World languages teachers educate through experience

Unique projects help boys learn about foreign cultures

For Landon Middle School boys, there is much more to learning a foreign language than vocabulary memorization and verb conjugation; there are Spanish-language film festivals, Latin fashion shows, Chinese fan dances and French food tastings. And these are just a few of the creative projects Middle School world languages teachers (pictured above, from left to right) Norah Gentile, Sarah DeCamps, Jeremy Norman '92, Elizabeth Tredeau Sears, Azeane Lohoff and Sara Plunkett employ to instill in their students a knowledge of and appreciation for a foreign country's culture and history, as well as its language.

This fall, Chinese teacher Tredeau Sears and her counterpart at sister school Holton-Arms organized collaborations between the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at each school. The sixth graders learned to do traditional Chinese fan dances (pictured below); the seventh graders enjoyed a Halloween-themed celebration where they played vocabulary games and ate Chinese food; and eighth graders read and discussed a story together.

"One of my goals for the year has been to give up more class time to do more cultural things," Tredeau Sears said. "The collaboration with Holton was a really great way to work that in, and the discussion it has spurred has been even better. It's given the boys a chance to see Chinese culture in a way they can relate to. It shows them how, even in their own school, they can do cultural things that are very real."

Spanish teachers Jeremy Norman and Sarah DeCamps had a similar experience this December with Norman's eight-grade class. As part of an action research project DeCamps is working on for the International Boys' Schools Coalition (IBSC), the two teamed up for a two-week unit on immigration that aimed to see if a more personal approach to education could also teach the boys empathy and global awareness.

As part of the unit, the boys took a field trip to Casa de Maryland, an advocacy organization for immigrants, to learn about the life of an immigrant and what it takes to become a U.S. citizen, and they even took parts of the citizenship test. Students also read Francisco Jimenez's short story "Cajas de Carton" ("Cardboard Boxes"), about a boy from a migrant-worker family who is never in one place long enough to get an education. Retired Landon Spanish teacher Alfredo Benavides then came to class to share his similar, but very personal, story: He was born to a migrant family on a plum factory. In addition, one eighth grader interviewed his mother, whose family was forced to flee Nicaragua amid civil war, and the class watched and discussed a video of the interview.

The boys took surveys about their knowledge of and thoughts about immigration at the outset of the unit and again at the end, and Norman and DeCamps were impressed with the impact the personal approach had on students.

"In their exit essays, most of the boys said they really learned a lot," Norman said. "Many of them used the term 'eye-opening' or said, 'I never really considered the hardships that so many people go through.' I think that cultural piece was really good for the kids."

DeCamps agrees. "The kids had to write these reflection journals, and their classmate's story and Alfredo's story were the two most memorable, impactful things that they learned," she said.

Norman has also inspired his students to learn with creative projects: Each year, his students create an authentic and extremely detailed Spanish restaurant menu from scratch. And his class will soon begin work on a Spanish film festival, where the boys have to come up with an idea for a film, write the synopsis, create a movie poster and film a trailer — all in Spanish. There is even an awards ceremony at the conclusion.

Latin teacher Sara Plunkett recently tapped her class's creative juices as well. To hone their language skills, her sixth-grade students had to put on a fashion show (pictured above). "They're practicing their noun-adjective agreement, so they had to 'walk the catwalk' and describe in Latin the outfits they were wearing," Plunkett said. "The boys were way more into it than I thought they were going to be."

French/Spanish teacher Norah Gentile also aims to educate through creative yet practical projects. Her eighth-grade French class recently read about the famed Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec City and now must design their own hotel, complete with a floorplan and descriptions of all the amenities. Gentile's sixth-grade French class will soon undertake a project to film a video in which they pretend to give a tour to a visiting French student and tell him about their daily schedule. And, as part of their unit on food, her seventh-grade French class will get to experience the cuisine of France firsthand when Gentile brings in some of the country's signature delicacies, including a baguette and cheese.

"The boys are doing presentations where they have to act as if they are at the café," Gentile said. "They have to order and be polite using the correct terminology. I think it will be motivating for them to have a little French food, especially since they are curious about what it is like."

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