|"D'accord, maman, you can take a picture of me with Gwyneth, but I need to concentrate on my iPad game. I'm too busy to smile right now. I'm wearing my Tintin t-shirt and have my arm around ma petite soeur--that's as good as it's going to get."|
For almost a year now, Griffin and I have off and on attended a small French class for preschoolers taught by a native speaker. To my delight (and relief), he finally grew comfortable and confident enough to join in on the songs and dances and rhymes that the teacher led. (My independent garçon has always resisted doing what people--namely his parents--want him to do, especially if it involves any sort of performing. A shame, since he's quite the singer and dancer with us at home!) But how much did he learn?
Here are my impressions of the first class, by the way.
The classes met once a week for 40 minutes for six weeks, and we signed up for four separate sessions, which means he's attended twenty-some classes, starting just after he turned three. Although I grew less excited about them as the year progressed, I'm still glad we had the experience. My decline in enthusiasm comes from the fact that each set of classes was more or less identical, not just in format, but in content as well. It seems like each session had a class on clothing, on family members, on farm animals, on zoo animals, and on food. Each time we "studied" farm animals, for example, we played with little figurines and did the same two puzzles (a barn and a cow).
And if Griffin hadn't already been a French speaker, this would have been fine, because we all need repetition to learn. But since he already knew his numbers, letters, colors, and vocabulary for everyday life and what interests a toddler, he definitely didn't need the direct instruction with flashcards or the frequent repetition. Moreover, he was usually the oldest child in the class, which meant he was more verbal to begin with.
We took about four months off class when I was massively pregnant and then after Gwyneth was born. (But every now and then, Griffin would ask to have a French class at home!) Coming back at the end of the year, we expected the class to have evolved and changed some. However, I realized that the first class in November was going to be more or less a copy of the farm lesson, which meant the rest of the classes would probably be the same too.
Nevertheless, I wanted Griffin to keep attending, because having him listen to and interact with a native speaker for 40 minutes is so valuable to me. (Plus, at four months, Gwyneth has been paying more and more attention to the world around her, so it wouldn't hurt to expose her to the teacher's words and songs!)
|"If I could talk, I'd tell you that I love life and that the words on my onesie mean 'kisses'!"|
When I taught first-year French classes at Colorado State University, my classes would frequently be a melange of true beginners and people who had studied French or lived in a francophone country years before and students who had recently finished as many as six years of middle and high school French (and either failed the placement exam on their own or deliberately threw it so as to ensure an easy A in one of their courses).
My colleagues and I would try to get the students who already knew the basics enrolled into other classes, but it didn't always work, leaving us with the challenge of keeping the experienced students interested but not intimidating the new ones who were pronouncing "hors-d'oeuvre" as "horse devour."
The solution? Differentiated instruction.
Let's let Dr. Wikipedia tell us about this approach:
- Differentiated instruction involves providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and to developing teaching materials so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.
- Differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson (as cited by Ellis, Gable, Greg, & Rock, 2008, p. 32), is the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning”. Differentiation stems from beliefs about differences among learners, how they learn, learning preferences and individual interests (Anderson, 2007). "Research indicates that many of the emotional or social difficulties gifted students experience disappear when their educational climates are adapted to their level and pace of learning." Differentiation in education can also include how a student shows that they have mastery of a concept. This could be through a research paper, role play, podcast, diagram, poster, etc. The key is finding how your students learn and displays their learning that meets their specific needs.
Full disclosure: This is hard as hell, I never did a very good job of it, and I deeply admire those who have learned how to meet their students' needs in this way. Can you imagine doing this in, say, a class of 35 middle school math students, or a high school English class where the assessments include multiple-page essays to grade, when the teacher has four different classes to prepare for each and every day? Chapeau, teachers. They don't pay you enough. Not nearly enough.
Anyway, back to Griffin's French class. After watching, for the fourth time this year, Griffin give the plastic chicken figure back to the teacher when she asked for the poule, I asked the teacher if she could modify how she spoke to Griffin in class. Basically, I suggested that she use circumlocution and richer vocabulary when she addressed him--and she did!
For example, when she distributed colored cloths to the kids and then asked them to return them one color at a time, she would name the colors for the others ("donne-moi le tissu rouge") but say something like "donne-moi le tissu qui est la couleur des feuilles" [give me the cloth the color of leaves] when Griffin was holding the green one.
While I'm still not sure that he acquired many more words and expressions in French this way--she still used vocabulary he was pretty familiar with--it did take his input from i+0* to i+, say, .25. And I'm proud of myself for recognizing that something needed to change and finding a concrete solution that the teacher was receptive to.
|The kiddos' Halloween costumes had nothing to do with French:|
Griffin was a space shuttle and Gwyneth a chile pepper.
Here's my next idea: contact her to see if she would offer a class for preschoolers (ages three and four, rather than younger toddlers) who hear French on a regular basis. I picture something more like a typical preschool class or playgroup, just with the activities, songs, and books in French, where the teacher can assume that the kids already know a lot of the lexicon, so that she doesn't need to explicitly teach the words for shoes, dogs, bread, and so on.
And if she can't, maybe I should....after all, that's basically what my francophone maman friends and I are doing with our French storytime!
* "i+1" is shorthand for "comprehensible input," e.g., input in the target language that includes some information that the student understands but is still challenging enough for them to stretch and thus learn new stuff. "i+2" would be way over someone's head and thus very frustrating, while "i+0" indicates nothing new.