By Cheryl Toomey, University Relations Graduate Assistant
Hannah and Sophia Seage, twins who are both French majors and Education minors, didn’t know what they were getting into when they volunteered for the ThinkAchieve project to help teach French to children at Rivermont Elementary School in Hixson, Tennessee in 2012. They thought that they would just go to classes and assist in French lessons, but the experience grew, eventually culminating in their Departmental Honors Theses.
Hannah and Sophia, along with fellow French major Che Sokol, originally signed on for the project as assistants. However, within three weeks, the student initially leading the project decided to go to Haiti – permanently. Hannah, Sophia, and Sokol inherited the project, having to essentially build a curriculum for third, fourth, and fifth graders from scratch.
“I think it helped a little bit to be education minors and have a vague idea about how to organize a classroom. It was nice to have had a little bit of pedagogical teaching,” said Sophia.
At the time, Rivermont arranged their curriculum around themes, so that each grade studied the same theme at the same time, but at different levels. This allowed students to discuss what they were learning together. The Seages and Sokol created a parallel curriculum to the one being studied at Rivermont
“For example, they might all be studying landforms in social studies, with each grade doing something a little different at each level, so we would learn about landforms in French,” explained Sokol.
The ongoing themes at Rivermont allowed them to create an ongoing project involving a map of an imaginary place. As the themes changed, they had the children add to their maps, adding a form of government, animals, and other features.
“They created landscapes. We tied everything together through this idea of mapmaking. So first they learned landforms, then they learned animals and weather and government, and they would keep adding to the maps. They came up with some really creative stuff,” said Sophia.
“It worked out really well, so they got to be really creative while also learning a lot of French,” said Sokol.
It was important to the Seages and to Sokol not to have the students simply memorizing long lists of French vocabulary. Instead, they encouraged students to learn about French culture as well.
“The goal was to access the language through a cultural context instead of coming in and just saying ‘now we’re going to memorize classroom objects’ or ‘now we’re going to learn to count.’ So teaching a second culture while teaching a second language was kind of the background to the entire project,” said Sophia.
The entire experience was a part of ThinkAchieve, a five year quality enhancement program designed to increase student critical thinking on campus through the introduction of critical thinking to incoming freshmen, in the classroom experiences that encourage faculty to have students to think critically through innovative teaching methods and projects, and beyond the classroom experiences which involve students going into the community to do projects which involve thinking critically.
“Experiences like this provide students with skills that are needed when they graduate,” explained Dr. Dawn Ford, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning. “It’s not as much about discipline content anymore. That’s important, but more important are the skills that are developed. Critical thinking, problem solving, team work, verbal skills, written skills – employers want these soft skills from students. We need to help students and provide more opportunities for them to master these skills by the time they graduate.”
ThinkAchieve provides grants to support faculty as they transition to this way of teaching. There are in the classroom grants and beyond the classroom grants. In the classroom grants support projects that take place in the classroom, things like bringing a speaker in or buying some type of supplies or equipment to help do an activity in the classroom to encourage critical thinking. Beyond the classroom grants involve getting students out into the community to experience something they normally wouldn’t experience just sitting in a classroom.
ThinkAchieve has funded more than forty grant projects from eighteen different departments since it began two and a half years ago.
As a part of ThinkAchieve, students have to complete an assessment that includes both a midterm and a final report.
“We had to submit a report talking about how this helped us as UTC students. I think it was good in terms of making a connection between what we were doing in the community to our university and the types of things going on at UTC,” said Sophia.
Sophia and Hannah went on to write their Departmental Honors Theses based on their work at Rivermont. They wrote a coherent parallel curriculum, with Hannah writing about the theory behind the curriculum and Sophia writing about the practical application of the curriculum.
“It was not a translation of our work at Rivermont so much as a continuation of it, a theoretical refinement of it. So many of our decisions when we did it were practical, on the ground decisions. So this was more developed,” explained Hannah.
As a part of their theses, the Seages explored possible variations of the curriculum. One suggestion was to utilize co-teaching, having a social studies/literacy teacher co-teach with a French teacher to better reach the goal of covering intercultural competency and language acquisition.
“I think it would be cool if someone took our curriculum for a spin to see how it would play out,” said Sophia.
Hannah, Sophia, and Sokol all graduated in Spring 2014.
“I think it’s hard to convey just how much you as a student can benefit from a teaching experience like this. It benefits language skills and thinking skills, organizing how you learn and other people learn,” said Sophia.
“It’s been a really great experience. And I think that that kind of hands-on teaching and learning for us – it was a new way to learn French, to be able to teach children French. I learned a lot about how not to speak only about literature, the news, and other academic topics,” said Sokol. “I think it’s really important to have experiences like that if you’re a language major because that’s more of what you might do with your language degree.”
Hannah and Sophia plan to take a break while they consider graduate school. They intend to continue to learn new languages.
“It was always in our family,” said Hannah. “Out grandfather is from North Africa, Tunisia, so he speaks French, Arabic, and English. He came here as a French teacher. Our mom went to school in Tunisia for a year and she can speak Arabic and French. It’s been in the background as a part of our family culture. We had a lot of encouragement from our family.”
They are also considering co-authoring a French curriculum for the Waldorf method of homeschool with their mother.
Sokol, who has a French speaking grandfather from Quebec and who has been learning French since the 9th grade, plans to continue with French after UTC. She is going to France next year to teach English to high school students.
“More people like me, who aren’t really sure what they want to do in the future, should consider doing something like this. I had never considered teaching as a thing I might do until that point, then I was like, actually, I really love this,” said Sokol.
“Usually there are data to show that critical thinking skills were improved as a result of these projects,” said Ford. “That’s where the rubber meets the road – that’s what we want to see. Because that’s why we’re here, is to improve critical thinking skills.”