La Courneuve

Since I arrived in Paris I have been volunteering with a non-profit on Saturday mornings, teaching an English class to collègians (middle school age students) at La Courneuve, north of Paris.

The association is called 123 Rap and they teach English workshops using hip-hop and rap, the idea that young English language learners will be more enthusiastic and invested in using English is they are asked to express themselves through lyrics.

It’s a cool idea and resembles the work I did at Second Street School with the University of Arizona Poetry center before I came here. They don’t require volunteers to have a background in rap and hip hop which is good because I don’t. The idea is to pair and English and French speaker together to teach as a team, so my partner was supposed to supply the rap side of things.

It has been tough and fun and tough and sometime I’ve asked myself why I do it. I have had to get up early every Saturday and take a train about 40 minutes away from my home. That’s actually not bad at all, it’s good to have a reason to get up.

My teaching team is actually made of three people, a bilingual high schooler from Paris who has American parents, and a Kenyan rapper who doesn’t speak French. The high schooler is chill. The other partner is difficult to work with because he is an egomaniac. He also does not understand any strategies for making oneself understood by non-English speakers. (Our students have a very low level of English).

Actually, the whole thing has been fraught with problems that I don’t need to type up. The main point of this post is to set a few things down in writing that I wanted to clear up for myself. Aforesaid problem partner got angry at me a few weeks ago and blew up at me in a way that has not happened before. The reason he was angry is because I wasn’t including him in the teaching enough. I wasn’t including him because he was not contributing or making any effort to work with the kids or present ideas: as far as I could tell he just wanted to stand up in front of a captive audience and spew his thoughts.
He insulted me as an American, as a woman, and blamed me for his own failings. Since we were in a public setting (not our class thank goodness), I didn’t do anything except apologize and try to calm him down by being submissive. When I addressed the incident later with the organization, I also took the blame, saying that he had reason to be angry (he had reason to frustrated I guess, feeling ignored, but not to act the way he did). I was told that he was a man, that men are children and that I shouldn’t take it too hard. These were self-proclaimed feminists telling me this.

I get this line a lot here, and makes me wonder a little bit about the state of French feminism. At the time I really wanted to act like it was not a big deal, because I like to pretend to myself that I’m above bullshit. But it was an unpleasant experience and maybe is the reason I’ve had trouble dedicating myself to the class, which I’ve been more or less singularly responsible for despite being totally new to the organization.

So point # 1

Don’t work with unpleasant people

Also point # 2

If you’re volunteering your time demand some respect for the effort you put in

So that is one thought.

The class itself, though kind of chaotic and perpetually unplanned, has been fun to do. Ideally I’m getting them to write rap lyrics, but I don’t know how to write rap, and my particular group of students aren’t signed up voluntarily so they don’t necessarily have an interest in rap.

When I interned at Second Street School in Tucson, I was trying to get kindergartners to be interested in and to write poetry, which is complicated because they couldn’t actually read and write yet. So the experience was oddly similar to that of working with French middle schoolers, on a linguistic level (not to insult the intelligence of my French students here, who were a bright bunch).

Both my American kindergartners and my French high schoolers were very literal-minded people.

You can’t teach some one to have an imagination but you can try.

The best strategy I found was to ask the class to generate a lot of collaborative lists, on random topics:

Things that are difficult

Beautiful things

Things that can burn

This may seem unfocused or undirected but that is sort of the point: to wig your students out, and possibly scare them in to making the kind of disparate leaps of imagination necessary for writing good metaphors.

We usually already have a topic that has been introduced by a rap song. Like, topic for the song “Swimming Pool” by Kendrick Lamar was destructive habits.

I kept track of what my students wrote, but I don’t have much of interest to show – though there were days I was proud of the progress they made. I will admit I never put as much time in to lesson planning as I should have (technically I shouldn’t have had to put almost any time in at all, if things had worked the way the organization intended, but I ended up having to do everything myself).

So point # 1 for this section

Don’t bullshit your students, they are always smarter than that.


in which we try talk about racism in schools in france

Some comments:
– I really mangled reading the reading of the Césaire quote
– here’s the link to the other assistant’s blog post that I mentioned, in which he talks about his experience with anti-Semitism

I also just want to say that I’ve really needed to do a video voicing these thoughts but one reason I haven’t yet is that every time I try I’m struck by how obvious what I’m saying is. So I want to state here that it’s not as though I’m under the impression that my experience and thoughts here should strike anyone as really illuminating or original. I’m uncomfortable as coming across as this white person who thinks they know a lot about race problems, and evidently I don’t, but as I said at the beginning of the video, I just don’t feel like keeping quiet about it is a good thing either.

Also around 6.35 I say “no French person I know would ever admit that there’s a race thing going on here” which is TOTALLY not true, lots of French people know that there’s a race thing going on there. Particularly the non-white ones. So in fact the comment itself is kind of racist on my part, since when I said I was obviously only talking about white French people who try to ignore race problems… but obviously the whole big point here is that lots and lots of French people are not white.

The ooga booga tea set

I was wandering one day early on during my stay in Paris, exploring the neighborhood. Walking down Rue de Charonne I noticed a big brick building that caught my eye because of its pretty smooth window frames and the art nouveau tiling around its façade. Engraved next to the door were the words “Palais de la Femme.” I made mental note to look it up later and then forgot about it. I didn’t remember it until later, because it is just across the street from La Belle Equipe which is a bar that got attacked by terrorists on November 13th.

Here are some beautiful things I spent the day looking at and drawing:

As it turns out the Palais de la Femme is a Salvation Army-run shelter and social-aid center for women in precarity. The Belle Equipe is a bar run entirely by women. I don’t know why these facts didn’t figure more in the news.


The Belle Equipe reopened today and I had thought about going, but I was tired and low on cash. There was another terrorist attack in Brussels today.

One reason I don’t update this blog very often is because I am very sick of the Internet.

Given how materialistic people are I think it is strange how the decorative arts sections of art museums seem to be the least frequented. The least busy part of the Louvre is always the art objects section, despite the fact that it’s in the gorgeous queen’s apartments. And today at the Musée d’Orsay the Second Empire decorative arts rooms were nearly empty, despite the fact that the line to get into the museum was an hour long.

People spend lots of money on buying beautiful things but afterwards we lose interest. Tea sets and vases. People get bored with that, in museums. It’s just not a painting, you know? I love the decorative arts. They’re my favorite.

Those are just some things I’ve been thinking about.IMG_2960


Winter Holidays


Hello friends!

My sister Abby and her fiancé Brendan visited me over the winter break and we a lot of fun. Since Brendan is a beer connoisseur we explored some fine beer places in Paris.

Here are some addresses I liked:

Paris Saint-Bière: a bottle shop on Rue de Charonne where Brendan found some bottles of Cantillon that I guess are hard to come by and expensive at home.

Brewberry: a bottle shop and a bar in Mouffetard quarter. I really liked that you could order glasses in 12oz, meaning you can taste many many beers. Which you’ll want to. It’s a good selection.

La Fine Mousse: Since this is a bar in my quarter I’d been there before with friends and enjoyed it. When I was there for the first time, I was early and my friends were late, which meant I sat at the counter for a period reading and sipping an IPA. Looking up I suddenly noticed I was literally the only female in the bar… the rest were stylish bearded hipster types. Sigh. It is a nice bar, though not very French (obviously, being that it’s a beer bar). Brendan ordered another Cantillon and the barman told us that they’re actually advised not to sell it to everyone (but to Americans, yes).

Les Trois 8: Another good bar in the 11th. They have like more than 100 bottles in their selection. It’s small though.

For Christmas Eve, we ate oysters and went to the ballet, which was AWESOME. We saw La Bayadère.
Also Abby sprained her ankle and looked very stylish in crutches:IMG_2109

On Boxing Day I got up early to watch the sunrise and sketch at Ile St Louis:

Now back to school!

Stay cheery, kids!