Thoughts about my best French class ever

Thoughts about my best French class ever

[box]Editor’s note: I had the pleasure of observing Maria Cochrane’s high school French classes at Summit Christian Academy in Newport News, and later attending her TPRS seminar. My colleague and I sat at the back of the room marveling as Mrs. Cochrane’s French 1 and 2 students invented story lines in French, just weeks into the school year. She wrote this article in April and has since moved to North Carolina, where she will be starting her 22nd year of teaching French at Carolina Day School in Asheville.[/box]

Maria CochraneBy Maria Cochrane, French teacher

This year (2012-2013), with a gem of a French 4 class, I have been blessed with the best of the best students I have ever experienced in my 21 years of teaching French. I credit the fluency these girls have achieved to a methodology called TPRS, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.

By 2001, 10 years of text-book French teaching had left me bored and frustrated.  Only certain “A” students could make it through the obstacles imposed on them by a structured textbook and come out into that open plain where they could actually speak French. Most students fell by the wayside, crushed by conjugations and bored, like me. It was easy to see that I was failing my C and below students. And even my brightest student wanted to soar and clearly couldn’t.

During that last year as a textbook teacher, I was gifted with an unanticipated crisis during my performance review.  After years of stellar evaluations, my school was suddenly talking about NOT renewing my contract. As often happens, this catastrophe turned out to be the best thing for me. I won a year’s reprieve and in October attended a program on TPRS.

Once I understood the concept, I was blown away by the possibility of reaching all my students, to include the bottom and the top achievers. TPRS’s premise is simple:  students learn their second language the way they learned their first – by absorbing what they hear and comprehend. Almost effortlessly, they pick up the language via meaningful bites or structures of high-frequency, useful language. Those structures must be repeated enough times to stick. That kind of repetition requires interesting contexts in order to hold students’ attention. Since most people find conversations about themselves fascinating, TPRS teachers talk to students about their lives and interests. Following this method, I unlocked myself from a textbook and learned to turn any content into digestible bite-sized pieces of comprehensible language.

What does my classroom look like now? We may start with a song or something in the news and then review the previous day’s story. The meat of the daily lesson is a new story, or Part 2 of yesterday’s saga.  What prep work do I do in my planning?   I select two or three essential structures in advance and post these on the board. (Example: “She wants to….” “He should…” “It’s important to….”). I ask questions to make sure these structures wind up in the story, while students’ imaginations provide the details. By the end of a story, the whiteboard might be covered with new words that students have requested.  But what they are required to retain and what I will repeatedly re-work are the essential structures I picked out. That’s the “cake”; the other vocab is the “icing.”  I am always open to new cake, if something becomes essential to that particular class.  That kind of freedom is part of why I like this methodology.

Over the course of the year, we talk about music lyrics and analyze current events – those within the school, our families, our community, the U.S. and the world. We talk about problems with teachers, parents and friends. We read about and discuss makeup and dresses during prom season, gifts for holidays and birthdays, sports when something big happens, hopes and fears about college. We create parallel imaginary characters to accompany the stories we read.  We devise alternate endings. We examine poetry, scripture, art and photos. We learn history together and pick apart the lives of famous people.

Nothing is off limits – and I’m talking about from day one!  As long as I go slowly and make sure that what I say is comprehensible, I can engage the students about anything. It reminds me of talking to my oldest son, Graham, as a child.  Since he was the first, I conversed with him as an adult; I just adjusted my mommy-talk language to be comprehensible. By age 3 or 4 he could talk about almost anything at quite a sophisticated level.

It’s the same way with my students. As I approach the end of my 21st year of teaching, I have three seniors in French IV who have shared a four-year French journey with me. These girls can truly speak French:

  • Elsa has used her French while babysitting for bilingual children. She also spent three weeks of immersion with a family last summer and took a short trip to Québec.
  • Audrey also spent a few days in Québec. She attended the Governor’s School for French after French 3.
  • Emmy had never spoken French outside of our classroom until a few weeks ago, when she accompanied classmates on their two-week Europe capstone study trip. On a train the French conductor mistook her for a native speaker.

Granted – these girls are exceptionally gifted and motivated. They love French, and I am passionate about providing them all they can learn. But let me assure you, the real secret to their success is neither the students nor the teacher, but getting enough input — highly engaging input – to turn them into speakers. If you’re interested in TPRS, Google it, attend a training seminar, or visit an experienced TPRS teacher’s classroom. Our brains will naturally pick up language. It’s not an intellectual pursuit.

True confession – we French teachers can be a snobbish bunch, n’est-ce pas?   But do we really want to scare off our clientele? Wouldn’t the ultimate coup de grâce be classrooms overflowing with students clamoring to soak up French?  Then why not let go of a heavy grammar-focused curriculum and try a system that gets kids speaking and understanding French and loving it. Pourquoi pas?

C'est Si Bon

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