When I was a middle-school student, the prospect of learning another language meant the opening of a new world of options – the possibility of future travel, of communicating with people with a different perspective, of understanding another culture from the inside, of experiencing a different way of living, and even of "inventing" a new French personality, a less shy, more adventurous version of my seventh-grade self. (My French name, Lisette, seemed to belong to someone who was outgoing and worldly.) My introductory French classes consisted of memorized dialogs and verb conjugations, writing exercises, translations, and many, many notes – it was the heyday of the audio-lingual method. The method of instruction and the requirements for students were not so different from those of other subject area classes taught in my school – teachers instructed, students took notes and answered questions. This didn't seem boring – we were used to memorization and to spending most of our class-time writing. The fact that we were working – speaking and writing – in a different language made it challenging and engaging.
Now, student engagement is the challenge I face on a daily basis. I teach middle-school French at the Engineering and Science University Magnet School (ESUMS),
an interdistrict STEM magnet school in New Haven, CT. My students, mostly boys, are either from the inner-city or from the surrounding suburban districts. Parents, especially those of boys, are attracted to our school's small size (80-90 students per grade), along with the STEM theme and a hands-on approach to teaching. This reflects research supporting the belief that smaller schools benefit student achievement, engagement, individualized attention, and interaction with teachers.
The gender disparity in the school population (ratio of boys to girls) is evidence of the national trend of girls having less confidence in their math and science abilities (but not less ability) and less interest in pursuing careers in these fields.
The focus at ESUMS is on engineering, which is a core academic class, along with science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies. These classes emphasize problem-solving, collaborative group work, and hands-on learning activities. World languages, although a district academic requirement for middle-school students, are scheduled as "electives" rather than core subjects at my school. As such, my students assume that there will be little class- or home-work, that the focus of the class will be "exploring" and talking about the language rather than writing and conversing
the language, and that little or no effort will be required of them. Instead, many of these students, who often excel in their science, engineering, and math classes, find that French is a difficult course for them, requiring study and frequent practice. They have little or no experience with memorization, not having grown up as I did with reciting multiplication tables, to say nothing of verb conjugations.
Even before my training as a language teacher, I realized that academic exploration of literature, detailed grammar study, and memorized dialogs do not lead to fluency. Walking into a shop in Paris, during my junior year abroad, I discovered that the ability to analyze and dissertate on a French text was no help when trying to do something as simple as buying a spoon. (What was the word for spoon? Had I ever learned that? How could all those years of study desert me in my moment of need?) Whereas my language instruction was based on repetition, rote memorization, replacement drills, and, later, on advanced grammar, linguistics, and literary analysis, what I really needed was the ability to communicate with actual French speakers – to use the language that I had spent so much time and effort learning.
The New Haven district curriculum is a task-based, contextual and communicative approach to language instruction. Vocabulary and grammar are taught in the context of situations that students may encounter in conversation – talking and writing about themselves, their families, their homes, their towns, their likes and dislikes, and their activities. The focus is on communication – understanding and being understood. My students think this means listening and, occasionally, speaking in French, but not writing. Talking with classmates in very basic conversations might be an entertaining and sometimes productive practice. Yet, in order to move beyond a few simple phrases, students need to learn and master additional vocabulary and grammar. As with all good instruction, there must be a balance: some things just have to be memorized for ease of retrieval so that students can begin to create with language; some things just have to be written down to be committed to long-term memory. (A recent article in
The New York Times-Science Times
stressed the importance of handwriting to retaining information learned.
) With this curriculum unit, I hope to help students lose their resistance to note-taking and to replace their tendency to translate back into English everything they learn in French by relating vocabulary instead to pictures, literally tapping into their impulses to doodle. The artwork has been chosen to appeal to students raised on graphic novels and video games.