As a new teacher, I subscribed to the belief that my students were blank slates and that it was incumbent upon me to fill their minds with all of the knowledge that I had acquired in my study of French. Time and experience have dispelled that notion. Instead, in much the same way that people hire guides to take them mountain climbing or river rafting, I have come to think of myself as a sort of guide to learning. I no longer believe that my students are blank slates, but I do believe that they often do not understand their own learning processes and that, for them, mastery of a subject is simply a “hit or miss” proposition. You have good tests and you have bad tests. You win some and you lose some. I believe that learning something means making it my own. When I have learned a concept, it becomes a part of my identity. It is this notion that I strive to impart to my students. I don’t want them to regurgitate my opinions on a topic. I want them to be able to formulate and to articulate their own opinions. I want the knowledge that I share with them to become a part of them.
As a French teacher, I am not only instructing my students in how to speak a language. I am sharing with them a culture that, while it shares many elements in common with our own, is nonetheless unique, diverse and fascinating in its richness. It is outside the realm of my students’ experience. Although I believe that the only way to truly appreciate a culture is to live within it, I understand that most of my students will never have the opportunity to live in France or anywhere else in the Francophone world. It is for this reason that I am passionate about taking students to France. When I leave for Europe with a group of students, I always tell their parents to look long and hard at their children, because the children who come back will be vastly different from the ones who are leaving. I truly believe that immersion in other cultures not only should be, but also must be a life-changing experience if real learning is to happen. It is for this reason that I cringe when I hear a teacher talk about taking students to a country of whose language and culture he is ignorant. I fear that the students’ experience, although undoubtedly enjoyable, will be vastly inferior to what it could and should be.
As a lifelong learner and an experienced teacher, I knowfirsthand that doing is vastly more effective than telling. The primary goal I set for my students is to achieve proficiency in French. I focus on useful and meaningful communication in the target language as often as possible. As a new teacher, I relied heavily on a textbook. I wanted to make sure that I gave my students “the right answers.” I know now that the right answer should not always be the goal because it does not always allow for self-expression. If I think of proficiency in French as our destination, the activities that I have the students engage in are the journey. I want that journey to be exciting, memorable and enjoyable,so I use games, films, music, short stories, novels, art, poetry and whatever else I can get my hands on to make it so. I had the pleasure of teaching my nephew, who, at the end of his study of high school French, remarked that,while he had enjoyed himself thoroughly in my classes, did not believe that he had learned a whole lot. We did, after all, play a lot of games, listen to music and watch movies. When he began his first college French class, he was shocked to discover that he was surprisingly proficient. He said that I had tricked him into learning. That, in a nutshell, is my goal.