2012 Hall of Fame Nominee

Sherri Harkins

Pittsville Elementary Middle School
Pittsville, MD
2012 Finalist from NECTFL

To fully understand my beliefs on the value of learning a language and culture, it is important to understand the evolution of my feelings. The first several years of my teacher career were spent trying to be “the French teachers” – filling shoes left by the high school French teacher I loved. My energy was directed towards making sure students wanted to take French, not Spanish. My program had to be better than the competition’s. While I was successful in building a French program, something was missing.

When the changes of high-stakes testing affected my schedule I was forced to look at my students, not my program. My classes did not look like my own high school French class. Many of my students have never been off the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Some of my students could be a family’s first generation to go to college. I realize I am not just a French teacher. I am a teacher whose content has the ability to unite my students with the world.

Inspirational posters talk about education opening doors but they don’t talk about the nudge it takes to go through those doors. Learning a second language and its accompanying culture can be that nudge. The French language and culture are now my tools and my program exposes students to the world. Some students are still taking French because “it sounds pretty,” or because they want to visit the Eiffel Tower, or because they like me. However, I am teaching French as a passport to the world. We are talking about the world – how it has and will affect our lives. Instead of viewing other languages as competition, my students and I are collaborating with other language classes on how we can all become better world citizens.

Although my students and schools have changed, the realizations I made about learning a language and culture have not. My students constantly remind me of the value of language learning. Through their challenges and triumphs, I see how the lessons learned through a language and its culture do more than match up with content standards. The ability to communicate with others is the single greatest skill which unites the human race. My students find joy in simple greetings to total strangers in another language. They are excited to hear someone speaking a language other than English and use their best listening strategies to decipher meaning. Our ability to communicate with others is enhanced by our understanding of their culture. When my youngest students start to question why we would “say mean things” about a group of people, the ensuing discussions sparks in them a sense of solidarity with other kids just like then around the world.

There is no replacement for the life lessons learned through a language and its culture. One of my kindergarteners said it best “learning to talk another way makes me part of the world!” No longer “the French teacher”, I am a doorman nudging students towards world citizenship!