Olga, we often talk about the problems today’s schools have with teaching Mathematics and Humanities. Is everything OK with Foreign Language teaching?
If you ask me, the situation here with foreign languages is even worse. Languages for many years used to be taught as pure, dry theory, without any practice; and then schools did a complete volte-face and started using the so-called interactive method, where grammar is studied on a hit-and-miss basis, and students are asked to simply memorize speech patterns and set expressions, without understanding the grammar. In addition, the history, culture and literature associated with the language are either taught indiscriminately or not at all.
In general, the problem isn’t with language teaching as such, but with schools themselves, which have become centres for formal training, where the learning process has become fossilized, and knowledge is imparted without any thought or care. I have long thought that it would be good to change this somehow and work within a system that goes beyond the traditional, boring and often very inefficient status quo. Not surprisingly, when the founders of Le Sallay International Academy called me to participate in the creation of this unusual and very different institution, I jumped at the chance.
What languages will you teach at the Academy and where did you learn them?
At the Academy I will be teaching Spanish and French. I learnt them first in Moscow and then where they are spoken, in Spain and France. In particular, I studied Teaching Spanish at the University of Salamanca and Teaching French in France. Besides teaching, I am still actively involved in translation and interpretation, including simultaneous interpretation, which allows me to stay in contact with the colloquial languages and their features in different countries. This is particularly important for Spanish, which is spoken all over the world but each country has its own unique dialect.
How will your lessons be structured, taking into account the combined training format?
Lesson planning will greatly depend on the level of the students, because teaching languages to beginners is not the same as teaching those who have already reached a certain level. It is impossible, in my view, to learn a language properly without the “four pillars”: a solid grammar base, text comprehension and analysis, speaking and listening practice and studying the literature, culture and history of the countries where these languages are spoken. Getting the right mix between them so that all students, from beginners to advanced, will be motivated to learn, and adapting that mix to the hybrid model of education will be the main challenge for me. Naturally, with distance learning we will be more engaged in grammar and reading, and in study camps we’ll be practicing oral communication skills more. There is another bottleneck: when learning Spanish, for example, students from different countries will experience different issues. For example: a child from Russia may not have any trouble with pronunciation, but using articles and appropriate tenses may be tricky for him; a French student will understand perfectly well what so many tenses are for, but he will only cope with pronunciation by the skin of his teeth; for English speakers there will be problems with phonetics and the subjunctive mood, etc. All this must be taken into consideration for curriculum design and development of training aids, especially in mixed groups.
Do you have experience teaching twice exceptional children? Some students at the Academy will be 2E. Please tell us about the most paradoxical 2E case in your experience.
The school where I taught Russian and Spanish in Paris specializes in working with 2E children. In nearly all the groups I taught, there were pupils with 2E. It is challenging to work with them, but it’s also extremely interesting because of the different ways in which they learn, which forces teachers look for new strategies, analyze their teaching methods, dig for alternatives and generally improve themselves in many ways. Such children may suffer from attention deficit, they need to be constantly entertained, so the teacher has to figure out how to make the lessons captivating for them and at the same time not to leave the rest of the class unattended. Sometimes it’s enough to set more complicated additional tasks, or resort to tricks, for example, to assign 2E pupils to correct the tests papers of younger students, or to enlist them as assistant teachers, so that they can try to help the teacher with the lessons.
The most striking example of 2E in my practice is a boy who graduated from my school last year. I’d been teaching him for 4 years, so it was easy for me to monitor his progress. I don’t think he had any kind of official diagnosis, as his parents were not involved with their child and had delegated powers to the school to foster their son. He skipped 2 grades as he was a mathematical genius, counted large numbers in head, grasped verb conjugations or complex words in a single flash. For instance, he could tell me the translation of some word and to my question how could he possibly know the answer he’d reply: "Well, don’t you remember, Madame? You mentioned this word the previous year in November under the following circumstances…". However, he would not write. At all. Not because he was dysgraphic, but because he believed that he already knew everything, so why bother? Clearly, he wouldn’t have been able to study in a regular school. So, we invented strategies to tempt him into writing, and we used a completely different assessment system for him. For example, in my class he was enlisted as the official “dictionary”, because he remembered all the words, and he corrected his classmates’ errors in grammar tests instead of me, so in this way I was able to evaluate his fluency and the accuracy of his grammatical skills. He began to write himself two years before graduation. It was in October when suddenly he appeared in the class with a new copybook and started writing down everything that took place in the classroom. When I asked, “What happened?” he replied, “Well, it’s so interesting what’s going on here, that I decided to write it down.” He did brilliantly at his graduation exams and now he’s studying at a prestigious university. For me this is the best recognition of my efforts.
What is special about Le Sallay Academy from your point of view?
From my perspective, Le Sallay has exactly what modern schools should offer: programs designed to make students want to study for the sake of learning, not just because they need to get a good grade; experienced teachers who know what they want and how to create programs to achieve it; and a combination of flexibility in distance education, which allows children from different countries to study together, with the socialization they need and the opportunity to travel.
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