Rethinking French Immersion

Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: November 2018 | TELjournal.ca

The streamlining and filtering out that currently exists within French immersion programs is not promoting a culture of difference and is robbing our students from the varied experiences they get from interacting with difference.


“It’s the poor man’s private school.”

“Well you don’t have those issues in French Immersion!”

These are some of the comments we often hear about French Immersion from the public, including other educators and parents. When I hear comments like these, I react physically. I feel a lump in my throat, my body starts to tense up, and my heart races. It is almost as if my students become invisible and their complexities become invalidated. Their struggles and their beauty go unrecognized. But then, I calm down and I reflect. Is there some truth about these assumptions? Is French Immersion as inclusive and diverse as it could be? Are there currently enough viable opportunities for a variety of learners from varying backgrounds? Is it enough to say everyone who wants to be in French Immersion can? How and when will we address the retention issues?

Our School District’s policy reads, “Early French Immersion is a program of choice, open to all children of the appropriate age.” This is true: we accept all children in Kindergarten and we advocate for diversity and explain to worried and anxious Kindergarten parents and guardians that their children belong here and that supports exist if needed. Incidentally, I started my career as a Kindergarten Teacher. My Kindergarten class was no different than any other Kindergarten class. I had students with varying strengths, abilities and areas of growth and at the same time that I accepted the range and celebrated the differences I saw in my students, I started to notice something. I noticed that many students started to filter out of the system and exit into the English stream as they aged. Students with special needs, behaviour issues, learning differences, and struggles with reading were at risk of leaving the program. In the following years, when I moved up to a third grade classroom, the filtering and the streamlining became more prominent and concerning to me. Too many students exited French Immersion and I wondered: as children age, are we doing everything we can to keep ALL students in the French Immersion program?

For the majority of my career, my colleagues and I have been concerned about the retention issue in French Immersion, which lead to the development of my inquiry: Is there a common understanding of the purpose of French Immersion? Has that purpose changed and is it up to date with 21st century learning? Over the years, has our perception of success evolved and does it include a wide range of learners?

In 2017, I spent the year investigating this issue through Kaser and Halbert’s (2017) Spiral of Inquiry. I gathered information and thought deeply about this growing concern. Statistics Canada reported that in the year 2000, 39 percent of students in French Immersion in British Columbia were boys (2004). Currently, at our school there is a clear gender imbalance. Boys drop out at an alarming rate and our grade 5 completion rates are falling. This past year my own class composition reflected this gender imbalance: out of 22 students, 14 were girls and only eight were boys. The grade 4/5 class only had four grade 4 boys and, because they struggle with reading, they are at risk of exiting. There is urgency to make change in the current system. I spent the year interviewing students and I discovered that many students do not feel successful. This observation is important because trustful relationships and purpose are at the core of learning and must be rooted in all aspects of the day (Bryk & Schneider, 2003).

To gain a better understanding of student perspective, I spent the year capturing student voice through one on one conversations. I interviewed approximately 50 students from the ages of seven to thirteen and 75% of them could not deeply articulate their sense of purpose. They generally did not know why they were learning French and they believed that lack of engagement, lack of relevancy, and stressors and anxiety about perceptions of success were some reasons for exiting French.

There was a mix of answers to “Why are you learning French”. Many students said “I don’t know” or said “because it’s fun” (Students, personal communication, October, 2017) A couple of them had very articulate and deep responses that related to travelling, expanding their knowledge, and connecting them to the world or others. I was disappointed with some answers and impressed by others. The uncertainty and hesitation with many of my students’ responses made me realize that we need to teach why learning French is important more explicitly to our students to identify a sense of purpose. We should take the time to discuss the benefits and explicitly highlight the opportunities that could exist with second language acquisition and work on connecting them more with real life experiences.

It became abundantly clear that there is a discrepancy in the way all French Immersion stakeholders, including educators, parents, and students understand who can be successful. If explicitly addressed, these discrepancies could be replaced by a more unified and purposeful system which would authentically support diversity and inclusion within our schools. If we are to prepare our students for the changing world they live in, the education system MUST change in significant and lasting ways.

Kaser and Halbert (2009) describe the necessity of these changes and point out that the industrial model of education no longer meets the needs of 21st century learners. Because modern students have access to more information than ever before, schooling needs to shift in order to provide them the opportunity to engage in purposeful learning rather than merely a process of knowledge building. The need for this shift is especially true for French Immersion students as the demographics in French Immersion have changed and are far more varied compared to its origins, but it seems how we organize French Immersion has not changed at the same pace. This change in demographics is likely due to a variety of different reasons, including an increase in special education needs (Hutchinson, 2002), an increase in immigration (Mady, 2007), and a heightened awareness in differentiation to meet student-centered learning (Arnett, 2010). Moreover, many FSL teachers feel like they are struggling to meet the needs of their diverse learners (Lapkin, MacFarlane & Vandergrift, 2006).

These new complexities bring new challenges and opportunities to rethink success (Roy, 2008). Roy suggests three important shifts in our current values will meet the needs of a changing clientele: French Immersion teachers must have a deep understanding of student-centered pedagogies in language acquisition, rethink bilingualism in Canada, and evaluate French Immersion competencies fairly and realistically (2008). The French Immersion program is a program of choice, open to all. Although there are certain waitlists, depending on location and popularity, there is no screening to enter the program, which addresses’ issues of equity early on (Wise, 2011). Nevertheless, as students age and reveal learning difficulties or special needs they are often inadequately supported, which puts them at risk of leaving the French Immersion Program, resulting in a filtered system (Mady & Arnett, 2009).

Shelley Moore (2016) has urged us to think about inclusion and diversity as a basic necessity for a rich and full society, rather than as something we do solely for the sake of those who, in the past, were not formally included. She explains societies require variety to thrive. Variety leads to a deepening of empathy and a deepening of our capacities as human beings to interact with one another. The streamlining and the filtering that currently exists within French immersion schools is not promoting a culture of difference and it is robbing our students from the varied experiences they get from interacting with difference.

Sharing the specific details of a particular individual’s story can be a powerful way to reveal broader critiques of a system. In the spirit of learning and growth through story telling I offer the following stories of my students:

Lucie and Matt

The story of Lucie and Matt is a powerful example of what Arnett and Bourgoin (2018) describe as “the myth of the good language learner.” This myth perpetuates the current system and wrongly assumes that only students who possess a particular set of desirable attributes will be successful and that those who lack these qualities are unlikely to succeed.

Lucie is the type of student one would stereotypically view as the “right” candidate for French Immersion. She comes from an affluent and supportive family and has no issues with self-regulation or communication. She is kind, funny, enthusiastic and ready to learn every day.

Matt represents the other side of the myth as he is more complicated and he has experienced trauma and dysfunction. Matt is athletic, loves nature, and has a great sense of humour. He also struggles with self-regulation, communication skills, and social skills and needs support in navigating social interactions and friendships. In short, in the archaic paradigm of “good language learners,” Matt would not be considered a top candidate and without the proper supports, he is at risk of leaving the French Immersion program. Lucie and Matt’s unexpected friendship illustrates the power of diversity and inclusion in a French Immersion classroom.

Lucie and Matt started to bond when they collaborated to build a marble track. I was present to facilitate and to make jokes to help strengthen their skills and their relationship. The pairing of Lucie and Matt was unintentional but had a profound impact on both of them, nonetheless. This one interaction led to them wanting to sit together in the same pod. It is important to note that by this time, many of the other students had given up on Matt and were struggling to socialize with him. His bond with Lucie continued to flourish over the weeks and I decided that it was time to help cement their relationship. One day, after school as she was exiting the room I said, “Lucie I just wanted to thank you. You are such a kind person. It has been a difficult time for Matt trying to make friends and you have shown him kindness. This helps me and our classroom more than you could know.” Lucie was beaming and displayed great pride. I decided to reinforce this even more by sharing the story with her mother. The next day I noticed new people starting to reach out to Matt. I realized that not only was Matt benefiting from these interactions but the other students, who generally spend time with people who are most like them, were broadening their horizons and deepening their levels of empathy and compassion in authentic, real ways. Many of my students were growing in ways they may not have without Matt’s presence in the class.

This became most apparent to me when we went on a fieldtrip to meet new students at another school. This type of experience would typically be difficult for Matt: the room was new and the noise level high. He refused to enter. I looked outside of myself and reached out to my allies. I approached Lucie and another classmate and asked her if they could join Matt in the hallway for the activity instead. Without hesitation, Lucie gladly helped her new friend. At recess, I asked Matt if he would like to stay in with me or if he would like to go outside with Lucie. Matt went with Lucie.

The story of Lucie and Matt exemplifies why the assumption that some students should (and can) learn a second language and others should not (and cannot) learn a second language is a dangerous one. According to the work of Arnett and Bourgoin (2018), all students can become good language learners with explicit and appropriate support. Creating classrooms responsive to all learners requires thoughtful effort to expand our definitions of success and purpose within the program and should not be done with only the needs of typical learners in mind. Valle and Connor (2010), explain that in order for “inclusion to be realized, it needs deliberate attention: It is about everyone working consciously and collaboratively toward the common goal of nurturing a vibrant inclusive community,” (p. 207) and Lucie and Matt’s friendship illustrates why this is a noble and worthy aspiration. It is worth noting that although Lucie and Matt’s initial interaction was not intentionally planned, the fostering of their friendship was.

I continued to explore inclusion in the French Immersion classroom and continued to gather student voice as an important and essential part of this inquiry. I used Kaser and Halbert’s (2017), four key questions for learners as a foundation to develop my own questions for the students about purpose. I adapted Kaser and Halbert’s questions to meet my needs and posed the following questions of my grade 2/3 students and also of some grade 6/7 students:

  1. Who are two adults in our school that believe you will be a success?
  2. Do you enjoy learning French?
  3. Why are you learning French?
  4. Who is French Immersion for?

My findings showed that our youngest learners generally felt positive about learning a second language and that despite this they could not clearly articulate their answers about their learning purpose. Their responses lacked meaning and depth. Most grade 2/3 students were uncertain about their role in their own learning but were positive and open about who could be in French immersion. Most of their answers demonstrated a tendency toward being growth minded about learning a second language, saying things like “it is for anyone who wants to learn a second language and if they try hard enough they can do it if they want to”. When I asked the same questions to middle schoolers, they displayed similar answers. Their purpose was very future oriented: they knew that French would expand their resumes and lead to future work opportunities. They described the French Immersion program as being challenging and identified this as one of the reasons some of their classmates were exiting the program. They also noted that parental stress and anxiety can become a factor in students exiting French Immersion as parents fear that their children are falling behind and underperforming. Parental concerns about underachieving seems to be a major reason for exiting the French Immersion stream and Noah’s story illustrates this reoccurring theme:

Noah

Noah is a Middle School student, with strong communication skills and wise perspectives. He is the youngest of his family. His older siblings, now in high school, started in French immersion, struggled, and exited the program after a number of years. Noah said that French Immersion was not right for his siblings because they had too many struggles and other challenges. He said that ones of his siblings has ADHD and sensory processing disorder. His mother eventually made the decision to pull his siblings out of French Immersion because they were not getting an adequate amount of support for their learning and French just seemed like an extra and unnecessary stressor and obstacle. Since Noah’s family is French, French Immersion is a way for him to feel connected to his roots. He expresses that sometimes he feels bogged down by all the reading and the writing in French Immersion and wished that there were more opportunities to just communicate orally. He points out that although his siblings continue to be able to communicate in French, they have started to fall behind in literacy. He went on to criticize the amount of time and emphasis placed on verb tests and noted that he did not see the usefulness of many of the lessons for his future.

Noah likely exemplifies a common perspective among students: that learning a second language in addition to just the “regular” learning expected of all students is a burden. Reflecting on teacher training, practice and beliefs further highlight a complexity: there is a lack of preparedness on the part of French Immersion teachers (Wise, 2011) to address the diverse needs of all of their students. It is essential that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and the skills that will increase their comfort in teaching diverse learners. If teachers have a deep understanding of the tools and strategies to address the needs of their learners they are less likely to resort to a way of teaching that does not address the shifts in our society and student demographics. Our society has shifted. Our students are different. Our teaching practice must shift as well.

This transformation calls for a change in classroom learning and in leadership (Kaser & Halbert, 2009). Teacher attitudes, styles, and relationships play an integral role in students’ willingness and commitment to learning a second language (Cao, 2011, MacIntyre et al., 2011; Peng, 2007; Wen & Clement, 2003). According to research by Bruck (1978), conditions for helping diverse children stay in immersion will not be valuable until all stakeholders are committed to accepting differences and believing that everyone has a place within the program. We cannot underestimate the power of educators’ beliefs on the achievement and success of our students; it is undeniable that what we believe about our students is a significant factor in what they achieve.

As I continue to talk with teachers, parents, and students, a common theme endures. It is clear that the myths around who can be successful in language acquisition is a concrete and tangible barrier that prevents real and significant change to our system. Arnett & Bourgoin (2018), reveal that the idea of a traditional, “good” language learner is outdated and exclusionary. All stakeholders in our education system MUST come to understand that it is no longer acceptable to ignore current research about wise teaching practice and to use a lack of understanding of this research as an excuse for poor decisions about inclusion within the French Immersion system. We must do better because we know better. As students age, and reveal learning difficulties or special needs, they are often inadequately supported, which puts them at risk of leaving the French Immersion Program. This results in an unnecessarily filtered and, in truth, diluted system (Mady & Arnett, 2009). Inadequate supports paired with out of date teacher actions and beliefs create a recipe for the current state of the French Immersion program. This reality should motivate all stakeholders to analyze and change the system. The story of Jenna is a powerful anecdote that illustrates the necessity for a system wide change.

Jenna

Jenna is in middle school. She loves art, books, and bikes. She displays many of the characteristics associated with those of a child on the autism spectrum: she is rigid and feels emotions in a big way. Jenna started her education in French Immersion Kindergarten and her family started to wonder, almost immediately, if French Immersion was the right fit for their child. They were told that there would never be the supports she needs in French Immersion and they were urged to transfer her without delay. She exited the program in November of her Kindergarten year. She now feels success in her new school and is happy to go every day. Her family, for a variety of reasons, felt excluded and misunderstood. Her father explains that this streaming out of the French Immersion program also happened to a few other students that year and continues to happen.

The misguided notion that the French Immersion program is only suited for certain types of learners continues to have significant and potentially negative effects on our students. The persistence of this misguided perception should cause all stakeholders to pause and ask, is our goal to produce sameness or is our goal to enable learning?

Next Steps

As I move forward, I reflect on my goals for the upcoming year in regards to my inquiry. I would like to reignite the French Immersion Committee whose purpose would be to continuously re-evaluate, adapt, and discuss the programme so that it can be in alignment with 21st century learning. One specific goal is to explicitly share this message of alignment with inclusion and best practice by updating the District’s French Immersion Programme brochure. This is a high leverage action as it will communicate the shift in our foundational beliefs and intent to parents, teachers, and leadership. I would like to continue to gather a variety of voices and stories to illustrate the ways we can make French Immersion more inclusive and to tell stories that illustrate the need to transform the system. I would like to use research from the text Access for Success and One Without the Other coupled with the First People’s Principles of Learning and the OECD’s 7 Principles of Learning to help shape a common vision and philosophy that would contribute to our understanding of success for all learners and placing learners at the center.

I think about Lucie who is learning about how to be with Matt – her kindness deepening, her nurturing extending, and her acceptance broadening. I am struck that she is learning a significant lifelong skill. I think about Jenna and how her peers in her new school are treating her like family and how we missed out . I think about Noah who is wise beyond his years as demonstrated in his description of his siblings ‘experiences, and how they must have their own strengths and I wonder what their learning community missed out on because we were not able to nurture those strengths in our current system. If we want to strive for success for all learners, then educators need to open themselves up to being vulnerable. The French Immersion programme was designed in the 70s and worked well for its time but because of societal shifts it is time and to build a successful path forward and this requires honesty, bravery, and showing vulnerability. Learning to be vulnerable has been a significant step in my own learning. This includes acknowledging where I went wrong, so I can move forward using research-based methods to inform my practice instead of sticking with common practice.

Final Word

Through my journey in teaching, I have made mistakes, ones that have seemed small at the time but that have had big impacts. Admittedly, I have made the most mistakes when communicating with parents about their children’s progress and, like Noah and his mother, I have thought that perhaps French immersion is just too much of an obstacle for some of our learners. One thing that has not changed though, is my love for my students and my desire to do what I think is best for them. The key difference now, is that my decisions are grounded by current research and not common practice. It is time we change our practice, instead of thinking how we can mould students to fit our current system we need to mould our current system to meet the needs of our diverse learners.


Desiree Dallaire

Desiree Dallaire is a French Immersion elementary school teacher on Vancouver Island. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership at VIU, focusing on harnessing the power of teacher beliefs to co-create vision in the French Immersion Programme.

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6 responses to “Rethinking French Immersion”

  1. Cynthia Lewis

    Bonjour Désirée! Great article. Having been involved since the get go in French Immersion, starting in 1983, as a teacher of Early and Late, as an administrator and a researcher, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” springs to mind. We are unfortunately overly invested in a model we cannot sustain, and which can be challenged on its inability to graduate even half of the students who start. We need to rethink our assumptions that Fr Immersion is the only way. Intensive French is potentially more inclusive for sure. If pathways were different, and intensity continued TIL graduation, those students would also exit at B1 or B2.
    The model of “in or out” is indeed not inclusive, nor is it healthy for our bilingual multicultural society. Intensive French models could allow more students more positive experiences. Not to mention the cost to the system to try to maintain the teaching force in fr immersion.
    I enjoyed reading your article.
    Cynthia Lewis

  2. Diane Tijman

    I am in awe of your wisdom and excited for your future as a result of your research. People like Shelley Moore, spirals of inquiry team, etc are awesome! As a former French teacher and language coordinator, I have seen kids fall through the cracks in French immersion due to lack of support, anxiety, etc and others who have overcome their challenges and thrived. It’s possible! Creating a positive mindset about inclusion in your school will go a long way to support success. Finding the time to collaborate and plan is essential. I also encourage you to reach out to parents and help them to understand how to better support their children. Canadian Parents for French is a great parent group that can help in this as well. Bonne chance!

  3. Kevin Yapps

    Bonjour Mme Dallaire.

    J’ai bien aimé l’article! J’ai cité certains des mêmes auteurs lors du développement du travail réflexif final de ma maîtrise à travers la BAFF à SFU. Mon cœur s’est même mit à battre plus rapidement à quelques reprises!

    Je me suis concentré plutôt sur les pratiques réflexives ainsi que l’habitus quant à la pratique enseignante individualisée. Mais, bref, je suis ravi de ta passion pour l’équité en immersion française.

    J’adore le fait que plusieurs experts/défenseur/etc se font entendre lorsqu’ils parlent d’une vision de programme d’immersion pour tous!

  4. Jenny Gray

    Great article!

    It is why I created and patented a method that decodes the language for success. All can succeed., you just need the key. Phonogical decoding is step one.

  5. Yvonne Dawydiak

    Thank you Desiree for this thoughtful and vulnerable introspection into your own practice and French immersion more generally. As a teacher who worked in a dual (and even triple) track school for many years I have been on the receiving end of children who were transferred out due to behavioural and learning differences. I have been told by more than one teacher that “this child is more suited to your class because he can’t behave… has toileting issues… doesn’t listen etc” while I agree that, in the end, both the child and I (and my class) benefit from the child’s gifts, there is also a ghettoizing effect that occurs in the “other track/English track” or what I prefer to call the Neighbourhood school program. This effect can be damaging to children in both groups… creating a distinct otherness that is unnecessary and does not promote inclusivity. All the best on your important and hopefully valuable research. Please continue to share it!

  6. Marie-Pierre

    Bravo! I will use your great inquiry to guide our district school board changes towards a more equitable and inclusive FI program. It is time to move forward and ground ourselves in Canadian research.
    Merci! Marie-Pierre L’Arrivée

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