Marline Al Koura, Ontario
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers
French immersion programs have been evolving to help the education system provide our learners with an opportunity to become proficient in our country's second official language. Prior to entering into my current administrative role, I was fortunate enough to spend eight years teaching French as a second language in the core, extended, and immersion programs. Part of the reality of being an FSL teacher included lack of resources, possible lack of parental support, and occasional lack of interest on the part of the learner. That being said, the rewards far outweighed the challenges: watching a child make the connections between lessons learned; having a student address me in French even outside of the classroom setting; hearing students problem-solve when faced with a dilemma for an assignment; watching students apply strategies learned in French class to their other classes; and last but not least, having former French immersion students come back to tell me about the opportunities now available to them in post-secondary education or in the workforce as a result of their French language skills.
In the short time I have spent in my new role as a vice-principal, I have already seen the various attitudes and perceptions that families and students have towards our programs. Some families will fight to have their children admitted into the immersion program, while others withdraw their children for fear that the program may prove too difficult and possibly undermine their child's chances at success. In both instances, parents are simply trying to make a decision that best suits their child's individual needs. I often try to steer parents away from switching programs if any of the following are true:
When talking to students at school, I often see an intense sense of pride when they tell me that they are in the immersion program. Many were scared and somewhat intimidated when their science or history teacher would address them only in French, but usually within a few weeks, they had adapted and were just as capable of communicating with their teacher as with their peers in French—or at least they were capable of developing creative ways of communicating until they acquired the skills they needed. Immersion teachers will often use gestures, repetition, modelling, vocabulary games, and many other strategies to get the students speaking and communicating in French. Experiential learning, such as field trips or exchanges, serves to reinforce the progress and benefits of learning a second language. The more learners can connect what they are learning to the real world, the more they are likely to retain, and the more they will participate actively.
In past years, there were limited numbers of level-appropriate commercial instructional materials available to immersion teachers. Many teachers created their own materials based on the ministry expectations. Publishers of commercial instructional materials have begun to hear our call for level-appropriate materials, and have begun publishing programs that are not only level-appropriate, but also include suggested modifications and accommodations.
Students with special needs or learning difficulties are often advised to opt out of the immersion program, because of a concern that they may not get the support they need. Some believe that if the child has language-learning difficulties, then adding a second (or sometimes third) language, plus subjects in that language, would not benefit the child. I ask: if their difficulties are language-based, wouldn't they have the same difficulties in subjects taught in English as well? If teachers teaching the English language and subjects in English can provide strategies to help the students get through the material, can't the French teachers do so as well? (I know they can!) The typical immersion classroom atmosphere involves fast-paced, language-based independent learning, which creates a predisposed notion that a child with learning difficulties would struggle in such an environment. Therefore, more often than not, teachers will recommend the non-immersion option for those students. To counter this notion, French teachers continue to seek new teaching strategies and materials, while also expressing the need for more educational assistants and resource teacher support in their classrooms to ensure the needs of all their students are met.
We are finding that many of our immersion teachers are products of our immersion programs. This is fantastic news, as it goes to show that we can successfully train our graduates to enter into a "French workforce." Aside from being responsible for teaching the curriculum, new teachers are learning to balance classroom discipline, student behaviour tracking, student academic tracking, communication with parents, communication with the leadership team, reporting periods, and extra-curricular activities—all while attempting to maintain a home-to-work life balance. Of course, this is by no means only a French teacher phenomenon. However, with the added dimension of teaching the culture as well as the language, French teachers might look to other experienced French teachers and their leadership team for extra support. As administrators, we can try to guide these teachers towards professional development opportunities where they can further develop their language skills, acquire techniques to promote the cultural aspects of the programs and gain the confidence they need to feel like effective immersion teachers.
It is important to note that as administrators, our role is to provide the learners in our care with the best education we can offer them. We can provide advice to the families, we can set up programs to support our students, we can create opportunities for our teachers to network amongst themselves, and we can spend money on resources. However, in the end it is parents, with the best interests of their child in mind, who make the decision about the choice of programs for their child. As educators, we need to continue promoting our programs and making them stronger. We also need to continue working in collaboration with parents to ensure our students become life-long learners.