It must have seemed a wonderful idea back in January: two weeks in July in central France,
all expenses paid; a
tailor-made course promising loads of new ideas for delivering French in the Scottish primary classroom. What Highland primary teacher wouldn't have jumped at the chance? Pass me the phrase book. Reserve that cafe table now.
Two days after the end of term, 20 primary teachers from all over the Highlands - Fort William, Thurso, even the isle of Canna - began the long journey to Vichy. "Exhausted after the end of the school session, the last thing I wanted to do was a two-week intensive language course," wrote one. "Will I cope? Will I understand?" Few of the group of 19 women and one man had met before, and many were unsure what they were letting themselves in for. Most were worried about their proficiency in spoken French, since their only recent French language experience was the 27-day Modern Languages in Primary Schools (MLPS) course designed to equip them to teach basic, mainly oral, French to upper primary pupils.
"On paper we thought we had selected 20 people with similar abilities in French," says Seonaid Grant, the MLPS tutor who accompanied the group. "But we discovered that somebody who did Higher French 20 years ago might be far less confident than somebody with a Standard grade taken three or four years ago in a much more oral culture. The people who were outgoing, mixed with students from other countries and took part in the cultural events got a lot more out of the course."
The first shock for the Highland group was to find that some of their classes were shared with students from other countries, which meant having to communicate in French. One teacher recorded her reaction: "Week 1 classes; grouping with multicultural students; realise a) my French is non-existent and b) the Scots are rather reluctant to volunteer for activities. Are we culturally retarded?"
Seonaid Grant admits that the multicultural group was quite daunting for some of the less experienced teachers - "but by the end of Week One, they were
coming round to it and could see the advantage of the mixed group. Initially none of the Scots would stand up and demonstrate; after a week they decided to give the rest of the class the shock of their lives and all
volunteered at once."
This was a methodology course, not a language course; designed to make better teachers rather than better linguists. Cavilam, the language school in Vichy, made huge efforts to present them with songs, rhymes, games and vocabulary to match their teaching needs, and all the Highland teachers came away with dossiers full of materials and ideas. "I have picked up so many new resources I am wondering if they will allow me back on the plane," said one.
"It was very worthwhile, very concrete and relevant," says Seonaid Grant. But with hindsight, she feels a language element would have made things easier as it would have given the beginners a solid grounding as well as boosting their self-confidence and letting them participate more fully in the multi-national classes. There was also a suggestion from Cavilam that before doing the course in future, teachers should enrol for an evening class in basic grammar back home.
"Our French has improved enough to send back eight croque monsieurs which were presented to us without being defrosted!" said one teacher at the end of the first week.
Others still struggled with vocabulary. "The light was broken in the lift occupied by one (stylish female) member of our group. When a large Frenchman entered the lift, her opening gambit was, 'Il n'y a pas un lit dans l'ascenseur' (There is no bed in the lift). I think speechless describes his reaction."
By the end of the second week, some were finding the heat and long hours in the classroom were taking their toll, but most were finding a growing confidence in speaking French. "So good to immerse yourself in the country as well as the language. Feel as if we've just started to be confident in our own abilities and it's all over. Would like a two-week course in Vichy every summer," wrote one.
Other comments included: "Have had a fabulous time. Improved my French. Learned lots about everyday life in France. You can read about things till you're blue in the face, but nothing compares with actually doing them."
"Honoured to have been
given the chance. Highly motivated to continue and develop my own personal French. More confident in my understanding and spoken French. Absolutely adore France and completely exhausted."
"I don't think my spoken language has progressed any, but I have a greater understanding of the culture, people and lifestyle of France. I'm tired, my case is laden with chocolate, wine, goodies from the supermarket, and I'm ready to go home."
Highland Council's course was organised through Caledonia Languages Abroad, The Clockhouse, Bonnington Mill, 72 Newhaven Road, Edinburgh EH6 5QG 0131-621 77212. EU funding was arranged by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, tel: 0131-447 8024