Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What I learned from a French teacher

I was watching an online video produced for Canadian public-school French teachers in one of the western provinces.  Because that province has several different options for French teaching, they have produced a series of 15-minute videos explaining and comparing them.  This one was about core French (so just "regular" French classes) at the middle school level, and it showed both students working and comments from teachers.  One of the teachers said something like this:  "I used to plan my lessons around what I wanted the students to hear me saying.  Now I plan around what I want them to be able to say."

To clarify that, she did not mean parroting back phrases or canned dialogues.  Her students now spend a lot of their class time talking with partners and in groups, asking questions and answering them, in planned "situations" or just in friendly French chitchat.  The middle schoolers in the video were having conversations on the level of "What time does the movie start?" "6:30."  "I can't come then, I have to do my homework."  "Should we go later?" and so on.  This may not seem particularly profound, but it certainly beats only being able to talk about the plume of your tante.  She (and other teachers) mentioned the challenge of getting students to take risks in the target language--being encouraged to try.  It's a bit like being given a verbal blank page, instead of a worksheet.

I thought that what she was saying made perfect sense, in situations outside of language teaching.  Sometimes the way school subjects are taught seems like a swimming class where the teacher talks about swimming and demonstrates swimming, but the students never go into the pool themselves.  Of course we wouldn't put up with such a silly class at the Y--so why does it seem like such a fresh idea for school classes to take a hands-on, or in this case mouths-on, approach?

When I used more open-ended math materials with my Squirrelings, I found that evaluating what they were actually learning each day was not always obvious or immediate; but they really were learning.  It would be nice to think, even with math, that every answer has one method and one solution, that there are arithmetic and algebra and geometry and they're quite distinct; and that, really, all you have to do is keep assigning lesson after lesson and that sooner or later they'll know everything they're supposed to know.  In other words, that everything has an answer key, that you can check everything off and move on to history.

You can either settle for routine and memorization, or you can take some risks, let the students go right into the water and see if they've learned enough to at least dog-paddle. Teaching in a more natural, open-ended way is more challenging, riskier, than just filling in the blanks.  But the rewards are also greater...what we struggled to achieve using traditional methods, we may find now coming naturally.

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