A New Approach to Foreign Languages

Americans seem to have a congenital timidity in launching themselves in a foreign language, and this at a time when our world responsibilities demand the utmost clarity in communication. CHARLES L. REID,teacher of French in Scarsdale, New York, has had such extraordinary success in the teaching of gifted high school students that others will want to know how he does it.

THERE is a very real danger that democracy in education has been disastrously misinterpreted. It has been said that a college diploma is an essential passport into the fuller and wider adult life, and this seems indisputable. What is disputable is the capacity of all youngsters to take part in such a wider life. Our founding fathers, it may be assumed, never intended the Declaration of Independence to read that all men are created intellectually equal, and yet the massive structure of public education appears built on just that appalling error of thought. The really inferior student suffers even more severely than the gifted one from this immersion in a kind of intellectual melting pot. The superior student is stifled and bored, but the slow learner is likely to be forced into a veritable retreat from life by the cruelty of impossible competition.

The most encouraging sign at the moment is the increasing interest, on a national scale, in the program of Advanced Placement Teaching. Phis program, sponsored by the College Entrance Examination Board, offers to pupils capable of absorbing it secondary school work on a collegiate level in five fields: foreign languages, English, history, mathematics, and science. Unfortunately, the only thing common to such classes over the country is the examination which terminates each course. The colleges do not agree on how much, if any, credit will be assigned candidates who achieve a given score on these examinations, and there are almost as many interpretations of what constitutes an Advanced Placement class as there are schools.

In my own experience, I have found that limiting the size of the class is the only practical way of making sure that all the pupils can do the equivalent of a year of college work. If the students are unable to understand French spoken at an ordinary conversational speed, or if they have not as yet graduated from partial translation to free and natural reading, they are obviously not yet ready to profit from lectures in French on literary techniques and trends or to prepare themselves to discuss a lengthy reading list. Nor, if they have not yet acquired a much better than average facility in speaking and writing the language, can they very well write an analysis of a poem or deliver orally an explication de texte in class. But ability is not enough; the student must also have a real desire to go far beyond the usual high school course and must have a high degree of maturity. A stiff placement examination must be given in order to decide with some accuracy which among the candidates show the most promise.

The teaching technique for the small class of gifted pupils is both simpler and more complicated than that demanded by the usual larger group of less talented students. It is simpler because the gifted pupil can grasp a syntactical subtlety with a minimum of explanation from the teacher, because his greater ability to “stay taught” eliminates the endless repetition needed by the less able, and because the assignments can usually be made fairly flexible, to cover several days, or even weeks. More important than these differences, though, is the fact that these pupils require no motivation; they learn for the sheer joy of learning, which makes the work infinitely rewarding for the teacher. At the same time, teaching such a class is much more difficult, since the subject matter is more demanding and the pupils’ thirst for knowledge more difficult to satisfy.

For example, the whole concept of the French explication de texte is new for the students, and the teacher cannot turn in the perfunctory performance which fatigue or other personal reasons might tempt him to give in other situations. In beginning this part of the work, I normally give the explication of the first two or three poems, and in so doing, show the pupils exactly what makes these poems romantic in form and thought. This doubling of purpose eliminates the two or three lectures ordinarily required for the presentation of romanticism, and the very fact that the students have themselves shared in the development helps to form the scholarly habits of thought which are the real object of the course. The first assignment, then, is to follow closely the method of analyzing a poem and to be prepared, on the fourth day, to read to the class an explication in French on which they will have been working at home. Each presentation is followed by my critique of content and language, and then by class discussion, of which the most difficult part is the elimination of the “Je crois que” which seems to preface almost every adolescent utterance. I have found that the average time spent in preparing their first explication is seven or eight hours, which would seem to prove the point that motivation is unnecessary.

When we move on to the theater and the novel, the method is again different. In the first place, most of the works must be handled as outside reading, since the reading list begins with La Chanson de Roland and ends with such contemporaries as Sartre and Camus. Here again, by combining assignments and making them very flexible, time can be saved and put to other uses. The pupils are told that they are to have finished this lengthy reading list by May and that they are to turn in a written criticism in French — not the usual book report — of at least twenty of the works at reasonable, but not fixed, intervals. These criticisms, which are carefully corrected for thought, syntax, and style, replace the usual compositions, and thus release much more time for the reading in depth and discussion of the seven or eight plays which are handled in class.

It is in these discussions that the work becomes more difficult for the teacher, as the questions and answers on what took place and who said what and to whom are replaced with questions on why and how, questions designed to provoke discussion and argument, not to elicit factual responses. Moreover, the teacher who has prepared adequately for the class will relate the passage under discussion to such developments in art, music, and history as seem to him important and will instruct the class on these matters where necessary. Obviously there can be no question of fixed assignments when several days may well be spent on a single page.

Finally, at the end of the year each pupil prepares and reads aloud a research paper on some literary subject, so that each knows quite a lot about one subject and all share in the results of his studies. There are no assignments at all during the six weeks allotted to this work, and the pupils have complete liberty to organize their time and work as they wish. These papers, incidentally, almost always have the added value of educating the instructor too.

Unfortunately, the spread of the Advanced Placement movement has not been rapid. It is encouraging that the number of public schools offering such courses is increasing; but most of this work is being accomplished along the Northeastern seaboard, almost entirely in wealthy suburban towns. After all, lowering the pupil-teacher ratio from the usual twenty or twenty-two to one (this in the really good school systems; in the others, such a ratio might well represent utopia) to the fifteen or so to one required for the small special classes costs money, and over a period of years it costs a lot of money.

Money, however, is not the only reason for the concentration of this kind of education in one part of the country. Habit, custom, and heredity also play their part. The Eastern seacoast is in its culture and thought traditionally closer to Europe than is the West or even the Middle West. In the Scarsdale schools there are always, year by year, pupils from various parts of Europe and Asia whose parents are employed by the UN or engaged in various aspects of importing or exporting. Moreover, a large proportion of the parents are themselves trained in the liberal arts tradition, and for them it is as necessary that their children have a grounding in French literature as that they be able to solve an equation or interpret the behavior of a laboratory animal exposed to radiation.

There is another important deterrent to the spread of Advanced Placement courses: the lack of good teachers. A great number of the people engaged in the training of the young are not themselves educated people, and being unaware even of their ignorance, they are perfectly willing to accept their own formalized digest of a text which any literate pupil could read for himself as a substitute for that almost spiritual act of communion which constitutes real teaching. Our brave new world of pedagogy offers us year by year a dreary crop of persons who know all about leaching but know nothing really to teach. The colleges are producing today numbers of welleducated, scholarly people, but are these graduates going into public school teaching? Not very many of them, and those who do become teachers gravitate, understandably, to the few schools which offer them a decent, if modest, financial return.

This matter of qualified teachers is of the essence in any discussion of the training of gifted pupils. To cite but one example of what an inadequate teacher can do to a gifted child, on one of the Advanced Placement examinations the pupils were asked to discuss in French some family problem or situation which they had observed in the course of their readings. Most of the candidates selected Le Cid, Madame Bovary, or one of several appropriate selections from contemporary works. It certainly was not the fault of the candidates from one school that they all selected Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon. That venerable potboiler was as near as they had come to anything literary. Nor was it, in all fairness, necessarily the fault of the teacher; some blame attaches to whatever institution had taught her that Perrichon was literature.

Almost as important as money is the question of prestige. High school principals must be brought to realize, utopian as this may sound, that it is the academic disciplines which are the primary concern of schools and that all else, including the sacred cow of organized sport, must of necessity be subordinated to them. No one can seriously object to a wholesome, reasonable participation in athletic competitions or body-building exercises, but such activities should have a place in the program only when the demands of the educational program have been satisfied. Can the students reasonably be expected to give a proper respect to the academic disciplines when the omission of classes at the behest of the football coach, the shortening of periods to permit the pep rallies or to allow for a lengthy assembly for “recognition of our athletes” all attest to the ignominious position of scholarship in many high schools?

Moreover, the teacher of the gifted pupils must be given time to recover from the almost total fatigue which automatically follows two or three hours of successful teaching. The learning process is exhilarating for both pupil and teacher, but it is also a very real drain on the teacher’s emotional and physical resources. If he is not tired mentally, nervously, and physically, he has not really been teaching but merely mouthing someone else’s ideas. For the gifted pupil, then, to receive the best teaching, it must be made possible — and this again is an administrative problem — for his teacher to relax before the next class. That means that he should not have to do the countless clerical or police chores which actually take up so large a part of the working day of most public school teachers. If the schools really want a return to education, let them engage clerical workers for the nonteaching chores. What business executive is expected to count the items in the warehouses or superintend his employees’ lunch hour?

The gifted student has been cruelly, criminally ignored in the past in favor of his less able fellows. Infinitely more must be done if we are not to sell out completely those on whom the future of our civilization depends.