It’s a big week at my school: grade 8 course selection week. The now not-completely-terrified thirteen year-olds are being asked decide how they’re going to spend their next year.
It has also historically been one of my most aggravating weeks as a French teacher.
See, grade 8 is the last year that students are required to take French in BC. According to Federal mandate, and in conjunction with provincial curriculum, BC students take some variety of Core French (also called FSL, or French as a Second Language) starting in grade 5. Grade 8 is the last year that they “have” to take French. And it’s…interesting to teach.
The kids don’t have to pass; they don’t have to take summer school if they fail. They don’t need to pass French 8 before taking Spanish 9, or any other language. A lot of kids come to me already hating the language, and biding their time until they’re rid of it. And by “biding their time,” I mean doing next to nothing in class and going completely haywire instead.
So I normally hate this week. Because I’m trying to teach them French – which they don’t want to learn – and I’ll I can hear is “I’m taking Spanish next year. French sucks.”
Ouch. Word dagger, right there.
Now, I admit that I’m biased. I don’t speak Spanish. I wish that I did, and I hope to learn one day, but I don’t. I speak French. And hearing that something that you love sucks? Well, that doesn’t just suck. It blows.
So this week is normally pretty deflating.
But I decided to get in front of the Spanish-centric classroom conversations this year. Instead of trying to convince my students of how awesome French is, I tried to get them to look at the advantages of learning another language. Any language.
We talked about how knowing more languages opens opportunities for travel, but we also chatted about what they can learn through travel, and how it can make them grow as people.
We talked about how knowing additional languages can lead to job opportunities, and how bilingual positions can be harder to fill, and better paying. I referenced French/English work with the Canadian government, UN, or IOC. I told personal stories of how my knowledge of French has opened two career paths for me, right here in BC.
We went through university admission requirements, how they require a language 11, and how all Arts programs require a language 12 – or 6 credits of university language, at a cost.
I talked about how knowing more languages can help them better understand and communicate in English.
I gave them the sad, sad news that all languages have nouns, verb conjugations, adjectives etc., and that Spanish still has that pesky masculine and feminine thing.
But I ended with this: taking a language is a choice. They don’t have to choose a language elective. There are benefits to it, but they need to use their sound decision making skills to decide what’s best for them, because choosing a language means that they’re choosing to learn that language. They’re choosing to commit to it.
And I started to summarize. “So what I’m saying is…”
“We should all take French next year.” The voice was low, but clear. Off the cuff, but pointed. Sarcastic. Annoyed.
I looked at the student.
“No. That’s not what I’m saying. If you don’t want to learn French – if you don’t want to put in the effort and come to class each day intending to learn – don’t take it. I don’t want you in my class if you don’t want to be there.”
And I paused. Not for effect, but because I had nothing more to say. I had, in fact, rendered myself speechless.
They were words that I never thought I’d say. But I meant them.
I would love for all of my students to find a passion for French, or at least a respect for the language and its history in Canada. I would do backflips if only a whole class would ace a test or a project; I would cap it off with the splits if none of them had complained about having to do the task.
But I can’t do backflips. And I definitely can’t do the splits.
Not that I’ll ever have to.
Because as much as I love something, I can’t force my students to feel the same way. It’s the equivalent of trying to make an apathetic person notice and love you; it doesn’t work, and it wrecks your sense of worth if you try. And today, I surprised myself by admitting that I’ve stopped trying to win my students over.
And I feel good about it.
I can’t make my students love the subject that I teach. I can just show it in all its glory and gruesomeness, hoping that they see its beauty. French is gorgeous. Its curves roll off the tongue when it’s spoken, and its words meld into one another, fitting together perfectly, like few other things in life. But it’s complicated. It’s moody. It takes a special type of person to see its beauty through its flaws.
But like we know from so many teen books and movies, sometimes the high school loser shows everyone in the end.
And today? Today’s not the end. I’ll be hitting send/receive for the next thirty years, waiting to hear if anyone fell in love in my class and let that passion take them around the world – or straight to the UN.