Teaching trials and tribulations

The morning hadn’t quite gone as planned. Having almost missed the bus from my study abroad center, I had rushed to the school’s office, where I was told, as usual, that I needed to hand over a “pièce d’identité” (translation: ID card) in exchange for my visitor’s badge, which I eventually produced, but only after a few awkward seconds where I managed to fish out everything in my jacket pocket EXCEPT my Université de Nantes ID card (house keys, bus pass, a receipt for the dinner at the crêperie the night before (galettes are still my favorite food), a bottle of hand-sanitizer (my secret weapon- always be prepared)…).

It was the second week of my teaching internship, and my first real chance to play English teacher. By some miracle, I ended up at the classroom on time, a little breathless and with my visitor’s badge slightly askew (lanyards and scarves do not mix well). Mme Morrhonnière, as I shall call her, greeted me with a “Hello”. We had agreed the week before that I would prepare a 15-minute activity, and that she would send small groups to rotate through so everyone could have a chance to participate. Mme Morrhonnière handed me a whiteboard marker and the keys to an empty classroom upstairs, sent 10 kids with me, and that was that. I was terrifyingly free!

I found myself standing in front of a classroom with 10 pairs of eyes trained upon me, armed only with my wits and a whiteboard marker.

I decided to do the only thing I knew how to do- just take the plunge and do it.

The collège/lycée (middle school/high school) where I intern

The topic was “What did you do for vacation?” which is pretty self-explanatory. I started by explaining my own February vacation, complete with a dazzling array of hastily drawn stick figures depicting me going from Nantes to Strasbourg to Lyon to Nice, which took up so much room that I decided to move to the middle whiteboard.

It was then that I heard a suspicious giggling behind me.

“What?” I asked, instantly questioning whether it was, in fact, acceptable to write on the middle whiteboard. “Is this ok?” I asked the class. The giggles subsided. I heard a “yeah” from somewhere, and though there was still a tiny nagging doubt in my mind (maybe I wasn’t supposed to use the center whiteboard?) I just kept going, and soon I was on a roll, writing vocab words and drawing more silly pictures to make sure they understood what in the world this crazy American college student was talking about.

Some travel photos from my vacation, so at least you will have an idea of what in the world I was talking about:

Part of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Truly breath-taking!

The view is nice from Nice

The Basilique in Lyon

Three groups later, and I was finally finished. It had been a whirlwind of an hour, the minutes whirring by faster than I thought they would. The most popular vacation activity? Sleeping, tied closely with watching T.V., which sounds about accurate for middle school. Playing video games was also a popular option.

The students left, with a mix of “Au revoir”s and “Goodbye”s, and I started to clean off the whiteboard, which went well…until I tried to erase the middle board.

The pen marks just wouldn’t erase. Frustrated, I tried wiping harder, and though it did take off some of the ink, the writing was still legible, along with my now ridiculous-looking sketches of stick-figure Megan travelling around France.

My mounting panic was interrupted by the clang of the door as the school janitor walked in. Though she most definitely saw my panicked expression, she didn’t say a word.

“Um, excuse me but this isn’t really erasing very well,” I said in a nervous jumble of French.

She gave me a long look. Then came the fatal words: “That’s because that board is the electronic board. It’s not for writing.”

Time stopped momentarily as I stared at the traitorous board in horror, imagining my stick figures and vocabulary words etched on the smart board for eternity. “I visited ______”, “I stayed home”, “mountains”, “skiing”….  I had officially joined the unfortunate legions of New-Teachers-Who-Made-The-Mistake-Of-Using-White-Board-Markers-To-Write-On-The-Smart-Board-Even-Though-Everyone-Else-Knows-That-Is-A-No-No. My face flushed, and I must have muttered some string of apologies, but I was saved by the arrival of Mme Morrhonnière, who walked in, took one look at my stricken face and the janitor’s accusing glare, and muttered “punaise!” (a French curse word that literally either means “bug” or “thumbtack”, depending on context)

Fortunately, with quick action and a lot of alcohol wipes, the smart board was saved, with only a slight tint of blue to suggest that anything had ever happened. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, eager to get back on the good side of this school.

“Well, at least now I know better for next time,” I said.

“Well, maybe next time we’ll put you in a different room,” Mme Morrhonnière suggested.

I grinned. “That would probably be a good idea.”

Luckily for me and for the middle school smart boards, I have become much more savvy about where I can write during classes. Though preparing lessons is a new challenge, my favorite part about teaching so far is interacting with the students. They never cease to surprise me. Last week, I taught a lesson about careers, and though we had the usual mix of surgeons, lawyers, chefs, race-car drivers, and CEOs, one student proudly told me that he wanted to be a dictator…if being a CEO didn’t work out, that is.



Coconuts and avocados

No, I’m not studying abroad on a tropical island where I drink fresh coconut milk and fulfill every Whitman student’s dream by eating copious amounts of avocado every day. Though if you know me well, you know that I detest coconuts and only eat moderately copious amounts of avocado…

But trust me, coconuts and avocados are still relevant to my study abroad in France.

Here’s why.

The avocado/coconut metaphor is often used to explain the differences between getting to know a French person vs getting to know an American.

Americans (avocados) are very easy to get know (soft outer layer). However,  developing a close friendship is more difficult (you run into the pit).

French people (coconuts) are more difficult to get to know, a tough shell to crack (haha). But if you persevere and get through the shell, it’s easier to develop a close friendship (soft inner layer).


This is a generalization, of course, but so far I’ve found it to be oddly accurate.

Part 1: The Hard Shell

Other than the language barrier, here are two things that have made it difficult for me to get to know the French:

  1. Eye contact. In the U.S., catching someone’s eye is usually the first step to starting a conversation with a stranger. However, making eye contact with strangers is very very weird in France, and people will take great eye-shifting lengths to avoid having it happen at all. Even worse, randomly making eye contact with a stranger of the opposite sex could suggest that you’re romantically interested in them!
  2. Smiling. I love smiling, but French people just don’t smile at strangers. One French friend told me that if you smile to yourself on the street in Paris, people will assume you’re 1. Canadian or 2. Crazy. Turns out this is also true in Nantes. People usually have a neutral expression when in public (on the bus, in the classroom) which Americans would usually interpret as “leave me alone”.

Both of these things have made it difficult for me to break the ice. However, I love a good challenge, so I decided to take it, and try to make some French friends.

Part 2: Breaking the Shell

First, I decided to go to the conversation club, a weekly club put on by my study abroad program where American IES students and French students from the Université de Nantes are invited to come and get to know each other. Half the meeting is in French, and the other half in English. I met some wonderful French students this way, but I still wanted to try to find a club within the university as well.

At Whitman, I’m involved with a club called Whitman Christian Fellowship, so I thought it would be fun to try to find a similar group at the Université de Nantes. After some intense Internet-sleuthing, I found a group called GBU (groupes bibliques universitaires). I emailed the lady in charge, and found out that they meet every Tuesday at a university residence hall, so Molly (a fellow IES student) and I decided we would try it out.

Even though the meeting was supposed to start at 7:30, most people didn’t really start showing up until about 7:45…and then it was a whirlwind of welcoming activity.

In the U.S., we usually greet people by saying our names and maybe a handshake. In France, you almost always “faire la bise”, where you kiss the person on both cheeks. As far as the number of “bises” and whether it’s left or right…it all depends (here is a map that shows the regional differences!).

Let me just clarify that before this night, I had done “la bise” a grand total of 2 times. Once when Lily (Whitman’s wonderful French language assistant) decided I needed practice, and then once when I met my host mom for the first time. Both times were awkward, so as you can imagine I was a little bit overwhelmed when suddenly I had to “faire la bise” with what seemed like 50 French university students!

By the end, I was a pro, and though glasses did make the whole process a little more challenging, I’m proud to say that I successfully did “la bise” without harming anyone.

As Americans, Molly and I were given a warm welcome. Though the meeting was long (turns out the French love of debate also applies to Bible study, which was highly amusing!), I enjoyed it, and was surprised to find out that many of the members came from all over the world- Egypt, Madagascar, The Ivory Coast, just to name a few! I had no idea that Nantes was such an international city, and it was nice to know that Molly and I weren’t the only ones experiencing a different culture from our own.

After going to two GBU meetings, I decided to try the Protestant church in Nantes, and it turns out that many of the French students I’d met at the GBU meeting are also part of the same church!

After church, some GBU members and I went out to lunch together at an Indian restaurant, which was a complex collage of cultures (I’m an American in France, reading a menu in French about Indian food…), and by the end I’d even been invited to a birthday party later that week. Sitting there, surrounded by a pitcher of rose lassi and steaming bowls of rice, tikka masala, and a plate of naan, I felt a happy glow rise up inside of me. Take that, proverbial coconut!


What’s my life like in Nantes? Here’s the rundown.

I looked up “rundown” before I posted this, and I found two definitions:

1: a play in baseball in which a base runner who is caught off base is chased by two or more opposing players who throw the ball from one to another in an attempt to tag the runner out
2: an item-by-item report or review : summary (Merriam-Webster)

Just to clarify, this rundown will have absolutely nothing to do with baseball.

My apologies to the sports fans.

So here’s the scoop.

My program: IES Abroad Nantes. There are 40(ish) people in my program this semester, from all over the U.S., and from different universities. I take some of my classes at the IES Abroad center, and others at the Université de Nantes (“à la fac” if you want to be cool).

Entrance to the IES Abroad Center (image from Google Maps)

Courses I’m taking at IES:

French 451 – a general French class where we learn French expressions and eat madeleines (seriously though- the professor brought some in last week!).

France and the European Union- just what it sounds like! Last week we learned that there’s no procedure to expel a country from the EU (though they can be sanctioned).

Teaching Internship- Through IES, I’m interning at a local middle school, where I work 4 hours a week as an English teaching assistant. During the teaching class at IES, we learn more about the French education system as well as about effective teaching strategies.

Courses I’m taking at the university:

Introduction to modern art (lecture class + discussion class)- this class has been my favorite by far! Really interesting, the professor is very passionate about the subject, and I’m learning more about the Sistine Chapel (la Chapelle Sixtine) and Michelangelo (Michel-Ange) than I’ve ever learned before. Currently scheming about hopping over to Rome for a weekend to see it all for myself (apparently there’s a Nantes-Rome flight!).

French culture and civilisation- OK, originally I thought this class was for foreign students, but now I think it’s more like a French-as-a-second-language class? Still slightly confused, all I know is that I am the only international student in the class! Though we do learn about French culture and civilisation, the professor likes to add his own opinions in as well, which makes for a very interesting lecture for this American. On Thursday he used Trump’s election as an example of what happens when the general public is not well-informed… which, as you can imagine, put me, as the only American in the class, squarely in the hot seat! But I’ll save the rest for another blog post.

Université de Nantes, by the student union (image from Ouest-France)

Université de Nantes, at my favorite dining hall (image from Ouest-France)

How I get around Nantes:

The bus! And the tram, to get to the university. I absolutely love how easy the public transportation is in Nantes. Even though I miss the bus on a pretty regular basis (not a new problem- I was always running to the bus in middle school and high school!), I really enjoy the bus and the tram. Each time, I get an inside look at Nantes, and an opportunity to listen to and observe the people around me: A woman with a baguette sticking out of her handbag, a girl with a small pink backpack, a big grey scarf around her neck, two elderly gentlemen talking enthusiastically about the weather….and me, the American who’s still trying to figure out how to put her scarf on without the tag showing!

My secret to bus stress: reading! Just have to make sure I look up every once in a while so I don’t miss my stop…

Where I’m living: In a homestay! I truly think this has been one of the best parts of my experience so far. My family has five (5!) kids, ages 12, 9, 7, plus twin 5-year-old girls! Back home, I’m the oldest of three kids as well as plenty of younger cousins, so I’ve been loving hanging out with my new siblings. To be honest, it can be hard to communicate sometimes (“Comment?” or “Come again?” has been one of my frequently used phrases), and I think I’m still finding my stride in terms of becoming part of a different family, with a different culture and a different family dynamic. At the same time,  I couldn’t imagine my experience in Nantes without it. The support from my host family, whether it’s a quick “Bonne journée!” as I dash out the door, or a cake and lunch for my birthday, is invaluable. My favorite moments are the little moments where it really feels like home, whether we’re all sitting around the table talking about our days, or reading books by the fireplace in the living room. It’s during these moments that I no longer feel like the American exchange student staying for a semester, but rather like a family member.

Morning view from chez moi