Interview 4: "The Core Curriculum"

In this interview Marianne Raynaud explains how you set up a Core Curriculum for a team of teachers. It often takes many years to produce a satisfying core curriculum but it is definitely worth the effort. To read more and get all the documents Marianne refers to you can purchase "QualityTime-ESL - The Digital Resource Book".

Laura Lerner: Last time we met we spoke about setting up a lab program with cassettes. Each cassette would last about 30 minutes and would cover a 60-minute lab sessions. We spoke about the importance of creating a library atmosphere, which would allow the teacher to conduct tutorials during the lab hour without having to be concerned about the students working on the cassettes. All of that I have understood well. Now I would like to know what exactly you mean by "Core Curriculum", the third basic brick of the course as you said.

Marianne Raynaud:
I explained previously that in the course we have a lab program, which consists of a certain number of cassettes for each of the three year of study. In fact one 30-minute cassette for each lab hour. These pre-recorded cassettes that you just slip into the machine and record onto the students cassette players make it possible for all the teachers to conduct tutorials during the lab sessions. You can of course have a series of computerized files for each lab hour if you happen to be working in a normal computer room. The important thing is to have approximately 30 minutes of recorded work, because that will provide 50 to 60 minutes of actual work on the part of the students.

The "Core Curriculum": A program, a set of requirements & precise activities

Laura Lerner:
Is there any kind of logical progression in the way this set of cassettes or series of computerized files is worked out?

Marianne Raynaud:
Very definitely, yes! And that is what I call the "Core Curriculum". This "Core Curriculum" is based on three different elements. First, the explanatory documents we give the students. These documents indicate exactly what we are going to teach and what skills we will be working on. We also indicate precisely what the students are required to do in order to complete the course successfully.

Laura Lerner:
Can I have a look at some of this material?

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, of course. For first year I can refer you to the files explaining the course which you will find in the beginning of the Document Annex by searching for 01_Explanations-Course and looking in the folder called A._Course_Yr1_T1. You can also click here directly on the links in blue (cf. The 1st Year English Course Yr1_Course_4pg_Detailed.pdf (non modifiable version) or Yr1_Course_4pg_Detailed+.doc (modifiable version)/ The English Course Curriculum in First Year Yr1_Curriculum_T1.pdf (non modifiable version) and two modifiable versions: Yr1_Curriculum_T1+.doc & Yr1_T2_Curriculum+.doc.

Laura Lerner:
I see these documents are about the course and the “Core Curriculum”. Now do you have explanations about how classroom participation will be graded for instance?

Marianne Raynaud:
Yes, there is a file entitled The Participation Grade. In fact there are two different versions or systems to choose from (cf. Yr1_Participation1+.doc or Yr1_Participation2+.doc . Both are modifiable, so the teacher can even make up his/her own third version from the two given.

Laura Lerner:
I see you have a “FAQ”!

Marianne Raynaud:
Yes, I have included a very useful file called “FAQ”, which as you know stands for Frequently Asked Questions (cf. Yr1_Questions_FAQ.doc), which is a popular way of doing things nowadays. It is again a modifiable file that teachers should be able to put to good use.

Laura Lerner:
What is the second element of the Core Curriculum?

Marianne Raynaud:
The second essential element of the Core Curriculum involves the planning of the different activities. Indications are given both in the “Calendar” and also on the “Sign Up Sheet”. The “Calendar” and the “Sign Up Sheet” are intended for both the teacher(s) and the students. For this reason they are printed in the first booklet of each year’s course. Updated versions of the “Calendar” together with new “Sign Up Sheets” for other times in the year and for other activities are included in the two other booklets that are given out during the year.

“Study Plans”: only for the teachers!

Laura Lerner: So the “Core Curriculum” includes the “explanations” of the program and the requirements as well as the calendar and the sign-up sheets for the “activities”. And you said there was a third element, right?

Marianne Raynaud: Thirdly we have the detailed “study plans”, which indicate what kind of teaching or coaching has been considered the best suited for a particular activity. These “study plans” are intended only for the teachers. The students never see them. These study plans are upgraded or completely modified by the team of teachers each year. Of course there are lots of abbreviated words, often misspellings, and everything is very dense on half a sheet of paper. But you should bear in mind that this is just a “help sheet” to “remind” the teacher of what the team has planned together (cf. Yr1_Study_Plans_Examples.pdf). Teachers say the study plans are tremendous memory aids. They particularly appreciate having the page numbers of each activity typed out and having the set of assignments indicated for each day so that they make sure that all the work assignment gets correctly properly!

The “Calendar” and the “Sign up Sheet”

Laura Lerner:
So could we go back to the calendar and the sign up sheet? How do you introduce them?

Marianne Raynaud:
Yes, the calendar is printed in each of the three booklets. At times there is a revised version if the administration has changed the dates of the classes. As for the sign up sheets, there are three of them with a different one for each one of the three booklets per year.

Laura Lerner: Is the calendar fixed?

Marianne Raynaud: You mean: “Does it ever change”?

Laura Lerner: Yes. Does it ever change or is the calendar determined nine months ahead of time?

Marianne Raynaud: It is determined a whole year ahead of time! That doesn’t mean we can’t change the date of a class if it is absolutely necessary. We are free to change the activity scheduled for a particular day, but we seldom do so. The fact that the “program” is determined before the course even begins and that there is a set calendar of activities is a tremendous advantage.

The advantages of a “Core Curriculum”

Laura Lerner:
In what way is it an advantage?

Marianne Raynaud: First of all, ever since I instituted this idea of a core curriculum with fixed activities according to a calendar, the English course has been given “first choice” when the school’s yearly timetable is determined. It is terribly difficult to set up the timetable at a French engineering school. Each student had about 25 to 30 hours of courses, seminars and practicals or lab work per week over a period of roughly 30 weeks. The person in charge of doing the scheduling knows each year he/she has a huge, frustrating puzzle in front of him/her (even if there is in some cases a special software program to help out!), and naturally he/she appreciates any help he/she can get from colleagues. For the last 20 years I have been coming in June with the exact requirements of the English course in terms of dates and hours needed during the entire year to come. These requirements can be visualized in what I call the “calendar” with each week clearly indicated. You can see an example of a first year calendar intended both for the administration and for the students in the Document Annex (cf. Yr1_Calendar_Example.pdf ). This first year calendar is partly in French, since it is given to the administration of my “French” engineering school. The one for second year is all in English, even though it is handed over to the administration (cf. Yr2_Calendar_Example.pdf). Thus the two calendars are slightly different. In this way we teachers are able be to distinguish easily between the first and second year calendars!

Explaining the calendar and “Sign Up Sheet”: Panic is normal!

Laura Lerner:
This calendar looks difficult to understand. It must take a long time to explain it to the students?

Marianne Raynaud: Of course it does, and this gives us an opportunity to explain something logical and concrete in English at the very beginning of the course. Naturally the students panic a bit at first, but you must bear in mind that any chart is difficult to decipher at first glance whatever the language used. Teachers should give some short, clear explanations, and then allow the students a few minutes to study the calendar with a neighbor. In this way the students will catch on quickly. It will help them to comprehend visually how the course is set up with specific dates for oral tests, written exams, talks etc.

Laura Lerner: That means each teacher in the team of teachers has to make up some sort of grid on the computer and then number the days in the course. Or at least one person has to do it.

Marianne Raynaud: That is what I did in the beginning. Someone about 20 years ago showed me a grid he had done my hand with a pencil and ruler and then had photocopied for the students. I thought the idea was very clever, and I tried to do the same thing on a computer. I realize this is quite time-consuming when you are not used to working with tables on a computer. That is why I have included in the Document Annex two computer versions, which are practically blank and are completely modifiable (cf. Yr2_Calendar_V1.doc & Yr2_Calendar_V2.doc). Get a friend, who is a computer whiz, to make up from my examples some really nice “personalized calendar” you can use and be proud of!

Signing up for the activities

Laura Lerner:
That is a great idea! I’ll do it. Now back to the class. So once the students have figured out the calendar, what do they do next?

Marianne Raynaud: They sign up on the “Sign Up Sheet”. This sheet, which is a page in the booklet, makes the organization of the course even clearer to the students and helps both the teacher and the students visualize the progression. I have provided two examples in the Annex, one for first year and one for second year (cf. Yr1_Chart_Sign_Up.doc & Yr2_T1_Chart_Sign_Up.doc). For the second term there are two other examples (cf. Yr1_T2_Sign_Up_Tuts_1p.doc & Yr2_T2_Chart_Sign_Up.doc). By studying simultaneous the calendar and the sign up sheet the students can plan ahead all through the year and decide when it suits them the best to do certain activities. The signing up for the different activities can even become a learning exercise, if the students have to say the days on which the will be doing a tutorial for instance: “the 3rd of October”. The calendar and the sign up sheet must follow each other in the booklet, since they need to be compared frequently. The calendar should be to the left thus obviously on an even numbered page and the sign up sheet to be completed to the right on an odd numbered page.

Laura Lerner: You really have thought out all the little details!

Marianne Raynaud: That’s experience for you! Actually I was taught such things by an expert librarian who was also head of the printing office. However, it was a physics teacher at the engineering school where I worked, who showed me a simplified version of such a calendar. As I said before, I thought the idea was brilliant and adopted it immediately. Over the years I have added much to my calendar, but I will always be grateful to the teacher who gave me his “paper version”. What I mean to say is by “sharing” not only teaching documents but also what I call “administrative” documents, we can all progress.

Making up all these little boxes with all these dates!

Laura Lerner:
Yes, that’s true, but concerning the calendar and the sign up sheet I have a simple question to ask. It is all fine and good for “your” teachers, the ones who work with you in your team, because I take it you make up the calendar and the sign up sheet – perhaps together with them - but you physically create these calendars for everyone on the computer. But what if a teacher is not proficient enough to make up all these little boxes with all these dates?

Marianne Raynaud: That is where cooperation is so vital. Teachers can ask either a data processing technician or a colleague in the sciences to help them. They can even ask some students to lend a helping hand. Many students are just mad about data processing and would enjoy making up, let’s say, a calendar or a sign up sheet and explaining to the teacher how to use it. My first “computerized” Review sheet was thought up and created by a former student!

Laura Lerner: “Review sheets”?

Marianne Raynaud: More about Review sheets later, but for the time being I just want to say getting the students “involved” in the course in some way or other is a great way of communicating with them and helping them to understand what the objectives of the core curriculum really are.

Laura Lerner: Still it is pity you don’t have any modifiable ones available or do you?

Available “modifiable” sign up charts to help you make your own!

Marianne Raynaud: Well, in fact I do! I have put in two versions for the first term of the first and second years, which are in .doc and are modifiable (cf. Yr1_Chart_Sign_Up.doc & Yr2_T1_Chart_Sign_Up.doc). They can be used with Word or with Open Office (which incidentally is free!) I have done the same thing for the second term (cf. Yr1_T2_Sign_Up_Tuts_2P.doc & Yr2_T2_Chart_Sign_Up.doc), but these sign up sheets are very simple and may not appeal to all teachers. What I want to insist on is that working out a sign up sheet for oneself or for a team is part of the planning process. If you have made up your own calendar and for that matter your own sign up sheet or chart, you really know what you expect from your students and what are the specific dates of the activities. I have included an example of a sign up sheet from the second term, which has been filled in with all the names of the students. This is the way the sign up sheets appear on the school’s Intranet web site called "MyCPP", which I will talk about later. To look at the sign up sheets from the point of view of the student you can compared the “empty” one for 2nd Year 2nd Term called “Planned Sign Up Chart” (cf. Yr2_T2_Chart_Sign_Up.pdf) with one, which has all the names of the students typed in (cf. Yr2_T2_Chart_Sign_Up_Full.pdf ).

A logical progression in the activities

Laura Lerner: Now by looking at the first term, I see the "Sign Up Sheet" shows the logical progression in the program specifying dates for each activity plus the oral tests or written exams. And in the 2nd term you have all the talks, oral syntheses and tutorials marked out. It all seems quite “scientific” in a way.

Marianne Raynaud: Frankly, I do not know if the students realize that there is definite logic to all to the progression in the program. Some have told me it takes at least six months for them to fully comprehend the reasons behind the “approach” I have chosen. They have always had courses where there was no set curriculum. The course depended solely on the interests of the teacher, except during the very first years when they had a textbook and did one chapter after the other. However, with the calendar and the sign up sheets the teachers can visualize the progression, which takes the students from short presentations (2 to 3 minutes) to much longer ones (15 to 25 minutes) or from simple activities (just conveying information) to more complicated ones (animating group discussions).

Laura Lerner: Do you always stick to these calendars? Aren’t there times when you have to eliminate an activity due to lack of time?

Marianne Raynaud: We very seldom have to modify anything in the calendars, unless the administration changes a date for instance. The students know we will stick by what we have stipulated. There is no putting off of an activity except for medical reasons.

How the students react to this “strict” calendar of activities

Laura Lerner: Don’t the students think you are much too strict and not “cool” enough about the program?

Marianne Raynaud: They may think I am very strict and demanding, but they accept and even appreciate my attitude, which is of course the attitude of the team of teachers; because the students know we are fair. We are not more lenient towards certain students compared to others. And that’s what the students want. They want to be treated fairly. They want to know exactly when they are to perform and what is expected of them. If they do everything correctly, they wish to be praised for their work and get good grades. All that is just common sense. Unfortunately numerous teachers particularly in France forget to apply these notions of common sense. Furthermore, the grading system in France is quite discouraging for many students. The philosophy so to speak is quite strange to an outsider: One third of a group of students (whatever the group) is supposed to fail or get failing grades, regardless of the real qualities of the students. If everyone passes, you are considered a poor teacher! Instead in other countries one might even say, “Gee, she must be a good teacher because all her students passed.” Well, that will be a topic for our discussion on evaluation later on.

Why a “Core Curriculum” is essential

Laura Lerner: But coming back to the main point of our discussion today, why do you feel a core curriculum is so important? Why can’t you just let teachers decide for themselves how or when to teach a particular grammar point, structure, activity or even an entire lesson? Every teacher has his or her favorite activities, which they would like to include. Isn’t that so?

Marianne Raynaud: You’re implying I am a bit of a “dictator” and all the members of the team have to act like “robots” doing exactly the same thing and having an “identical” approach to each activity. Teachers with no personality at all!

Laura Lerner: Not exactly, but...

Marianne Raynaud: The trouble with language courses, as you know well, is they are rather short: 20 to 24 two-hour sessions in my case and somewhat more or less at other institutions. If you haven’t decided ahead of time what you are going to teach (I mean in detail: the grammar points, the vocabulary, the expressions...) or how you are going to teach these points (individual or paired activities or sessions alone with the teacher or in front of the entire class), you are bound to finish the year or term saying, "I have only two sessions left and I still haven’t covered X, Y and Z". This is a a sentence, which I unfortunately have heard in the mouths language teachers quite often. Furthermore, you can’t expect "vacataires" (the temporary faculty members, who are paid only a minimum fee per hour) to set up a whole program, which is coherent from Day 1 to the end of the course both grammatically and as far as activities are concerned. It is too much work to expect from such personnel.

Laura Lerner: Right. I do agree on that point, being a vacataire myself.

The Core Curriculum: The responsibility of the supervisors

Marianne Raynaud: All this massive organizing is the role of the supervisor(s), the tenured teacher(s) in charge. The latter may be helped by some very motivated vacataires, which was my case when I started out on the initial project. But normally it is solely up to the supervisor to do this work, I mean the head, who is paid not only for doing a certain number of hours of teaching but also for setting up the program. At least that is my opinion as to what the obligations of the head of an English department involve. The head should of course ask the others, the vacataires, what they think of the program before they start and should taken into consideration any valid suggestions. We have short meetings where the vacataires voice their opinions and contribute their favorite activities, which they think the whole team will enjoy using. I make it a point to integrate as man,y of these original ideas as I possibly can, into the program.

Teamwork – A difficult but rewarding task for everyone

Laura Lerner: Isn’t it time consuming, though, to have all these meetings?

Marianne Raynaud: Not if they are organized efficiently at convenient times.

Laura Lerner: Isn’t it though a rather simplistic way of going about things? If I understand correctly each teacher brings in a couple of favorite activities and then you photocopy them all together.

Marianne Raynaud: I don’t in any way consider “teamwork” as something simplistic. I even admit it is far more difficult than imposing a program. In the ideal situation each member of the team feels he or she is both contributing and receiving from others. In fact there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm engendered by the act of sharing and thus communicating.

Laura Lerner: But the final decision is yours, isn’t it?

Marianne Raynaud: Naturally since I have to materialize the projects i.e. get the booklets, cassettes and other teaching material ready for actual use in class. But getting back to what I was saying before, the final core curriculum, based on all these varied contributions, is the responsibility of the head of department. The head has to take certain decisions and make the course coherent. Another important point is that this Core Curriculum or syllabus should be given to the students in written form at the beginning of each term or each year if possible. I showed you the most recent one for first year during one of our last conversations. You can look at it again if you so wish (cf. Yr1_Curriculum_T1.pdf /Yr1_Curriculum_T1.doc).

Laura Lerner: It certainly looks dense for a 48-hour course!

Marianne Raynaud: During my first years at ENSERG the core curriculum was not quite that dense, but the essential idea had already been accepted, that of having all the teachers working together on one and the same program.

A strong, valid Core Curriculum

Laura Lerner: When did you feel you had a really strong, worthwhile core curriculum?

Marianne Raynaud: That’s a very good question indeed! The first years I was completely involved with editing tapes for the three separate years of study. I was in charge of the teaching at ENSERG, and most my time was actually devoted to composing the contents of these tapes (writing the exercises or the tape scripts) and having the texts recorded by native speakers. All this entailed a great deal of work. The tapes were ready only at best the day before a class or at times the hour before! Making three new 30-minute tapes each week was a real challenge and without the devoted efforts of certain vacataires I would never been able to meet the deadlines I had set for myself.

Laura Lerner: So the teachers must have had to ad lib (improvise) a bit if they got their tapes (cassettes) just before the class was to begin.

Marianne Raynaud: Right! They knew I would come up with a tape. And I never failed to do so, but I was generally explaining things orally to them just 5 minutes before the class, which was mighty nerve-wracking both for them and for myself! But this was a temporary situation. Later on when I had managed to build up a stock of tapes and could work on exercises intended for the coming weeks and not just the immediate days, I managed to communicate to the teachers the contents of a lesson several days or even a week before the class. Yes, those first years were terribly stressful. Frankly speaking, during the first years of "production" I couldn’t really think rationally. I used what I had found myself, what the vacataires had recorded for me and whatever new ideas I or the team had come up with. My goal was to accomplish the feat of delivering each week not a baby but a valid trouble-free cassette for each one of the three courses: 1st, 2nd and 3rd! It was exhausting, but I was young and filled with determination…

To read more and get all the files that Marianne refers to go to "QualityTime-ESL - The Digital Resource Book"

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