French 203: Grammar and Composition

Hommage à Beckett
Final slide from a presentation on Samuel Beckett that I created for French 203. After having read En attendant Godot, students were asked to write about how this homage artwork related to key elements of the author’s works, such as arbitrariness of space, temporal ambiguity, the human condition, and the absurd.

Teaching advanced grammar is admittedly demanding, since it involves recycling material from previous French courses (101/102 and 201/202). A successful grammar review course thoroughly covers previously-learned grammar structures while also introducing exceptions to a rule or extending the rule beyond its basic application. Teaching advanced grammar in sequence with composition is ideal, because grammar cannot be learned strictly in isolation: it must be integrated into other grammar structures and combined with new vocabulary to result in more nuanced expressions of language. Most importantly, a grammar and composition course should attract the student’s attention by requiring her to reflect on complex subjects and situations.

In this course, I used two textbooks that were standard curriculum for Emory’s French 203 courses:

1. Identité, modernité, texte, co-written by my pedagogy mentor Carol Herron with Colette-Rebecca Estin and Matthew W. Morris.

2. Grammaire progressive du français, a thorough French grammar text by Michèle Boularès and Jean-Michel Frérot, published by CLE International.

Since the course included multiple components – not just grammar and composition but also wonderful short stories with thought-provoking reflection questions from the Identité, modernité, texte book – we started with literary readings each week, and used it as a springboard for approaching the grammar lessons once the reading was complete. I checked that students had completed the assigned readings at home by having them write a short reflection paragraph at the beginning of some classes, with examples from the text. After they had finished writing, I asked them to exchange papers and peer correct, then discuss their point of view together or in groups. This perspective led us into a more general conversation about the story and allowed students to share their opinions of it. To give students feedback on their writing, I collected the papers and put problem sentences or recurrent grammar errors together on a PowerPoint slide (anonymously) so that we could observe them together at the next class session and correct any mistakes collaboratively. This activated students’ grammar knowledge and allowed them to apply it to their writing.

The literature textbook also included many discussion and reflection questions for each text, and was particularly effective at calling students’ attention to classic examples of French philosophy, culture, or history within the stories. To enliven the class, I created engaging PowerPoint presentations on some of the authors (Samuel Beckett, Aimé Césaire, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet…) to help students understand how each individual had altered French history and shaped culture in the 20th century. During one class session students watched interviews of Aimé Césaire and heard descriptions of la Négritude; for another lesson they viewed film footage of French high school students talking about their understanding of Albert Camus’s philosophy and life’s work, and how it applied to their daily lives.

I think that what I enjoyed most about teaching this class was seeing students’ improvement over the course of the semester. Timid students blossomed in conversation exercises, boosted by the writing assignments at the beginning of class which allowed them to organize their thoughts and reinforced their confidence speaking in the language. I observed an overall shift in the way students wrote, and in their attention to grammar and wording of their arguments. This is why literature is so important in a language class: it exposes students to new ideas, both culturally and linguistically. It broadens students’ perspectives about their lives and also deepens the ways in which they express themselves. To be a teacher at this crucial moment – this moment when students’ understanding of what language is extends beyond rote memorization and complicated grammar lessons – is to witness their process of becoming, and to see them embrace their own identity as a result.