As an English teaching assistant in France, creating lesson plans is way more fun than it is for real teachers who have to meet academic standards and make sure their students pass standardized exams.

In my role as assistant, I didn’t have to give tests or grade papers. My job, as described by all the teachers I worked with, was to get the students to speak in English. That would be no problem, I thought. A few games, a couple videos, and the hour would be over.

Turns out, getting French high school students to speak in English is a lot easier said than done.

The word timide comes to mind. I can still imitate the iconic French teenager “I don’t know” shrug, corners of the mouth turned down, eyebrows raised. More often than not, that’s what I got in exchange for my lesson planning efforts, even though a lot of my students had a remarkably high level of English language ability.

I usually worked with a small group of students from a full-sized class, meeting during their normal class time on a rotating basis. Because of that, there were some groups that I only saw once or twice a semester. Those were the classes where I never learned anyone’s name. The upside of that was I only had to develop a new lesson plan whenever I got bored with the last one.

With other groups, I saw the same students weekly and got to know them pretty well. For these groups, I needed more frequent lesson plan updates.

General courses

Most of my students were high-school age (14 to 18) and in a general course of study that required a certain number of years of English to graduate. My lycée had an academic focus (some are technical or vocational), so many of the kids in my classes were particularly good students. Even so, I didn’t want my class to be more of the same traditional learning environment they got in their main classes—that wasn’t the point of me being there. Here are some of the lesson plan ideas that went over fairly well with those groups. If you are looking for more detail, click here to get a free copy of my book on all things TAPIF, out in March.

1. Devin Supertramp video with questions

This lesson plan was born from my desire to combine lesson planning with watching YouTube videos. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this Devin Supertramp canyon rope swing video now. I would play it for my students and then ask them general questions about it, like whether they would try the crazy swing if they had the chance, whether they would try skydiving or bungee jumping.

I would also play this video about one of the guys in the main video who pushed his girlfriend over the cliff and use it as an opportunity to feel horrified at the lack of understanding French high school students have for the concept of consent. In the video, a guy pushes his clearly petrified girlfriend who repeatedly insists, “Don’t push me,” over the edge to do the rope swing. There’s more nuance at play than that, but I was a little shocked that when asked whether this guy was a good or a bad boyfriend, many said he was a good one because, “It was funny.” Okay then.

2. Swear words and slang

I thought this was a guaranteed win no matter the group—the naughty words were always my favorite to learn in a foreign language when I was in high school (okay, and also now). But it turned out that these went over the best with students at a higher level.

The best reaction I got from a swear word was when I accidentally said “shit” in front of a class, and they all caught it. Lots of laughs there.

3. Anything about upcoming holidays

I made lessons about Halloween, Thanksgiving (I talked about Thanksgiving for the whole month of November), Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day. These mostly consisted of short presentations about US customs, followed by discussion questions about how French customs compared.

You do have to be careful with discussing typically religious holidays in French schools, since the nation is so aggressively laic—something I do appreciate. Even so, I think there’s value in a non-pushy discussion of other countries’ customs as far as understanding foreign cultures goes. These kind of lessons are usually okay if you keep things very, very neutral and focused on generalities and country-specific customs.

Once, I did get pushback from students on this lesson—the students said they didn’t want to talk about Christmas customs because they weren’t Christian. I laughed and told them I wasn’t either—I just liked sparkly lights. But I had another lesson as a backup, so it was easy to switch to that.

4. Making snowflakes/folded stars from paper

This engaged students surprisingly well, especially on the last day of classes before the winter holidays. Based on my (pretty small) sample size of students, they were excited to do something that wasn’t brain intensive, and also most of them hadn’t made paper cut-out snowflakes before.

I made way too many stars from this pattern here, and you can’t go wrong with a paper snowflake design from Martha Stewart.

When you parse it, the process of crafting in a foreign language is rather unique. Following instructions to make something tangible is a pretty powerful feeling. So if anyone questions the paper scraps and scattered glitter left over in your classroom afterward, just send them to me for philosophizing.

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