How on earth did I ever receive an 'A' in astrophysics? In my undergraduate years, I was humanities through and through - a double major in French Language and Literature paired with Secondary Education, a double minor in German Language and Literature and Political Science. It was my junior year, and I finally found the courage to face the only science course and lab that I needed to fulfill my requirement. Biology seemed underwhelming, chemistry too formulaic, so instead I looked to the stars. In doing so, I met a professor who transformed quasars, Kepler's laws, and constellations into subjects I didn't want to memorize, but master. I went out every night the sky was clear in the often cloudy Michigan sky to find Orion's glimmering belt, or excitedly follow the arc of the Big Dipper's handle to Arcturus, continuing  by drawing a spike to Spica. I still catch myself charting the path of the night sky years after the course ended. What made me such an engaged learner, and what did this teach me about teaching and learning? It wasn't that I was particularly motivated in every class I took. Far from it. I remember mentally dozing off in the prerequisite math course I took around the same time. What made the astrophysics course so memorable?


After charting the stars with a very passionate instructor, I gained not only a new way of seeing the sky, but an interdisciplinary awareness I hadn't had before. This was particularly important for someone who was in training to become a teacher. The instructor had an approachable personality, and whereas the equations and lexicon related to the field seemed impossible when interacting with new topics for the first time, she guided us along the way.  No matter how obtusely worded the textbook may have been, I knew I could count on her to efficiently explain the topics and offer her advice when we needed it.


I've maintained this awareness in my role as a university French Instructor. How approachable is my humanities-centred course for a student studying physics or economics? Despite the obvious content challenges students like these could face, how do I transform these to excite and inspire? Language teaching can often be like a science or a math course; there are rules to follow, certain formulaic guidelines of grammar, and a level of linguistic precision one must have to successfully interpret texts or produce new content through writing. Naturally these are important tools to have, but I haven't balanced a physics related equation in over five years. What is the material that matters, and how do I allow students to interact meaningfully in French?


In his Ars Poetica, Homer argues that poets should simultaneously delight and instruct the reader as they interact with the text. As an instructor, I argue that the teacher should equally delight the student while instructing them. There should be a joyous approach to learning - an emotional connection that can be established through the activation of the student's interests. The unique mosaic of students that enters any classroom - be it the most introductory French course or a graduate reading course on 17th Century theatre - will bring with it an assortment of interests, opinions, and exceptional talents. The first day of class I often ask students to give three fun facts about themselves (in French, preferably) to see what kinds of intersections can be made between who they are as individuals and what I aim to accomplish in teaching. If these students are given the opportunity, they very well can combine a special talent they may have or a personal interest with the new language they are learning. The collaborations in class can also encourage students to think from different perspectives, while comparing their own interests to them. This Horizontverschmelzung ("fusion of horizons") as Hans-Georg Gadamer would describe this function, allows students to be conscious of their own selves through their interests, culture, native language(s), or gender in comparison, contrast, and expansion with another language and its related cultures. 


Modeling positivity is the greatest teaching tool at our disposal. When I describe the lifeless, zombie-like appearance that often sweeps across the faces of students like an incurable plague on a Monday afternoon just after lunchtime, I am fully certain every instructor can identify with the scenario. Alternately, teachers likely can see themselves shuffling to class in a frazzled state, a frantic lesson plan in hand, and coffee-stained papers that were pulled in a rush from a malfunctioning copier. In both scenarios, my philosophy is to find the lighthouse of positivity and motivation amidst the storm. Even when it might not be easy, putting a smile on your face at the front of the classroom invites students to reciprocate, regardless of other stressful factors in life. 


In the classroom itself, it is not easy to describe my presence as an educator solely through writing. But I aim to embody three characteristics: thoughtfulness, authenticity, and kindness. Being a thoughtful teacher means that you take into account the multiple learning styles present in your class. Being authentic means you truly dedicate yourself to represent the language in its many forms - through text, music, the arts, literature, grammar, and vocabulary. And finally, and most importantly in my view, having a level of kindness gives life to the topic. Our students are as human as we are. Sometimes life can be very hard, and often times students may feel lost or discouraged along the way. Kindness doesn't mean granting students exception after exception; it does however mean that we must foster an encouraging environment that will help students kindle the passion for the French language, culture, history, and literature in the community created among the students and instructor.


I offer students a visually engaging experience with each lesson, using PowerPoint to support whatever topic I am teaching. I like to start my lessons with a short warm-up, sometimes related to the content, sometimes as a gauge to check in with students during the semester. I often integrate authentic resources, texts, and cultural products into lessons when appropriate. As Espaces - the current book I have been using to teach beginning learners - is organized into thematic units, I often structure work to provide an engaging and useful activity that correlates interdisciplinarily or in a meaningful way. I then have had students share their writing to their ePortfolio, allowing for an environment of learning, contributing, and sharing among their peers. I finally have offered a glimpse into my own ePortfolio for the students to browse, showing that I too am a learner just as much as a teacher.


Courses I teach are heavily based on a community model. As a teacher, I aim to direct when necessary, but having students work together on activities reinforces beyond a strict teacher-centred environment. Working independently on ePortfolio posts and writing assignments outside of class also offers an exciting opportunity for students to showcase their own work and thoughts that will provide them with a meaningful "gallery of learning" that they can reflect upon after having taken a course, instead of having a folder of dog-eared papers that they often will never look at again after the completion of a semester.


The most important thing to recognize as a teacher is that we certainly do not posess all of the answers. Unlike the divination of the ancient oracles, we must be conscious that through the learning and teaching process, we will always encounter speed bumps along the way. Sometimes a quiz may be particularly daunting to a class, and likewise, sometimes lesson plans just don't accomplish what they set out to do in the first place. It is in being reflective that I've gone back and modified past lesson plans, sent out messages to students, and made sure that the gaps were filled in retrospect. It is this adaptability and humbleness that is often hard to fully accept, but it is a practice that changes a teacher back into the role of a student. And just as I learned to navigate the stars, I think of the lesson plans that navigate the students through the semester. Hopefully they too will be inspired to find the glimmer in the vastness, the Polaris to guide them on their once uncharted journey. Though we as teachers supply the compass, it will ultimately be the student who guides himself or herself for years to come. They may forget our names, as I have unfortunately forgotten the name of the instructor who so enthusiastically taught me to follow the stars, but an inspiring lesson remains in the mind of this student who found wonder in a prerequisite course.

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© 2020 Claire-Marie Brisson

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