Breaking the “rules” to encourage growth

Having taught French for 20 years, there were certain things I thought I knew. For example, the best place to start with verbs is present tense, because (a) it’s easier for students to understand, (b) it gives them lots of things to say about what’s happening right now, and (c) it’s easier for them to understand other tenses in relation to the present. I still believe in that one, but I broke a “rule” today that I’ve never broken before. I didn’t know how it would work out, but it turns out it was a great idea.

The conditionnel verb tense is used to express what would happen if certain conditions existed. It’s what you use to say things like “I would like” (j’aimerais), “I could” (je pourrais) , “I should” (je devrais), and so on. It’s a tense that students want to know, and they always express relief when they finally get to learn it and use it, because they’ve had to avoid it for so long in order to try to say what they wanted to say.

Conventional wisdom says that because the conditionnel is composed of pieces of two different tenses (the same beginning as the futur simple, and the same endings as the imparfait), you should wait to teach or learn this tense until you know the other two. Which is what I’ve always done.

However, this year I am piloting a new program, and collaborating on all my lesson planning with a colleague. In our French 10 classes, we are currently in the middle of the unit Aventures extrêmes, from CEC publishing in Québec.

aventures extrêmes

The conditionnel is not explicitly taught in the unit, but when our students reached an exercise in which they had to have conversations about what they would do in 6 relatively common situations, this verb tense naturally came up. The first day we worked on it, we gave them one expression they could use in the conditionnel, which was “je me sentirais” (I would feel). The situations they had to use asked students to consider how they would feel if they got good marks on a report card, or watched a horror movie, or witnessed a bullying incident in school, and so on. Fairly normal things in the life of a teen.

Giving our students that one expression just whetted their curiosity. We were peppered with questions about how to say various things that they wanted to say. We gave a few students expressions that they wanted to use, but it quickly got to the point that it was difficult to recall who we had helped and who we hadn’t. In conversation at the end of the day, we decided to revise our plan for the next day’s class, and include the conditionnel.

We put together a handout with basic information: the function of the verb tense (what it’s used for), how to conjugate regular verbs, and a list of irregular verbs with one sample form conjugated so that our classes could see a model of how to do it. We spent a few minutes going over it in class this morning, and told our classes they didn’t have to memorize it, and they didn’t have to use it. But if they wanted to, they could try it. They could use it in the conversations they were recording today, and if they made mistakes it would be counted as evidence of student growth and experimenting with new information (i.e. a positive), rather than counting against them.

The results were astonishing. I sat back and watched my students make video after video, deleting what they had done because they had noticed they did something they wanted to change. I heard them say things like “Je me sentirais très reconnaissante” (I would feel very grateful) and many more examples. If you have ever been in a French 10 class (these students are 15-16 years old), you will know how amazing this is. I have taught this verb tense many times before, and I have never heard a student say anything like that, and especially not on the first day working with this new information! The adjective “reconnaissante” is not in the textbook we’re using either. This student looked it up on her own, put it together with the verb we had given her, and used it in her communication so that it just flowed.

This verb tense wasn’t normally taught at this grade level. It’s not in the text book. It’s in the curriculum, but we had no firm plan until near the end of the course as to how we would integrate it. We didn’t give them any practice exercises. They generated those themselves by thinking about what they needed to say. We didn’t quiz them. We didn’t tell them to memorize anything. They saw the need for the tense to perform the skill they were working on, and all we had to do was give them the tools, and the freedom to take some risks and try something new.

It turns out, what we needed to do was (a) give them a real life, authentic need for the tense, (b) teach them what they wanted to know, (c) take away the risk associated with assessment, and (d) give them an authentic opportunity to develop a growth mentality. And at the end of it all, I learned just as much as my students did about how and when it’s okay to break the “rules”.

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