Senegal Connection: Authentic Language Use in Real-Life Context

Kerry Parker, Secondary Language Learning Chair
French Teacher, Edison High School

As world language teachers, one of the challenges we face is to bring a sense of authenticity into learning. It is a challenge all teachers face – how does learning apply to what lies beyond the classroom? And, if we are teaching communicatively, what resources do we have to make the authentic part of learning more than just food days and songs?
I have been teaching French for twenty years (has it really been that long?) and I have struggled throughout my career with the task of finding native French speakers that can engage with my students. Over the years, I have been grateful for the many ideas flowing through the OFLA conference networking, our county resource centers, social media and WVIZ. As always, I am trying new projects with native speakers in my classes. For the next two years, my classes are partnered with a community in Senegal, specifically their elementary school.
Edison High School had the good fortune to have a recent graduate who joined the Peace Corps and is stationed in northern Senegal. We partnered with her through the World Wise School program, not really knowing what our access would be and what that partnership would look like. Each Peace Corps volunteer establishes the parameters of a project once he or she is integrated into an assigned community. Rachel is working in the Health sector in her community, but it didn’t take her long to start brainstorming connections between our schools. Our shared goal from the beginning was to make French language learning authentic, a learning that reached beyond the walls of our high school, bringing Senegal to Edison and Erie County to Senegal.
There isn’t readily available access to talk to the village school children, so project number one was to make the children a set of library books. When Rachel talked with the students in her home and community, there was a desire to read, but no books, only television. The Senegalese community had no story books in their elementary school. So, beginning at Thanksgiving and for the next five weeks, my students worked to create books to laminate in order to create a library for Senegalese children.
What level books could beginning level and intermediate level French students write? It turns out that what my students could write and what five- to seven-year olds were learning to read was not so far off. We had some long stories, but mostly short and sweet, based on what my students discovered was needed for the children. My students learned that French was not the students’ first language; however, French was the language they used for all of their school work and for government. So we created books with all the good basics – colors, numbers, places in town, food words, geography words, and anything else that my students thought might be important and/or interesting.
The creative process was work. This is usually the type of project I plan for the end of the year, but Rachel was coming home at Christmas, so our project got bumped to December for the very best of reasons. My students who struggled most created the more simple color and number books; French IV wrote original stories in passé simple. I still had a lesson plan for each class for each week, but the plan focused on meeting my students’ needs for their stories, not just the next lesson in the book or the holiday lessons I usually teach. It was grammar, it was verb tenses and usage, it was syntax and much of how expressions work (and don’t work). It was discovery as my students realized that online translators don’t make the most accurate sentences. They had to learn how to tell which word they wanted to use on wordreference.com. So many lessons I never explicitly planned, but the experience of doing is what made this learning “real” to my students. It’s optimistic to think my students will remember all this when they return from the holidays, but I’m excited to be able to review within the framework of how they learned and for whom.
For me, the best part of the book creation in the Senegal partnership was seeing the effort and care that the majority of students put into creating a quality original story. We had to go through multiple drafts of several stories to fit them within the range of my students’ ability to translate. I had to push about a dozen students just to finish the first draft or outline in English because they were afraid of letting down the Senegalese students. The end result? One student wrote about a spider who described the various holidays we celebrate, because his web kept getting torn down every time the decorations went up. Another wrote about a little girl who met the Night and overcame her fear of the dark. Another student wrote about a lonely robot who finally made a friend. A Puerto Rican student translated a series of poems and stories that are her favorites from Puerto Rico.
I hope that my students took more away from the project than just a grade. Most of them never give a thought to the value of a book, and a small percentage of them read actual (non-digital) books for pleasure. They have almost always had access to books at home or through the school and public libraries. The idea that the Senegalese children have television, but they would want to read for pleasure and not be able to was eye-opening for many of my students. I hope they have taken an interest in the differences of how others live in various countries and on other continents. I have several images from Rachel’s presentation to show students as we start phase two of this project – Explorons le Sénégal!
I hope my students developed independent learning skills – realizing that they could design something and then find the tools, skills and help/guidance necessary to make the design work. And from this project, I hope my students got to experience discovery in French. So often, students get used to studying topics and vocabulary which are required and there is very little time for the exploratory aspect of language learning. But in this project, for example, two students learned new clothing words, two others learned all of the places in town, and someone else had to learn how to talk about nationalities and how to say where people are from. All of these are second semester topics in my course. It’s a little chaotic as a teacher to bring everything back together when they have all been on a different page, but in the grand scheme of things, I want my students to have the confidence learned in figuring things out successfully. It is a key for future – the ability to teach oneself how to learn to use a language.
The books are, by now, in their Senegalese village. On December 27, one of my freshmen and I went to the Huron Public Library to attend Rachel’s Peace Corps presentation to deliver the books. On January 2, Rachel packed the books with her when she returned to Senegal to continue her program. The next step of this project is to have the children read the books, and Rachel is going to make audio and video recordings of them to send to my students via Google drive. In the meantime, my students will be doing various readings about Senegal and exploring several aspects of life there. They will be working in groups to make short videos to greet the students and ask them questions about where they live. Other students are going to make videos showing places where we live. We also want to make videos in which the Edison students will share a song or a poem, but these plans really depend upon Rachel’s internet access for the videos. If the videos don’t work, we hope to send them as voice mails in French that she can play for her students.
As part of our partnership, we are also going to send a care package to Rachel and the children in the spring. Since Rachel is working in the Health sector, my students are going to brainstorm ideas of things they can send to help Rachel in her health work. One example might be books for the little ones about hand washing and sneezing into the elbow, rather than hands. My students are going to talk with our school nurse to find some ideas to propose to Rachel for approval. Again, it is Rachel’s community, so the ideas must fit within the overall vision she has for the program she is implementing.
It’s a work in progress, but it has brought the francophone world into our classroom and is encouraging my students to go beyond the confines of a textbook to use the language in a real world context. My students are enjoying the connection and are looking forward to the response from Rachel and the Senegalese children. I’m looking forward to making the most of the buy-in I have from my students to explore the world and the French language.

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