My collaboration partner has told me the story many times of her students at her previous school forming the idea that all French people eat baguettes, live in France, and so things like visit the Eiffel Tower. It’s been my observation that my students have formed similar misconceptions, but it’s also a powerful thing when they realize that French people are “just like” them – whatever that may be.
Why does this matter? When I introduced stories from Morocco and Marrakesh to my French 12 students a couple of years ago, they could not get enough of it. These people wore clothing, listened to music, told stories and ate food that was very similar to what they were familiar with in their families and traditions. In the high school where I teach in Surrey, BC, students from diverse backgrounds speak 50 different languages, with many different cultural traditions represented.
Many of my students already speak more than one language. They are not waiting for me to come along and help them have a lightbulb moment where they realize that communication and mutual understanding is possible in more than one language. They live that reality every day.
Their lightbulb moments come from cultural connections, and questions of identity. What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to live where I live? What does the place where I live look like? How is it similar to or different from other places that I learn about? What traditions are important to me and my family? What languages do I speak? Where do I speak them? What am I proud of in my languages? What do I enjoy?
The way I am currently exploring these questions in my classes is the result of more than two years of drafting, redrafting, researching, and trying things. I have designed a set of cultural identity stations that I’m using to guide my students through questions that invite exploration of a range of questions, discussing and answering questions in French, first orally and then in writing. My primary sources for this process were the redesigned BC Core French curriculum, the redesigned BC French Immersion curriculum (I don’t teach French Immersion, but the curriculum document contains a variety of areas in which cultural identity can be explored), the Learning Continuum in the Australian curriculum for Intercultural Understanding, and the Positive Personal and Cultural Identity section of the BC Personal and Social Core Competency.
Making sure that what I’m doing is closely tied to multiple curriculum documents allows me to help students make strong connections that have the potential to have meaning beyond the walls of my classroom, and allows them to bring their personal experiences to the table in a powerful way. They are built around the premise that learning about other cultures should go hand in hand with exploring one’s own culture, and learning how to express one’s sense of identity.
The stations are hands-on, interactive, and engage students in play to express their ideas. The hands-on stations alternate with discussion and writing stations, so that they can explore their ideas first through creative play, then through discussion questions, and then through recording their thoughts in writing. They also use the curricular skills of description, comparison, explanation, and narration. The discussion questions vary depending on the grade level and are adapted to allow students at a variety of levels to respond using what they know.
There is far too much detail involved to write it all here, but in brief, the stations are as follows:
Station 1: Moi/Me – through drawings, illustrations, emojis, quotes, etc., students consider inner and outer qualities, both how they see themselves and how others see them.
Station 2: Discussion question and writing
Station 3: Ma communauté/My community – using Lego characters, students choose symbols to represent various groups in their daily life in their community (both real and virtual), and show how they interact.
Station 4: Discussion question and writing
Station 5: L’endroit où j’habite/Where I live – using small white boards and erasable markers, students represent their homes and describe everyday objects that they encounter in their daily life.
Station 6: Discussion question and writing
Station 7: Mes traditions/My traditions – using Play Doh, students create sculptures of objects that represent traditions important to them and their families/cultures.
Station 8: Discussion question and writing
Station 9: Mon carrefour de langues/My languages intersection – using a diagram of an intersection, students draw or write about all the languages in which they speak, read, write and listen. The focus is on what they enjoy, what they are proud of, and how the languages work together.
Station 10: Discussion question and writing
I have used this process in my grade 10, 11 and 12 classes so far, and the whole process takes two full class blocks (using 80 minute blocks). These are not short stations or quick rotations. The learning that comes out of them is so amazing – students are able to express things that I’ve never been able to provide a venue for before in a second language class. Students have talked and written about what being a member of the Sikh faith means to them, what being a member of the Christian faith means to them, what certain meals mean in their culture, how to use French to describe traditional clothing they would wear for various events, how and why they decorate their homes for various celebrations, how they see themselves as a member of their community, how it feels to grow up in one culture and be exposed to another at school, and much more.
The writing they do at each of the discussion stations is used to fill up one half of a chart. The other half is filled up at the end of the course with observations of the same aspects of the Francophone cultures students observe as they read, listen and view a wide variety of texts, songs, and videos during the semester. At the end, they use both halves of the diagram to compare themselves to what they have learned, and to explore the similarities and differences they see. This exploration takes the cultural component of learning a second language well beyond baguettes and Eiffel towers (although I love those too), and allows for some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with students about who they are and why that’s important.