Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Growing up, I read the entire series of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books approximately eleventy billion times. I'm talking major love, here.
Drawn from her real-life adventures, Wilder's mostly gentle descriptions of her 19th century farm life made me dream of being a pioneer girl (minus the diptheria and crop failures, of course).

Her books did not, however, make me dream of going to or being a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Her mother taught in one before getting married and Wilder herself went to a few different schools as her family moved around the country. At age 15 she earned a teaching certificate and taught for a few years. So Wilder knew the topic quite well...and what she had to say was not good. (I won't go into detail. Read the books, if you haven't yet.)

But when we put our twin daughters into the local school here in our little corner of France, I went in with an open mind. Optimistic, even. One room, one teacher, three grades and 17 wouldn't be so bad. It might even be good? It's not the 19the century any more. It's not even the 20th century, right?

I ended up spending a lot of time helping at the school. About once a week, I ran the tiny village library so that the students could check out books there. I was always available to accompany the class on outings ( ski week, folk dancing, cross-country racing, etc..) And finally, I ended up teaching English there twice a week for about five months.

This gave me a chance to see how a small school in a tiny French village actually works. And this is an interesting question. The village school is a point of pride to many small communities in this country. Few villages, no matter how minuscule, seem to want to have their children put in vans and driven off to a bigger school, no matter how nearby and well-equipped that school may be. They all want their own school- and that means the old one-room schoolhouse format is still a going concern in France. That's not to say they do it very well, but these schools are still very common. And there is a huge uproar when local councils try to close them down due to lowered enrollments and/or lack of funds. (Here's a recent piece from Le Monde where a teacher reports about the horrible state of a village school in France. I'm not the only one saying this stuff.)

There was sure an uproar around here last spring when the council announced that the La Corbiere school would need to be closed down. That's the school near our house- the one that housed a single class of first and second graders (CP + CE1). The one that I helped out at was the main school in the mayor's office- a single room for the 17 third, fourth and fifth graders (CE2, CM1 + CM2). The threat of the closure of the Corbiere school had the locals all up in arms. There were meetings and protests and all kinds of fuss.

Me? I just stayed out of it. I had no desire to start an argument and become a pariah in this small village of just over 500 people. I have enough trouble fitting in, thanks very much. Despite all my friendly ways and volunteer work at the school, I figured that my village cred could all be undone in an instant if I voiced my true opinion of the beloved one-room village school.
But I'm feeling a tiny bit brave today (and somewhat annoyed- you'll see why a bit further down) so I'm going to share my concerns with you, my faithful blog-friends.
Here's the deal: I lived for nine years in West Africa.
I visited many schools, I went to elementary schools to give presentations and I even taught sunday school for many of those years. Burkinabé schools typically have more than 80 students in one small, hot, dark classroom. Over 100 is not uncommon. But when an adult walks into the classroom, be it the teacher or a guest, you can hear a pin drop. A small pin covered in bubble wrap. Seriously. The kids are quiet and they listen when an adult speaks.
French kids in France?
Not so much.
And I suspect that French kids are no worse than the US ones, Canadians, or kids anywhere else in the developed world. In general, they don't have any kind of automatic respect for the authority of adults- even teachers. Most of them know that if there is any conflict or problem in the classroom, their parents will support them against the teacher. Also, they expect to be entertained all the time, even in a classroom environment. The days where the teacher could expect the students to sit for an hour and work on memorising the major exports of every nation in South America are long over.

A one-room school can work well if the children are polite, respectful, obedient and hard-working. (These kids do still exist, as I mentioned previously, mostly in Africa, as far as I can tell.)
If , however, the students are accustomed to interrupting others, doings as they please and can't concentrate for more than five minutes at a time, the formula is not a successful one. The classrooms are noisy, nobody can work effectively and the overwhelmed teacher ends up spending far to much time on discipline.

I was lucky to be teaching English- the students found it interesting and saw the point of learning it. And I was able to find and/or invent lots of games and creative ways of teaching. We'd sing and dance, I'd bring in props, we'd go outdoors, I'd bring in guests, etc.

But the regular teacher, struggling to teach all the usual subjects to all the different levels of student? Good luck making that constantly fun and fascinating. A lot of learning is just work, and that's all there is to it.

All this in mind, I didn't see the closing of the Corbiere school as a bad thing. On the contrary, I thought that putting the students in the bigger school in a larger town about 4km away would be a good thing. They'd be in dedicated, single-grade classrooms, have access to a gym, more computers, better equipment...and probably a less stressed teacher.

But this was NOT a thing to say to someone in our own little school-proud village. So I kept my mouth shut and ignored the fuss. My kids were leaving the village system anyway, getting ready to go to the junior high (collège) in town.

So, it was only this month that I found out that the Corbiere students were NOT sent to the well-equipped school over in Boege.
Oh no- that would make too much sense.
What happened was the children were all sent to the tiny village classroom where I taught last year- a space that had already seemed crowded with 17 students. This year it holds 26. They range from 1st grade to 4th grade (CP to CM1) and there's one miserable teacher trying to deal with them all. How that poor woman is helping the little ones to get on in a real school (as opposed to maternelle/kindergarten) and teaching them how to read at the same time as teaching all the older ones, I really don't know.

On Saturday afternoon, I saw one of my English students from last year. She's in CM1 this year. "How's school going?" I asked her.
"The teacher yells a lot", she answered. "More than last year."
I'm not saying that's a good way to deal with an unruly classroom, but I can only feel completely sorry for the unfortunate teacher and students forced into this situation...


Teacher Mommy said...

Oh lordy. I cannot even imagine trying to do that.

I totally agree with your assessment of students (and parents) today. It's a generalization, of course, but it is a problem. I don't like much about the West African educational systems, but I do appreciate the respect for authority that the culture fosters. I can only wish my students would automatically be that way, rather than having to turn all "BOSS" on them.

Beth said...

Glad to have a teacher back me up here. Thanks, TM.

La Framéricaine said...

All I can say is, "You probably chose well not to add your voice to any chorus." Gawd help those 26 children and their poor harried teacher.

oreneta said...

As one involved in the Montessori system, I am well used to multi-age classes, they are all three year groups....BUT....the curriculum is designed specifically for that and it is NOTHING like a regular program in a standard school with books et al.

I cannot speak for France, but I find the Catalan kids less respectful than the Canadian kids I have dealt with. Pocavergonyes. They have NO sense of embarrassment when they behave badly. NONE.


Heidi said...

That's absolutely insane...perhaps it worked in the 19th century, when more kids DID behave well for the most part around authority figures (even Wilder's stories seem to illustrate that) but I can't imagine it working in today's world in any reasonable way, especially when there's so much more that they need to learn besides reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, so to speak.

Beth said...

So true! This teacher is supposed to teach English (even though she's never been trained to), computer (idem- plus she only has ONE elderly computer for 26 kids!!)and teaching all kinds of other stuff, all with no specail curriculum aimed at dealing with a multi-grade class. She's just miraculously supposed to deal with this.
When I have cautiously commented that maybe the teacher has a lot on her plate to deal with, the typical village parent response has been "She just has to organize herself."