I remember my first trip to Paris. As I stepped off the plane and passed through security, one of the officers suddenly said to me, “Sit down quickly and put this book on your head! A mean boy has stolen a cat from a young blonde girl, and we need to ask you some questions.”
Obviously, that never happens. Why, then, do we spend so much time doing goofy actions and telling bizarre stories in class? Why can’t I just tell my students that a chair is une chaise and move on?
I feel like those are questions that my students are subconsciously asking themselves all the time in my class. Among all my students, only a tiny handful are learning French of their own will and accord. The rest are there to satisfy a graduation requirement at best, and one thing that I absolutely dread (and equally love) about the beginning of the year is convincing these students that we’re doing the right thing.
I wouldn’t have to do so much convincing if I were handing each of them a hundred dollars or keys to a new car. And from my perspective, that’s what I feel like I’m doing. I’m giving these students far more than their parents’ tax money is paying for – the absolute best lessons I can implement – and yet I never know who will take the bait and who won’t.
You know, we traditionally divide students into three groups: the high-achievers, the average students, and the low-achievers. The high-achievers put their heart and soul into their work, while the low-achievers prefer to nap or sit in detention. The average students, our precious little wallflowers, fill up the seats.
But I think there are three other types of students: the faithful, the obedient and the doubters. The faithful students are already here to learn French. They’ll do just about anything I say, because they want to learn. They get results so quickly that there isn’t time for them to develop any doubts about the methodology. The obedient students will do what I say because that’s what you’re supposed to do in school: follow the teacher’s directions. They may have some doubts at first, but soon they’re well adjusted to the class and can appreciate why we do what we do.
The doubters, on the other hand, are much harder to convince. These “low-achieving students” are really students who have sat through over ten years of seemingly worthless education. They’ve never had a class that appealed to their interests or that required them to learn and apply knowledge. They’ve learned to mistrust their teachers, and surely I must be the worst of them all. I’m asking students to learn about a language that, even I will admit, is totally useless in our community. Surely French must be the absolute most useless thing they’ve ever had to learn. And to top it off, I won’t even let them sit in peace and scribble on a worksheet. They have to do all these ridiculous workouts and tell weird stories for an hour every day in this utterly useless language!
How do I not only prove the future but also disprove the horrible present that students have already imagined when they first walk in my door?
Working against those odds is a big task. Seeing is believing, but my students won’t see any results until they believe in what we’re doing. And until they can make their peace with the idea of learning French, they’ll never get to do anything with the language that appeals to them. How do I not only prove the future but also disprove the horrible present that students have already imagined when they first walk in my door?
I’ve always found that sports make for great analogies in the foreign language classroom. One comparison that’s particularly clear to my students is the weight room. At what point in a football game do the players pick up a heavy bar and lift it repeatedly? At what point in real life does anybody pick up a heavy bar for the sole purpose of raising it up and down repeatedly?
At this point, students begin to understand that the things we do in class may seem inane, but they’re exactly what we need. Why do we lift weights? Because we need to get stronger. Why do we lift weights? Because they’re precise and specific and can be tailored exactly to our needs at that moment. Can’t we just pick up one little weight, put it down, and then move on? No, because it takes repetition and variety to build all those muscles. Will we ever do anything besides lifting weights? Yes, and when we’re strong enough to accomplish great things, we’ll appreciate all the weights we lifted.
The weight room analogy isn’t a panacea, but it’s been a great starting point for many of my students. At the least, it’s a great leap over one hurdle toward converting those doubters, and sometimes all they need is that one Ah ha! moment to become some of the highest achievers in the class.