tales from the edge: how i teach french to five year olds

The first thing I say when I tell people I created (a month ago) and teach (now) an after-school French program for preschoolers through second graders at a local private school is, “And it’s a lot harder than it sounds!” (Or, to those who’ve been there, done that: “And it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be!”)

I’ve boiled it down to two reasons:

One, kids want to learn everything. They don’t care about your lesson plan or activity for the day. The first grader I babysat all last year took an after-school Chinese class once a week (First grader! Chinese!) because he wanted to speak to his Chinese friend in Chinese. And he was positively appalled when that half hour per week didn’t make him fluent. “We’re just not learning Chinese,” he would whine on the walk to the 6 train. “It’s all songs.” Well, kiddo, probably because of this next reason.

Two, kids have the great and glorious attention span of about thirty seconds. So not only do they not give a whit about your lesson plan, but they can’t believe it’s supposed to last thirty minutes. What in the world could take thirty minutes? Certainly recess, but certainly not French. Also, the fact that “touche” in French sounds an awful lot like “tush” is grounds for butt-bopping all the chairs, tables, and walls you’re ostensibly meant to just touch. (This has happened every class. Every single one.)

And I’m sticking by my conclusion that after school classes are even harder than vanilla school-day classes for three more reasons: One, school is out. Duh. Didn’t you hear the final bell? Two, they’ve just come from after school care, ie glorified recess in a big room with crayons and tables and glue. Three, whereas school, real school, has a defined and respected discipline system (gold stars, revoked recess, trips to the principal’s office, anyone?) that’s reinforced in class every day — after school class doesn’t. It’s nearly impossible to impose an appropriate discipline structure without venturing into the extreme. What four year old will even remember he was too loud on Monday, let alone realize that that’s why he doesn’t get a croissant on Wednesday?

Thankfully enough, and just as we crest the halfway mark, I’ve made a few sparkling discoveries. I’m carrying them around like little gold nuggets and spilling out my bag of gems here.

  1. Pair older kids with younger ones. Newsflash: despite a voracious appetite for information and about one tenth of the concentration powers needed to absorb it all, kids remain miniature adults, and they, too, love to feel important. And powerful. So matching a second grader with a kindergartener will give him the chance to teach — and thereby learn it twice. As a flash bonus, the kindergartener is working with the big kid. Cool by association.
  2. Make the naughty ones your helpers. Well that sounds familiar. Oh yes: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. When I brought the tickle-and-fart instigator into my lap (I know. HUGE risk.) for story time and asked him if he would mind terribly turning the pages like a big boy — well, wow. Golden child. Of course, once “Spot à la ferme” was over, he was back to his namesake ways but for fifteen minutes (Fif! Teen! Minutes!), I had him.
  3. Use every kind of media. Since every one of my students was capable of human language, YouTube has existed. So when I wanted to jump start a class on family members, I brought in this video of Frère Jacques. Unaccountably Latin beat notwithstanding, I have never seen them so quiet. But it doesn’t all have to be new media. I read that same Spot book when I was little, and it is manifestly worth its weight in baguettes.
  4. Open the lines of communication between yourself, other teachers, and parents. When I called the school earlier to talk to the principal about my T&F instigator, the woman who answered happened to be his preschool teacher and volunteered lots of ideas for classroom control. And to the second point — this is my first time working in the school system, but I’d gotten the idea via CNN horror stories that preschool parents these days tended toward the wretched. That they called the Board if their kid fell during recess, or drank soda at a birthday party, or got a D on a spelling test. Maybe it’s all my time with east cost private schools. But when I wrote T&F’s mom, she was totally understanding and apologetic. And she even gave T&F a talk — how much it helped is, of course, another matter.

I’m sure to stumble across some more gems soon — after all, we’re only halfway done. And I’ll post them here, natch. Meanwhile, if anyone reaches any revelations on the subject, please drop by me. I’ve got a T&F instigator, not to mention seven more eager gigglers, to win over. And, of course, make fluent by mid-December.


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