Stephen looks back at an eventful week spent with teenagers from French inner cities in preparation for the COP 21, which took place in Paris last year.
Whilst unable to claim bragging rights for any success in the COP 21 negotiations, we at the British Council Paris at least played a part in getting the delegates to the right places. For a week in October 2015, some one hundred teenagers from priority schools in the suburbs of Paris received English language training to carry out their "meeter-and-greeter" roles for the conference delegates on their arrival in airports, train stations and other hubs in the region of Paris.
The teenagers, from the département Seine-Saint-Denis, formed six classes for a twenty-hour training course that was nothing if not practical. Our classes were transformed into airport terminals, train stations and taxi ranks complete with maps and information guides and we spent the week getting students to practise questions and answers, anticipate queries, indicate places and sites and give directions.
It was as much a discovery for us teachers as for the students and the image of these teenagers learning new words, attempting to articulate unfamiliar sounds, then gradually formulating sentences and carrying out role-plays has lingered long in the memory.
Their levels were, for the most part elementary, however by the end of the week almost all were able to deal with any imaginary situation we threw at them: ‘Where’s the taxi rank? How do I get to my hotel? What’s the quickest way to the centre of Paris?’
Interestingly, all of the students lived in the suburbs and few had ever visited Paris. Indeed, in many of the lessons we had to teach not only how to give directions, but also how to recognise famous Parisian landmarks themselves, such as Notre Dame or Trocadero. Many students also had to learn how to buy tickets, take the underground and change lines just to come to our training course and this learning proved crucial for them in explaining it to the delegates on site.
Our classes were transformed into airport terminals, train stations and taxi ranks complete with maps and information guides ..."
Overall, the teenagers taught us more than we them. We discovered young adults who, contrary to stereotypes, were keen to learn, modest, expressive and grateful for the opportunities they’d been given. We also rediscovered the importance of confidence and belief in oneself and of how these are the bedrock of learning. This was illustrated in seeing shy, not to say fearful, students arriving on Monday morning, expecting a teacher-led academic-based lesson, and then five days later seeing off students proud to formulate questions, offer advice, give directions and show off their end-of-course certificates. Moreover, the French media got interested in the training and two of the six classes welcomed a TV crew and local radio journalists. The students were interviewed and with great pride they watched themselves along with their families on national television the same week.
Best of all was post-training when some of us went to meet the students in the train stations where they were working. We heard them practise the skills they had learned with us and that is what made the whole event worthwhile.