October 2, 2013

The French school system (Part 2)

Le College (Middle School)

I think middle school anywhere can be boiled down to one essential problem: raging hormones and confusing pubescent teenagers crammed together and trying to learn how to deal with themselves and each other. Psychological torment, right there.

I went to college Mignet, smack in the middle of town, a great school that was formerly a nunnery and then a jail. Cezanne and Zola both went there (and were bros, so they say) and Pagnol was a teaching assistant there. It was incredibly old and not frequently repaired.

The year I got there, the mayor had decided that out gymnasium had to go, so that the city could have more parking spaces. I arrive at school the first day and there's a gaping hole with tall wooden fences surrounding it, and that was that. over the course of the next four years, this would constitute more and more problems. In 5eme, you couldn't hear any of the teachers in biology class because of all the construction noise right outside the window; I remember a class where we all wore ear plugs and the teacher just wrote on the board and waved at things with her hands. In 4eme, the diggers hit the foundations of the science building and that crashed down. In 3eme, they discovered that the automatic hookup for the drinking fountains in the temporary bathrooms had been tainted, and we had all been drinking basically poison for the past 4 years. Thankfully, no one was hurt through all of this.

But I digress: let's talk about how it works in France in general.

Schedules are arranged almost like in university. Hours are haphazardly piled on, so that sometimes you have an hour of nothing - which was called an hour of perm, an hour where you sit in a room and try to get homework done (most of the time, though, you don't have the right books because they're all at home) while somebody shouts at you the second you say a word. It's basically as if you're serving detention while having done nothing wrong: as a matter of fact, that's where students go to have detention. And you had perm two or three times a week, so that says a lot.
If you're lucky, you can get a slot in the CDI (the library), but our school had a very stingy librarian who barely ever let anyone in.
The hours usually go from 8 to 5 every day, with a half day on wednesday, but that would end at 2 instead of 12. This was prone to change if a teacher was absent or if you simply perm at the end of day, which meant you could leave early.

There are no lockers, yet you somehow have to have your books. Most schools aim to have in class copies of the books you have at home, to avoid you having to carry them every day, but most of the time they don't have money, so in you come every day with a 20 pound backpack on your back.

Every year, you are given something called a "carnet". It looks a little like an oversized passport. This is your whole year of school life. You carry your grades, your schedule, your "authorization to leave" card (if your day ends at three instead of five, you can leave school grounds this way), your absence tickets (fill them out and sign them once you've missed a day) and your tardy slips. Teachers could write notes to your parents, parents could write notes to teachers, you could schedule meetings, get detention...
In their eyes, the principal had more important things to deal with than students, so only if you were a real mess you would get sent to see him. Instead, there are people called CPEs, or student counselors (nothing to do with guidance counselors), one assigned to each year, which deal with disciplinary action and other student problems.
If you were a bad kid, teachers could write an "observation" in your carnet (forgot his stuff, was rude in class, didn't do homework), give you detention, or send you to the CPE for more drastic measures (exclusion from the school). Everything was recorded in that little paper book.

Now let's talk grades.
Everything is on a 20 scale. Again, no multiple choice questions, only long winded answers. Usually every question deserves at least a paragraph... even in math.
The scale is a little different between high school and middle school. In middle school, a 12 is a C, 14 a B, and 16 an A: high school it's more like 14 being an A, 12 a B, and 10 a C. In both cases, you never get a 20/20, even if you've got an excellent test. Why? Because there is no such thing as perfection. Life isn't fair. In the states, grades are used to boost confidence: in France, they must be pushed down, to force you to push yourself forward. That's why 16 is a very good grade: because you're always given less than you deserve, like in real life. Actually, it's not really about deserving, because it teaches you that in the real world, you don't really deserve anything. If you keep on expecting rewards for good deeds or good work, you'll never get anywhere. It's a painful life lesson.

You have a lot of classes. French, Physics/chemistry, SVT (biology and earth sciences), maths, sports, History, geography, English, "Second living language", "dead language" (optional), technology (computer science with a bit of business and marketing), Music, Art... But there are no clubs, except in a few random schools, and the sports clubs hardly ever meet, and never have any games. Not that anybody would really care.

You are placed into a class of about 30 people, who will share the same schedule and teachers as you (except in languages). That class is assigned to a teacher, your principal teacher as zhe is called, who is in charge of all your paperwork as well as their subject. Sometimes you will have homeroom instead of that subject so you can fill out papers and so on.
part of this is electing your class delegates. Each class elects two people who serve as the connection between them and the teachers. At the end of each 3 month term, the teachers will sit down with the delegates and the principal and do you "class council" (one per each class) to discuss if your grades are fair. You can tell your delegates, for example, that an issue at home has been messing with your ability to study, and n some cases your grades will be boosted. Each teacher will give you an appreciation ("good job", or maybe "tends to loose focus", just an observation on the term) which will go on your file. Then you're given your average for the term.
Again, it's very competitive. You want to be the best. Always competing with the people around you. Some schools are a little different in this regard, but ours had a lot of TCKs, and were's prone to fighting over academic excellence. No idea why.

Teachers are never substituted unless they are gone for a period over 2 weeks, so every morning we would rush to the absence board and see if we had some extra hours of freedom. Sometimes, they were the last teachers of the day so we could get out early - sometimes, they weren't, but through our delegates we could convince other teachers to teach us at different times so that we could have the afternoon off. It took a lot of finagling, but it always worked out in the end.

Primary schools are managed by the town, middle schools by the department and high schools by the region. So Money was spent in a confusing way.  Every year, we were given educational gifts: in 6th grade, a dictionary, in 7th, an atlas, in 8th, an HP computer. A very good one, too. But this made no sense, because in the school itself, It was always about managing without. For example, we never had enough sports equipment. Some of the colored shirts we had for team sports were so beat up we wore them tied around our waists like belts. Our changing rooms were rooms with no lockers, so often you would get your valuables stolen. I mean, you piled your clothes in a corner on top your school bag and hoped no one would touch them. That was it.
You always supplied your own materials for everything (though no biology class, except for that one time we were asked to bring in a bag of frog legs from our local grocery store), like in art, sports, music... My parents never believed me when I told them some of the things I needed for school, thinking I was just trying to get my hands on things they would never buy me otherwise.

As I said before, parents could never question the curriculum. I was reading dangerous liaisons in 8th grade as part of french class - nothing could be said against it.
And that was that.

At the end of 9th grade, you took the brevet, a test consisting of Math, French, History/geography, and in my case, English. It was a practically useless test which only served to give you a diplomas if you did not wish to continue your upper education. Because at this point, the choice was yours: if you were 16, you could leave school. You could go on to a "general" high school (like mine), a "professional" high school (technical, for learning a trade), or you could do a CAP, an apprenticeship (hairdresser, pastry chef) with a specific school part time.

So tomorrow, I will be talking about high school. Get ready for confusion, because it gets weird from here.

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