Wednesday, February 05, 2014

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

Now, to be fair, it should have occurred to me to wonder what the campers' parents understood about the first half hour of their children's French-themed violin day camp, if they realized that a separate teacher had been hired to do a series of French immersion lessons with the  kids each morning.

Dear reader, they had not.  According to the shockingly short description of the camp, we would "Celebrate the rich culture of France through music, art, and games."

So of course some of the kids and parents were taken aback when I bonjour-ed them, puppet in hand*, invited them to sit on my Tour Eiffel blanket, and started singing and holding up pictures of les animaux in the song.  And continued thusly, even reading them an entire story, entirely in French.  For a demie heure.

(Note: the camp organizer and the other main teacher were not taken aback because they weren't actually observing my lesson, much less participating in it.  Which made her criticism of my approach especially hard to swallow.)

(Another note: You may recall that she told me over the phone that she had no idea that I would actually be speaking in French for the "French immersion class" that I had been asked to teach.  When I stopped sputtering, I gently reminded her what "immersion" means.  Her response?  "Well, a lot of fields use specialized vocabulary that doesn't mean the same thing to a layperson."  Fair enough--but not teaching.  And not "immersion."  Immersion always means immersion.)

My husband, who is very smart and puts his engineering mind and management experience to work when he sees me in distress, pointed out that had I known that the campers didn't know what to expect, I could have started the class much differently.  That is, the organizer could have introduced me to the group, explained why I was there and what I was doing, and so forth, so that the madame with the marionnette didn't seem quite so freaky.  Moreover, it would have been so much better if we had built in a "debriefing" time afterwards so that I could answer questions in English and highlight what I wanted them to take away from the lesson.

But how does my monolingual rocket scientist** husband know about the importance of debriefing in English after an initial language immersion lesson?  

Because that's what we did on our fourth date.  But that's another story.***

Anyway, whenever I taught French 101, I barraged the students with the language from the minute they walked in the porte with my excrutiatingly-well-prepared lesson designed to show them how much they can indeed glean without any English translations or explanations at all, relying on gestures, drawings, photos, cognates, and context.  And then afterwards, we would talk (in English) about how they acquired their first language via immersion (listening for 2+ years before forming coherent sentences) and how I would do my best to recreate that experience (but speed it up) in my class and what strategies they could use to make it a little easier on them and how to let me know that I needed to slow down or spend more time on a topic.

I should have realized that if I needed to be that explicit with college students, I certainly needed to explain and debrief with these four-to-ten year olds!

So that's what I did first thing on my second day of camp.  I also handed out colorful paper question marks on popsicle sticks that the kiddos could hold up whenever they didn't understand, and I told them that while everything I said while we were sitting on the Eiffel Tower blanket would be in French, I could also step off it and speak English.

Additionally, I swallowed my objections and included non-French games from them on.  With only 30 minutes a day, I wanted to maximize our French time, but the camp organizer insisted that I play familiar games like "Red Light, Green Light" and "Duck, Duck, Goose" in French with the campers. With some creative license, I even figured out how to make them all fit the theme I had picked for the class (based on the story that we were "studying")!

Speaking of that theme, I had already planned to revisit the story each day so that the children would be able to perform it as a little skit on the last day of the camp--the one explicit request that the organizer had made when she hired me.  But during that fateful phone call after my first class, she added that our French skit needed to be integrated with the music lessons that she was doing with the students.  Except that only one of them had ever touched a violin before, so they didn't know how to play anything yet, much less, say, one of the French folk songs that I was already teaching them to sing to accompany the story.

I know I used this image in my previous post about the camp, but it's too perfect not to include again.

Stay tuned for part III of this series, in which I do figure out how to make the play work with performances by the beginning violin students and also vow never to teach this camp again (at least, not for the $75 they paid me for the week).

(Feel like you're missing something?  Read part I of this series here.)

*Whenever I tutor children in French, I bring along a puppet named "Henri" who sings, dances, demonstrates, repeats after me, and (on a good day) makes them laugh.  I highly recommend that you find your own Henri if you're teaching another language to your own children!

**Oh, haven't I mentioned that he's an aerospace systems engineer?

***And one of my favorite ones, at that.


  1. Oh Sarah! You are an angel for doing all that work for so little pay and for doing it so well. It sounds like the expectations were so vague, but obviously you are doing your best to adapt. Bravo et courage!

    1. Merci, Michelle!

      I just realized that I had never added your site to my blogroll, but I know I have read it before! Looking forward to catching up on your archives.

  2. Sorry to hear that :C Sarah, you're the expert, why don't you organize a small camp?

  3. This is both the funniest and most painful thing I've read all week! Dear camp organizer, if you really didn't know what "immersion" meant, then why did you use it when hiring someone for a job? (Wait, don't tell us - we already know the answer, bless that woman's little heart).

    I'm dying to know if there's a second or third phone call coming, asking you to stop actually speaking French altogether, and I don't know, just tell them about France. Or maybe just talk about Canada since that's closer? Or actually, shouldn't it be Spanish? And in only 15 minutes, since after all the violin lessons aren't going as well as initially predicted? Actually, can't you just help teach them the violin?!?

    I can't wait to hear how it all ends. Good for you for sticking with it and with professionalism, too.

    1. "Bless that woman's little heart" -- thank you for making me smile!

      This summer's camp: Humming the Marseillaise While Wearing a Beret and Pretending to Play the Violin Using a Baguette as a Bow

  4. I can't wait to hear how this week ends. It sounds like something I would somehow get myself into.

    1. But that means we are motivated, creative, helpful people, right?! Thinking on our feet and out of the box....

  5. Funny and interesting...I wish you were in my area. Have tried forever to get some who can engage my kids...I get resumes from people who have never even worked with kids :(

    1. Thanks, Salma--it's good to hear from you! (I didn't recognize you as "Party of 5" at first.) Congratulations on the safe arrival of your newest rainbow baby!

      Thanks, but I cringe when I think back about the first few young kids I tutored in French. I really didn't know what I was doing, like expecting four- and five-year-olds to sit still for 45 minutes, to read, to memorize vocabulary words! Motherhood is great training for developing skills and strategies to help children acquire language, isn't it?!

  6. Thanks, Zara May, and congratulations on your pregnancy!