by Emily A. Hellmich, French (Home Department: Education)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015
Elementary French at UC Berkeley moves at an astonishing pace: in just two semesters, students graduate from the rudimentary to the complex. By second semester, students are expected to actively participate in oral discussions of complicated topics, such as the merits of different modes of transportation or the role of education. I noticed, however, that participation in my French 2 classroom discussions was quite low. When students did volunteer to participate, many of them would first pepper me with questions about specific vocabulary words or furiously look up these specific words in their personal dictionaries. I realized that while my students did have passionate opinions as well as a desire to communicate them, they hesitated: not knowing one specific word represented an insurmountable barrier to them that shut down communication and sent them running to a more expert resource. As a disheartened student in office hours put it, “There are just so many words. I’ll never learn them all.” In other words, students were conflating their global ability to communicate with a “complete” knowledge of French vocabulary; this resulted in low levels of participation, yes, but more importantly in poor communicative confidence.
I set out to support my students in shifting away from this deficiency-based mentality toward a more confident mindset in which they would see and be able to draw on their existing knowledge and meaning-making resources in communication. First, I led the students in the creation of a “semiotic brainstorm” meant to show them not only just how much French they already knew but also to detail, step-by-step, one way to access this knowledge in communication. The activity consisted of finding ways to “talk around” an unknown word or concept by brainstorming lists of other verbs, nouns, and gestures that were related to the target word and that could be used to evoke it. First, I began by modeling the activity with a term in English that they were unlikely to know (“fashion model”). Next, I asked two students for an English word for which they did not know the French equivalent; we worked through the first student-generated example together, and then the students created a semiotic brainstorm for the second student-generated example in small groups.
I assessed whether or not this strategy was successful in helping students improve their communicative confidence by grasping and drawing on their own knowledge in several ways. First, I asked students to complete a semiotic brainstorm as homework, which enabled me to see that they had understood the heart of the activity and could deploy it on their own. I also began tracking how often students asked for definitions of specific words in class; following the lesson, these kinds of questions decreased significantly, indicating that the students were likely employing the strategy themselves. Lastly, I monitored the participation levels in our class discussions as a way to assess student confidence in themselves and in communicating: following the semiotic brainstorm activity, classroom discussions became much more vibrant as student participation increased dramatically. These assessments lead me to believe that students took to heart the semiotic brainstorm activity, coming to acknowledge the depth of their own knowledge, to see themselves as able communicators, and to confidently rely on themselves in communication, rather than on a dictionary.