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Pupils of foreign origin, from families in great precariousness, difficulties in leading a course and in tackling certain subjects, ...teaching in college says difficult may seem a challenge, even more in a context where teacher training is sabotaged and the teaching of the story manipulated and threatened. Yet is everything so dark? Isn't it worth it after all? Investigation embedded in the Paris region.
What do we mean by "difficult college"?
This article does not claim to be exhaustive. It is only a question of evoking a one-off experience, which is moreover in an internship, in order to give an undoubtedly partly subjective idea of how the teaching of history can work in a specific type of college. But this testimony also feeds on other testimonies, including the experience of colleagues met in the field. And it will make it possible to discuss the difficulties of these establishments more broadly.
The college in question is part of the Réseau Ambition Réussite (RAR), in the Paris region. Most of the students are of foreign origin, of one or more generations, or even directly immigrant (several students arrived during the year). The origin is shared relatively evenly between North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans, with also some Asians, South Americans or East Europeans. The other characteristic is the social situation of these children: most families are in great difficulty, and not only in terms of resources. Single-parent families are numerous, and many parents have difficulty expressing themselves in French, which poses problems both in communicating with the college team and in helping their children.
As for the students, they logically accumulate various problems: an overall low level, a lack of framing for life in society, a tension on the skin causing explosions of violence, verbal and physical, between them and to a lesser degree against the students. adults. That doesn't prevent them from being very endearing, but we'll come back to that.
The students mentioned here will mainly come from fifth and third classes. The advantage of RAR is that there are no more than twenty per class.
Preparation and course of the course
The courses we have conducted are: for fifths, the medieval West with the theme "Peasants and lords"; for the third, the German Occupation, the genocide and the Vichy regime.
With these kinds of students, the most important thing is to avoid boredom and routine. We must quickly describe the course of a session: great commotion on the stairs (sometimes with clashes); arrival just as agitated and in dispersed order in the class; installation (undressing, sitting down, taking out your things) very long, with students circulating throughout the class. And obviously, a lot of noise. It is not uncommon for a lesson to really start after a quarter of an hour. During the course itself, exchanges between students are systematic, whether it is to do without business or to berate each other. They also don't hesitate to get up and move around. Their concentration and obedience are therefore very weak. However, we manage to have intermittently a "real class", almost calm, attentive and above all who participate. For that, it is necessary to build a course which takes into account their specificity.
The main thing is to diversify the supports and approaches, avoid lectures, involve them a lot, and not hesitate to have them work regularly in groups of two or three students. We then have very pleasant surprises, relevant reflections and the feeling that they are listening, remembering and sometimes even learning (for some). Summaries dictated or especially written on the blackboard are essential but sometimes a bit laborious as the students find it difficult to organize themselves (business is regularly forgotten, and notebooks are in deplorable condition), but above all simply to write. However, is this specific to difficult colleges? ...
The subjects discussed obviously determine the reactions. As far as the medieval West is concerned, one might have thought that given the origin of children the subject might not have interested them. However, this was far from the case! They played the game in the study of the lordship and, above all, launched some tasty reflections on the peasant condition and on the inequalities vis-à-vis the lord, displaying a real rejection of injustice (which they saw it as such), even astonished at the lack of revolt of the peasants! In another genre, an intervention on the knight: upon hearing that he had to be a scrupulous Christian, a boy said: "But then a Muslim could not be a knight? ". References to their culture or their country of origin are frequent (another boy asked if it was the same among the Berbers), and we should not hesitate to play with them to involve them a little more, including in geography of 'elsewhere, and we can even say that it enriches the course. Then you notice that they know a lot more than you think, including on subjects as austere as the medieval West. And that they retain and make the connection with the other courses; thus, on courteous love, no need to develop, they had remembered what their French teacher had said ...
The course of the thirds turned out to be different. A little less participation (more due to the class than the level), but above all some questionable reflections when the genocide and Vichy were discussed. Main problem: the Jews. First example: As we approached the genocide (among other aspects of German occupation policy), a "Jews are too powerful" sounded. Second example: during the study of the famous Vichy poster (with the two houses, and "work, family, country"), several other reflections of the same order, such as "in any case, they are the Jews. who direct everything ”, or the accreditation of the Judeo-Masonic plot… It should be noted, however, that all these remarks were made with a disarming naturalness, and especially without any animosity or mark of hatred: for them, they were just obvious.
By discussing with other history teachers from this college, it turned out that problems are frequent on certain subjects: Jews, therefore, but even more Islam (covered at the beginning of the fifth grade). However, these are protests, but rarely made with violence or invectives, and simple and reasoned answers are more often than not enough to close the question, and even to convince the students to change their mind and be more tolerant. This is also the teacher's job ...
Teaching history in a difficult college is therefore specific on several points: preparing and conducting a course is different because of the level and behavior of the students, you have to adapt and be vigilant at all times. Some subjects are more or less difficult to tackle, due to the origin of the students and their family background.
Yet it is no less exciting, on the contrary. The students are curious, surprising at times and very often endearing. Some have decent levels and we want them not to be pulled down; the others have great difficulties but many want to get out of it, and we want to help them. So admittedly this may seem overwhelming, and many seasoned and motivated teachers are breaking their teeth. This does not mean that it is not worth it. We just have to know what awaits us.