Meet Emma Bardos-Gernez, the Head of Language and Literature at ! In this interview, we delve into Emma’s journey, her role at , her passion for what she does, and the unique perspectives she brings to our community in Oxford. She teaches French literature, French language, self-taught, and Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and she has an M.Phil. in Literature with a specialization in the 18th century and Voltaire, and complemented her teacher training (PGCE) in the UK. Get to know Emma through reading more below!
Meet Emma Gernez, Head of Language and Literature
Can you share a bit about your journey from France to the UK and how it has influenced your approach to teaching and working at an international boarding school?
Failing the French competitive exam that leads to teaching in France is one of the best things that could have happened to me, as it triggered in part my decision to come to England. To this day, I still cannot understand how knowing the etymology of a word from the 11th century, translating Julius Cesar, or writing a 7h long essay about dream symbolism in Crime and Punishment could possibly have prepared me to be in front of a classroom.
It certainly gave me an excellent grounding in literature and analysis but, in France, I would have become the elitist “Me versus Them teacher” that is still the norm and it has never been what I wanted. I have always been more of a “Me with Them teacher”, which the UK and IB educational systems have nurtured. Where the French system taught me to squash and to always have the last word, my teaching journey in England and in particular taught me to be growing with them, to adapt to their needs and to never judge them.
EF Academy Oxford students come from all over the world and have various cultural backgrounds, how do you tailor your teaching methods to approach a diverse range of perspectives and artistic experiences in your classroom?
I give students the center stage in the classroom and get them to see that their level of contribution and engagement is directly linked to their final grade. I refrain from giving them lectures or lists of things they need to memorize by heart as it is pointless in literature. It is their interpretation, their understanding, their reflections, the links they make between texts that will lead to them to producing their best work. I tend to emphasize skills over content since skills are forever and infinitely adaptable to all sorts of contexts.
I ask a lot of questions and they make their own answers, their own content, letting their personalities influence their answers. I also focus on creative tasks like creating an Instagram profile of a character from a book, creating an advert for a certain target audience or imagining an alternative ending to a book. These kinds of tasks allows students to have fun and a high degree of personal input. It also allows me to see how deep their understanding is.
One class where diverse cultural backgrounds makes it all the more interesting is Theory of Knowledge. In TOK we evaluate how we know things and reflect on questions and implications raised by news items or ethical dilemmas. What I love most in TOK is when students who had a fixed point of view see themselves confronted by other perspectives from students from a different country and suddenly realize answers are not as easy as they had thought. This is critical thinking taking shape and it would be more challenging if all students had the same country and the same background.
What is the best thing about your job?
There are three! First the students, especially to see how they flourish in a relatively short time frame. Independently of grades, students are on a journey and it’s a pleasure observing how they mature, how they acquire skills for life, how they figure out challenges, how they develop their personalities. Because our class sizes are small, it means a relationship develops between teacher and students and knowing them is a privilege that I would not have in a larger school.
I also enjoy the flexibility I have as a teacher to tailor a course to a particular class. If a class doesn’t want to do a book, I give them another choice, or if I think they can do a more challenging book than the one I had in mind, I go for it. As Head of Language and Literature, I enjoy giving the same flexibility to my colleagues. Teaching the books, texts and topics we want to teach is what makes everyone better teachers and I am happy to be part of a fantastic team on that front.
Finally, one of the best things is the extracurricular TED talk club I lead every week. In this club, it’s a pleasure to see students find what they are passionate about and develop it into a TED talk. Even those who will not do a public talk at the end gain from it, and I can see a side to the students I don’t see in the classroom.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
My biggest challenge is to find books and material that are engaging and relevant to students in a world where new modes of reading are taking over what I knew as the norm. I am torn between getting a class to discover the many gems of the literary world and questioning their significance. My background is literature analysis in a canonical sort of way but with students, analysing Banksy, graphic novels or videos works much better and it’s a direction I want to explore more. We are at a time where traditional ways of teaching are being challenged and I’m all for embracing the new. I would be ecstatic if, before I retire, students had the opportunity to choose a kind of exam that suits them best instead of the perennial essay exam boards insist on.
Do you have any favorite books or genres to teach in your literature classes? Why are those especially interesting to teach?
I like teaching plays since it’s easy to make it alive in lessons by asking students to read the different parts. Macbeth has long been one of my favorite plays and it is still very relevant to the modern world if we swap witches for, say, social media. I also enjoy teaching dystopias as they tell many truths about our society. The Handmaid’s tale is particularly engaging because Atwood invented nothing of what happens in the book, taking inspiration from various totalitarian rules human beings once imposed on other human beings. I try to choose themes that can speak to teenagers such as injustice, the representation of women or the world of work and I’m open to their suggestions too.
In your opinion, what makes EF Academy Oxford and its community special?
Undoubtedly the quality of the relationships that take place within the school community. It’s a small school with a family feel. Every member of staff, both academic and pastoral, right up to the deputy head and the head of school fosters positive relationships with students. The other thing is, of course, the immense variety of cultural backgrounds within the school. It’s always humbling and perspective shifting to discover the great diversity of cultural practices and ideas in the world. We hold an annual culture fair to highlight a few of these practices but what makes EF Academy special is that it’s a culture fair all year round!
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