Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: books

Still I rise

This week was all about Experimental Practice; as you may remember, I am currently doing DELTA module 2 and as part of the PDA Action and Research, I decided to focus on a specific point: poetry.

Before going further, I have to add that despite the fact that I studied French literature in high school intensively, I always despised the poetry part of it. I never understood the point of explaining, stanza per stanza, what the author was trying to say. But that was in French.

Since I became an English teacher, I studied literature differently, for my own pleasure. I have realized the power of literature, how it provides a strong context to the learners, how it can be used to introduce a complicated topic. I have always read a lot in English, but I started to read poetry in English only a year ago, thanks to Maya Angelou. I read Me & Mom & Me while at Yale, and pretty much read her entire work after that.

For most of my learners, English is a simple way to communicate; and there is nothing behind it. English is way more than that, but the magic is hidden behind grammar rules and lexical patterns. I decided to focus on poetry during my EP to show how powerful language can be, and I chose Still I rise by Maya Angelou.

Bear in mind that my multilingual class is composed of five different nationalities (Ecuadorian, Czech, French, Saudi and Venezuelan), from age 29 to 56 and are intermediate. I started the class by quickly introducing Maya Angelou (As a learner, I really do think it’s helping to know who wrote the piece before actually reading it) and today will be about poetry (I could see right away who would be interested and who would be on Snapchat during the entire lesson)

I then explained the different poetic figures: hyperbole, metaphor… (teaching how to pronounce “hyperbole” was actually funnier than I thought it would be) and put them in pairs to read the poem. While they were done reading it (and very puzzled), still in pairs, I asked them to underline each hyperbole, or metaphor or imagery they could find in a stanza (each pair had a different stanza) and to write what they thought the author wanted to say. I did the first stanza with them, to provide a model.

Some of my students were just looking around like “what the hell is she asking us to do?!” but my older ones were really into it. Everybody tried their best, even the one who literally asked me what I was trying to do with that damn poem. We discussed the several topics Maya Angelou mentioned in the poem and I ended the lesson by showing them a video of the poet reciting Still I rise at Clinton inauguration.

The whole point of that lesson was to force me out of my comfort zone, but to make my learners realize that by learning another language, they were entering a new world. Learning a language is not about putting words next to each other in order to be understandable when you order in a restaurant. Learning another language, any language, is sculpting your own door to another way of thinking.

That is why I teach English and not French. This week, I have seen that Facebook post which was literally “dear non-natives, why don’t you teach your own language?” Languages are beyond passports and nationalities, and the only reason we categorize people over these insane criterions is purely marketing. I cannot teach French because I don’t feel a connexion with it, I teach English because I love it with every fiber of my being and that detail change everything when you are a teacher.

How to teach American culture through paintings

Yesterday, I had the most unusual class I ever had. We had to meet our teacher, Kirk, directly inside the Yale Art Gallery, this incredible and free museum that I am lucky enough to visit three times a week.

He made us walk to the American wing, and asked us to choose two paintings that we would save if the building was on fire. Of course, if you don’t have the chance to have a Yale Art Gallery right next the corner, you can also put different pictures all over the classroom and make your students choose.

We all chose, and we had to explain and defend our choices because at the end, it appeared that we would be able to save only one painting. The class can debate and provide arguments to choose one painting over the others.  It is a great writing exercise (they need to prepare first, we had ten minutes) and a great speaking one as well.

We set our minds on Edward Hopper’s Sunlight in a cafeteria:

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « sunlight in a cafeteria hopper »

(For the record, that was my choice, so I am pretty pleased with myself just about now)

We chose Hopper because of its importance within the American History of Art. Most of the students probably never heard of him, but he is one of the greatest painter from the US. Choosing Hopper made sense for different reasons: it’s realism, so it’s quite easy to catch the meaning.  It’s modern, so students can relate to it. And the colors are carefully chosen, so it’s nice to look at it. Let’s be honest, most students prefer to look at a nice, bright picture than at a blurry, dark one.

Talking about Hopper’s painting made us talk about life in the fifties (this precise painting is from 1958) and what we actually knew about it. As the teacher, we can use the characters in the paintings to create a discussion (what about their clothes? what about the decoration of the cafeteria?), avoiding a boring lecture about “Life in the US during the Fifties”.

The second class, which will be held tomorrow, will follow a precise path, divided in three parts:

  • Description, internal evidence itself: general and larger observation, then detailed observation.
  • Deduction: sensory engagement, intellectual engagement and emotional response to the painting.
  • Speculation: theories and hypothesis.

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Being passionate : a review

I rarely read in French. Probably because most of my favorite authors are writing in English, so I don’t see a valuable reason to read a French version of a book that I could read in its original version. You get the idea.

But I read “L’élève au coeur de sa réussite” by French teacher and writer Marie-Hélène Fasquel. And I loved it.

I heard about Miss Fasquel because of the Global Teacher Prize, to be honest. My teachers at the University of Grenoble were speaking about her with sparkles on their eyes, so I decided to “take a look”. And I just fell for it; she is not an usual teacher. We are talking about someone who couldn’t stop working while laying on a hospital bed. Who believes that the teacher’s role is inspirational. The fact that she was a French teacher was, for me, another reason to read this book.

I am not a huge fan of the French educational system, despite having a mother who worked there for 35 years. I think they could do better, in a lot of ways. A lot of my friends are teachers now, and most of them aren’t motivated anymore, after only  a couple of years of practice. There is a huge gap between the government’s expectations and the reality, as Miss Fasquel wrote herself.

Being passionate is key when you are a teacher. And Miss Fasquel proves it during 180 pages. I am not saying that I agree with everything she wrote. I would have loved to read more about her techniques and some other examples than reading about the Global Prize itself, but that’s my opinion, and I understand why she wrote about the experience.

I would like to thank Miss Fasquel: in France, teachers are sometimes seen as “lazy people”, “always on vacations”, just “reading off books”. She proved that being a teacher was way more than that and she deserved to be known.

Dear Miss Fasquel : I can’t wait to meet you in November at the TESOL France convention. Also, I honestly think you should translate your book in English, because your adventure deserves to be share.

© 2019 Helene Combe

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