Summer 2018 was to be my first experience of empty nest syndrome. Seeing my daughters off for a summer of travel, evoked memories of my own student days, spending carefree months immersed in foreign cultures. So it was sheer excitement when I saw a post on LiPS (Languages in Primary Schools) Facebook forum, offering a grant to attend an intensive language and teacher training course plus the opportunity to lodge with a family in France.
I emailed Benoit le Dévédec, the Language Attaché at the Institut Français du Royaume Uni, to ask for more details and then sent my CV and a covering letter, explaining my experience of teaching languages to primary school children. A month later, I received notification that I had been selected along with 11 teachers from across the UK. The grant paid for a week’s course at CAVILAM in Vichy. Lots of teachers I met there were lucky enough to also have an allowance from their school departments to pay for travel and accommodation.
CAVILAM-Alliance Francaise is a University hub linked to Clermont Auvergne University and specialising in the teaching of French as a foreign language. Located a stone’s throw from the splendid Parc des Célestins on the banks of the river Allier, CAVILAM – Alliance Française offers high-quality teaching. The school partners on a regular basis with France’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, the Institut Français, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, French cultural services abroad and a number of media outlets including TV5 MONDE, Radio France International and Canal Académie.
During our introductory talk we were issued with student access codes to the university intranet. We uploaded lunch vouchers to our student cards and enjoyed a decent lunch in the university canteen for approximately 7€ per day but as the week progressed, we decided to enjoy the many restaurants in the city.
Assessment and courses
There was a choice of courses: French language, Teaching French to primary school children or Drama Techniques in the classroom. For me, the opportunity to improve my French was paramount and as I love using role play and produce a play with my pupils annually, I thought the opportunity to learn more drama techniques would be beneficial. On arrival, we were given a test which included reading and listening comprehensions and the chance to demonstrate our written fluency via an introductory essay. CAVILAM staff also spoke to us individually to try and gauge our confidence in the spoken language and we were then allocated to classes according to our ability. At the end of the week, we were issued with certificates of attendance and reports were uploaded to our interactive myspace.
The FLE course
Each morning I attended an intensive language course along with two others. The three hour lessons were all in French and we were encouraged to take part in grammar exercises and oral debates. We accessed language labs and homework was set and marked daily. It was refreshing to be a pupil again and revise structures and lexical patterns in an advanced lesson. The tutor was keen to help us distinguish between spoken and written French as well as encourage us to increase our fluency but avoid use of slang in order to sound more polished and eloquent.
The Drama Techniques Course
For me, this course was the highlight. A multi-national group of 25, met each afternoon for 2.5 hours of wonderful interactive drama ideas. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal. We were all encouraged to take part in the games which were then followed up with advice on how they would support language learning and confidence building for our pupils. The rapport established by the tutor was inspiring and we all maximised the opportunity to network and establish links with language teachers from around the world.
The choice of accommodation was living with a family or a private studio flat. I was paired up with a single lady. A few of the others shared with other foreign students and some lodged with families, others with couples. All were within walking distance of the university. This arrangement cost 26,50 € per day. Details were sent a few weeks before so we could establish contact with our hosts and start getting to know each other. My hostess was delightful; she met me at the train station and I was given my own room. Breakfast was light but each evening, she offered a three course meal, usually with local delicacies. Best of all, we only ever spoke in French.
My hostess took me out most evenings – we wandered the small streets of Vichy: some sightseeing and browsing the shops in the delightful arcades. Vichy is well known for three things – an unfortunate importance during WW2, cosmetic creams and medicinal water. The local wells are there to visit and you can help yourself to the waters believed to have huge benefits for rheumatism. However, we teachers soon discovered the relaxing sun-loungers along the river where we preferred to drink many a cocktail after our intensive days.
Events and activities
CAVILAM offered the opportunity to attend cultural events every day. I wanted to maximise the opportunity to speak French each evening with my hostess but others attended a cheese and wine evening and went to see a French film. Wednesday afternoon was free so we all went on a trip to the volcanic crater, Gour de Tazenat and enjoyed a walk and a swim. The trip cost 20 € including transport. There were opportunities for visits to the historic towns of Moulins or Clermont-Ferrand. The university also had a sports hall where you could play badminton or volleyball.
From a language perspective, it was wonderful to feel confident in French again. The chance for total immersion doesn’t often come my way these days, so to be thinking and dreaming in the language, really boosted my confidence. From a teaching perspective, I acquired new ideas that I have enjoyed using in class this term. I will also be providing local CPD workshops and passing on the skills I learnt. Last but not least, travelling and studying again on my own made me feel young again! It took me out of my comfort zone and has inspired me to look for similar courses in the future. I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone considering training abroad. My only complaint is that a week wasn’t enough! I could easily have stayed for longer.
Profile: Katherine Smith runs Vale Languages in the Vale of Glamorgan, near Cardiff and has taught Spanish and French in lunch-time and after-school language clubs for primary school children since 2002. As a primary languages consultant for Central South Consortium, she also provides transition courses for primary school children and workshops for non-specialist teachers.
For more information about the Institut français du Royaume-Uni’s teacher’s training grant programme, please visit the Institut français or contact Benoît Le Dévédec, Language Attaché at the Institut français.