Time Well Spent in 7th Grade French Class

"Bonjour à tous. S'il vous plaît allez à la première page. On a besoin de pratiquer.

Lourdes Fernandez, French teacher and Chair of the Middle School World Languages Department, greets her eight 7th grade French students as they settle into their desks. The classroom, a cozy space on the top floor of the old Musgrave building of the Middle School's newly renovated campus, remains true to the original aesthetic. The deep dormer windows and slanted walls create a feeling of a home more than a school classroom, and there are posters from around the French-speaking world, including both France and Morocco, to remind students that here they will be learning about other cultures as well as a new language.

How does one tell time in French? Quelle heure est-il? All eight students look at the clock behind them. "À quelle heure est-ce que nous sortons?" The students answer "en français."

Pablo gives it a try. "Il est neuf heures."

"Bien," Fernandez replies. Now comes the more complicated part of the lesson. She projects a clock digitally onto the white board and manipulates the hands to odd times and asks students to translate the time. "What if it is morning? What if it is after noon? What makes that easier? Jack? Tu comprends? It makes it clearer. No confusion. So, they will say 13:25 because it's past 12:00."

Caroline answers, "Il est midi?"

Fernandez responds in English this time. "Yes, you can just say it the most simple way. Do we always have to say 'juste'?"

Charlotte adds, "It's optional. It's useful when you want to be more exact and punctual."

Fernandez responds, "Right. What does the 'e' do at the end of a word? It makes you pronounce the last letter before it? The 'e' is there to hear the 't.' The exception is the accent aigu."

Fernandez, who is multilingual, finds French to be the most comfortable language for her as a teacher because, unlike English and Spanish, the languages she grew up with, she can see French through the eyes of someone studying. She finds the best way to help students increase their understanding is the potent combination of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. By toggling between these modalities, students develop an understanding of the framework of a language. They learn how it operates. She can introduce French in "chunks" in natural ways that make sense to young students.

"Before you turn in your HW, please look it over and correct any mistakes."

Students flip through their pages, make corrections, and confer with each other. One by one they go to the front of the room to hand their papers to Fernandez. "Voilà" and "Tiens."

"Merci, Jeremiah. Merci, Stephanie."

Once students have returned to their seats, Fernandez sets up the video they are about to watch. The students have seen earlier installments in the simple narrative, and Fernandez prompts them to recall, in French, where they are in the story. "De quoi parle la vidéo?"

Students eagerly respond in English. "It's about a guy who...."

"En français!"

Randall gives it a try. "Le petit garçon pose des questions sur les, uh, um...."

"Bien, de quoi est-ce que tu te rappelles?"

Pablo tries to fill in the details. "C'est un homme...."

Fernandez prompts Pablo to be more specific. "Quel type d'homme? Mystérieux?"

Fernandez questions the students in order to coax, to encourage them to take risks with new vocabulary and sentence structures. She ultimately wants them to be able to express their ideas with more precision. She often repeats what they say and adds a new word or phrase, then asks them to repeat it back. She wants the new language on their tongues.

Now it's time for the video. Two teenagers are in Nice looking for a man who seems to be a missing grandfather. This segment ends just as they walk down a charming, narrow cobble-stoned street and open a door. The students groan at the cliff-hanger. They'll have to wait another day to find out what happens next.

Fernandez values the cultural exposure she weaves into her lessons. For her, there is richness in the mental challenges that cultural questions pose. She says it is vital that "students have to examine their assumptions about life when confronted by different frameworks in another language." She makes a deliberate effort in these French lessons to branch out from France and Canada. In addition to videos, she has students read from "Mary Glasgow," a student-focused magazine written in beginner French about real things happening right now around the world. Most recently, for example, students were exposed to the hurricane in Martinique. Fernandez has lofty end goals for her students. "By June," she says, "I want them all to have general confidence in their ability to navigate in the language, confident that they can figure it out."

After the video, Fernandez asks students to summarize what they have just seen.

"Très bien! Pensez! Think about what you're going to say. This is French class."

Written by Betsy Canaday, Middle School English Department