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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 3, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 24
Pouvons-Nous Vous Aider? ¡Por Supuesto!

Claude Guillemard, director of the French language program at Johns Hopkins, with her class at the Guilford Elementary-Middle School.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

French- and Spanish-speaking faculty take skills to middle school

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

This spring, a trio of Johns Hopkins professors is planting the seeds of foreign language learning at the Guilford Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore.

The pilot program, which started in January, features full-time faculty from the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures who are teaching French and Spanish at a school that previously had no foreign language component.

Fifteen students from the school are enrolled in the program, which includes 90-minute Spanish and French classes, held twice a week, and an innovative foreign language laboratory that incorporates elements of culture, conversation and technology.

Stephen Nichols, chair of the Johns Hopkins department, said that the concept for the program was pitched to him last spring by Beth Felder, director of federal affairs at Johns Hopkins and a resident of the Guilford neighborhood.

Felder, who sits on the board of directors of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., had already been involved with successful efforts to have a playground built at the school, which is located on York Road. When it came time to see what else the school needed, its administrators said that a lack of foreign language instruction placed the students at a disadvantage, especially those seeking to apply to the city's most competitive high schools, such as Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Baltimore City College.

Nichols said that Felder created just the opportunity the department was looking for.

"For a number of years, I've felt that [the department] could or should be more involved with education in Baltimore City," said Nichols, the James M. Beall Professor of French. "I knew we had something to offer, but it's very difficult to gain a point of entry. I thought it could not come from us. It wasn't our place to parachute in a program. So, when Beth came to us and said that the Guilford school is interested in a foreign language program, I felt that this is the moment when we could act."

To run the program and teach the classes, the department secured Claude Guillemard, director of the French language program; Ivette Gonzalez, coordinator of intermediate Spanish; and Loreto Sanchez-Serrano, director of the Spanish language program and a specialist in computer-assisted language learning.

Guillemard teaches French on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Gonzalez handles Spanish lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays, and Sanchez-Serrano, the project's coordinator, leads the Spanish laboratory on Fridays. The foreign language instruction, which is optional, is offered during the school's resource period, when students can also choose to learn music or art.

Sanchez-Serrano said that in designing the program, she wanted to offer the students, ages 11 to 13, something intensive and interdisciplinary that would also be fun and engaging.

The classes themselves focus on elements of conversation and everyday language. Instead of having to memorize reams of words or verb conjugations, the students learn to read, write and speak complete commands and sentences and interact with each other in the foreign language, with exercises such as role-playing a telephone conversation or a chat-room discussion. The instructors also employ visual tools, such as a Spanish-language DVD.

In the French laboratory on Friday, fluent French–speaking residents and Johns Hopkins students come into the classroom so that the middle schoolers can interact with them and learn more about French culture. For the final project, the students will write a report that summarizes what they have learned about French culture during the semester.

The Spanish lab is set up similarly, except that for the final project each student will design a Web page that focuses on the Spanish-speaking country and culture of the Spanish-speaking person with whom they are interacting during the week through WebCT.

Sanchez-Serrano said that she didn't want just to replicate the type of instruction the Homewood undergraduates receive because it won't work for that age.

"For this age group, you want to have a story to tell. The students react very well to that. You also want to use exercises and concepts that are related in some way to them and their lives, such as the type of music they listen to," she said. "In general, we wanted to expose them to another culture not their own, and also have them be more understanding of other cultures. We also want to keep them entertained, and so far they seem very happy in class and eager to learn."

Gonzalez said that the students came into the program with no knowledge of a foreign language and that they have embraced the class wholeheartedly. She is also very pleased with their progress.

"These kids are just sponges," Gonzalez said. "They are so open to learn, and once they learn, say, the correct structure of a sentence or phrase, they get it and repeat it without a problem. They are learning a lot."

From day one, Gonzalez said, she wanted to reinforce why learning a foreign language could be beneficial.

"They are going to ask questions like, How is this going to affect my life? or, Will learning a new language make me different or make me less American? So part of what I need to do is show why it is important and how it can help you," she said. "Of course, some just liked the prospect of having a Spanish girlfriend."

The department plans to offer the program at Guilford again in the fall and expand it to include more students.

Nichols said that in the future, the program could be offered at other area schools. He adds that other departments might also choose to follow their lead.

"If this is successful, why stop at foreign languages? Our colleagues in [another] department could do something similar," he said. "I think this is a win-win situation."


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