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Le Français Sans Frontières: Teaching Core French to a Diverse Classroom in Windsor

Natasha E Feghali
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Can you imagine the excitement with which students greet the opportunity to take part in a French language treasure hunt through the school for objects that stimulate the five senses? How about the fun of reading the daily announcements in French two to three times a week to the whole school or creating a multicultural marketplace where students and community members participate in oral comprehension? These are some of the ways in which I have engaged once reluctant learners of French as a second language.

I’ve been teaching French second language classes at Eastwood Public School in Windsor, Ontario for two years, incorporating different aspects of French language and culture into my classroom. At Eastwood, we have a multicultural community of students from Canadian-born and newcomer families. Many loathed learning a second language. For my English Language Learners (ELL) especially, vocabulary and reading acquisition can be extra hard work as they are learning English at the same time.

Creating a safe space where everyone is working at their own pace doing concrete activities has helped circumvent some of the barriers that ELL students might otherwise face in a core French class. Providing opportunities for students to bring their home cultures into the classroom, reinforcing curriculum from other subjects with French language activities, and celebrating everyone’s creativity have all led to increased engagement and comprehension among my students and increased success for ELL students in particular.

On a recent Monday, my grade 4 FSL students spent their French class preparing for our Marché français, which developed over a two-week period. Students decorated the classroom like a market and made kiosks out of boxes. I encouraged students to think not only about what they might find in a traditional French market, but also about foods or other items that represented their own cultures. In this way, we integrated a host of different foods, artifacts, and experiences into our learning of vocabulary and represented students’ experiences here in Canada and in their countries of origin. A Macedonian student brought in woodwork traditional to his village. A Korean student brought in a jade stone, while a Jamaican student filled her stall with fruits and vegetables traditional in Jamaican cooking. A student who had recently arrived from Iraq brought parsley, tomato, and eggplant for his stall and was excited to talk about how you could incorporate those ingredients into cooking. This created an environment where students not only learned the French words associated with the foods and artifacts that they brought into the class, but they were also able to share something about themselves and their cultures with other students. We talked about creating a market unlike any of the markets that we have in Windsor, reflecting the diversity of our school community. Each student then prepared a presentation in French about what they had brought into the market.

In the second week, we invited parents to the Marché and a potluck. Students introduced themselves, their school, and what they had brought to the Marché to the people who had joined us. A potluck lunch ended the exercise as we shared some of the wonderful food students, parents, and teachers had brought in.

Making creative connections to the curriculum is one of the ways I try to ensure that students don’t experience FSL fatigue. In the market that we created, students learned that French can be exciting and engaging. The students worked on presentations, using visual and kinesthetic learning while touching on all three strands of the curriculum – writing, reading, and oral communication. Not only was the market authentic to their experience, but students also had the opportunity to showcase their learning and feel proud about their contribution to the classroom.

We also use technology, such as the Pintérressant board online, have the occasional foirefrançais, where my Intermediate students invite the Primary classes in to play games in French, and even learn about artists by having my students recreate a famous artwork and then write and perform short skits in French about what they learned. We sometimes video these skits on a tablet and then watch them together to complete follow-up activities that meet listening, writing, and media curriculum expectations. Another activity we have done as a class was to have the students each personify a famous French-speaking person, research that person, and create a short monologue about them. We then, as a class, select students to sit in another area and Skype in as their characters. Again, follow-up activities connect to the curriculum through small-group discussions, creating and telling a story in logical sequence, and creating short media works. On a sunny day, my students and I go outside and plant some flowers or learn about nature and the gardens of Versailles. I help them discover the language by finding ways to make French applicable to their daily lives.

All of these hands-on, student-driven, and inquiry-based activities facilitate differentiated learning for the diversity of students in my classroom. Recently my grade 5 FSL students learned about the five senses in French. This lesson is generally attached to a science class so reinforcing it and translating the senses into French provides some nice parallels. I began by having students learn vocabulary and write descriptive sentences, while I outlined the learning goal and success criteria. I then had the students begin the hands-on portion by bringing in different objects such as fruit for scent, textiles for touch, and so forth, to visualize what the five senses are and what they might look like.

We then went on a “scientific adventure” around the school grounds to find as many things as we could classify into the five senses. The students were asked to bring in oversized button-down shirts as lab coats, and I prepared anchor charts with important vocabulary. Not only did the students enjoy being out and about, the fact that they could explore on their own, be responsible to translate and find the information needed in French online, through the use of dictionaries. or by conferencing with a peer and myself meant that they were able to learn through discovery.

Learning a second language through hands-on activity has yielded encouraging results for my students and has been especially stimulating for my ELL students. These lessons allow them to learn in a healthy, happy, and holistic environment that embraces the French language and strengthens cross-curricular learning. My goal is to help students pursue their interests in French, work to enhance what they are already learning in their other classes, and embrace what they have learned at home. By giving our FSL students the opportunity to be creative, we allow them to take the lead in their thinking, create an individualized space for language acquisition, and promote the discovery of language through their own experience and through art or any other subject that interests them.