Monday, 25 March 2013

Coxing in French (Part Two)

Regular readers of this blog (all two of you) will remember that, way back in October, I wrote a post about coxing in French. This post will be an update to that, so if a lot of technical talk about rowing isn't your thing, do feel free to come back for my next post. I won't mind.

Over the months, I've been doing a variety of things around Régates rémoises, the local rowing club. I've coxed everyone from 10-year-olds to seniors; subbed in to row with 14-year-old girls; rowed in an Empacher with some university students on an exceptionally cold Wednesday evening. However, one thing that I've been doing a surprising amount of recently is coaching, particularly off-the-water coaching. The club is very well-equipped with ergs (les ergos) for training off the water, and if a particular age group isn't going out sur l'eau that day, I'm occasionally asked to coach them on the ergs for a bit. This has been a very rewarding experience, particularly since I've got a lot better at explaining things to do with rowing (in English as well as French - it seems as if expressing yourself in another language helps you with your mother tongue too!). What's that? You want an example? Good - 'cause here one comes.

On the day in question, I was coaching les benjamins. These are ten-to-eleven-year-olds, who have been rowing at most for one year, so generally they don't spend too much time on the ergs. When they do, though, it's important to get it right. Many of the mistakes made by these novices are the same ones made by novices in the UK of all ages (including myself, on the rare occasions when I have an oar in my hand), so the French coach and I were both looking out for them. The classic error made by novices is rushing the slide. Essentially, the rowing stroke is made up of two phases: the drive phase (phase d'appui) and the recovery (phase de retour). The drive phase is when the oar is in the water; the recovery, as the name suggests, is the time when you're coming back up the slide on your seat, getting ready to take another stroke. Lots of novices don't put very much power down in the water, and try to compensate by rushing up the slide; this is dangerous as (a) you tire yourself out by pulling yourself up the slide, and (b) as you come up the slide, you're moving against the forward motion of the boat and by charging up the slide run the risk of slowing the boat down drastically. For this reason, coaches encourage rowers to spend about twice to three times as long on the recovery as the drive phase, so that you can put more force in the water while allowing the boat to glide under you.

The difficulty, however, was getting the benjamins to take this on board. There's an old saying in rowing that 'ergs don't float', which means that you can get away with stuff on an erg that you can't get away with on the water; hence someone who pulls amazing times on the erg might not make a boat move particularly fast. (For an example of this, watch this video.) As a result, I was concerned that it might be tricky to make changes to technique on the erg, rather than in the water. This turned out to be the case, but we still managed to make some progress.

The mysterious-looking thing to the left of this sentence is the monitor on an erg. It shows you several things: for our purposes, we're looking at the number of strokes taken per minute (top right) and the projected time it would take you to row 500m at your current pace (middle). The person who's recorded on this machine has just done what I tried to teach the benjamins: you can go at the same speed, far more efficiently, by pressing harder on the drive phases and relaxing the recoveries. Plus, you don't get tired nearly as quickly. (As a bonus point: for the curious, my score for the same test is fairly similar ...)

And with that in mind, the challenge was on. Each rower was given a cadence (stroke rate) and split time to aim for, and things started to change. I'm looking forward to working with them more on this in the coming weeks, since it seems like we may have stumbled upon a way to put my constant calls of ralentissez la coulisse ! into action.

While we're on the subject of putting-oars-in-the-water-and-moving-on-a-sliding-seat, I'd also like to take a minute to mention the heroic efforts of all the Cambridge crews at the Henley Boat Races yesterday. The results may not have gone the way we'd hoped, but from what I've heard everyone involved has a right to be proud all the same. Plus, the Clare College representation in the squad was phenomenal. Andrew, Ania, Claire, Esther, Jess, Moos, Rachel, Steen: absolutely inspiring.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Where does students' English come from?

As my teaching placement has progressed, I've found that I've been getting better at estimating the level of students. Naturally, I'm still not perfect at this, and the dreaded words 'I don't know' still rear their ugly heads more often than I would like, but when I look at a class there are definitely fewer blank faces staring back at me than there were back in October. This development, this building on what my students do know as opposed to focusing on what they don't know, got me thinking about another question in English language learning: where does my students' English knowledge come from?

The most obvious source of English knowledge is perhaps the most closely associated with a school environment: their teachers. Although I'm treated as a teacher by the school's administration (and hence get the benefits of the staff coffee machine and a shorter queue in the canteen), the day-to-day work that I do differs quite substantially from what a fully-paid-up, agrégation-qualified teacher does. In many ways, I've got it easy: while teachers have to work through areas that many students find quite dull, such as grammar, we language assistants are employed to enrich students culturally and to get them speaking. As a result, we don't have to worry too much about grammar, whereas teachers are constantly having to strike a balance between intriguing students and teaching what has to be taught. Generally, though, they're very good at this, meaning that some classes in particular are (a) very motivated and (b) in possession of an impressive grammatical knowledge. So if, in a lesson, I ask them about the phrase 'I would have wanted' and they identify it as a conditional perfect, the teachers are the ones I should thank.

But in this increasingly-interconnected world, there are plenty of other sources of linguistic and cultural knowledge. It's hard not to notice the presence of the English language in France, whether it's in shops (Monoprix's 'We love babies' ad campaigns springs to mind) or on billboards (see my friend Dominic's commentary on this here). Then, of course, there's the Hit Parade, France's version of the Top 40. The sheer number of English songs present among its ranks is still surprising, even six months into my time in France. The café I'm currently sitting in is playing one of the music channels, and in the past hour we've had Tinee Tempah, Rihanna, Olly Murs, Nicki Minaj … the list goes on. All this English music can be a boon for language teaching - I've listened to Adele and Taylor Swift with my English club - but it can also pose problems. I was surprised to discover yesterday that the current number 1 single in France is none other than Thrift Shop, an irritatingly catchy ditty about vintage clothing whose lyrics are definitely not repeatable in polite conversation. Inevitably, these lyrics were being sung with impressive enthusiasm (thankfully without complete comprehension) by the ten-year-olds around the rowing club yesterday.

And of couse, no discussion of language acquisition would be complete without a mention of the technology. YouTube and Twitter in particular are excellent distributors of the English language, and as a result quite a few of my lessons have begun with a YouTube video of some kind. Then there are the computer games: when we were discussing gun control in the USA a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover the depth of my students' knowledge of different types of firearm, and their ability to describe them in English. Surprised, that is, until I remembered about Call of Duty. And Battlefield. And Medal of Honor.

But actually, it was a rather more sedate word that got me thinking about the provenance of my students' vocabulary*: specifically, their awareness of word 'harvest'. Thanks go to Harvest Moon, a Japanese strategy game, for that one. And it was at that point that I said something to my students that, back at the start of my assistantship, I don't think I could have said: 'I don't care where your English comes from. As long as it's good.'

And that feels like progress.

On an unrelated note, here's a piece of advice for you. If you're committed to producing short- to medium-form content a couple of times a month (such as, for instance, a blog), and you fail to produce anything for a couple of months, just try not mentioning this fact at all during your next publication. That way, no-one will notice.