I can’t believe it’s almost been three months. Time has a very strange way of passing here. While having just arrived in Lyon and wandering the Parc de la tête d’or in an attempt not to fall asleep doesn’t exactly feel like it was just yesterday, it also doesn’t feel like I’ve been here almost a full three months (minus 3 days). It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s almost Christmas.
Three months has given time to notice several differences between French and American schools and students. Here are some differences you can expect as an assistant at the secondary level.
The 20 point scale: In the states, we use either letter grades (A+, A, A-, B+… F) or a 100 point scale. High grades are very strongly valued and not impossible to obtain. They are essential for entrance to a good college. On the 20 point scale, I’d say that a 14 is probably about the equivalent of a B+ or A-. A little startling when 14/20 equals technically 70%. I have never seen any student receive a 20. High averages aren’t as important for entrance to universities in France as they are in the United States. Most weight falls on the scores students receive on their bac, their exit exam for high school.
BTS programs: These are highly specialized programs lasting 2 years preparing students for specific jobs, such as banking, fashion, or being wine sommeliers. Students must complete internships in their field and after completion of the program may either start working or continue their education at a university. It’s somewhat like an associate’s degree, but a but more specialized and career-oriented.
Pens vs Pencils: The answer is pens. Writing with a pencil is rare and considered sloppy by some. Some pens here even have special fluid to erase without leaving the white marks that white-out does. One of my students had seem in American films and TV series that many students seemed to write with pencils and wanted to know if it was true. I think this preference for pens may be related to French paper. Lines. Everywhere. It’s hard to see pencil on it.
Tracking: In the states, this refers to the difficulty of the classes a student has been assigned to (AP, honors, academic, general…). After middle school in France, teachers recommend either a general or academic track for their students. Before their second year of three in high school, students much choose a track, or filière, which is subject oriented. The general tracks are scientific (S), literary (L), or social economic (ES). There are more choices for those in the professional track. Generally speaking, the literary and scientific tracks seem to be most prestigious.
Public feedback: Grades are not private. Teachers will announce them to the whole class. They’re not shy to critique students in front of their peers either. Criticism is given more freely.
Group work: This is more of an American thing. Group projects are rare in French schools.
Tests, quizzes, essays…: Assessments aren’t as frequent in France (especially at the university level). When they happen, they’re important. The idea of a quiz doesn’t exist as different assessments aren’t weighted differently.
Schedule: Students are always in the courtyard and in the street in front of the school. It doesn’t mean they’re skipping class. Classes are blocked and school is in session from 7:45AM until about 6PM. They don’t have every subject every day and sometimes even every other week. It’s much more like an American university schedule. Some high schools are in session Saturday mornings.
Extracurricular Activities: Or should I say, lack of. If you want to do a sport, you join an association in town. Music, you join the conservatory. The government proposed having schools end earlier and not giving students Wednesday afternoons off in order to have extracurricular activities. Teachers went on strike because this meant more work for them. This also means that cliques are different. You don’t really have your jocks and orch dorks in French schools. School spirit isn’t a thing.
Homework: Typically, much less concrete in France. You have to figure out what you should be doing and study or practice it on your own.
Discipline: Detentions don’t really exist in France. Probably because it would be considered as extra work for the teacher (and school ends late). And you know what, it’s kind of true that detentions punish both student and teacher. Verbal discipline is done publicly in the classroom.
Language: So much more valued in France. English is obligatory and often students must take two to three foreign languages.
Technology: Not so much. Smart Boards, Google Chromebooks, and other technology hasn’t seemed to catch on in France. Curious, as one of my French friends wrote their doctoral thesis on Smart Board usage in FLE instruction.
This list is in no way exhaustive and there are many more subtle differences.