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
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.