Amye R. Sukapdjo, 2nd Grade Teacher
École Kenwood French Immersion School
The pandemic rocked learning environments everywhere in spring 2020. My current second grade students missed out on the last quarter of their first grade, which then transitioned into summer. As of fall 2020 it had been six months since most of the children had been in “school mode” and there was a lot of uncertainty about what la rentrée would look like.
When teachers at École Kenwood French Immersion School (Columbus, Ohio) were told late last August that the school year would begin fully online, we wondered how it was all going to work. Like other full immersion programs, we were concerned about how we would be able to maximize language input through a new modality in order to develop students’ production skills. How many platforms do we use and how many of those are in French? What French language texts are accessible to students working remotely? How can we help them improve their writing skills when we cannot even see what they are writing? Our thoughts were swirling. Challenges were abundant and we had to get creative. Quite simply, we wondered what would be successful. How was this to be accomplished?
My students needed to read and write, and then demonstrate their speaking ability in French. In the fall, all of this needed to happen remotely. My students began the year by creating booklets in French. Students would write with me during our online class sessions and they would draw and color the images that matched the text, an appropriate approach for second graders. A simple YouTube search led me to a sample video of making a booklet without using glue or staples. I couldn’t presume that all students had access to those materials at home. So I sent home copy paper, a ruler, pencils and crayons as basic supplies. The booklets reviewed structures and vocabulary they had learned in the past and also included new expressions, more sophisticated vocabulary and connected to our science curriculum. The genres varied from fiction to non-fiction. We wrote about ourselves (Tout sur moi), autumn (C’est l’automne), colors (J’aime les couleurs), fall activities (Que peux-tu faire en automne ?), how plants grow (Mes plantes poussent !), and about snow (La neige). Once booklets were completed, they read them aloud for me using Flipgrid videos which classmates and I could view. Many parents commented how much they appreciated the clarity of expectations with the booklets and the ease of using the Flipgrid platform. My intent was to eventually have students make their own booklet based on a creative writing piece later in the year. However, our district shifted into a hybrid learning model at the beginning of February 2021. Time to change gears again.
Having two cohorts physically in the classroom twice a week, remote students tuning in via Google Meet, and learning and planning virtually on Wednesdays, it became clear to me that new rhythms and planning had to take place. During our French language arts lessons, we write out poetry. I often use poems by Henriette Major (Le zoo fou, Les voyelles) and Mbaye Gana Kébé (Belle ronde) with younger learners; the imagery comes alive for them, and the repetition cements the language. Then they can read poetry aloud together using, and sometimes inventing, gestures to help them engage more deeply with the text. A side benefit is that gesturing gives students a body break, which is quite welcome given new health and safety protocols have limited our movement within the classroom. We also transcribe the lyrics to some of our favorite French children’s songs that students learned back in la maternelle at our school. By using very familiar melodies as a bridgeway to language instruction, young learners joyfully participate. Some of our beloved songs include, Fais dodo, Colas mon p’tit frère, Un éléphant qui se balançait, J’ai un parapluie, Frère Jacques, and Napoléon. Through the writing of poems and song lyrics, students can demonstrate their understanding of the French language by recalling their knowledge of French phonetics (versus English phonetics), spelling patterns, verb tenses, noun-adjective agreement and make stronger connections between vocabulary, pronunciation and orthography. These written examples also serve as model texts for other written tasks.
Presently, we are creating written summaries of our fictional short stories. Going through the writing process, we brainstorm together the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of the tale. Next, we talk about the events from the beginning, middle and end, and we take notes. As we write, we discuss how we can express our thinking in French. What words do we use? What vocabulary or verbs do we still need to learn? How do we spell out certain words? Why do some adjectives change forms? Should this sentence be written in the present tense or the past tense? What are some synonyms we know that can be used? The discussions are rich from both the remote students and the in-class students. Our collaboration results in a six to eight sentence summary that we then read aloud together.
So what has been successful during this pandemic school year? The use of songs, poems, and short stories as the basis for language acquisition and production in my virtual and hybrid class has worked out very well. Students have improved their French language listening and speaking skills through songs, poetry, and group discussions. Students have also improved their reading and writing skills in French. Moreover, they are proud of their writing as they become more independent. They demonstrate understanding of the texts we read. They demonstrate the ability to discuss ideas. They participate in a group writing activity while thinking about the details of structure, orthography, and writing conventions. And they’ve created a community around these written and musical works. They enjoy reciting poems together and singing all the lyrics of the songs in their repertoire. Given the difficulty and challenges of this past year in education, I know that my heart sings when I see and hear the joy they maintain while learning in the French language.