Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Discussing The Class

François does not seem to follow an ordinary curriculum.  He teaches French to an ethnically diverse class with several uncooperative students in an inner city middle school in Paris.  The lessons shown in the movie are not lectures but are instead a group conversation where students are encouraged to talk about elements of their personal life that most teachers would not find relevant to school.  

Rather than provide students with formal vocabulary lists François pulls words right out of conversations he has with them, goes over the definitions and then encourages students to use them when appropriate.  In these scenes class appears chaotic, but there is definitely learning going on.  François is introducing words as students are using them.  Because the new words come up in conversation students see how the word is used in context and have already provided the definition of the word themselves by expressing its meaning when they were speaking; the teacher is simply filling in a word that explains what they are talking about.  He then follows up on the words he has been teaching them in later conversations (asking the class to give him a word to use that is appropriate for the situation at hand).

His unconventional method has its drawbacks.  François skirts dangerously close to being seen as a friend to the students and not a teacher.  While the other teachers cultivate a culture of teacher dominance (like forcing students to stand when an adult enters the room) François participates in the classroom culture almost as a big brother.  Students may fight the role other teachers expect them to fulfill, but at least they know what that role is.  François's expectations are not clear.  In an early scene students are chatting with him in his class without having to raise their hands, and asking François about his sexuality.  At one point a student's pen leaks on his hand.  One student stands up to offer him a handkerchief to wipe it off but Francois makes him return to his desk and ask for permission to stand up.  His expectations are especially confusing in a scene when Francois is asking his student Khoumba why they were not on as friendly terms as they were the year before and immediately after the conversation makes her hand him a book in a way that he considers respectful.  From watching the movie I could not figure out what would be expected of me if I were a student in his class.

The teachers at the school with a more traditional vision of classroom culture complain about students behavior much more than François.  They are quicker to apply severe discipline to students who are not interested in participating in the culture that venerates the teacher, and likely encounter these sorts of clashes more often than François due to their strictness.  In these situations students are not just standing up to these adults, they are standing up for their own culture.  The humanities teachers seem to focus on a nationalistic curriculum, exposing them to literature from the French enlightenment tradition.  The teachers' long-term goals for the students reflects a desire to make them into good French citizens.  This poses a challenge for educating students whose roots are not in France but Africa, the Caribbean and China.  Alternately François allows the students to express themselves, tries to teach vocabulary that is relevant to their conversations and focuses less on discipline and more on understanding them.  While this does help cut across cultural barriers it inhibits his ability to control the class.


  1. I enjoy your interpretation and understanding of “The Class”, but I feel that you made François out to be a teacher that only lacks clarity, consistency, and authority. However, I believe François also lacks the knowledge of constructive and respectful teaching methods. It is one thing for a teacher to be “too much like the students”, but it is a whole other issue when the teacher only points out the negatives of students, rarely reinforcing true attempts, and demeaning them by comparing them to others and even blurting out “come backs” and profanity.

    I am not sure if I got such a clear sense of François trying to cut across cultural barriers as you did, as I felt he was very ignorant to the student’s “worlds”. This I observed when he taunted students after they complied with his requests. Such an instance is when a student admitted he was ashamed for not eating with his friend’s mom. The student only uttered this after forceful prompts by the teacher. Now that the information was given, François made fun of the student for not eating with his friend’s mom, and even took it a step further. The student said he didn’t eat with her because he respects her. François pointed out that the student eats amongst his classmates and in front of him, thus François claimed the student did not respect any of them.

    Scenes like this aggravated me. I do not see what type of learning took place in this scene as it only seemed like bickering between an ill-informed, ignorant teacher, and a well-meaning student.

  2. François's teaching method definitely had its flaws. You cannot commend him for efficiency. A lot of class time was spent chatting and he let himself get sucked in to the students' world of hurling insults at each other. Teachers should not insult students in class and help them tease other students, nor should they give students fuel to insult each other. I thought I would point out the positives of his system though to explain what type of subject learning was going on. I think that his method was far more effective for teaching vocabulary than making students read books they had no interest in or giving them a vocabulary list.

    The students are always looking for ways to put each other down in the movie. François's insulting behavior (part of his personality if you watch the things he says to his fellow teachers) was an area where he was part of the student culture. While it was unprofessional to say the things to students that he did, the students did not have to learn the teacher/student culture that the rest of the teachers were attempting to cultivate when dealing with him. Like the students did with each other, he led with charisma by putting them down in front of others.

  3. This seems like an interesting debate. I think I'll chime in :)

    I agree with what Matt is saying. I picked up on the same things about François's teaching style. I'd agree that there was definitely learning happening in the class, albeit not learning in a formal style. I don't know if Morgan's interpretation of Matt's blog is correct - that Matt "made François out to be a teacher that only lacks clarity, consistency, and authority" - but that's not what I got from Matt's blog, and even if it were true (is that what you were saying Matt?), I wouldn't disagree with it.

    I DID think Françios's biggest problem was that he lacked consistency and was unclear in his role as teacher or friend (funny because sometimes I really liked this about him). I did NOT think he lacked "knowledge of constructive and respectful teaching methods." He definitely wasn't by the book, and often took an informal approach, but I would argue that his style was closer to accessing his students' worlds than other methods. As in, maybe cursing, getting in on the jokes, and sometimes putting them down was more of their culture than not. (I know I'm going to take some blows for that last statement, and that's fine, but let me make something clear - I am not saying that's what teacher's should do when dealt a rough hand. I'm saying that maybe in some twisted way the students respected him for it??). Further, at what point are you allowed to stand up for yourself or begin to banter with your students? In some instances it felt like those kids would test and test, push and push, and when he said something viewed "inappropriate" or "nonconstructive" they immediately responded with "sometimes you take things too far." I would agree that sometimes, yes he does I, but I think kids are smart and also know how to use the slightest misstep to their advantage. . . I'm pretty sure I did that with my parents during my adolescence.

    I think a lot of the disagreement is just a matter of interpretation. We all saw different things in Françios's teaching and that's fine. I don't at all think the guys perfect, let alone would I say "this is what good teaching looks like", but I also wouldn't say "here's what bad teaching looks like." I just think we have to be a little real with the situation. This was a tough bunch of kids and admittedly, watching parts of it made me intimidated about the task ahead. It's hard ya know? This stuff happens. It not always like Michelle Pfieffer in "Dangerous Minds" or Jaime Escalante in "Stand and Deliver." That stuff is really idealistic. That's probably why I liked the movie - it was a little more real. For instance, when the teacher comes screaming into the teacher's lounge, I don't think that makes him a bad person - just a frustrated man who needed to vent. Similarly, I don't think it's unfair for kids to be upset with Françios when he probed too much. That culture thing has two sides. There's at least two cultures involved when conflict arises.

  4. Lack of consistency was my biggest complaint about Francois, but I am sure there are others to be made. I could see the upside to conversational teaching and I liked the fact that he tried to relate to the students. That was the focus of my post, the positive side to what he did. He seemed to have mixed results with his teaching methods that we can scrutinize in detail for a longer work than a blog post and complain about his immaturity and lack of professionalism.