Friday, February 13, 2015

teaching tots and telling tales

So there we were, my friend Carol and I, in front of our brand new class--French for ages 0-5--relieved that five students signed up and the course was actually going to happen.  There we were with our contextualized lesson plans, props, puppets, songs, and stories.  And there in front of us, sprawled on the mat, clinging to a parent, snoozing, or nursing, were our distracted, drooling, diapered students.

Ages 0-5?  All of these kids are either 0 or 1!  We actually have seven-month-olds in our class!

So this population brings a fun challenge: how to teach an interactive language class to children who don't talk yet?!

(Here's a hint: that means no arts and crafts this semester.  Babies plus scissors and glue equals very unhappy parents.)

Fortunately, Carol and I both have years of experience engaging babies while speaking French, so we'll manage just fine.  Mais quelle surprise!

This week was bookended by French: our new class on Monday morning, my new storytime on Friday afternoon.  Or rather, my resurrected French storytime at the Lafayette Public Library.  After over a year's sabbatical, it was time to bring it back, warts and all.

(What warts?  Oh, like how it started with a group of us taking turns leading storytime, and ended up with me, just me, every time, and how I'm not a native speaker, and how my voice was not made for leading songs, and my kids didn't always cooperate, and attendance was spotty.  Those warts.)

Anyway, I'm making two major changes this time around: instead of a twice-a-month storytime, it will happen just once (the second Friday afternoon of the month at 4:00), but now I'm bringing in an additional activity for older kids.  We're going to try a playdate in French!  Kids ages 5-10 (and their grown-ups) can drop in on the fourth Sunday afternoon from 2:00-4:00 to play board games, do crafts, build Legos, and so forth.  

Selfishly, I'm thinking that this sort of event will really appeal to Griffin, but mostly I just want to create an environment for kids where their focus is on what they're playing or creating together, not the fact that their moms want them to speak French to each other.  This will hopefully make everyone less self-conscious.  And hopefully the parents will be happy to hang out and supervise while they sip coffee and chat.  In French!  (Cue Sarah's gleeful squeal.)

So many books...
So storytime today went remarkably well.  Despite not much publicity, nine families attended, and all of them understood well enough that the moms were able to sing along to some of our songs, they laughed  at the right places in the funny story, and I didn't have to translate or explain anything in English.  It is such a treat to work with kids who have already been exposed to French!   


  1. I love your posts about storytimes, they are really inspiring! How long does your storytime normally last?

    1. Thank you! Our storytimes are typically 25-30 minutes long, which is standard for most of the others at the library as well; only the baby and toddler storytimes end after 20 minutes because of such short attention spans.

      If you're thinking about starting one, you might want to check out this post, wherein I describe how ours began:

  2. This article inspired me to start a French storytime in our local library. I went down and was given the e-mail address of the supervisor by some enthusiastic under-librarians. Weeks went by with no reply, so I went down there again to make sure I'd had the address correct. An apologetic, slightly condescending Head Children's Librarian told me, in a professional, polite way, that French was a useless language on the West Coast, that nobody would come to my story time, none of the children would pay attention, and I would get discouraged, quit, and be a great big waste of her time.
    I was upset when I left, but part of me knows she has some valid points! I am going to start a story time/sing-along at a local indoor play and learning center and face all of those challenges... except people will have to pay to attend this one. We'll see how it goes!

    1. As a library staff member, I am appalled by your librarian's dismissive, insulting attitude! I agree with Carol's comments below that she doesn't have valid points and recommend that you share Carol's links with her!

      Here's a west coast French success story, by the way: my former-student-turned-friend Dory moved to Portland, opened her own French immersion daycare/preschool, rallied families to petition the school board to open a public French immersion elementary school (though she had to do a lot of the research and paperwork and publicity herself), and lo and behold, when her oldest son aged out of preschool, the school was open and ready. And her immersion preschool is doing so well that she has hired a handful of native speakers to teach there and her husband was able to quit her day job!

      the childcare center:

      the charter school:

    2. Jana, you might try to convince the library that there is genuine demand for French activities in your area by developing a list of interested families to show her the next time you propose French storytimes (see, I'm thinking optimistically here). Carol and I set up a French kids' group and a Facebook page (which amassed 100+ likes in just a couple of weeks).

      You could figure out how many of the "likers" are local and add their names to the list of people that register for the meetup group, and then have proof to show the library!

      Let us know how it goes. Bon courage!

    3. Welp, I've been doing my story time (which is really just me reading one or two books, very slowly, and with lots of interruptions in between) to non-francophone preschoolers and their non-francophone parents. I've actually been surprised that we have anywhere from 2-6 kids each week (counting 2 of mine)! Considering it costs $5 per child to attend, this is not bad!
      I've been surprised, since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, at how little connection there is in the French-speaking parent community, and also at the lack of interest in learning. There is a large Meetup group which never meets up. I have been teaching kids' classes for nearly a year now which never have more than 3 students in them, and the retention rate is low, although everyone says they enjoy the class and the price is very good! Hmm...

    4. Sorry for the delay in my reply! Indeed, getting that many non-francophone families who are willing to pay $5 for storytime is very cool.

      I'm surprised too to hear about the lack of motivation among the francophones (and would-be francophones) in your area. Strange. But know that you're doing your part to help develop people's interest, pique their curiosity, share silly puppets with their children….good for you for persevering! Bon courage, and keep in touch!

  3. Yes, babies are a whole different "game", aren't they? But fun and super cute, and hard to resist. So glad to be your partner in crime in this language adventure, dear Sarah!

    Jana, I'm saddened to hear the view taken on French by the Head Children's Librarian where you are, and wish you luck in pursuing this elsewhere. I disagree - I don't believe she's made any valid points. I've seen French storytimes work in many places, most recently San Diego and Colorado. I would add that French is a very useful language, one that many people are very interested in learning, and here are a few links to back that up:

    (Hope you don't mind me doing that, Sarah, I just hate it when people say French is useless!)(And I'm bothered that this librarian seems to believe foreign language story telling in general is a waste of time that no children would pay attention to!)

    1. Me too, Carol! And now that we've met with them four times, it's getting easier--and more fun--to wave our puppets in the babies' faces and sing to them. I loved watching them lunge for your "Ours brun, dis-moi" book!

  4. I just started a French class for 18 month to 2-year-olds in my town, and I am definitely interested in any ideas and advice you have, since it sounds like you and Carol have been working this gig for longer. While I have some peluches, it would seem that puppets are key... Any other thoughts? So far, we mostly sing, move around, and impersonate animals...

    And I completely agree that even in small towns (like mine), there IS interest in learning French. And any librarian worth the name should be interested in literacy, 21st century skills, and brain development, and exposing young kids to French promotes all of these things.

    1. Here's Stephanie's (very impressive!) website about her French classes for kids:

      I would totally bring my children to her classes! (Or, even better, send them with my monolingual children.)

      Stephanie, basing your classes around stuffies/puppets, music, and movement sounds perfect. I assume that you're doing stuff like "Jacques a dit" (Simon Says), maybe "Mr. Shark" or "123 Soleil," and probably doing the movements that fit the songs you sing ("Tourne tourne petit moulin," "Mains en l'air," and so forth).

      I really like bringing a book or two into the class to establish the theme and create an extended context. (Sometimes I just translate a picture book in English if I can't find a French one that fits the theme.) That way, we can revisit the book(s) over the term and do new stuff with them while reviewing the old material.

      Carol and I also like to include some sort of toy or game or simple "bricolage" in each lesson, because it takes the focus off the teacher. The kids play in small groups while we teachers circulate and interact, bombarding them with lots of contextualized input in French, naming, repeating, questioning, making deliberately false statements to see if the kids catch our "mistakes," singing bits of a song they already knew, etc.

      Hey, what are your mixed-age classes like? Right now I'm doing private lessons for a four-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a nine-year-old, and it's rough when one of the students can't read yet but the older boy doesn't want to sing and dance with the others!