Friday, November 20, 2015

Quelle heure est-il? Time for some realia!

The curse of having been an ESL/EFL teacher is that I am still compelled to collect and keep examples of American culture and English language in context and comic strips and advertisements and newspaper articles and funny pictures (not to mention all of the textbooks I used as a grad student, the textbooks I taught out of, the class set of paper clocks, the flashcards, the bingo markers, the fly swatters, the puppets, the picture files…you teachers know what I'm talking about!)

Yes, that is indeed a stuffed Eiffel Tower.  Smiling broadly and sporting a beret.  Kitsch much?
And the curse of having started my teaching career in 1996 means that I'm still fighting the mindset of "I can't get rid of this--I might need it again some day!"  My email account was still a toddler at that point; I didn't have internet access at home (and probably wouldn't have known what to do with it if I did); I certainly couldn't consult with teachers across the world via listservs and blogs, or type, say, "how to teach the conditional past" into a search box on Google or Teachers Pay Teachers, and my Pinterest addiction wouldn't hit until my late 30s.

In other words, I became a teacher who believed strongly in hard copies.  If you excavate my home office, the strata go from "French with elementary students" to "French with preschoolers" to "French with toddlers" to "French with babies" (as my children grew) to "French with college students" (my job before starting a family" to "ESL with college students" to "Masters degree in TESL/TEFL" and "Masters degree in French" to "ESL with high schoolers in France," with assorted private tutoring leftovers scattered throughout (study skills!  note-taking!  SAT vocabulary! freshman composition! and my favorite tutoring story, about the two Korean boys whose parents fired me because I made their sons laugh too often when teaching them English).

This is the teaching souvenir of which I am most proud: the director's chair signed by all the actors in one of the French plays I produced at Colorado State University
Anyway.  I am trying to hang on to fewer articles and worksheets and pictures--especially since I can save them to Pinterest rather than printing them out--and especially now since our basement flooded TWICE last month on separate and unrelated occasions and I easily could have lost two decades' worth of lesson plans, worksheets, plays photocopied from Interlibrary Loan materials and carefully glossed by hand so that they'd be accessible rather than overwhelming to my students….Thinking about it makes my skin crawl.

the rusty residue of one of my three metal filing cabinets
Where was I?  Ah oui, realia.  The term refers to examples of real stuff from a country where the target language is spoken--directions for operating a hair dryer, the box that the hair dryer came in, the magazine ad promoting the hair dryer, the receipt from the store where you bought the hair dryer, the warranty card for the hair dryer.

Okay, so those are not very exciting examples, but you get the picture.  Think movie listings, driver's license applications, museum brochures, restaurant menus, chocolate wrappers, cereal boxes, classified ads, personal ads, lost pet flyers, and all those items that track the minutiae of daily life and simultaneously present language in a rich context and reveal information about what the culture considers interesting or important.

The 11-year-old boy that I've been tutoring (he's a home schooler who wants to learn French) has been learning the days of the week, the months of the year, and how to tell time ("You mean that to say 7:45 pm I have to add 12 to the 7 and subtract 15 from 8:00?  Geez.  French is weird!").  I found such a fantastic piece of realia for him that I just had to share it:

A blank schedule page?  What's the big deal?
So this emploi du temps is a nice example of a school schedule template that a French learner can fill in to practice time, days of the week, and the class names.  But that's not all!  Here are some other elements that an astute student might notice (with some guidance from le prof):

  • The week begins on lundi (Monday).
  • Time is listed according to the 24-hour clock.
  • Lunch is such an ingrained part of the day that it is included every school day at noon as a given.
  • The school week ends on samedi (Saturday--though I understand that few French schools still hold class on Saturday mornings any more)
  • The days of the week are not capitalized
  • French cursive handwriting is different (and cuter?) than American cursive.
  • The digit 1 begins with a pre-stroke like an upbeat or a tiny wing, while the 7 features a horizontal stroke that just makes it look cooler than an American seven.
  • The drawings at the bottom don't depict football, pennants, or technology.
  • But they do include the ubiquitous and very French trousse (a pencil case that sits at the top of every desk to enable students to rotate between pencils, fountain pens, and ballpoint pens of various colors as well as to underline key points with a straight edge at a moment's notice).
  • The bird icon is speaking English! 
And these are the sort of things that we teachers (should) want our kiddos to pay attention to.  If you're learning a language, it doesn't happen in a vacuum.  Verb conjugations are fine and dandy, but they don't do you any good if you show up for dinner on the wrong day at the wrong time because you misread the calendar or assumed that 18h was the same thing as 8:00.

What are some of your favorite pieces of realia, as a student or a teacher?  (And do you have any souvenirs as tacky-but-delightful than my Tour Eiffel en peluche?  You know you do.  Go ahead, tell us about them!)


  1. Love it. You have a treasure trove of materials for teaching. I can't believe your basement flooded twice! Oy! Not cool.

    1. So not cool. And then two weeks ago it flooded again: sewer backed up a second time. We are replacing drywall and carpet for the third time in four months. But so lucky that nothing irreplaceable was ruined.

  2. This is an interesting post to read!! I am also a Phoenix preschool teacher and know that all these things are quite difficult for the teachers. I also have to prepare the lesson plans and I always have hard time in finding the suitable activities for teaching the kiddos.

    1. On the other hand, I find that often an overabundance of materials and ideas makes it hard to choose what to cover! Perhaps I have too much stuff? (Don't let my husband know I wrote that--he would be happier with much less clutter in our house.)

  3. Hi Sarah, I think I might just be an older version of you ... my first reaction to the recent flood in our garage was to grab my piles of boxed teaching resources, haul them to dry safety and then examine the contents worriedly for signs of deterioration. As for keeping too much, I still have VHS videos, cassette tapes for cassette players (what are they I hear my children exclaim!) and projector slides of indistinguishable signs and ads that I thought that I might use one day in the classroom. Yes, embarrassing! The funny thing, though, is that I can always find something that will jazz up a lesson or make the learning more interesting for my students (despite twitching slightly when the photocopied conversations recount amounts in francs and the speaker is wearing high-waisted jeans and Leo Sayer hair).

    1. Bonjour Catherine! Yes, I think we are kindred spirits! I look forward to reading through your blog archives--I can't wait to learn about your bilingual family.

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