2020 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year
Wellesley Middle School in Wellesley, MA, NECTFL, French
Although typically a competent and confident ninth-grader, I was stymied upon arrival chez les Bertrand for a month-long homestay in Nantes. Years of A+ work in junior high school French had not prepared me to answer my family’s frequent questions. Remembering to use vous at the bank and arrive to breakfast fully dressed exhausted me. I was fascinated and horrified by my linguistic and cultural failures, and motivated to crack the seemingly invisible codes to forge new relationships. Today I lead a bilingual life, not only professionally but also personally. I am raising my children in non-native French, tutoring a Cameroonian asylum-seeker, and welcoming French- and Hebrew-speaking families to our area. We must challenge our students to travel a similar path of curiosity and exploration in order ultimately to expand their perspectives.
Like that first French homestay, honing my craft as a teacher has involved struggle and growth: leaving behind the certainty of a textbook-oriented curriculum to explore uncharted territory by teaching for proficiency via thematic units. When I began teaching, I remember thinking I had total command of my subject simply because I knew every word in Discovering French. As far as I knew, I had this teaching thing figured out just fine.
Fast-forward to a career-changing workshop with Laura Terrill, who issued a direct challenge to my traditional teaching approach: I was neither reaching nor engaging all students. Laura’s wake-up call unsettled me. I knew I needed to leave behind my too-familiar textbook and wholly transform my practice. So I spent a summer rewriting my French 8 curriculum for proficiency, then another, and a third. This required extended searches for authentic resources, reaching out to experts in the field, and the discovery of ACTFL books and blogs like Madame’s Musings and Creative Language Class. Summers at MaFLA’s Proficiency Academy provided intensive training to make big assessment and grading changes successfully, adding layers to my practice.
In my new proficiency-based classroom, I saw tremendous growth in even my weakest students. No longer shut down by being unable to memorize spellings or conjugations, some students turned out to be gifted interpreters of YouTube videos while others were fearless participants in interpersonal speaking tasks. Each messy, thrilling, exhausting day in class, I was back chez les Bertrand. Yet, today all students can shine in my reimagined classroom. Their success reflects linguistic and cultural skill: getting the gist of fast food commercials, holding unrehearsed conversations about Swiss fashion, and pitching crowdfunded education projects in the French-speaking world.
I have yet to meet the learner whose curiosity is not piqued by observing the size of a French coffee cup next to a Starbucks venti, or les toilettes à la turque. Developing cultural competence through investigation and interaction is a complex task but a transformative one. While not every student will become a language major, we all can increase our capacity to engage with others from a place of curiosity rather than judgement, and humility rather than hubris, which is essential for global citizenship.