quickly disappeared inside.

There's a natural humour in some phrases, indeed some people and some regions/ cities are known for their hard humour, probably borne out of hard times. Hence my husband, a good Stoke on Trent Lad, from a family known for its witticism and sharp phrases announced that he had," no spell check on his mouth". And was heard to announce to a neighbour that, "me plums are ripening" (plenty of euphemism there) and then ask, "Is your fosse backing up"...oh er missus, sounds like an old 'Carry On' film.
In France we share some  phrasal commonalities that have been adopted by the English language. We assert, 'c'est la vie', use an ' aide memoire' and carry an 'attaché' case' with a certain 'je ne sis quoi'. So it seems strange when we hear them in their original tongue, with their correct pronunciation. At a recent soiree for a group of French friends I was amused to hear myself sounding like the fictional detective Hercule Poirot when I exclaimed 'Exactement' and curious to realise how many words had links with what I already knew, both in learnt , absorbed or fictional French.

Similarly our well known phrases sometimes have Gaelic equivalents like 'bien dans sa peu' ,which I learnt was to be at ease in ones own skin and 'petit poisson deviendra grand', a different and fishy take on 'from little oaks mighty acorns grow'. Yes I still struggle with the grammar, stumble over the conjugation of the verbs, but I now feel more at ease in the language, happier in the communication and loving the challenge despite  the confusions.

But then as Graham Robb recounts in his book ' The Discovery of France' 2007, relating to Bretons within living memory trying to learn French,
" The French language is a language whose words were like half empty boxes and you're not even quite what's in them" ,,,,je adore!