French Help, Whenever: Changing the stories of our teaching

fhw_avatarAlmost 2 years ago I began a small project in the spirit of a flipped classroom initiative. Marc-André Lalande and I realized that there was very little of quality out there for flipping a French 2nd Language classroom. We were looking for short video clips that went beyond grammar lessons, dictées, and contrived dialogs.

We found some truly inspiring and passionate teachers and consultants who were excited about creating some video capsules to flip their classrooms and those of others. We were quickly ready to get going but…the project got stalled. We were stuck.

Essentially, we were trying to create something that did not exist. We knew what we didn’t want but it was difficult to define what that was beyond saying we didn’t want grammar lessons.

The thing was that our mental model of a language classroom was stuck in a traditional model of grammar lessons, dictées, and made up dialogs.

Mental models really have to do with culture – the “how we do things around here.” This culture is kept alive through conversation and action. The easiest way to change culture then, is to change the conversations:

“…create a new narrative…a new story about who they are. All transformation is linguistic and so, if I want to change a culture, I just have to change the conversation. So, what we do is introduce groups of people into a different narrative and conversation about what they’re up to…” Peter Block in A conversation with Peter Block.

As the consultant in the picture, I was still using the same old language. I asked the teachers who had volunteered for the project for their very best lessons to turn into videos….and so that is what we initially received. Lessons. The language I used kept us in the culture of grammar and dictée and dialog.

I made a conscious decision to change the language. I changed the subject of my request from lessons to stories. I asked:

  • What story do you want to tell your students about learning a 2nd language?
  • What do you hope and wish for them as a language learners?

It was at that point that we were able to move away from the same old grammar lessons to more inspiring lessons stories. The results were collected on a YouTube channel: French Help, Whenever!

There is some criticism that we need grammar lessons and dialogs. I don’t argue that, though I do question if we want that to be the content of our best lessons. We are at a point in history where grammar and constructed dialog can be learned anywhere on our phones or tablets. With literally thousands of language learning apps for content, we now have the luxury to pick and choose how we want to make the best of our valuable teaching time.

A culture does not change in one conversation, and I think there is still a lot of work to be done in the culture of 2nd language learning to get to somewhere in between grammar lessons and stories of hope but we are starting.