The Unschool Pursuit of FrenchMay 30th, 2010 at 15:57
Some students can do some of their necessary life learning in such an instructional classroom, featuring a formalized environment with tests and grades. But more self-initiated and self-directed learning (which is generally minimal in our conventional OSFA education system), has the added bonus of giving the learner confidence of their own ability to muster the courage, master the logistics and enjoy the adventure of their own pursuit of knowledge. My daughter Emma’s pursuit of learning the French language is a case in point.
In 2003 starting her first year of high school (which would turn out to be her last year of conventional school) our daughter Emma decided to take French towards fulfilling her language requirement. Like every other class she took that year, a foreign language was mandated (by the State of California), but unlike her math, history, English and “World of Art” classes at least she could choose Spanish and French and she chose the latter. Though she generally found the school an unsatisfactory learning environment for her, and unleashed herself from school after that 9th grade year, she continued with a determination to learn the language.
During her first year of unschooling (which conventionally would have been her 10th grade year) she struggled with what to do to continue learning French. The most readily available option (outside of conventional high school) was to take French at one of the local community colleges, since high school age kids in California can take community college classes for free. But Emma, now age 15, was still perhaps a bit intimidated by taking a class with young adults, so she passed on that option for the year. She focused that year instead on what was her burning interest, reading classic sci-fi and fantasy novels we had recommended, and developing a fantasy pirate character in a multi-player role-playing game on the Internet.
But in the fall of 2005, now 16, she enrolled in French 2 at Valley Community College along with her best friend Riva who was also homeschooling. She attended the twice a week class for the entire semester and did well enough on the tests to pass the class. But she found the classroom setting intimidating when it came to actually speaking the language in front of the teacher and classmates. Emma has had a history of discomfort when being viewed by others when she does not feel she is at her absolute best. She felt that everyone else in the class was better with the language than she was, which made her reticent to display her lesser skill. She took the French 3 class at Valley College in January of 2006, and again experienced the same limitation in this academic setting.
I did find it of note that she was particularly interested in the minutia of grammar (past perfect, past imperfect, etc.) since she had learned her native English without being exposed to the names of these structural components (or had not been interested when it was covered in some previous English class). Emma found that she excelled at the grammatical structures while her friend Riva was faster at comprehending and forming sentences, even if they were not perfectly put together. The two young women would joke with each other that together they were the perfect French speaker.
After completing the community college classes, toward a more organic learning environment for mastering the French language, Emma and Riva plotted to do something way outside the box. Riva’s mom had found out about a program called WOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), that matched up volunteers with organic farmers around the world that would give those volunteers free room and board in exchange for doing farm-work. Riva and Emma decided to sign up to work on a farm in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec for three weeks to hopefully get some French immersion experience.
Still just 16, the two young women flew by themselves to Quebec, spent the first night at a youth hostel, and then took a two hour bus ride the next day into the country, and were picked up at the bus stop by their host, Louis. They were given fairly rustic accommodations in a room in the barn converted to a makeshift bedroom, which they had to share at times during their three weeks in residence with various insect and small mammal critters. The couple spoke French, but also English, so though Emma and Riva were seeking immersion in the former language, the couple often spoke to them in the latter to make sure they understood detailed instructions for planting and harvesting the medicinal plants, which included lemon balm, hibiscus, clover, along with vegetables that were not sold but harvested and eaten by the farmers.
Particularly difficult and memorable, was helping Louis plant stinging nettles, which are used to make holistic medicines for treating arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, and pain. Consistent with their name, the plants have little venomous spikes that make them hard to handle. While Emma and Riva were in residence, they worked for long hours day after day with their host planting the little seedlings.
He employed a somewhat primitive planting machine that he attached to the back of a tractor, that gave you 20 seconds to place a small stinging nettle seedling in an open box that would shut and then move to deposit it into the ground. Having the calluses from much experience working with these plants, their host could pick up the individual seedlings easily with his bare hands. For Emma and Riva (two city kids without the requisite calluses) it was no easy task, as they could not touch the nettles and had to wear gloves and try to grab individual plants from a big bunch. Sometimes they would still get stung through the gloves, leaving a small patch of white on the skin that burned for several minutes. It was one of those experiences that made for a great story to be told later, but was grueling at the time.
Another memorable experience was when their hosts went off for the weekend and left the two young women to mind the farm. Their main chore while the owners were gone was to feed the rabbits and the chickens. They had already gotten up to speed on this task before their hosts left for the weekend, but unbeknownst to the two, another friend of the farmers had left three geese and three roosters (all huge for the slaughter and one of the roosters quite ill) in the chicken coop.
The next morning, when Emma and Riva went out to feed the hens, they were surprised to find these huge and unidentified birds aggressively squawking and marching around the enclosure. By the next day they were again shocked to find the one (sick) rooster nestled unmoving under a tree surrounded by flies. All this happening while they were reading on the Internet about the growing bird-flu epidemic. They tried unsuccessfully to call their hosts, and continued the rest of the weekend in a panic until the couple returned.
Their hosts chuckled at the incident and that they had forgotten to tell them that their neighbors had left the geese and roosters, including the infirm one. One more story that was much better in the retelling than the initial living through.
So after their three weeks as newbie farmers, the two young women spent their last week in Quebec City at a youth hostel before returning to Los Angeles. They had learned some French, but had had other perhaps more compelling developmental experiences. Emma regaled her mom and I for days after her return with the various tales from their odyssey.
The next spring, now 17 and still seeking the mother load of the quintessential French language learning environment, Emma and Riva enrolled in a French language immersion program in Montreal for a seven-week summer program (blessed with families with the resources to help them pay for this odyssey). Emma was particularly attracted to it because it was not academically oriented with tests and such, but featured four hours of language immersion with a teacher each morning and then afternoon field trips out into the community to practice language skills in the real world.
For the seven weeks they were enrolled in the program, Emma and Riva lived about a mile-and-a-half or so from the small campus in a tiny single apartment. Each morning they would walk to their morning session, which included maybe a half-dozen other students, all older than they were. A couple afternoons a week, their teachers would take them out into the surrounding neighborhood so they could speak the language in typical real-life venues like stores, museums and restaurants. Emma liked this learning environment better because the teachers treated them more like peers, and tailored their lessons to their students’ proficiency level as best they could.
Again it was a lasting experience, and this time round they learned a lot of the language. As homeschooled youths who did not have any immediate plans to go to college, it also gave them that experience of living away from home with other fellow students. For Emma and Riva, having the teacher in the “coach” role to keep them focused on speaking the language was most effective for their learning process. Emma also had her 18th birthday there, and under Canadian law was able to drink her first legal alcohol.
In 2008, about a year after the Montreal trip, a friend of Riva’s mother who had taught French was now out of a job. So Emma and Riva decided to help him out and agreed to pay him to tutor them for 90 minutes every week. They met in a coffee shop, and Emma found it to be a very non-intimidating and completely personalized way of improving her language skills. He would give them articles about French current events to read and suggestions for French movies to watch via Netflix, and then they would discuss them in French at their next meeting. Emma shared with me that she found this relaxed and informal environment much better than the Community College classroom where she had always been constrained by a fear of failure.
Today, Emma does not have much chance to speak the language (unless a French-speaking customer comes into her restaurant). But she feels that she has enough grounding that she would pick it back up quickly if she ever returns to the French-speaking world.
The State of California requirement (that all high school students take a foreign language) contributed to her choosing to study a foreign language, Emma’s pursuit of French (beyond that first year in high school) was learning driven by the learner and not by external requirements. If Emma had stayed in high school, she could have simply met the State requirement and then just left it at that. But she really wanted to learn to speak, and in collusion with her friend, kept trying different interesting avenues to make it so.
This was not only a learning experience, but a self-directed adventure, which is in my mind the best kind of learning experiences you can have. You not only have the opportunity to learn the content you were seeking, but also just generally gain confidence in your ability to chart your own course through trial and error. Emma and her friend Riva learned probably as much about doing research and dealing with logistical issues as they did about the French language. In the end, those things may in fact be more important to their lives than their ability to speak French.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Education