Reading in Another Language

I began learning French in 5th grade.  I participated in my public school district’s program called “French Back to Back.”  This program consisted of 5th grade students being a paired up with a French student of the same and age and gender.  Though typically the group of American students would go live with the French student they had been paired with and their family for three weeks and then the French student would live with the American student and their family for the subsequent three weeks.  The year I did it, the school we exchanged  with whether due to disinterest or another reason would not send back the French students so we simply went there for three weeks.  In preparation for this, the 20 or so of us who signed up for this experience from schools all over the district met once a week to learn basics of the French language, French culture and the expectations and requirements of “French Back to Back.”

After this, I kept up with French throughout middle and high school and even to college.  I remember one of my classmates in high school was reading Harry Potter in Italian and I thought, “I could never do that in French.”  While in college, my reading capacity in French grew as I had to do it for multiple assignments, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I began reading in French for enjoyment.  I too started to read the Harry Potter series.  In fact, while Michael and I spent two weeks in the mountains of Greece with his yiayia we developed a pattern where we exercised and stretched in the morning, then came downstairs with our books in Greek and French respectively which we read while eating our Greek “Fitness” Cereal.

Greece 2011

Greece 2011

I have been thinking about how reading is so beneficial to learning a language.  I was a voracious reader as a child and there were so many words that I picked up from reading books.  I never bothered to look them up in a dictionary but by using the context, especially since many of these words were repeated, I was able to garner the meaning.  The same thing can happen by reading in a foreign language.  It is a great way to enhance vocabulary.  It is true that the amount of unknown words may be greater in a foreign text than if you were reading in your native language but the fact remains that you will be learning vocabulary in an authentic situation.

This is not to disregard the importance of oral practice with language learning however.  In fact, though I learned new words by reading in English when I was younger, there was some I did not know how to pronounce until I was much older.  (Example:  succumb.  I was sure it was pronounced “sahcoom.”  I sounded like an idiot when I said it aloud).  Being able to pronounce words correctly is important for oral communicatory purposes with a language though not necessarily for purely written communication.  I went years not knowing how to pronounce the name “Hermione,” but that didn’t mean I enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s books any less!

Michael and his yiayia in Greece

Michael and his yiayia in Greece

Thoughts on reading in a different language?

Trials and Tribulations of Learning About Confidence as a New Teacher

One of the main things I have been thinking about recently with teaching is confidence.  As a new teacher, one of my largest struggles is battling the want to be “liked.”  Stepping into the classroom for the first time as a teacher can almost be as bad as stepping into it as a new student.  You just want the kids to like you.  I have learned the hard way that being well liked does not equate to being respected.  In the school setting, being respected is more important than being liked.  

I am a natural people pleaser and so this truth has been very difficult for me to embody.  I worry about hurting the students’ feelings and making sure they are enjoying school.  This is could be an issue. Worrying about the students’ opinions of you means that you might not always be consistent.  Yes, I’ve been learning that equal is not always fair and there can be exceptions to the rule in certain circumstances, but in general it is best to be consistent.  If you set a rule about homework, it is up to you as the teacher to follow through with it not matter no what.  I am someone easily swayed by tears but I keep constantly reminding myself about what is best for the students in the long run. Also, think about your own school experience- were your favorite teachers the ones that were pushovers?  Or were yours the ones that were fair and had solid, strong rules?

My classroom management philosophy has evolved since my first day of student teaching.  I began teaching then with the idea that we shouldn’t restrict students and they should feel free in the classroom and there shouldn’t be many rules.  Attending school is a privilege not a prison sentence.  For the most part, I am still for this, however, a couple of experiences have shaped my new philosophy.  First, my mentor teacher informed  me that for some students, a relaxed classroom can feel unsafe for certain students.  They are not sure what the rules are and how they will be supported or if they will be supported by the teacher.  This thought really stopped me.  The last thing I wanted was for my classroom to be an unsafe environment.  However, it completely made sense that a classroom without guidelines could be chaotic and confusing.  Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that though students’ individual freedoms and voices need to be respected and acknowledged, first, guidelines must be established in order to create a safe environment for this freedom to occur. 

My first teaching job after student teaching was as a long-term substitute in a middle school.  This was a great learning experience for me.  Especially because, as many new teachers do, I definitely made mistakes.  As hard as it is to admit, I had one group of students that could definitely smell my fear and took advantage of it.  Though there were productive days, I quickly realized that this group of students did not respect me.  Which meant, that they also did not respect the subject I taught.  This put them at a complete disadvantage and they did not even realize it.  I still think back on that experience and cringe.  I constantly hope and pray to always do better.

Teachers need confidence to be teachers.  They need confidence in themselves.  They are not perfect and not always right but they have to be confident in their abilities.  Students and parents may try to de-rail them, oftentimes unintentionally, but a teacher must know herself or himself and not back down.  In my opinion, these are the best teachers.  The ones with confidence.  Am I anywhere near that? Not yet, but I work and try everyday and everyday it gets better.

Language in Schools

In college, I minored in French.  I love the language and spent six weeks living in France after my senior year of college.  In some ways, one of my biggest regrets is not spending more time over there so I could have a more enriched knowledge of the language.  However, I also know that it would’ve been to hard for me to be away from home for that long.  Though now that Michael and I are making plans to live in Greece at some point, perhaps I could make my way back for sometime.  Due to my interest of French and Michael’s passion for Greek, the process of language learning often comes up a lot in our conversations.  After watching a video about learning languages and theories on the best way to do it, I felt compelled to reflect upon it.  This video felt that the best thing to do at first was to just speak and not worry about grammar.  The grammar would come later.  Thinking about my own school experience with language, I felt compelled reflect:

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In school, as many know, we are often drilled with grammar despite the fact that much evidence out there shows that conversation and oral practice is a much better path to fluency.  My days in French class consisted of verb charts and memorized conversations, neither of which led to much language fluency amongst myself or my classmates.  The question is, if this format of teaching does not seem to produce the desired results then why are we teaching in this way?

An unfortunate element to schools today is the fact that assessments are required not only formally by administrative teams, state and national laws or accredidation boards, they are also required by students and parents themselves.  Students and parents typically judge progress and success based on numerical grades instead of authentic qualitative data.  This assessment-orientated school atmosphere may have led language classes to become the giant grammar charts that they are.  It is much easier to assign a grade based on grammatical errors (or non errors) than on a student’s speaking skills.  One is much more objective than the other.  Due to this, oral speaking cannot be the focus because how would a teacher be able to showcase the student’s progress and level in one letter?  Would that letter grade be based in relation to other students’ levels?  Would there be a set number of phrases that a student would have to learn by the end of the year?  Or would a student have to take home a practice chart to fill out how often they practice their language?  None of these offer very solid ways of assessment.

Conversely, perhaps I am thinking in the wrong direction.  Perhaps schools are doing nothing wrong because it is not their goal to teach oral fluency but to teach the structure and grammar of a language.  This would not quite make sense in the fact that in all other academic disciplines, the structure of a subject is taught and then usually put into practice.  For example, in English classes, we are taught grammatical rules, but then we put those rules to the test by using them in authentic situations.  This does not often happen in foreign language classes until the collegiate level.

While spending time in France, I felt embarrassed when I said that the only other language I knew besides English was French, when most of the French students my age were working on their third language.  Is the way we teach foreign language a reason for the fact that we fall behind in this area?  Or is there just not a drive amongst Americans to learn other languages?