TAPIF | Activities to Get Your ESL Students Talking

Prior to my TAPIF experience, I had never taught an ESL course before. Given that I was just coming off of considerable exposure to French courses, I had some ideas and was comfortable with the concept. However, I could have really done with one coherent list of activities that (nearly) always work. Alas, I was stuck with some interesting trial and error. Luckily for you, dear reader, the following ideas are sure to work with most of your classes (but don’t hunt me down if they don’t).

All of the following activities are designed to get the students talking and interacting as much as possible.

Two Truths, One Lie

This is my favorite introductory class because it allows the students to ask questions about me and get more comfortable speaking right away, as there is a clear goal. The activity itself is as simple as it gets:

  1. Write three sentences about yourself on the board, two of which are true, one of which is false. (Come up with your sentences beforehand.)
  2. Explain to the students, typically in several ways, that they are to ask questions to figure out which statement is false.
  3. Make clear to them that you are and will be lying about one of them and that it is their job to come to a consensus on which one. For the purposes of this activity, you must pretend that all three are true. The students will catch you based on how well you can lie about your false statement. (As I did the activity more and more, I had to change my false statement because I gradually became really good at convincing people that I owned two snakes and the students had no hope.) If the students are not keen to volunteer questions, you can use the popcorn selection approach to get everyone involved. (See below.)
  4. Ask the class if they are ready to vote on the false statement.
  5. If you have time left over, have one of the students come up and do the same thing, making clear that they should avoid facts that everyone knows about them. (I typically say, “Don’t write that you have 9 siblings if everyone knows that you are an only child.”)

Picture Drawing

Before even attempting to start this activity, I explain the concept of describing an object that you do not know the word for. I tell my students that the activity is ridiculously pointless if they slip into French; typically, they find the activity intimidating at first, but really fun once they get into it. I usually end up miming a lot of the instructions, but it works out.

  1. Pick a bizarre picture to project onto the board. (If you do not have access to a projector, some pre-planning will suffice; you can arrange to have enough copies for half of the students.)
  2. Have the students partner up. One partner is to turn physically away from the board. This is the partner that is attempting to replicate your image by drawing it.
  3. After you project the image (once half of the students cannot see it), the second partner is to describe the scene.

In addition to being entertaining, this activity is good practice for their oral bacs.

Speed Dating

You can do many alterations on this activity, and it depends on how much time you want to fill. If I wanted to fill the entire hour, I would typically start with a clip describing the concept of speed dating, discuss what the students thought of it, do the speed dating activity, and wrap up by asking if the students had in any way changed their minds after participating.

  1. Have the students line up their chairs facing each other. If you have an odd number of students, you will have to participate in the activity yourself.
  2. Hand each student a list of speed dating questions and explain that you would like them to take turns asking and answering the provided questions. Make sure they are practicing introducing themselves.
  3. Time each round to be 5-10 minutes. (This works best if you have some sort of alarm, perhaps on your phone.)
  4. After each round, have half of the students rotate one position over and begin a new round.

I Love My Neighbors Who

  1. Have the students arrange their chairs in a circle. To begin the game, stand in the circle yourself to demonstrate how the game works.
  2. The person in the center is like the monkey in the middle. It is their task to make a sentence beginning with “I love my neighbors who…” and choose a quality. Everyone who shares this quality is to then stand up and switch chairs. The person in the center, if quick enough, can now occupy one of the abandoned chairs, leaving a new person in the center. For example, the person in the middle can say something like, “I love my neighbors who have a driver’s license.” Everyone who has a driver’s license should then stand up and find another vacant chair.
  3. At first, the students tend to talk about what people are wearing, but I eventually encourage them to go outside of the box a bit.

The Agony Aunt

I used this activity after having my students write New Years resolutions and during Christmas, but you can be creative in your themes.

  1. Have the students write down either resolutions or themed problems.
  2. Choose a student to read his or her problems out loud. Write this problem on the board.
  3. Have students come up with advice on how to achieve this resolution or solve the problem. If the students are not all participating, use the popcorn selection approach to get everyone involved. (See below.)
  4. After noting some minimum number of pieces of advice on the board (3 to 5, typically), move on to the next example.


* The ‘popcorn selection approach’ is not an activity in itself, but rather a way of forcing communal participation from each student in the classroom without knowing names yourself. Known to practically every student that spent elementary/middle school in America, the approach involves a student reading an excerpt (a sentence/paragraph) or contributing a snippet of information before choosing the next student to do so. For example, if Student A reads the first sentence in a paragraph, he or she then says, “Popcorn, Student B,” or “Popcorn, Student X,” as he or she wishes.


TAPIF | Tips on the Application Process

Now that you’ve decided that you want to spend the school year as a language instructor through the Teaching Assistant Program in France, it’s time to submit an application.

Applying for TAPIF is much easier than applying for college, and certainly nothing to stress out about. That being said, it is much easier (and less nerve-wracking) to be prepared…

  • The application is due January 15, 2013. To even see the application, you must create a log-in with a valid email address. You must be between 20 and 30 years of age on October 1, 2013. Dual French-American citizens are not eligible. Naturalized American citizens and permanent U.S. residents, however, are. (I was not born American.)
  • Before beginning your application, make sure to read the (English) instructions completely. After making sure to print them out, I simply followed the instructions meticulously and had very few problems.
  • Be prepared to justify your language level and to obtain a letter of recommendation. This is probably the step that will take you the longest, as it is entirely dependent on others. Concerning proof of your language level, you have two options. You can either provide a letter written by a university-level French professor or a teacher of the Alliance Française OR send in a scanned copy of official standardized French-language test results such as TCF, TEF, DELF or DALF. As far as the letter of recommendation, it must explain your abilities, skills, and language level and can be written by a teacher or supervisor of some kind. Submission is electronic, so having access to email addresses is essential. You must register your recommenders before they can submit anything. (I asked two of my French teachers to so my recommendations, one from undergrad and one from graduate school.)
  • If you do not have an official transcript or passport on hand, make sure to get the ball rolling immediately. (The transcript will be entered electronically and therefore need not be sealed.)

The application is divided into 11 sections:

  1. Instructions – A downloadable PDF.
  2. Main Application Form – In addition to providing basic background information, it is here that you can select your top three choices for educational academies, which are equivalent to school districts, as well as what level you would like to teach. The académies are arranged into three groups (A, B, and C) and you can only pick one académie from each group. At first, I was a bit perplexed as to why the application was created this way, but I think that the logic is twofold. First, the grouping widens the variety of académies that applicants choose from. (I would have never initially picked Nancy-Metz, but ended up doing so after researching all of the Group A options.) Second, the académies are grouped specifically to prevent applicants from choosing the most competitive ones as all three of their options. If you were to pick three of the most popular academies and could not be placed in any of them, you would then have to be assigned arbitrarily. The system is therefore in your best interests and gives you the best odds of being placed into at least one académie of your choosing. From what I have read, Paris, Lyon and Strasbourg are the most popular académies and finding accommodation can be challenging. You can also choose whether you prefer primary or secondary schools. However, if you elect primary, your French should be strong enough to conduct lessons, as the children do not yet have the ability to communicate in English. Moreover, I would not count on being placed in primary, even if your language skills are strong; I have yet to meet a primary assistant this year. It would appear that this is an area that is slowly being eliminated. You must also indicate whether or not you would you be willing to work in a “zone d’éducation prioritaire,” or Priority Education Zone of a disadvantaged area. This, of course, is a very personal choice. Be sure to keep your personal comfort levels in mind.
  3. Statement of Purpose and Experience  – A required essay of about 500 words explaining why you are choosing TAPIF. This serves as both your unique application piece and as a gauge for your level of French. Applicants are asked to write a piece showcasing their personal language skills and are thus requested to
  4. Medical Report – A simple, electronic form. No physician signature necessary.
  5. Dependent Waiver – An electronic statement regarding the financial aspects of the program. Requires electronic signature.
  6. Attestation and Signature – An electronic statement confirming the integrity of the applicant in regards to honestly and work ethic.
  7. Supplemental Items Upload – You need the following: an official university transcript from the most recent university attended, scanned copy of first 2 passport pages (the photo page and the signature page), passport-style photo. Optional documents: permanent resident card (required if you are not a citizen), additional transcripts from other universities, proof of housing in France.
  8. Recommendations / Language Evaluation – See the explanation above. I would recommend registering your recommenders before you do anything else. You cannot submit your application until both recommendations (or one recommendation and one certification upload) are complete.
  9. Payment – The application fee is $40 and can be paid by credit card.
  10. Application Inspector – This simply makes sure that all parts of the application are complete.
  11. Application Submission – Congratulations and bon courage! After submission, your application is complete. Now, you simply wait until April for news of acceptance or denial.

TAPIF | Choosing to be a Language Assistant in France

“Passant prends le temps sinon il te prend.” (Passerby, take the time. Otherwise, the time will take you.) – Quote painted on a wall near Notre Dame, Metz, France.

So, how exactly does one decide to become a language assistant in France anyway? How do know if the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) is the right fit for you? I know that these were questions that I was asking myself (and that others were asking me) as I made my decision to move to France for a school year. In the end, it was really about seizing my life, grabbing the bull by its horns, so to say. As I genuinely wanted to live in France, I found a way to live in France. For those of you with even slightly less hesitation, here are some (more rational) reasons for choosing to be a language assistant:

  1. If you want a paid year abroad… If you want to spend a year in Europe or a francophone region, I really think that you would be hard-pressed to find a better route than the Teaching Assistant Program in France. TAPIF is a great alternative (or addition) to studying abroad; you improve your resume, advance your language skills, bank the personal journey of a lifetime, and get paid a reasonable stipend to boot, for 12 hours of in-class work per week. Granted, if your school does not provide you with housing or you choose a placement in Paris, you may have to stretch a bit on the provided salary. However, even with only modest savings, TAPIF pays enough to survive and flourish in a foreign city for a full school year.
  2. If you prefer some type of initial support network… I understand that the average person is not as nutty as I; for most people, independently moving to a foreign country without knowing a single soul is unthinkable, even panic-inducing. For those who have the desire to move abroad but prefer the comfort of a support network, should things go awry, TAPIF could really be your answer. From the welcoming emails from support staff to the friendly faces of fellow English teachers, TAPIF provides individuals with a catching net, should you ever fall. Discernibly, it is not an extensive system full of people to hold your hand, but if you ever need company or advice, you are sure to find someone to help you out, even if you meet them via facebook. (On that note, there are several types of ways to network with fellow assistants, but the easiest and most modern is via facebook. There are both official and unofficial (read = more useful) groups that you can find before your departure.)
  3. If you speak (at least some) French… Frankly, this is a big “if.” The Teaching Assistant Program in France is strict on proficiency requirements. While they never formally test your abilities, you must have a minimum of 3 college semesters under your belt or an equivalent minimum level of B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Naturally, this means that you do not have to be done with university to apply, and most of the British assistants come after their junior year to fulfill academic requirements. Choosing to study abroad in a francophone country during your undergraduate years is a clear advantage here, though nowhere near required. (I chose to study abroad in different countries but did indeed minor in French and continue on to graduate-level French studies.) TAPIF is a fantastic way to improve upon the French you already know, especially with some effort. I am a candid believer that at some point, there is no way to go but immersion.
  4. If you are rather independent… Because assistants work only 12 in-class hours a week, they inevitably find themselves with a lot of spare time on their hands. This can be surprisingly daunting for those straight out of communal living situations or unused to extensive independent travels. Indeed, I have read quite a few TAPIF blogs that consist of little save for complaining about boredom, loneliness, or the weather. Not to say that these types of individuals should not consider TAPIF as a viable option, but emotional preparation is crucial… If you are a reasonably independent person, however, you will likely be grateful for the free time and the wealth of possibility that it affords. For example, I quite like the liberty of taking afternoon strolls or escaping on the odd weekend. I even appreciate having sufficient time to get lost in town or indulge in French cinema. Seven weeks of paid vacation also means a cushy travel/relaxation schedule, so be prepared to face the scheduling void (preferably with enthusiasm).
  5. If you really like baguettes… OK, clearly this is not a requirement, but it does not hurt to be fond of French culture in general. If you don’t fancy the thought of wine, cobblestone, and francophones, I’m not entirely sure why you would consider doing TAPIF in the first place. In this type of situation, a true passion for the French way of life will take you far; those around you, including your students, will easily be able to gauge your enthusiasm, so never underestimate the power of authentic sincerity. The more excited you are to be in France, the better your time will be. That’s a guarantee.

Additionally, if you want some abbreviated, rather funny advice, Jessica of the Doing It in French blog has written a pretty cute list of 30 Reasons to be a Teaching Assistant.

TAPIF | What is a language assistant anyway?

This last September, as I sat on the floor of my room, frantically packing the night away in some kind of panicked fit, I experienced a moment that would have been rather comical, had it not occurred some dozens of times in the preceding months. My friends, friends so close that they had gradually become roommates, had been flitting in and out all night long. Eventually, one planted herself down in the hallway and posed the question, “So, can you explain again? What exactly are you going to be doing?”

Easy for her to say. Of course, I had explained before, several times and to countless people. Nevertheless, it always ended in lackluster explanations and with perplexed faces. But there is something about TAPIF that remains shrouded in mystery, and something about the mystery that makes you pack a suitcase for France anyway, despite being rather confused about what you are actually expecting.

“Are you ready to expand your cultural horizons and share your language and culture with French students?” reads the French embassy’s Higher Education website. Indeed, the average French student or eager traveler could very well respond: “Well, yes, France, yes, I am! But… could I get some more information?”

Clearly, this was not much of an issue for me. Even as I was debating which pea coat to stuff into my bag or how many socks I really needed, I had absolutely no idea where the next 48 hours would take me, much less the next year. And, frankly, it didn’t really bother me. My mother and friends, on the other hand, were a tad on the concerned side.I knew only the following:

  • I was moving to France for a minimum of 7 months to teach English to high school students with TAPIF, or The Teaching Assistant Program in France.
  • The town that I would be living in was called Metz. At the time of research, it had somewhere around 120,000 inhabitants and some very castle-like churches.
  • Someone named Myriam was probably picking me up at the train station.

That was truthfully it. Save for some random facts about which school I was placed in and the paperwork I would be filing after my arrival, I knew nothing else about my French future. Despite the ample amount of people that choose to do TAPIF (over 1,100 American citizens and permanent residents annually, according to the embassy), there just isn’t that much knowledge being passed around.

Granted, after experiencing the process myself, I can confidently say that I understand why information exchange is limited: every school, district, and city is different, and it is therefore extremely difficult to know what you will be doing.

Even among the classes I teach, there is astounding variety in English level, class expectations, and the amount of leading or interaction that I am expected to do. As a seasoned nomad, I would honestly recommend embracing the unknown and doing the program anyway. However, I am not without advice to make the process a bit more comfortable for those that are nervous or curious. (Trust me, I did an astonishing amount of pre-departure googling myself.)

Here are some useful particulars about TAPIF:

  1. You will not be alone. Not only is there a strong, established assistant community, but there are assistants everywhere, and the wonders of modern technologies such as facebook mean that you will probably have some contact with others before you even board the plane. One of my best friends in Metz is someone that I discovered via my academy’s unofficial facebook site. Noticing our similarities, I reached out to a total stranger and eventually, we met face-to-face at orientation.
  2. Assistants come from everywhere, not just the States. Use the opportunity to learn about other cultures or to practice that Spanish/Italian/German that you’ve been dying to learn or brush up on. Side note: Inviting assistants from all over the place forces you, as an Anglophone, to speak French. These assistants are also much more likely to have French friends, as French is typically their primary means of communication and they already live much closer to France than anyone from the Americas or Great Britain.
  3. Even before you make friends, your contact person is there to guide you. So far, I have only heard positive things about contacts; they take you to dinner with the family, show you around town, etc. Usually, your contact person is a teacher from your school, probably someone that you will be working with closely. Be sure to show appreciation; they are taking time away from their busy lives and families to welcome you. Bringing treats from your country of origin is never a bad idea.
  4. You should really save some money. Even though you are getting paid a pretty reasonable sum of money for the amount of work you will be putting in (around €965 gross, approximately €780 net, monthly), if you want to travel or if you end up having to pay rent, things will get tight fast. After deducting my cellular and internet costs, plus my apartment insurance (which is mandatory in France), I was left with an approximate 700€ per month, which is 175€/week or about 25€/day. Though living on the provided salary is very doable, some initial savings are an absolute must. First of all, you don’t get paid immediately. You need to get yourself to France, purchase train/bus tickets to your final destination, and set up shop in a new country. Second of all, you may very well have to put some of that into housing or initial IKEA purchases. My advice? As soon as you know that you want to do TAPIF, start saving.
  5. If you are lucky, your school may provide you with housing. Odds are in your favor if the school has an internat (dormitories) or is a boarding school. However, not all assistants get housing, and some are placed well outside metropolitan areas. With this in mind, it is important to budget for housing before departure, even if you are offered something. Several assistants in Metz chose to forego provided housing in favor of a more suitable location or situation. For example, some did not have kitchens or were in towns too small for their liking.
  6. You don’t have to live in the Hexagon (continental France). TAPIF allows you to choose three academic regions for placement. Of course, all three of your choices can be in France. On the other hand, if you are looking for a different type of adventure, consider choosing an overseas department. Areas offered are: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion.
  7. Eventually, you will (sort of) know what you are expected to do. As your first week or so is spent observing, you will get a handle on the French school system and class structure before you are expected to go in front of a class. Talk to your teachers. Not only are they eager to meet you, but you can also gauge what type of teaching they expect from you. In some courses, I take half of the class while the teacher takes the other. In others, I take on all of the students. By taking the initiative to talk to the teachers you will be working with, you can get immediate insight. Things to ask include: what kind of equipment you have access to, whether you will be taking on students by yourself, whether you should look for a spare room or whether the teacher will be doing it, and whether or not the teacher has preferences on topics broached.

At the end of the day, being a language assistant is an opportunity to learn and to teach, an opportunity to exchange.

TAPIF is not about the specifics of the program; it is a way to enrich your life and the lives of others. It is a way to live in France. Not be in France, not visit France, but really, truly live in France. Ultimately, you’ll answer your own questions anyway. Besides, it’s more adventurous to just accept the mystery…

For information about the application process, see the “Guide for English Language Assistants” or find the application on the official TAPIF website. Primary photo curtesy of Stephanie Bercht.

Argentina | A Day in La Boca

Though certainly less shiny than some parts of Buenos Aires, it is in rambling La Boca’s trodden streets that one can see flakes of a glorious past.

Once upon a time, this was a lively place of many colors. After exploring much of the area on foot, we made an obligatory stop at the La Boca stadium itself, which, like the neighborhood, has seen better days. It seemed to me a concrete blemish with generally outdated aesthetics, even as far as stadiums go. Mind you, I am not what one would call a football fan, so I hold little appreciation for those hard blue seats. Even so, I paid up for a march around the museum, which is largely a collection of statues and paraphernalia – not entirely worth the inflated price…

As we made our way to the famous Caminito, I could not help but feel like boisterous tourists pouring into St. Mark’s Square, like insects into a spider web.

Famously created by local artist Benito Quinquela Martin in the 1950’s, the colorful strip is now settled into the bank of a shallow, polluted river. The main drag is just cluttered with sightseers, street performers, and restaurants. The mass artwork hangs still in the Argentine heat as peddlers call out a multitude of languages to beckon passersby. Yes, the colors are pretty. Yes, the street is memorable. (And yes, you’re going to go despite anything you read.) If you ignore all of the mayhem, it could even resemble an artsy place. Alas, unless you are interested in what feels very much like a street in Disneyworld, I am of the opinion that there is little to see among the crowds.

It is only in PROA that I found the gem of the Caminito.

Rising tall beside the river, the uber-modern PROA is a contemporary art museum, café, and bookshop. A student price of $6 (Argentine pesos) buys you admission and air conditioning, which felt like an indescribably fantastic bargain. After thoroughly exploring the Las Pampas exhibit (which I enjoyed very much), I continued admiring the building, which is a piece of art in itself. Local artists have painted on walls and erected colorful and unique decorations of colossal proportion. Even the windows and staircases have met the creative hands of contributors, and I dare you to argue that the art is displayed conventionally. To top it off, the upstairs deck is to be admired if only for its beautiful, sprawling woodwork and luxurious feel. I recommend ordering cocktails or food from the café and taking in the ambiance before descending into La Boca’s hustle and bustle once more.