20 April 2013

Conversation matters

What follows is a mix of thoughts arising from reading from different altruistic online sharers and talking with a range of people dedicated to French language and culture.
The latter I met at the Alliance Française AGM held in Christchurch where I was invited to attend as representative of the NZAFT. It was a timely reminder, considering where my thoughts were at earlier in the week (as vented in my comments) that Languages must be, ought to be, have to be celebrated as a main dish on the Smörgåsbord on offer to learners in New Zealand schools. And tonight, thanks to the company I kept recently, I am even almost ready to say French rather than the generic Languages ;-)!
You are here flickrcc

My presentation at this meeting allowed me to focus on what most teachers of French do very well: they love French! Not just French the Language but also all things French. Conveying the love to dwindling numbers, through complex pedagogies which need to be given more time than seems available to internalise them, with the perceived end goal limited to striving for a credit count is at times a tall order.
Compare that to the situation of our Alliance Française colleagues whose role (apparently!) consists of teaching students who come through their doors with a self motivation, a need, a reason to learn French, free of any formal assessments, one would have reasons to be thoroughly jealous of these conditions!
Last November I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the young "volontaires internationaux" at the AF in Wellington as we were training to be DELF examiners.  I realised I had much to learn from their take on the Approche Actionnelle as well as their approach to evaluation. To my pleasure they too expressed a vivid interest in understanding more about French in NZ schools. It thus indicated that there are grounds on which to build a rapprochement in order to learn from each other. Yesterday's meeting reminded me of this and it was an opportunity to formalise a wish in public for it to actually happen. What shape it takes is yet to be devised and as NZAFT decide things at committee level, it certainly is not entirely up to me.
But just now I think I know how it could possibly be put to good use for the greater good!
And this is born of several other things happening this week:

- talking about New Zealand school teachers of French lead to talk about NZ schools, in particular the recently opened primary and secondary schools with their modern learning environment, open plan spaces and collaborative teaching aiming to have students direct their learning.  It is indeed here to stay with many existing schools embracing this approach and embarking on the journey of innovation. This was news to the French Embassy Education attaché who was very interested in knowing more. All I know is names of schools, a few teachers who I follow on Twitter and have occasionally met, but enough to understand that this is working on transforming education right here and now. What I also seem to pick from these new schools is that Learning Languages doesn't seem to feature much. It was a shame he thought and why he asked. I suggested, unsure: Teachers not ready for the leap of pedagogical faith,  new principals not ready to give it full attention while either the Correspondence school or the VLN can somehow attempt to fill that gap, not enough parents pushing to have a language taught, teaching teams fully focused on literacy and key competencies and forgetting that the cultural competence of our NZC is intrinsically linked the intercultural competence developed through language learning? Who knows?

- exchanging with you here along our last posts and comments, you describe your attempt at weaving in your new classes a pedagogy which invite students to direct their own learning is meeting with resistance at this stage. As we discussed I am surprised to read that students are so change adverse. This could indicate that it is such a departure from the usual expectations they have grown used to in the environment they are learning in,  that it will take time and continuous effort on your and their part to start to see the long term benefits of the approach.

So from this one could jump to a very quick (and certainly wrong) conclusion:
          - new learning environment, self directed learning=not conducive to language learning
          - traditional learning environment, Sage on the Stage teaching= conducive to language learning

- upon talking new NZ schools with the young AF teacher her eyes just lit up and it all seemed to make sense to her: open space where furniture is arranged to support interaction, nooks and crannies for practice in solo or pairs, breakout spaces for recordings or rehearsing, devices for listening and research, students looking for what they need to make meaning in their own term, decent time allocation to allow for continuity, having her course and resources online for students to access whenever wherever, doing on the spot tutorials when the need arise, offering specific breakouts at specific times, planning with teachers from other learning areas to incorporate language and culture where and when necessary, ... she pictured it all there and then! She got it. Which told me: French Languages can be integrated in this way if you have the teaching and the attitude right. And thus be a fully fledged item on the buffet for the curious and imaginative and risk taking learner, not just a Learning Area in the NZC!

Where am I going with all that I hear you say?
There is a need to investigate, demonstrate and reflect on how French can be incorporated in a student self directed curriculum in order for language learning to fully contribute to make learners connected to the world they live in, confident to meet others and being able to walk in their shoes in full knowledge of who they are, as well as gaining an awareness that learning is a life long journey and that languages can pop in anytime in their lives.

- of the bloggers who have contributed to this thinking is Claire Amos, a New Zealand educator whose excellent online presence I have followed for some years now and whose work has gone a long way in explaining and convincing me of the role of Teaching as Inquiry. The lady is a sharer of good stuff.  I can't say I know her but I can say she sure has the most awesome eportfolio I know of. Anyway Claire in her current position is undertaking with a team of NZ teachers an edutour of self directed schools in the US and Canada.  I have been reading with interest her accounts, which prompted me to google the schools that they are visiting . Through visiting these schools' websites I could see that Languages featured fully. Sure Canada has a different relation to learning languages that NZ has but that sure indicates that it can be done.
- which got me to contact, Jacques Cool a French Speaking Canadian whose tweets both in French and English I value highly for state of the art information. Hence I DMed Jacques this am to ask him if he knew of any English speaking Canadian self directed learning school where languages were fully a part of the curriculum. He was interested by my question and has sent it on to an expert in this field! WOW there are experts in this field! I now am truly excitingly waiting to hear back.

And then what? A little dream situation: advice from an expert + model schools to learn from + language teaching clued up AF teacher + keen to learn and inquire NZ French teacher(s) + new schools environment in NZ + Learning Language integration+ networking = being proactive in ensuring French (Languages!) is an integral part of a varied rich modern curriculum.

Now where do I start to make this happen?


  1. WOW indeed. Exciting stuff. It makes me want to be teaching in an environment where innovation is welcome, supported and actively encouraged.
    Where I am I fear that, apart from my HOD who is really interested in pedagogy and maybe a few others who are reading Guy Claxton and Ken Robinson, there isn't a lot of reflection taking place around the topic.
    And yet the environment should lend itself very well to innovation with the students all having their own laptops and the classes being relatively small.It's a classic example of having the machines but not really knowing how to put them to best use. I hope some of that will change in the wake of your visit!
    The problem begins with the students' perception of what learning is and how they see the role of the teacher. I have concluded, after reading the surveys completed by my Y10s that they want to learn deductively, with me making the decisions about what to learn and when, rather than inductively by noticing and drawing conclusions about language, not necessarily in a prescribed order. They don't like choice and can't handle it. They go home and express their feelings about the shortcomings of the new teacher and this quickly gets back to the principal. That's the way it goes in this sort of school. One feels constantly under surveillance and under a certain obligation, I now realise, to tow the line and teach in a more conventional style. When I spoke to the principal about the complaint laid against me, seeking some more detailed info, I mentioned the difficultly of catering for different groups of students, particularly in Year 10 where it is still compulsory but many will be there under sufferance. She said 'I'd quash that idea', in fairly typical authoritarian style, and I replied that according to my guiding document, the NZC, we had a mandate to differentiate our teaching rather than putting everyone through the same mould and measuring them all by the same yardsticks. There wasn't a satisfactory response to this.
    So I have made a decision. Much against my will, I shall be devoting some time to teaching with the book (written in 2000!) and getting students to do exercises, even although this is pedagogically unsound, mechanical and I have proof sitting in front of me that years of this style of learning have lead to dependence, lack of real reflection on the learning and minimal mastery, let alone proficiency. There is practically no taste for risk taking. It's going to be a difficult mind-set to shift, if I last the distance. In the short term I have decided that the only way to make things sustainable is to compromise some of my principles.
    I shall be focussing on helping the students to develop the skills that will enable them to cope in different contexts. The first major challenge is devising ways to get them interacting more naturally when they have done very little oral work and their former teachers didn't speak to them much in French. They knew what they were learning though, which made them feel very secure. I imagine you can detect my frustration and scepticism.
    What is encouraging is that some students can see how French my life is and want to get to the same point with French. I keep feeding them wee ideas of how they could help themselves to follow in my footsteps and maybe I just have to be patient. At the moment, it seems that maybe the wrong sort of students are carrying on with French, i.e. the ones who respond well to formatting and show little individuality. The obedient ones who rarely think outside the square. Jacqueline and I are hoping that in the future we'll get more exploratory risk-takers who are driven by their curiosity about the language.

  2. A large part of my holidays is likely to be devoted to devising activities to supplement the boring old book work. They have to be encouraged to THINK rather than just react. I want classes of proactive learners.
    A note of optimism with the Year 11s. I think, on the whole, they're starting to feel more comfortable with me and understand that I have their best interests at heart. They finally realise that it's me who is largely responsible for 14 of their credits and that we're preparing for much more than just the externals. I have yet to convince them that less is more, in the sense that lots of material 'covered' is probably less helpful to the cause than a smaller amount of really well-digested content. Rome wasn't built in a day.
    Anyway, it's lovely to be home!!!!!! When can you come over? I'm busy Friday 26, Monday 29, Tuesday 30 and Thurs 2. I know you have several things on your plate such as a Lesley catch-up...

    1. Over the next couple of days I will be immersed with educators who themselves take their learning in their own hands at Ignition13 The brievety of the programme http://emergingleaders.school.nz/ignition/whats-in-it-for-me/ and the line up of teachers who (unlike me) put themselves on the line with Ignite talks as well as the conversations should be very valuable. They are indeed people who think and like you want proactive learners who themselves think, they also do and I will be trying to get a picture of how they find their students evolve.
      What is the book you are talking about I wonder? A small dose here and there can't harm, if surrounded with plenty of developing interaction. I know that it will take time as your students are getting to know you as well as you are getting to know them.


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