How to teach French without actually teaching it

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Yesterday I posted some educratic bilge from 20 years ago:Larry Zenke, then superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, defending declining test scores by saying that knowing things wasn't really important anymore, and teachers would no longer be "disseminators of cognitive information". I closed by writing, "I suspect that Zenke's ideas are now mainstream among public education administrators, but perhaps better disguised behind a veil of Educanto."

A reader whose daughter takes French at a Tulsa high school writes and confirms my fears. [Identifying info has been redacted.] "This is what I received back from [my daughter's French teacher]. I was concerned when my daughter was complaining that they have not been studying or learning any French yet. I did figure that she was stretching it a bit but I was surprised at the answer I got back from the teacher as to why. Am I just out of the loop?"

Here is the answer he got back from the teacher:

On the first day of school, the students were given a course expectancy sheet with a copy of the syllabus on the back side. They were asked to read and sign the sheet and to have their parents/gardians read and sign it also and return it the next day. It was their first homework assignment. [Your daughter] has hers, signed, in her notebook.

The theme for the year is Discovery. The concept for the first 6 weeks is systems. Then the concepts are perspectives, celebrations, economics, exploration and adaptation.

The training I received this summer on the Tulsa Model for School Improvement stressed the importance of accessing the knowledge that students already have about the themes and concepts and then building on it. Building the background knowledge they will need for the new learning, introducing the themes and concepts is to be done in broad generalizations that they can apply to their lives now and in the future before it is "narrowed" for specific classroom use. After a summer of asking the experts what they would do/how they would do it, I decided to introduce the new learning in English to enable the students to more easily and quickly grasp the concepts that we will be using. New strategies and techniques are to be non-academic the first time the students use them to allow them to concentrate on learning the new strategies and techniques before they are used academically. To this end, I have been teaching the 7 Learning
Community Guidelines and the Life Skills, class and team building activities to teach the new strategies and structures. Teachers are also expected to teach students about the 8 Multiple Intelligences and how they learn best, the 7 Learing Community Guidelines and the 18 Life Skills which are the basis of the Tulsa Model discipline plan. This is what we have spent the first several weeks concentrating on.

What has been "French" in the classroom:

The day, date, month and classroom directions are given in French. We have reviewed classroom objects. The 7 Learning Community Guidelines and Life skills have been translated into French. The colors (used for learning preferences and communication styles) have been learned in French, also. Since we have been working with the names of the colors in French, the students have created a pattern book about the colors in French that will be read and donated to a local elementary school. This meets the community service/social action component of the Tulsa Model and satisfies the PASS objective of using the foreign language outside of the classroom in the community. The quiz on the colors was 10/3. The students saw a video on the French impressionist artist Edgar Degas when I had to have a substitute for a professional development day. The students evaluated how effectively Degas, the ballerina and Degas' housekeeper used the Life Skills and what the students would have done in the same situations.

We have been working on class and team building activities and stressing mutual respect and attentive listening since research proves that students learn best in cooperative groups. Sadly, most students do not know how to work effectively in a group and these skills must also be taught. What does this have to do with learning French? It is setting the background for the rest of the year and the rest of their lives. It is also part of the Tulsa Model for School Improvement that I am expected to teach the students in addition to teaching them French.

I am doing my best to integrate into the curriculum everything that I am expected to teach the students in addition to teaching them French and to do so in a brain-compatible manner. (This includes using music and movement activities.) The Multiple Intelligences, the Learning Styles, the 7 Learning Community Guidlines, the Life Skills, how to work effectively with others and so on fit best at the beginning of the year. I am open to suggestions on a better, more effective way to accomplish what is expected of me.

I hope this addresses your concerns.

Yow! That really is appalling. This isn't the raving of some rogue teacher, imposing her own nutty ideas on her defenseless pupils, but a teacher trying to do what her school district has trained and instructed her to do. This is the "Tulsa Model for School Improvement".

This approach to teaching is ill-suited to learning a foreign language, which is, I believe, the point of a French class. Learning French in America means learning sounds and words with which you have no personal experience. (It would be different for an English-speaking student in Quebec.) Learning a language has nothing to do with grasping big ideas and key concepts. It's about learning spelling and pronunciation and verb forms and sentence structure -- many little details that you just have to learn. J'ai, tu as, il a, nous avons, vous avez, ils ont. Yes, a good teacher will draw on the student's experience to help explain concepts or teach vocabulary words, but much of a foreign language is by definition foreign and just has to be learned by heart. Yes, a good teacher will draw on different techniques to help students with different learning strengths, but memorization, learning by ear, and learning by sight are essential to learning a language well enough to use it.

This sort of thing is why my wife and I are willing to spend the money to send our son to a private school, where they still have the idea that school is about learning facts.

(UPDATED 2008/01/21 to replace broken link with a working link to the Wayback Machine.)

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A parent with a child in a Tulsa school got this explanation of what's going on in the classroom: The theme for the year is Discovery. The concept for the... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 8, 2003 1:22 AM.

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