These days, teachers of elective courses realize that their continued professional existence depends on how well they support the overriding academic goal of building students’ reading and writing skills. That is no longer just the domain of the English or social studies teachers. Some electives teachers see this change as an opportunity (and perhaps have always seen it that way). Others see it as a threat and struggle to adapt.
Historically, of course, foreign language teachers have contributed profoundly to their students’ understanding of how language works, increasing their vocabulary and strengthening their self-expression. Today, however, they are called upon to become more directly involved in their students’ command of reading and writing in English—and even show evidence of improvement. Reflecting the field’s sense of urgency, national and regional conferences for language teachers now offer a multitude of well-attended workshops and seminars on cross-curricular strategies for boosting students’ literacy skills.
For teachers who are resistant to or worried about this trend, it’s important to emphasize that building English reading and writing into a language course can be fun, and certainly doesn’t have to detract from cultural content. I know from experience.
In 2010, in order to address lagging reading and writing performance, my high school in Saint Paul, Minn., added an extra 45 minutes to the school day. To fill the time, all teachers were required to provide either enrichment courses or courses focused on specific student needs in reading, writing, or math.
A French teacher at the time, I decided to create an enrichment course on French cinema as a nontraditional effort to increase reading and writing practice. The course featured a selection of what most French teachers consider classic films with universal themes (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Jean de Florette,” “Manon des Sources”). Each film took three to four classes to view, and prior to each viewing I gave a brief synopsis of the film and some questions exploring the essence of the film. Importantly, since very few of the students spoke French, they had to read the English subtitles to follow the plots. And at the end of every film, students were queried on the preliminary focus questions and then asked to write either the answers to these questions and/or to create a short essay using a variety of writing formats, i.e. retelling the story, creating an alternative ending, or comparing themselves to one of the characters.
Watching and writing about French films may not sound like rigorous literacy intervention, but the course produced impressive results. Students who began the course with novice writing talents, as delineated by the National Writing Project (limited awareness of the audience, minimal development of the ideas, weak organization, incorrect language and sentence structure and/or excessive grammatical errors), showed improvement to the apprentice level of writing (some evidence of communicating with a purpose, some development of the specific ideas, some lapses in organization, simplistic language and sentence structure, and fewer grammatical errors). Those who began with an apprentice level of writing showed improvement to a proficient level of writing (focus on purpose, evidence of voice, depth of idea development, controlled and varied language and sentence structure, and few grammatical errors).
Of course, the students’ improvement cannot be attributed solely to their work in the French Cinema course, but this enrichment activity gave them multiple opportunities to practice reading and writing skills they were also learning in other courses. The course provided non-academic themes for them to essentially spread their writing wings. After the popular response to the French Cinema course, another teacher at the school began offering a course on Asian films. I believe the basis and structure of the French Cinema course could be pursued by electives teachers across many subject areas and thus contribute to increased reading and writing practice for a larger number of students.