When Molly McCoy (the IGS Outreach Coordinator) first contacted me, she wanted to know if I would be interested in talking about the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that I was not an expert in this area and would probably do no great justice to the topic. That said, the broader questions of how and why we teach non-European "Francophone" topics in language courses do interest me, and I suggested approaching these in the workshop. I spent many of the final weeks of the spring semester wrestling with the questions of which texts to assign and how to organize my two seven-hour days. In what now strikes me as something of a risky move, I put on the syllabus a chapter from Edward Said's Orientalism and two Paulo Freire readings (a chapter from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and another from Teachers as Cultural Workers). I did not know who exactly would choose to spend part of their summer talking about this or what their agenda would be.
There ended up being sixteen French teachers in the course: eleven high school teachers, two middle school teachers, one elementary school teacher, and an IGS staff member who returned from a year in France as an Assistante d'anglais and who hopes to get certified as a French teacher in the US. All but three of the participants work in public schools, and all but two have done graduate work in Education. All sixteen course participants were white and female.
As my point de départ, I asked the teachers to discuss how they integrate non-European Francophone topics into their courses, what they think works particularly well, and what problems they encounter. Certain threads quickly emerged. Without exception, the instructors felt unprepared to speak with any authority about the broad range of Francophone topics that most text programs now include. For example, a chapter that includes a reading on Haitian voodoo might be followed by a chapter that talks about markets in Abidjan. Secondly, there was a consensus that most of these "cultural" readings were superficial and trafficked in a kind of factoid-driven approach to learning. One teacher remarked "Often, I feel like I'm playing a game of fetch with my students...I throw out information and ask them to bring it back to me. That's not teaching, that's a game I play with my dog." Many of us believe that in their current form, these cultural units are mere playgrounds for students to practice the grammar and vocabulary of the chapter, and exist in a vacuum stripped of any real context or connectivity to larger course themes or questions.
When we discussed Said, the question of how we (and textbooks) represent "la Francophonie" drove the conversation. My colleague Séverine Bates visited our workshop and presented her own thinking and research, and pointed out a moment in a textbook (one that we used to use in courses here) in which a beach is labeled "une plage sénégalaise" when it is in fact a "plage martiniquaise" and various other textual moments of either misrepresentation or clichéd representation. The carte postale exotique, it seems, lives on in many text programs that try hard to represent a plurality of voices from la Francophonie. Another colleague, Herman Koutouan, challenged the teachers to think about how they might integrate various topics (about which they might have little knowledge) into their courses, and offered a video on open-air markets in Martinique as an example. Our reading of Freire pointed to the need for instructors to include students' experiences with race, class, marginalization, immigration, etc., as the starting point for our curricular engagements with difficult and politically-charged topics.
For "next steps," there was a consensus that k-12 teachers, who are increasingly (and with good reason) asked to teach content and culture in their language courses need to have access to more professional development opportunities that focus on specific content areas, rather than pedagogical systems and strategies. The teachers also expressed a certain gratitude for the way this workshop was structured (primary foundational texts followed by small group and collective discussion, with guest speakers and curriculum development); many of them were frustrated by the way in which workshops on teaching frequently take the form of lengthy, acronym-rich PowerPoint presentations that convert commonsense teaching practices into diagrams and jargon systems. Why, many of us wondered, must conversations about teaching be so different than, say, our conversations about Zola? Finally, many of the participants in the workshop argued that to create meaningful engagements with Francophone topics, schools should encourage and enable collaboration among French teachers and across the curriculum (history, geography, English). Furthermore, at the teacher-training level, content courses (literature, politics, sociology, art history, philosophy, etc.) outside schools of education should be an integral part of language teacher preparation such that new instructors are adequately prepared to teach substantive content to their students.
I'm not sure we answered the very broad and ambitious questions that I put before the teachers at the beginning of the workshop, but the very process of reflecting on our teaching this way and discussing our profession collectively seemed to focus our thinking and renewed our commitment to keep the conversation going, in our classrooms, faculty lounges, and online.
"Throwing out Postcards" Notes on teaching by Corbin Treacy
"Throwing out Postcards: Rethinking the place of culture in the French Language classroom with K-12 teachers: "
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