Friday, November 20, 2009

Re-Post: In Loving Memory of Gérard Jian - Substitute Teaching

O, quelle tristesse!

It feels like a sucker punch, a physical blow. Just one minute ago, I cried out loud, I called out, I said, "No!" I had no such reaction to other much more personal losses -- a lovely great aunt, doting grandparents, incredibly kind stepfathers, a few dear friends and lovers, other former profs (dead far too young, and close, whereas this little man was over eighty years, and distant).

In addition to being strangely affective, this death is haunting, as I have dreamt and thought about Gérard Jian several times in the past few weeks, the result, I thought, of trying to remember some of life's finer moments -- which I had allowed to fuzz-up a bit.

[Please keep your finer moments unfuzzed-up. Sometimes, when you've nowhere else to go, taking out the pensieve can be life-affirming.]

I doubt he remembered me after I left Berkeley. He made his contribution to the requisite file of Letters of Reference, and had nice things to say. I sometimes wondered if he remembered me when I was standing right in front of him, until some smart-ass crack -- always in the target language! -- made it clear that yes, he knew who the hell I was, and I had better straighten up and fly right. Weird that he used odd, uptight Air Force expressions, this blustery little Frenchman, charged with the task of turning out profs who might not bring shame down upon the reputation of the various Universities of California. It would seem more likely that he was quoting Nat King Cole's original song, except that I knew his entire "méthode d'enseignement" was based on a French curriculum he'd developed for tiny military brats -- in kindergarten. This was a fact we tried to keep hidden from the intelligent, extraordinary, and oh-so-mature undergraduates.

Way back in 1972, he garnered the University's Distinguished Teacher Award -- no easy feat. That year the honorees also included Paul Alpers, required reading in order to fathom the Faerie Queene, and Howard A. Bern, de rigueur for a decent understanding of comparative endocrinology. My personal favorite is Gardner D. Stout, Jr. -- his mother, the privileged Clare Kellogg; his father, "president of the Board of Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History in New York from 1968 to 1974. Before that, he had been executive committee chairman of the Audubon Society," and is the exalted editor of the authoritative Shorebirds of North America. His son, the award-winner, went on to speak, hilariously, of Sterne, Swift, and Rabelais.

And then there was Gérard Jian.

His textbook, Découverte et Création, co-authored by Ralph Hester of Stanford, was our Bible. As mentioned, the incredibly effective method Jian developed was based upon theories of childhood learning and language acquisition. The mostly 18 to 24 year olds who peopled his Master Classes never seemed to "get" that he slaved to make the challenging task before them child's play. He forced them out of their comfort zone without discomfiting them -- by being hilarious, by tucking his meticulous pedagogy inside rapid fire give-and-take, by somehow being as disinhibiting a force as a shot of tequila. (What? You expected merlot? A COTE DE BROUILLY beaujolais?) His students, and subsequently my own, were not "allowed" to speak anything other than French. Or, at least, anything other than their bravest efforts at speaking French! I was no Jian; I came to allow, after the onset of burnout, brief conversations in English, so long as it was outside the classroom door. You'd be amazed at how quickly students relinquish their need for English when provided with a wealth of cognates, and a receptive, laughing prof well versed in the methodology of inductive presentations.

And all that wine.

I taught summer school one year -- the level of the course evades me, all I recall is that it was intensive, and that I had an unbelievably diverse class in terms of ages and backgrounds. It was the first, and last, time I ever "partied" with my students. Talk about something getting out of hand... And I did not even consider the ramifications of having a 14-year-old Genius Wild Child of a Faculty Member leading the way into an afternoon of inebriation under the beautiful California sky -- one of *those* days off the bay, blue, blue, and windy. Afterward, I worried myself silly and everytime I ran into Jian (was it happening more frequently? was he giving me dirty looks? did he know?) my tongue tied itself in knots. No one turned me in -- indeed, my cool factor attained new heights. Whew.

[Of course, Jian knew I had... predilections. After my very first semester, I left the International House, a wonderful place I had fought to get in, and moved in with one of my students. You may remember him -- the Great American Writer? No? I thought not. After wowing me, it turned out he was nothing but a handsome derivation.]

Like a thread running through that long, strange trip out west, Découverte et Création was always there. Eventually, whether I was in tiptop form, hungover, pregnant, tired, happy, stressed, what have you -- I could teach from that text without missing a beat. As far as textbooks go, it is quite good, though I am probably greatly influenced by having had the author as my own preceptor.

I just checked out and enjoyed another belly laugh -- this is the evaluation/rating given by one Cathy Sahu, back in April 2000 [Bless her bones! I confess, I almost did that "ROFLMAO" thing.]:

First of all, let me make clear that I'm writing about the "cinquieme" (5th) edition of this textbook. The earlier editions aren't, I think, too bad.
This is a shockingly miserable textbook. I've been jotting down its faults as they crop up while I study 1st semester French. Here are some of them, though definitely not all (and no, this isn't sour grapes -- I'm getting an "A"):

Firstly, all the grammatical explanations are in French, and thus, very difficult to understand for someone learning beginning French. I realize the theory of language immersion is currently in vogue, but this is a ridiculous application. Students of French need to learn common vocabulary, not words like "preposition" and "pronoun." Even if they are cognates, it's still hard to understand and a source of extreme frustration, even for me, though I've taken French before. Also, while the student is stumbling through these explanations, he's probably also mispronouncing them, and memorizing his own mispronunciations. Then, to avoid English, the editors resort to all sorts of extremes, like the silly picture on p. 119. And, at the end of it all, they still end up having to use English footnotes, anyway (p. 114, etc.)

Another problem is the choice of vocabulary. They use irregular words (like "oeil" and its plural, "yeux," introduced too early on p. 20) in examples of grammatical rules, making for more confusion than if they'd used simpler, more regular words. (Vocabulary words, in fact, are thrown in almost without context: there are some 100 vocab words listed at the end of each chapter, many of which have only been used once in the chapter, and not at all in any exercise. These lists have no accompanying English translations, so you have to flip, flip, flip to the back of the book, a big waste of time.)

The dictionary is not good. There is no English-to-French section, and in the French-to-English, some words are missing ("demon," for instance, used in an illustration on p. 49 but not in dictionary, and "choque" is not defined - does it mean shocked, or shocking?). And of course there's no pronunciation key, a problem common to many language texts nowadays but still bad news for the student of a language that has many irregular pronunciations. Also, there are problems like the fact that ce/cet/cette/ces are all listed together in the dictionary, so if you look up "ces" and don't remember it's the plural of "ce," you won't be able to find it.

Oh, my God, I cannot stop laughing. This has touched that special spot in my hard heart reserved solely for French students.

What is more amazing is that one of the people leaving a rating turns out to be a long lost friend. In the post-Great-American-Writer period, she actually set me up with a UC-B alum who had done graduate work in physics, and went on to a rewarding career as a... banker. He was so sweet to me, and very patient. Even did the dangerous things: the long rides up the coast, attending weddings, dinner with the 'rents. All during the time I was writing my thesis and preparing for exams, living up on Kentucky Avenue, lost in the Berkeley Hills.

I could see five counties from my window.
I spent a lot of time, rocking and rocking, in front of that window.

Anyway, I am very sure that Ms. Sahu was, as alleged, a stellar student and hope she came to, at least, tolerate that sorry text...

Jian gave me, of course, the most memorable advice about teaching -- but I cannot quite figure how to tell that story. It could be summed up as "there are no bad students, only bad teachers," but that would be to do violence to what he really meant. Forgive me, I am tired and wound up -- yes, I am playing my Sad Sack Tune of Excuses again. I need to get back in bed for a rest.

Hmm. This just popped into my head. Those of us monitoring his Master Classes all sat in the back of the room, obviously. Although we weren't supposed to, it was inevitable that we developed relationships with Jian's students who sat around us. One guy was simply an awful foreign language student (That's right. I don't believe "there are no bad students," nor do I think there are no stupid questions.). For some reason, and there MUST have been a reason, three or four of us degenerates in the back decided to help him through a test. There was much coughing into fists and notes flying back and forth, as well as an unprofessional spate of giggling.

And Jian didn't kill us on the spot. Good man.

I will always remember him gazing fondly out the window of the first floor Dwinelle Hall classroom, confusing his entire class with a soliloquy on the Tour de Coïtus, or asking the beautiful blond coed if she was sure that "il t'a baisé... pas seulement une fois, mais deux, et devant ton père, même!"

I repost this very small essay on teaching in loving memory of Gérard Jian, who taught me to teach, and to let most transgressions go. I wonder how he would manage in a class full of angry, depressed kids, to whom French is rightfully without importance, and who use textbooks as a weapon?


After teaching at the college level for 17 years, there came a period of time where I was unable to work. It took a few years to get myself back into circulation. Still not able to handle a full time teaching post, and having moved a state away from my university home, I discovered the wacky world of public school substitute teaching. I took whatever job was available, and so taught a host of different subjects at a host of different schools.

Substitute teaching paid roughly $100/day. I didn't have a teaching certificate or any official training except for a few methodology courses back in the early 80s, which largely consisted of sitting in as an observor in Gérard Jian's Master Classes, sucking down lattes. Needless worry, as it turns out, since the minimal credential is a high school diploma or GED -- so long as I was working as a day-to-day sub. For extended jobs, usually to fill in for someone on maternity leave or in the event of serious illness, certification was preferred. They ended up giving me provisional certification.

My 17 years experience of teaching 18 to 22 year olds, all of whom chose to take my class, did little beyond give me a phenomenal preparation in my subject matter -- behavior issues? I didn't even know what "Classroom Management" was!

No problems for me -- I would just dazzle the kids with my target language only style and the many fun and painless activities in my arsenal. (Are you snickering yet?)

I was just beginning to have problems with my mobility, but was still able to hoof it, and so I could rely on public transportation. When the automated call came the night before, I would bury my nose in the various bus and metro maps to figure the most expeditious routes so as to be at the school in time to have at least a few minutes to orient myself to the who-what-and-where of a new environment. (You know, like where was detention held, which Assistant Principal had my back, where were all the Diet Cokes, and the location of the nearest School Resource Officer, avec Taser.)

I usually had to leave the house at about 5:30 am in hopes of arriving at school around 8.

Kids love to play tricks on subs, I knew that from my own experience as a student -- but I was ill-prepared for the level of sophistication that has been achieved since my matriculation. For instance, in my day, *not* being in the classroom was sort of the goal -- meaning that I would skip out, and usually go to the park across the street from my high school, where I would play tennis all day. It was like hiding in plain sight. I would cut school, pick up a few sets, and hang out until it was time for tennis team practice after school. These days, though, instead of having few students in the sub's room, there were often more bodies present than names to match them to! Apparently, students float from one room with a sub to another, and so escape the attentions of whatever administrator is trying to catch their sorry asses. I remember once taking roll, and recording perfect attendance for my class of, say, 29 students. A short while later, I would look up to find insufficient seating, and a class of 35! The theory is the same as in my time -- hiding right under the nose of authority -- but the technique? Much more refined.

There were three experiences that profoundly impacted me during that time.

The first was a simple reality check. I was offered a week's job at the roughest high school in the system. Let's call this school Frontier High. The teacher left *no* instructions and no *work* of any kind for her classes. I believe it was a history class -- I remember scrounging around, trying to duplicate enough resources to make a reasonable go of it. The school itself was situated on a huge treeless campus, that was beautifully landscaped -- except for the missing tree thing. The interior also had that "new" look, minimalist concrete that was painted institution grey on the bottom section of wall, divided by a slash of yellow at waist height, topped by streaky sections of off-white. It took a few minutes to figure out what was so unnerving in the environment: There were no doors, except for the entrances to the Office, the Media Center, and the Gymnasium. Yes, even the bathrooms were robbed of their civilizing thresholds. Apparently, bad stuff was going on behind closed doors at this "urban" school, so in an effort to address the rotten behavior, they took down every door they could. As you may have guessed, *that* was really effective! *Snark*

The bell schedule is a little different from one school to another. The first day at Frontier High, I spent a good amount of time trying to understand the considerable ebb and flow that a certain short bell cycle seemed to cause. It was easy to see that the kids weren't pulling a fast one on me -- their coming and going was unselfconscious and orderly. I was, in fact, greatly impressed by the... placidity? Yes, the placidity of the student body. It was as if everyone were floating and not grounded midst all of that concrete.

Then I saw the cooing little aliens. Turns out that Frontier High was experimenting with more than stripping away doors -- the students there were all parents, and a huge section of the school had been dedicated as a nursery and child care facility. Three times a day, the student parent went to interact with their progeny, volunteer time to the nursery/day care, or take a parenting class.

It was weird. I think I would have been excited, enthralled, perhaps, *if* the academic part of the experiment were even being half-heartedly pursued. As it was, there were no academics going on. Classes were an opportunity to kibitz and to rest, because most of these young Ozzie and Harriets worked after school, and given the realities of their lives, were severely sleep-deprived.

I made an attempt during that week to actually "do" a chapter from their history text, and it was successful to the extent that they jumped through the hoops of worksheets and group presentations. They seemed to enjoy applying their minds to something outside of the grim set of circumstances they were in.

It was about a month later that I received a phone call about another substitute job that was available at Frontier High -- yet, it was not the usual automated call. The opening was on the same campus but was considered separate from the main school -- a place called "The Academy."

These were students who had been suspended so many times at their home schools that there was nothing left in the discipline arsenal except expulsion. The Academy was trying to be a new resource, a better answer. The building that housed these kids was made of cinder block, had *plenty* of doors -- but no windows. No windows anywhere.

The gift of hindsight tells me that the most needed windows were those that typically are placed in classroom doors!

I was given Social Studies classes. Because The Academy followed a block schedule, I only had two classes that first day -- two l-o-n-g classes. The first went off without too many difficulties. They were exceptionally sullen and I did my best to liven things up. We were covering a chapter on "ancient civilisations," certainly something that they found useful at that point in their oh-so-sucky teenage lives.

Students there were not allowed to have any textbooks for take-home use -- because enrollment fluctuated from day-to-day, as some managed to place successfully back into their home school, as others managed to place themselves into less optimal situations -- jail or permanent expulsion. So I passed out and then collected the massive book being used there for social studies. It was an occasion for eager students to help out, to stand out -- there were some very nice kids caught up in this terrible situation and I made sure to note names, so that brownie points might be awarded when their teacher returned.

The second class of the day came after lunch -- which was a *silent* lunch, as no talking was allowed. There was no going outside and the whole affair was done in about 10 minutes. It was eerie.

Cinder block holds heat really well. Any breeze that might have mitigated that was impossible to harness given that we had no windows!

It was hot. Very hot.

Several girls helped me distribute the textbooks again. I made the reading and work assignments, and did what all lazy subs do -- plopped myself in a chair and sat, with great aplomb...

I really spaced out. Suddenly I was aware of a rising murmur and saw that several of the larger boys were having a verbal go at one another.

Did I mention that each classroom door was shut, and locked with a bolt?

Before I could think to get to the door, unlock it, and call for help, my students went ballistic. Someone else, it turned out, decided that near the door was the right place to be, because the next thing that happened was darkness. Complete and utter darkness. I tried to feel my way to the door, and kept one hand on the blackboard as a guide. Using my best voice, I was demanding order and calm -- thereby telegraphing through the gloom exactly where I was.

That was when the textbooks went airborne.

The corners? They really hurt, especially when they land point forward.

I am not sure how many books hit me. I made it to the door and found the light switch. Fiat Lux.
My fingers managed to throw the bolt and jerk the door open.

Somehow it seemed impossible that the world just outside that room should know nothing of what had just happened. The first person to walk by me -- I stood there, mute, with who knows what sort of look on my face -- almost did not stop. I remember seeing a polite smile start to form on his face, then crumble, as he took in my abrasions and budding bruises. At that point, I think, he pulled out his walkie-talkie and issued a call for reinforcements. All hell was breaking loose behind me -- and all bets were off for the kids who were itching to fight, because now the weight of authority was bearing down, and they knew they were in serious trouble.

I turned and went back in, trying to become what I was supposed to be.

Four large men, administrators all, demanded, and received, order. They lined the class up, and everyone fairly goosestepped out of the classroom and into what can only be described as a pit area -- a kind of carpeted theatre in the round. I went back to sitting (it had worked so well for me before!).

When my knees stopped knocking, I began trying to clean up the enormous mess of books and shredded paper -- the bulletin board had been pretty well disassembled. I lost track of time.

My darling Fred had decided to surprise me by picking me up. He was parked outside at the curb, where I guess he figured I couldn't miss seeing him. He told me later that he was astounded to see an official police paddy wagon pull up in front of him. A uniformed officer came and asked him to please find a parking spot. When he saw students being lined up -- he figured that he *really* wanted to come find me!

I knew that I did NOT want to tell Fred, or anyone, really, what had happened in that classroom, and was considering what lie to tell when I managed to get home -- and oh, was I dreading the two and a half hours that was going to take. So it was quite the shock to suddenly hear Fred's voice in the hall -- one of the V-Ps was telling him how embarrassed and upset they were that I had had a rough time. Etcetera. I turned toward the bookcases in the back of the room, still panicking (over how my face looked, primarily).

He proved to be very calm, although I know *that* calm -- and it isn't really calm! It is *controlled*. We stood together in the back of the classroom, he hugged me, and then we went to work getting the place picked up, the desks back in rows.
A student came shyly in. To be honest, I did not even remember her as being part of that second class, but she was. She offered to help us clean and straighten, and then did just that. At some point in those next few minutes, my adrenaline deserted me, and I began to cry. I didn't want to be seen and so stood, once again, facing the bookshelves, with my back to the room.

Fred took my elbow and said, "Future Retired Educator? I think she has something she wants to say to you -- why don't you turn around?" Yes, I was beginning to wish that The Fredster had stayed home!

Bless her heart. She apologized on behalf of everyone in the whole wide world. She did not want me to think badly of them, of her. I wasn't able to respond but I hope she saw how much her efforts were appreciated.

This substitute assignment was a two-day affair. As we were leaving, the principal told me that I should take the next day off, and launched into yet another apology. It was going to be necessary for me to make statements to the police and to the appropriate administrators. I was too pooped to talk or do any reportage at that precise moment and was grateful to him.

And so he was very surprised when he saw me the next morning, something of a stiff-walking swollen purple eggplant -- but ready to teach. (Cue moving music)

A year or so later, I decided to go back to full time teaching. I was hired to work at a high school that had magnet programs in International Studies and Theater -- as well as offering the International Baccalaureate. It was the perfect match for someone like me.

As it happened, the last time I worked as a substitute, it was in the same school that ended up hiring me. You, Reader, are probably nodding, glad that I managed to finally find a school that was not only normal, but slightly exceptional, as well!


That would be the day when a male student pinned a (profoundly deaf) female student against the wall, lifting her in the air by her throat. That would also be the day when Future Retired Educator paused not at all, but fairly leapt upon the guy's back, visions of homicide dancing in her head. To her credit, the girl was doing a great job of kicking him in the balls. Between the two of us, he didn't have a chance. He ended up taking off, with administrators in hot pursuit.

Was it something about *me*? I was beginning to be a fixture down at Juvenile Court. The kicker about that incident was that the girl dropped the charges at the last minute, and the school decided not to pursue it, as well. And when I ended up with several French Two classes that Fall, who should be in one of them but both combatants. Best buds.

And if you are wondering what a profoundly deaf student was doing in a French class, you are not alone. I failed her three semesters in a row before someone finally pulled her out of foreign languages.

[originally posted 7/2009]

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