Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When immersion doesn't mean immersion: How not to organize a French class for children, part I

1.  Be suspicious when a woman you have never met overhears you talking about French, tells you that she's teaching a French-themed music day camp for ages 6-10, and asks if she can hire you to teach the French immersion lesson portion of the camp.

Why?  Because a person who is willing to hire a complete stranger to spend time with your children without even asking for a CV or background check is perhaps not someone you want organizing a camp for kids.  And because if one aspect of the planning makes you go, "hmmm, that seems odd," then you can probably expect more "hmmmm"s (and even a few "WTF"s).

(For the record, in case any future employers are perusing this blog, I should state that my background checks are flawless and my CV and references confirm that I have been teaching or tutoring since age 22.)

2.  When the only directions that the organizer gives you is that you should prepare fun 30-minute lessons with songs that will lead into a little performance on the last day, don't think, "Wow!  She has confidence in my abilities and isn't going to micro-manage!"  

Rather, ask yourself why she hasn't shared more about what she is anticipating, explained how your class fits into the big picture of the music camp, or given you anything in writing.

3.  Don't spend a week's worth of naptimes developing a series of lessons plans centered around a French folktale, finding pictures to illustrate the story, making puppets and cute little activity sheets, and choosing songs that mirror the setting and characters in the story.  And don't bother typing up the song lyrics and making a little packet for the kids to take home.

Because it will turn out that the camp enrollment is so low that the organizer ends up letting in kids as young as four and five.  So all those materials you create under the assumption that participants know how to read?  Well, they don't, so you will need to make changes along the way.  A lot of changes.

4.  Even after your first class, when you go all out with your puppets and songs and stories and time-tested techniques for conveying meaning in the target language without ever resorting to English, getting the campers engaged and participating while the organizer does paperwork and chats with parents, don't think for a minute that you're doing a good job.

Because the organizer will call you at home at 8:00 pm that night and tell you that she has "received complaints" that the children didn't understand what you were saying, that she was expecting you to teach "songs and games and French culture," not whatever it was that you actually did (remember, she didn't actually observe your class, and neither did the parents), and that she doesn't understand why you spoke French the whole time in the class.

Well, you will explain, it's because she specifically hired you to teach a French immersion class.  And you did indeed use songs and a story and a game from France.  Which she would have noticed.  Had she or any of the other music teachers been present.

Then she will protest, "But I didn't meant that you shouldn't speak English!"

But, dear clueless lady, that's what "immersion" means.

5. Dear clueless Sarah, if you ever agree to do something like this again, please get directions in writing and submit your lesson plans for approval ahead of time!  (And ask for more money, while you're at it.)

Coming soon: part II, wherein she tells me to "do French games like 'Red Light, Green Light' and off-handedly mentions that the performance at the end of the week will also need to include music that the campers have learned this week.

Followed by part III, wherein I share the lesson plan for my cool contextualized five-part class about the French folktale, plus some video clips of the campers' performance.

And then we'll conclude with a happy ending: a description of the wonderful French day camp that my son attended at a local private school later that summer!


  1. Wow. You have left me tres speechless.

  2. Wow. How awful! Looking forward to the next parts - especially what will be, knowing you, a wonderful example of lesson plans for teaching French to non-native speakers. So sorry you had to go through this!

    1. A lot of it was my own fault! (But thank you for your kind words, Carol.) Stay tuned....

  3. "...doesn't understand why you spoke French the whole time..." So frustrating! This has happened to me so many times teaching English in Russia. It is just expected that a translation will follow. "Okay, but what's the Russian equivalent?" Again and again people ask for "real" English lessons, practice with a native speaker, etc. etc. And when I enter the classroom speaking English, oh horror! I do think there are ways to set the stage, maybe tell the students ahead of time what language will be spoken in the classroom. But in general I think the immersion approach is great and I applaud you for implementing it! Looking forward to exploring your blog more!

  4. Hi Sarah,
    I've been reading your blog for a while. I'm a French teacher in NJ and have a 7 month old daughter, Charlotte, with whom I speak exclusively in French. You are my inspiration to raise her bilingually!
    It sounds like you had a wonderful lesson planned and that you did exactly what your employer initially asked for.
    I think people like the idea of "immersion" in theory but in practice, it can be tricky to manage if you have complete beginners.
    I'm wondering where you stand on Comprehensible Input techniques like TPRS. With these techniques, you can establish meaning using English (as well as gestures and images). I'm of the opinion that using English is not taboo if it aids in comprehension and lowers anxiety (many students will feel anxiety when they do not understand). Just wonering what your thoughts are. You avemore experience thatn I do with teacher young learners. I teach 5th-8th grades but have a new job teaching 5&6 year olds starting tomorrow!