Redesigning French 101 from the Core

Redesigning French 101 from the Core

Photo by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash

The Spring 2020 was marked by a big cataclysmic change in French 101. No, I am not referring to COVID-19, but to a changing of textbooks! Many teachers know how profound and sometimes scary changing textbooks may be, but I will say that doing so for my course opened an incredible opportunity to creatively redesign it. 

The switch in textbooks was motivated from a desire to update 1) the methodology of the course and 2) the content/layout of the materials. Our "old" textbook, Motifs, was heavily based on the communicative method for teaching language, which focuses on repetitive interactions and daily dialogs. The new book, Cosmopolite, is built on task-based learning, which focuses on authentic communication by doing meaningful tasks, including composing email and blog posts, participating in online forums, identifying and discussing information from various media (ads (print and video), personal blogs, newscasts, etc.), and sharing information with others in person and on social media platforms. Topics are varied: from personal information to more global topics, such as traveling, the environment, and cultural practices relating to daily life (school, food, etc.).

The biggest hurdle in switching textbooks was… me! I had to figure out how to use an entirely different methodology for a course that I had taught for 10 years. One of the most surprising aspects of most communicative-based textbooks is their lack of depth in the topics covered, despite a need for various interactions and dialogs. Conversations are not always very well adjusted to students' needs. They can feel artificial, detached from real life, and not always relevant to today's society, requiring external materials to "spice things up". 

Luckily, those worries quickly vanished when I decided to jump the fence and go ahead with Cosmopolite, a task-based textbook by the French publisher Hachette. It is both stunning and extremely reasonably priced ($40!). It uses material (readings, videos, recordings) that are relevant to today's multicultural and interconnected societies and it offers a true understanding of French and Francophone world cultures. Each day/lesson encompasses a variety of grammatical and vocabulary structures, which are studied in context through the articles, dialogs, websites, forums, and blog posts chosen by the editor and the authors. The book also offers enough activities for the instructor to comfortably plan lessons, and have enough great activities left over in case students want more practice, or to be used for extra credit. It exposes students to authentic language in the same fashion as they would encounter when browsing, reading, and watching French media in the "real world". 

Needless to say that changing textbooks had a profound impact on redesigning the course goals, assessments and my lesson plans! I spent countless hours every day (!) lesson planning, assessment redesigning, and homework assigning. Assessments included regular quizzes and exams but also various creative types of activities (blog writing and video taping, oral presentations, chat room sharing, letter writing).Thankfully, the new textbook came with great test ideas which I was able to adapt to our course. 

One of those creative activities was "les Présentations Culturelles": 6-minute semi-formal presentations in which students were asked to present a very specific and personal aspect of their interest for learning French. Through detailed instructions and clear objectives, students were able to share a personal tie which they had to French and Francophone cultures. 
Some topics included: arabesque by Debussy and how a student spent years trying to master it; a company of French sneakers for which a student interned; a soccer player who was a student's inspiration to learn French; an impressionist artist who is the reason a student picked up painting; etc. Presentations were given from visual support (a PPT, google presentation, etc.) and included various other media (videos, recordings, audios, images) and occasionally, real objects or food, which turned into a "show and tell". A 4-minute Q&A followed. 

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Students mentioned that it was a great way to practice their French in a more formal and personal setting. Although it was a graded assignment, the students and I made sure to create a supportive environment with encouragement and praise. It was also backed up by a grading rubric which targeted depth of research and interest rather than perfect mastery of the language.

To test their growing control of the language, I introduced "Dictées" (dictations). At the end of every chapter, I would dictate a short text related to our chapter's theme. Its purpose was to explicitly test students on vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. To help diffuse the stress of the assessment, I used a grading system which could only allow for three grades which clear objectives for each one). The vast majority of students indicated that they enjoyed the challenge and found it extremely useful. This assessment created the right amount of motivation to encourage students to review and memorize the vocabulary structures studied.
Finally, another activity I introduced in French 101 are "les Blogs Vidéos". Towards the end of every chapter, students were asked to submit a personal video blog to respond to various prompts. Some asked for creativity, some for reflection. Students had to watch other students' posts and respond to them, thus further encouraging community and responsibility for their own learning. Grading, on my side, was often very rewarding since I got to see students progressively gain more control of their language skills. It also seemed to make some of them forget that this was "just another assignment" as they often went beyond simply "answering the prompt" and offered true insights into their knowledge and their lives.

In conclusion, all the major changes that the textbook switch forced me to take on in French 101 were extremely rewarding. The process was made more productive through discussions during the BACCA meetings, which helped me to 1) keep faith in my work, 2) weigh pros and cons of certain activities and course goals, 3) get inspiration from other fellows who were doing similarly daunting changes in their course! The mutual support was truly priceless! As a result, I thoroughly enjoyed putting all the hours of work in redesigning French 101. Ultimately, the whole experience reminded me of the reason why I love teaching: collaborating with colleagues on new and inspiring challenges, sharing with students an insight into another culture to make them better world citizens, and giving them a lifelong skill which will open international doors in their professional and social futures.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Germain Choffart is a Lecturing Fellow of Romance Studies whose current research interests focus on second-language acquisition, the pedagogical applications of technology, and the use of theater, improvisation, and film studies in the teaching of a foreign language.