My first week of teaching, all the other maîtresses asked me if I wanted the children to have a cahier for English.
I could tell from the way they asked that “non” was not the answer.
The cahier (or notebook) is inseparable from French education. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a microcosm of the French educational system itself.
The children have one for every subject. They come in a variety of sizes and colors. And they all contain that tell-tale French graph paper.
Students number their pages, take notes in them, and glue handouts and worksheets into them. Using the incorrect writing utensil, writing or doodling in the margins, and tearing out pages are all strictly interdit.
There’s absolutely no room for creativity, let alone flexibility.
And at the end of the day, the cahier stands as an all-inclusive, organized repository of knowledge.
In practice…well…that’s another story.
In école primaire, teachers introduce their students to the cahier, laying a foundation for all the years of schooling to come.
But the time and energy it takes to get a group of 20 eight-year-olds to glue perfect, cut-to-fit worksheets onto notebook pages, or to write painstakingly in uniform cursive in blue ink, or to get out a ruler and switch pens to underline in red what’s just been written in blue disrupts the flow and detracts from the content of a lesson.
From an early age, French students are trained to sacrifice substance and efficiency in favor of order and uniformity. And often the result is only the appearance of order and uniformity.
During my semester abroad, I took a 17th-century French literature class at the Université de Nantes, and I remember scribbling furiously through an endless chain of hand cramps in order to jot down everything the professor said in rapid French.
After 10 minutes, I’d have at least a page of notes—my words blurring and bleeding into the margins, often misspelled and missing accents. I’d glance to the French student next to me, still busy underling the first subheading with a ruler after whiting out half of the words, waiting for the blanco to dry, and rewriting it more neatly.
At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour lecture, I’d have five to 10 sheets filled front and back—poorly organized and sloppily written, but full of information. My classmates would have maybe two—perfectly penned, but obviously lacking significant portions of content.
If the typical French cahier—rigid and (overly)organized often to the point of inefficiency—is representative of French education, my students’ cahiers d’anglais are definitely representative of my teaching style.
Flashcards and game pieces burst from the seams and spill out onto the floor when those boys in the back row knock each other’s materials onto the floor. My hand-drawn, image-dominant worksheets are glued next to nearly blank pages containing only the day’s date (the worksheets being too long to be glued underneath the date without poking out of bounds). The words are written in all capital letters or in cursive—sometimes even in block letters. The ink used isn’t just blue but sometimes purple or green or red.
There may be some pages missing. Now they’re a paper airplane, or a note sneakily passed to a best friend, or a drawing stuck to my refrigerator door.
Like my French university notes, the cahiers d’anglais are chaotic, but they contain substance all the same—tangible proof of the progress my students have made these last seven months.
And no two are quite the same.
Yet in their shared organized chaos the cahiers d’anglais all attest to the rejection and breakdown of structure that is so necessary to foreign language learning: You have to abandon the order and clarity of what you know to open yourself to the the new, the different, the bizarre.
I realize now, with only one day left of teaching, that disorder has been ever-present in and even vital to my classes.
I only wish I’d learned to embrace it sooner.