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A Puff of Absurdity: Fixing French Immersion

The Agenda with Steve Paikin had a segment on French Immersion in the schools this week. The panel raised some interesting points but neglected a few issues.

A Bit of a Summary (skip down for more interesting bits)

The guests were Caroline Alfonso, an education reporter for the Globe & Mail (with a young child in immersion), Stuart Miller, the director of education (in Halton), John Lorinc, a journalist with older kids who went through immersion, and Mary Cruden the President of the Canadian Parents for French. Despite the fact that the show is titled, “The Problems with French Immersion,” the journalist seemed the only critic of the current program with some concerns that led to one of his kids changing streams.  Stuart raised some issues with the cost to run the program born of the fact that some schools are left with only four or five kids in the English stream, and with the unequal access to the program. It’s costly to run a class with such small numbers. But elsewhere he praised the educational benefits of a second language.

Enrollment in immersion programs is increasing across Canada, and Paikin asked the panel why so many parents want their kids in immersion. Caroline and Mary suggested parents want to have an extra tool in their tool basket, a leg up on the competition to give the kids an edge. Paikin offered that it might have something to do with being a proud Canadian, as was Trudeau-the-elder’s dream almost fifty years ago, but nobody bit at that one. From this panel’s perspective, parents put their kids in immersion to get them ahead of the curve. The fact that many students don’t make it to the end, didn’t seem to phase the guests. They believe that early intervention is key to greater success in the long run.

According to Stuart, immersion students don’t do significantly better or worse in the long run, however an article in Macleans disagrees (but without links or references to see the studies):

Working memory, used in activities like math, is improved, especially among those aged five to seven. Even reading scores in English are significantly higher for French immersion students than non-immersion students, according to a 2004 study, which noted the higher socio-economic background of French immersion students alone could not account for the stark difference…. [However,] turns out native English speakers living outside Canada’s sole francophone province are rather poor at keeping up their French skills as they get older. In 1996, 15 per cent of 15- to 19-year-old anglophones outside Quebec could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages. Fast forward 15 years and the bilingualism rate for 30- to 35-year-olds in 2011 was eight per cent.

If the results are accurate and statistically significant, then I still wonder if the immersion program itself is having the most significant effect on those results. Higher income might not be the primary variable, but students with parents who, regardless their income, advocate for them more, who push them more and who, therefore, might want them in immersion, will likely have kids who are higher achievers even if immersion weren’t available. I’d like to see a study compare parents with immersion in the area and parents without, not parents of immersion and non-immersion kids in one school. Ask many questions about their attitude towards schooling, their own education, and their income, and then, compare results against the success of their kids on a general, comprehensive test to see if parental attitude towards education affects kids more than the immersion program.

Because the panel raised one important issue about the way the program is actually running…

Teacher Shortages

It’s hard to get good teachers who are also bilingual. Stuart explained that, “Qualified and quality may be two different things,” and cited stats that 80% of principals struggle to find quality French teachers who can speak the language fluently AND are proficient in the subject matter. If they’re not francophone, prospective teachers have to keep up their French in university courses, but then take their teachable subject courses on top of that, all the science or math or history credits required to teach those subjects. It places an extra burden on the shoulders of teachers training to be immersion teachers who teach core subjects in a second language.

John spoke of a problem with many unqualified educators in the French stream; teachers have to teach multiple subject matters they’re not qualified for, or else they’re not strong enough in French to speak all day and they end up switching to English during most classes. Immersion students can miss out on some better classes with teachers stronger in the field in the English stream.

The shortage of good teachers is also a factor when students begin to struggle. There was much disagreement over whether or not it’s a problem or a benefit not to have parents with a command of French, but John is clear that it creates an extra barrier for children with homework that can’t be supported by parents at home. It creates an inequity if some parents can afford a tutor. Others thought that, if a student is struggling with the work, it should be the teacher that supports them at school. But, in my experience, that’s just not the reality of some situations. Some teachers would add supports in English to ensure the students didn’t get behind, but others were adamant that it would harm the integrity of the immersion program. I was lucky enough to tap into a group of parents who had copies of an English math workbook so I could help my daughter to understand the math concepts at home. But it was all very clandestine; we were sneak-learning the subject content. Learning shouldn’t feel so weirdly criminal. But without that, it can be really unclear whether the student is having a problem with subject matter (math) or with the language of instruction. How do we know which part needs remedial help?

Mary explained that what is the parent’s responsibility is to ensure that kids get authentic experiences in French in the community. I wouldn’t know where to find that in my own area, but the Ministry developed Frenchstreet.ca to connect parents to French experiences, something I didn’t know about until I saw the show. Unfortunately, most of the experiences are in bigger cities, adding to the divide between families of means and those without. I played tapes of French songs in my house from the time my kids were born, but I’ve never encountered a French experience in my community. That’s a different kettle of fish.

Inequality and Self-Segregation

Is immersion elitist? Some suggested that the program isn’t elitist, it’s just that some parents act like it is. According to Mary the Ministry FSL framework includes students with special needs. The Ministry says they will get support they need. She insists that it’s a myth that some children are more suited to FI than other, and that’s not supported by research. If teachers identify the learning issues, they find students will have it whether they’re in immersion or not.  She says we can’t allow quiet conversations about the student who isn’t suited to the program rather than actually supporting the struggling learning. FSL classrooms should reflect the demographic of all kids in that board. But Stuart added that this is all related to teacher shortage. Immersion should have the same supports, but they don’t have Spec Ed teachers who speak French. All support is delivered in English.

To me, that the intention is to offer it to everyone is irrelevant when it’s only offered to a few. That it’s a scarce resource makes it desirable. The fact that some people have an easier time getting in than others, creates an inequity at the intake. The fact that some people have an easier time helping their children because of their own French background or their ability to afford a tutor and trips to Ottawa, creates inequity throughout. Any parent can cut an apple into sections to talk about fractions with their kids if they’re struggling with the concept, but not every parent can help with the French instruction when their child hits a wall.

There’s also an underlying sense, as Mary suggested, that students should be a “good fit” for the program, that it’s really NOT for everyone, and some students are just not suited to it. How can it possibly be said to be offered equally if it’s overtly stated that there’s a type of student that should be admitted. And, as some suggested, there’s not a significant effort to help struggling students. Students who have difficulties with French are coaxed to drop down to the English stream.

And this is the part that starts to feels pretty slimy. Immersion can be a way to get kids away from “undesirable influences” that might include students with behavioural issues, new Canadians, and students less inclined towards school. That’s an unspoken piece of all this. Some parents might be streaming not for the mental benefits, but for the peer group. They don’t want any weird kids in the class next to their darlings. Parents are more overt about this in some circles, and we all need to be reminded of the dangers of this line of reasoning. I would much rather my kid talk to all sorts of different types of people in a classroom than have aspiration for Harvard. That’s what makes for a healthy society. Too many are forgetting that. It’s like Chomsky was on about a while back – we’ve shifted from a mindset of solidarity to competition, and it’s absolutely essential that we make the effort to shift back!

Stuart adds that there’s a perception that the French stream is more rigorous but he denies that to be the case. There’s a concern with the kids who are behind. There has to be better supports for students struggling in French without taking them out of French. Caroline suggested that the idea that the English stream is seen as a place for kids with behavioural needs is a mentality of parents and of teachers who encourage French as if the English program is inferior, which needs to change. John thought that kids should get into the program randomly to reduce the elitism of the program, but I don’t see that as a viable solution. It would just cause different problems.

What They Didn’t Say

They didn’t talk about the overall results of immersion for Canada as a country:

When our cultural norms change, it can take a while for education to match it. When we were finally required to introduce people of a variety of ethnicities and genders in our history courses (surprisingly recently), that sent me scrambling for new resources because I had been teaching what I had been taught in university: all about dead, white men. It will be a few years and a lot of work for teachers to overcome our own narrow education of old.

But we’ve had immersion in our grade schools for many decades now. It’s surprising to me that it seems we haven’t actually produced a significantly more bilingual country, at least not significant enough to adequately teach the next generation. I would have liked to hear them address why immersion students aren’t still fluent after university, and why there aren’t more of them in education? If our goal is a bilingual country, and the middle-aged early adopters have forgotten all their French, we’re obviously not going about it the right way.

They also didn’t discuss one facet of the student experience that is my greatest concern:

Full disclosure: I teach in a high school that offers immersion, and I live an area that offers immersion at the local primary school, but I actually tried to have my first little one go to a different school. I discovered that parents can apply to have their child go to an immersion school far from home, but they can’t apply to go to a non-immersion school. What I saw happening at the local school and in my neighbourhood was the development of a strikingly divisive student body, and I didn’t want my kids to have any part of that.

Because of the attitudes of some teachers and parents who see the French program as superior, the students are living that artificial hierarchy. From what I’ve seen, they begin to treat one another differently as early as grade 1. It’s the English Muffins vs the French Fries. Some students who struggle in the French, and don’t get adequate supports, are loath to shift “down” to the English because of the stigma involved. That there’s a palpable stigma that comes with being unilingual in a school that offers immersion is a serious problem. Schools should be about opening doors for kids, of breaking barriers and fostering a sense of equality, not arrogantly suggesting that one type of kid is better than the rest.  That attitude has no place in our school systems. But there it is. We’ve fought so hard to divorce ourselves from any notion of class divisions in our land of the free, yet we’ve created that very experience for our six-year-olds.

I mentioned on Facebook recently that a surprising number of my academic students didn’t hand in their first assignment in my class this term. A former student commented to the effect that it’s probably just the English stream students. The implication is that French Immersion students always get their work done on time and English kids are slackers. This prejudice doesn’t go away after they leave school, even as they lose their French. They still see a division between them and us that we fostered in grade school.

Schools could help to override this by joining the classes together in each grade for co-operative games and dividing them differently for some classes, like phys ed. There has to be regular integration of the two streams from the first day on. We all promote integration in every other way, except this one. Schools must create an atmosphere of inclusion, and immersion schools have to work harder at this one.

Schools have become competitive in other ways with parents suggesting their child wants to take a subject they have no interest in just to get them into a specific school.  This further divides student bodies and divides communities. I want kids walking to the school down the street together instead of half of them being bussed across town for a special program that’s rarely all that special. Some teachers promote their school, not just as another great school in the region, but the ultimate learning environment, without acknowledging the problems with this type of abject loyalty. I love my school to bits, but we have to keep an eye on the broader arena to ensure excellent education across the region, and country, and world. Solidarity is key.

Can it Be Fixed?

If we agree that learning a second language is good for kids’s brains, and if our goal is to have a bilingual country, then everyone should learn French in school from JK on. When kids struggle with learning math, we don’t stream them in such a way that they don’t have to take it again until grade 4. They get lots of extra help to meet the standards required by the curriculum by the end of the year.  It’s a serious problem to acknowledge that something is really good for kids’ brains, but allow parents to opt out. It’s an even more serious problem that some parents want their kids in the program but there are not enough available spots. Imagine if your kids couldn’t learn math for a couple years because there’s just not enough places for them. If we agree it’s really good for kids, then we have to make it happen for all our kids.

And it has to start at junior kindergarten to take advantage of the younger sponge-like ability to learn a new language. According to recent studies, the optimal time to learn a second language is in the first two years of life, and the decline in the ability to learn one can start as early as age five. Grade one is way too late. We need more immersion in the early grades and in daycares where they’re talking more and writing less (and no dictée quite yet, please), and then we can work on maintenance throughout the rest of the grades. The early years will help with the natural acquisition of verb tenses and pronunciation, and the later years can focus on developing better writing ability.

But I advocate for this instead of half day immersion in the later grades. If I were queen of the province, and I knew we couldn’t provide enough French teachers to accommodate all students from grades 1 to 12 (because we didn’t actually create a significant bilingual population…yet), then I’d move the available teachers to JK and SK classrooms for half days at all schools, and I’d offer incentives for daycares to have at least one French ECE on board, and for summer camps to have at least half the counsellors speaking French. I’d have rather my children played tag and learned how to canoe in French than have learned long division and how to memorize lists of words.

If the important thing is ensuring the best education for everyone, and we don’t have the expertise to do it fully, then we have to offer a partial program to everyone rather than a full program for a select few. But from this panel discussion, and from discussions with students and parents, I don’t get the impression that the best education system for all our kids is what’s most important to people. What really matters is that some people get a little more than others. As they said right from the start, they want a leg up, an extra edge. That’s a bigger problem of promoting the individual at the expense of the community, and it has to be ameliorated.

With full immersion in younger grades and only one class a term in later grades, students would still be able work towards a certificate, not through taking the right number of hours of French each year, but by having their fluency tested at the end. That would give them the incentive to maintain their French speaking and writing ability throughout high school at after school programs or just with conversations with peers – who would all have taken French since they were three or four.  It wouldn’t be an extra, a burden, if it were learned well at a young age when all children are primed for language acquisition.

This would reduce problems with teachers who are less proficient in other subject areas in higher grades. And it would reduce the competition for an extra goodie for the select or lucky few. And, over another generation or two, we might undo the unsavoury class-divisions we’ve unwittingly established.

. . . → Read More: A Puff of Absurdity: Fixing French Immersion

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http://castroller.com/podcasts/TheAgendaVideo/4043959

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