Opening Day Faculty Address, September 4, 2012
Posted September 10
I calculated that I have listened to sixteen faculty speakers so far and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I realized that the best remembered speeches for me offered a glimpse into the lives of my colleagues. So I, too, have decided to share a little bit about the path I have taken as a teacher, of what I find rewarding about working here as a language teacher and seventh-grade advisor, in the hopes of keeping your interest, if not a place in your memory.
Although I have been teaching French now for half of my life, I did not grow up speaking French. I hail from that fertile French teacher land, Southeastern Iowa. As we Southeastern Iowans say, “Qu’est-ce que le maïs pousse bien cet été!” Which roughly translates as—“Knee high by the fourth of July!” You may not know it, but many people seeking to flee the hot, endless cornfields of Iowa become French teachers. Just ask our dear colleague and my fellow Iowan Steve Farver.
There is something about seeing the same few people day in day out, the too quiet life of small town Iowa that made me want to become more than I was born into. When the highlight of my high school life consisted of circling the town square in my friend’s Plymouth Duster, why not choose the identity of an exotic French person?
I envisioned this person, Deeannne, spending her days taking classes at the Sorbonne, attending fabulous concerts in ancient buildings, sitting at a small outdoor table eating pastries while conversing fluently in French with interesting—and, perhaps, interested—natives.
So, ooh, la la, le Français it was. The French language motivated me to work as a nanny for a year after my undergraduate degree, even though I had little experience with children. Lodged in a miniscule attic room in the tiny village of Montivillier, Normandy, I cleaned, cooked, and cared for two small children. Although little Noémie and Quentin were two of the best French teachers I ever had, this experience was an unglamorous reality in stark contrast to my French pastry fantasy. I did, however spend 12 months without speaking English, except, perhaps, for a few words under my breath.
After my graduate degree, I went back to France, this time to Brittany. There I spent two years as an English teacher, striving to lose myself in France's rich language, literature and culture. Had my Irish husband Kevin been a chic, scarf-wearing Parisian, I would not be here right now. I would have fulfilled my cultural and linguistic reassignment and be sitting in a French café, speaking around a mouthful of croque-monsieur. But the road to happiness has many routes, and I am truly happy to be here at Lab, teaching French.
Exhausting and energizing at the same time, each new year, each new day, each new child brings a different set of variables to the table as we all head into our classrooms. As a French teacher, I get to embrace my French persona. This is especially effective with third graders who are so open to looking at the world through the lens and language of another culture. It takes very little convincing for them to role play, to imitate, to pretend to be French, absorbing language along the way. Of course, I am truly qualified to promote this fantasy, having devoted so much time to camouflaging the Iowan while living in France.
After 20 years, one would think that my fundamental task of teaching kids to speak another language would get easier. It does not.
Teaching a language requires as much use of what we call the target language in the classroom as possible. This is not as easy as it sounds. It takes considerable discipline, for both student and teacher, to remain restricted to a foreign language-only environment when we all speak English fluently!
Much of what I want to say to students is not initially understood by everyone, just as what they so earnestly want to tell me is immediately confounded by the language hurdle. As anyone who has learned a foreign language knows, oral expression is the hardest skill to acquire—particularly frustrating for children who expect more instant results.
In the language classroom everyone has to work hard to plant and nurture those first seeds of language. This can be fun and playful, but it still requires some heavy-duty equipment and a very athletic use of gesture to help us bridge the gap while communicating—hence all those language teachers trudging around with stuffed animals, strange plastic foods, toys, and musical instruments as they roam from classroom to classroom.
If it sometimes seems that French is a wall standing between my students and me, teaching them how to scale this wall—and how to enjoy the struggle as they climb—is key.
Of course there are those students who (like I did) catch the language bug, who thrill at the thought of achieving fluency, of traveling to the destinations where their studied language will allow them to communicate and experience life first-hand in the target culture. But for the rest, pinpointing what inspires them is very individual. Sometimes contact with native-speaking students can trigger that spark. Music, art, and theater may reach others. But mostly, the middle school language teacher endeavors to reach everyone by creating an environment of games, projects, and especially humor all the while teaching those important language learning skills.
This “wall” does not exist for the child raised in a two-language household. These fortunate children can switch from one language to another, seemingly without effort. New research on the benefits of bilingualism, presented during a symposium organized by Suzanne Baum, our World language chair, lays out the immense cognitive benefits of achieving the state of the bilingual brain. Not surprisingly, bilingual children learn additional languages more easily, but they also demonstrate superior working memory and executive functioning skills.
Executive functioning skills! Those of you who have taught my two older boys know the fear those three words strike in my heart.
This may lead you to wonder if I am raising my own children bilingually, to which I must answer, “no.” This sometimes surprises and disappoints Lab parents. I admit to having tried mothering my children in French, yet those first months of parenting felt enough like jumping off a cliff that trying to speak French to my newborn seemed to be one more added uncertainty. You can imagine my relief when I recently stumbled upon research showing that the native tongue has a stronger connection to the emotional part of the brain than does a second language. Finally an explanation to appease my guilt somewhat.
In any case, while around a third of our students at Lab have hit the linguistic lotto and have been raised bilingually, for the rest the benefits of that dual language brain will have to be achieved through the hard work of my colleagues and the students' own dedication. I have no doubt they, as well as my own children, will eventually achieve the benefits of speaking two or more languages. As it is, thanks to Mesdames Schneider, Venkatramen, and Collet as well as M. Farver, it is no longer safe for my husband and me to use French as our secret language in front of our children.
As an advisor, English is also the language I use to connect more closely with my advisees. For years, Vicki Schneider told me she thought I'd really enjoy being an advisor, even as I insisted that, for me, teaching French was what I truly was meant to do. Fortunately for me, I listened to her.
In the same way that being a parent did not initially come naturally to me, neither did the role of advisor. Let me remind you that I advise seventh graders, that time of life most people look back on with a sense of horror.
Seventh graders are generally uncomfortable in their own skin, struggling with so much in terms of identity as they piece themselves together physically, emotionally, and academically. Any time you gather a group of them together, the room can vacillate between feelings of awkwardness, bravado, hurt, kindness, giddiness, and occasionally despair.
At first, it was difficult to organize my time with such an unwieldy group. What happened to my pattern of varying activities with concrete goals? What happened to the barriers to unnecessary comments that the limitation of a French-only class imposed? The floodgates were down and the stories of my advisees (as well as an enormous amount of goofiness) came pouring out in English.
As an advisor I get to connect with kids in ways that my subject matter, teaching methods, and schedule did not previously allow. Trying to get these 13-year-olds to know themselves better requires me to do the same.
While I still occasionally fantasize about living in France again, Chicago and Lab still offer plenty of adventure for this transplanted Iowan. I am no longer the same teacher as when I started grad school. Lab has given me the opportunity to thrive as a teacher, evolve as an advisor, and mature as a colleague through professional development and new experiences. The best part of expanding my experiences in a place where I’ve spent so much time is the chance to work with such extraordinary people. Through my daily interactions with you, my friends and colleagues, I have learned much about teaching, advising and, yes, parenting.