This fancy term defines a system that can exist in more than one quantum state at the same time. There is a principle associated with this term and an equation, so it must be real. (You’re on your own here for more details about this fascinating subject.) My point here is more metaphorical and less scientific about what it is like to be in many places at once.
To be trained as an American teacher and then teach in France is not what you would think. It is not one person in one place. Teaching philosophies differ, and the cool factor of being a teaching Mom also fluctuates wildly. I could get it wrong addressing a French audience, get it wrong addressing the native English speakers who turned up in class, and get it wrong trying to get my child to study up writing in English. It’s the three strikes you’re out rule of teaching in France.
My first teaching experience in the States required the student teacher, namely myself, to be on the high school campus at 7h. Some of you will be saying, “That’s fine. I’ve been up since 4h.” The more chill among us find getting up in the dark to arrive on time—by bike, mind you, wearing pretty high heels, the bike freighted down like a donkey with all my teaching materials—not all that appealing. That beedi-smoking part of my brain, activated even pre-beedi, was grateful to fall ill and not be able to continue. My real student teaching began the following semester in a child-centered alternative school, where the teachers waited for the students to come to the learning centers when they were ready.
Those of you who are living in France already see where this is going. Let the bumper cars begin!
In French schools, the pedagogic idea of teaching the whole child has been rejected. In France, the teachers really teach a subject, not so much the child. My supervisor explained that this French attitude came about to loosen the cleric’s hold on young minds. France is nothing now if not laic, which means a lay person’s society.
Happily, at the American School of Paris Extension Program, we were teaching an enrichment program where the learner’s needs were differentiated, particularly because we often had more than one level in our classes. Despite the artistic, creative, child-centered teaching, we were dead serious about getting the students better in English.
I taught the advanced-fluent fifth graders. In this cohort, some students each year would take an entrance test to go to a school in Sèvres, a French school with an International section (English or German) plunked smack dab in the middle of the French curriculum: French history, math, biology, etc. My job was to get my hopeful fifth graders ready to succeed on this test. Other students, however, would not sit this test, so I had to motivate them differently. And finally, my daughter didn’t want to take this test or go to that school, for that matter, so I had to find a way to be clever with her.
My daughter was certain she wanted to attend only a French school for middle school, a French school without an International section. Now mind you, the way English was taught in my daughter’s French-only school was very, shall we say, rigorous. A French native speaker, trained in French modalities of education, held forth once a week. “A shamrock,” the teacher announced, “was ze lucky plant of ze Irish.” When my daughter raised her hand and said in French that actually the lucky plant was called the four-leaf clover and the shamrock only had three leaves, the teacher was so impressed she told the students not to write down what my daughter said.
Here is the statement from the Old Farmer’s Almanac: “A shamrock is the symbol we associate with St. Patrick’s Day. Traditionally, shamrock refers to a three-leaf clover. A four-leaf clover is NOT the same thing as a shamrock. Someone’s confusing their lucky charms.” And by the way, chances of finding a four-leaf clover are 1 in 5,000. (All you Irish, please weigh in!)
I pointed out to my daughter that the English part of her education would wobble along these lines if she went to a strictly French school, where there is just a nod to English. And my reasoning with her was this: when I could tell the 18 year-old version of my fifth-grade daughter why I didn’t put her in a school where her English would flourish, then I could agree to a French-only school. The next day my daughter came to me to say she’d take the test. She got in! And completed seven years of rigorous French work with the English section as a counterweight. Home run one!
Next, my daughter had a French friend who was more on the advanced and less on the fluent side of English, who was also in my class at ASP Extension. Her mother had decided this girl would not sit for the test because a failure would be demoralizing. May I hint that perhaps the mother wasn’t too persuaded by my weekly newsletters that there was serious mastery of English going on, namely fluency in speaking, and logical sequencing of ideas orally? Can you imagine the dinner conversation?
Mom: What did you do in English today?
Child: We decided which Harry Potter house we wanted to be in. We also gave directions to a partner on how to tie a shoe.
Well, my daughter and I agreed that her friend, if she had a good day, would pass this test. So, before she took the test, I included targeted work for her in my lessons. One day the girl needed a ride home from class. “Meet me in the office in about ten minutes,” I told her. She appeared carrying the rather large metal trash can under her arm. Responding to my quizzical look, she said in English, “Didn’t you ask me to bring this here?” I’m thinking, well, no, and then, oh dear. This does not bode well for the upcoming test. (Would we call that trash canning for Godot?)
Despite this setback, my daughter and I plotted on some way to get the mother to agree (and of course pay the fee for the test). When my daughter stayed overnight, we thought, she could do it. Or I could call the mother. And as we were scheming, the child herself asked her mother to sign her up. The test came. The nail-biting wait for results followed. I heard the news about my daughter first. Hooray, she was in! It was a bit anti-climactic because after all, she did have two American parents. My daughter’s friend was next. Both of her parents were French. She made it! I cried. Home run two!
SCHOOL IN REVERSE
One thing a teaching Mom in a foreign country had to do was become a student. This took place at home on M Ludovic’s patio. Two of her friends joined my daughter, and we all sat around the table with the following purpose: teach mommy how to say “yogurt” in French. The word is le yaourt. To say this word, you begin with the sound at the beginning of “yowza.” That nice, big “yow.” Now you have to close your throat all up, and imagine the word “hurt,” which trying to say this word does do. Take off the “h” and add that “urt” to the “yow.” Now for some reason, I could only manage that “urt” by going up an octave. Imagine the “yow” as the note do in a musical scale. And the “urt” an octave above. Well, this did not do. No French person said the word this way, with the possible exception of a vaudeville act for the tramps in Waiting For Godot.
I had to begin with the first syllable. Each child would either nod his or her head in agreement or shake it, meaning I had to start again. Three nods and I passed onto the next syllable. We passed a quarter of an hour this way, with me facing a benevolent but strict examination. One night recently I was awake and decided to practice that word. Le yaourt. Nope! I still sound like an opera singer. Strike one.
I was on WhatsApp recently with my daughter, reminding her of this word. “Try it,” she said. I did. She shook her head.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo, which won the Pulitzer, is about a former industrial town in Maine, centering around the Empire Grill. The novel has the all-time funniest section about Miles, a kid who had never driven before, in a car filled with experienced drivers, all members of the baseball team and all in driver’s ed together. The driving instructor, who also happens to be the coach, cannot believe that Miles has no idea whatsoever about what the accelerator pedal does. Poor Miles is terrified that his ignorance will be revealed. And revealed it is!
Here’s a bored grown-up’s version of a kid’s version of driver’s ed.