“How am I supposed to teach them French when they can’t even speak English?”: Unpacking the Myth of English Proficiency as a Prerequisite for French Immersion

STEPHEN DAVIS, McGill University

ABSTRACT. French immersion in Saskatchewan has traditionally served predominantly Anglophone student populations; however, recent trends in immigration have contributed to increasingly diverse linguistic backgrounds of students throughout the province. The high levels of motivation, family support, and academic achievement of Allophone students learning French as an additional language in Canada have been documented extensively (Dagenais & Jacquet, 2000; Mady, 2013b, 2015). However, Allophone learners often face greater obstacles accessing French immersion programs throughout Canada than their Anglophone peers, and such students are sometimes excluded on the basis of their supposedly lacking English proficiency (Roy, 2015). Indeed, many teachers believe that French immersion is an unsuitable program for Allophone students, and school administrators sometimes discourage families from enrolling due to limited English language ability (Lapkin, MacFarlane, & Vandergrift, 2006; Mady & Masson, 2018). Through online surveys and semi-structured interviews, this mixed-methods study explored educators’ perspectives on the perceived suitability of French immersion for Allophone students in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and the extent to which English proficiency is perceived as a determinant of success in the program. In this article, I share the findings of this study, unpack the beliefs of French immersion educators in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and offer recommendations for such programs in order to provide a diverse student population with equitable education and support.

RÉSUMÉ. Historiquement, les élèves anglophones nés au Canada sont ceux qui ont le plus fréquenté les programmes d’immersion française en Saskatchewan dans le but de développer des compétences langagières et scolaires dans les deux langues officielles du Canada. Cependant, on observe une hétérogénéisation de la population d’élèves inscrits dans ce programme grâce à une augmentation récente de l’immigration dans la province contribuant à sa diversité grandissante tant sur le plan linguistique que culturel. Plusieurs études ont examiné la motivation des élèves allophones envers l’apprentissage du français au Canada, leur capacité à acquérir simultanément le français et l’anglais, et l’importance que leurs familles accordent au multilinguisme (Dagenais & Jacquet, 2000; Mady, 2013b, 2015). Malgré leur succès bien documenté en immersion, les élèves allophones sont parfois exclus de ces programmes à cause de leur niveau jugé insuffisant en anglais (Roy, 2015). Plusieurs enseignants considèrent que l’immersion française n’est pas un programme approprié aux besoins des apprenants allophones, et les administrateurs d’écoles vont parfois jusqu’à décourager leurs familles de les y inscrire (Lapkin, MacFarlane, & Vandergrift, 2006; Mady & Masson, 2018). Cette recherche vise à explorer divers discours au sujet des élèves allophones en immersion française ainsi que l’importance accordée à leurs compétences langagières en anglais. L’étude adopte une méthodologie mixte, menée par l’entremise de questionnaires et d’entretiens, afin d’examiner les perspectives d’enseignants et de directeurs, tous provenant de plusieurs écoles de Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Cette étude disséminera les résultats de la recherche, ainsi que certaines recommandations pour les programmes d’immersion dans le but d’offrir une éducation équitable à une population de diversité croissante.

Keywords: FSL, French immersion, Allophone, inclusive education, multilingualism.


INTRODUCTION

Notwithstanding the diversity of languages spoken by Indigenous communities and newcomer populations throughout Canada, the country’s linguistic identity has been shaped significantly by a nationaldiscourse of dualism between its two official languages, English and French (Haque, 2012). Thus, language programs in Canada have traditionally provided French instruction for students whose first language is English (Anglophones) and English instruction for students whose first language is French (Francophones) (Roy, 2010). However, the imagined binary of Anglophones and Francophones in Canada has been criticized within the field of sociolinguistics for failing to recognize the growing number of citizens who speak a first language that is neither English nor French (Lamarre, 2002). The increase of such students (hereafter referred to as Allophones) in Canada has critical implications for French immersion; indeed, such learners are sometimes excluded from immersion on the basis of their limited English language proficiency, as documented by Roy (2015) in the province of Alberta. In this article, I explore the perspectives of educators (teachers and principals) on the suitability of French immersion for Allophone students in Saskatchewan, and examine the widespread myth of English fluency as a prerequisite for success in French immersion programs. 

FRENCH IMMERSION IN SASKATCHEWAN

French immersion originated in St. Lambert, a predominantly English-speaking suburb of Montréal, Québec, in 1965, in response to the concerns of Anglophone parents who felt that their children were ill-equipped to compete in the increasingly French-dominant workforce of the province (Lambert & Tucker, 1972). In addition to serving the political goal of preparing Anglophone children to work in French, the program embodied a pedagogical shift towards content-driven language education, which has yielded positive learning outcomes. Specifically, Lyster (2008) noted that French immersion students develop curricular knowledge and skills that are equivalent to those of non-immersion learners studying in English; Genesee and Lindholm-Leary (2013) found that French immersion students regularly outperform core French students in areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking; and Lindholm-Leary and Genesee (2014) reported that immersion students attain English language abilities similar to or greater than those of learners in regular English programs. In Saskatchewan, there are currently 85 public schools offering French immersion, and demand for the program is increasing (Bonjour SK, 2018). Learners often begin French immersion in Kindergarten or Grade 1, but some school divisions offer late French immersion programs in Grades 6 and 7 (Saskatchewan School Boards Association, 2017). French immersion programs are united in their endeavour to provide French language instruction to learners of diverse linguistic backgrounds, and prior exposure to French is not required for enrolment or success.  

LANGUAGES IN SASKATCHEWAN

Anglophones make up the vast majority of Saskatchewan’s population (82.4%), whereas Francophones represent only 1.4% of the province; thus, French is clearly a minority language in Saskatchewan, demographically (Government of Saskatchewan, 2017). In terms of Indigenous languages, Plains Cree and Dene represent the third and seventh most commonly spoken first languages in Saskatchewan, respectively (Government of Saskatchewan, 2011). Importantly, the number of Allophones is rising throughout the province, largely as a result of increased immigration. Specifically, the population of Saskatchewan residents who claim a first language other than English or French is 14.5%, up from 12.7% in 2011 (Government of Saskatchewan, 2017). The five most common first languages of Saskatchewan newcomers in recent years were Tagalog (26%), Chinese (8%), Punjabi (8%), English (8%), and Gujarati (6%) (Government of Saskatchewan, 2014).

LITERATURE REVIEW

Official Language Education Policy for Allophone Students

The Government of Canada has stated that increasing the number of citizens who are bilingual in the country’s official languages, French and English, is a high priority. To this end, three federal policy documents, The Next Act: New Momentum for Canada’s Linguistic Duality (2003), Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the future (2013), and Action Plan for Official Languages – 2018-2023: Investing in Our Future (2018), advance the goal of increasing the rate of official language bilingualism throughout the country. Nevertheless, there is little policy in place to support Allophone students learning both official languages (Galiev, 2013). Specifically, Mady and Turnbull (2010) noted that in English-dominant regions of the country, “immigrants must learn English, but their access to also learn French at school is not guaranteed by Federal policy documents” (p. 5). Indeed, although the Government of Canada promotes official-language bilingualism for its citizens, the extent to which it has addressed this goal for Allophones is negligible. Likewise, official language bilingualism as it pertains to Allophone learners is seldom discussed at the provincial or territorial level, and there is significant discrepancy amongst provinces and territories as to whether French education is mandatory or optional (Mady & Black, 2011). Notably, Saskatchewan students are not required to study French or other languages beyond English, and there is no policy that ensures the inclusion of Allophones in the study of languages other than English. 

Allophone Perspectives and Outcomes in French Language Education

Regardless of the absence of policy support, the motivation and success of Allophone students studying French in English-dominant regions of the country have been documented extensively in recent studies. Mady (2010) found that newcomer Allophone students in core French programs viewed official language bilingualism as an indispensable element of Canadian identity, whereas their Canadian-born Anglophone peers were less likely to espouse this view. Similarly, Carr (2013) noted that many Allophone parents considered French-English bilingualism a valuable avenue towards their children developing a sense of Canadian identity, due primarily to the official status of the two languages. Moreover, Allophone learners are more likely than their Anglophone counterparts to believe that official-language bilingualism will provide employment opportunities in the future (Dagenais & Jacquet, 2000; Dagenais & Berron, 2001; Mady, 2003). In summary, Allophone students and families are often highly motivated to learn both French and English in Canada, both for intrinsic reasons pertaining to identity, and for extrinsic reasons, such as economic opportunity. 

In addition to the strong motivation of Allophone families to pursue official language bilingualism, Allophone students often attain noteworthy academic achievement and language proficiency. Carr (2007) found that Allophone students who study French and English simultaneously developed higher English language proficiency than those who were only studying English. Bérubé and Marinova-Todd (2012) concluded that Allophone students with alphabetic first languages were at no disadvantage learning French compared to Anglophone learners. Mady (2007) reported that the French language skills of newcomer Allophone students in core French programs in Ontario were stronger than those of Canadian-born students, even though the Allophones in question had received significantly less instructional time. Subsequently, Mady (2015) observed stronger French language abilities amongst newcomer Allophone students in French immersion than their Canadian-born Anglophone and Canadian-born multilingual classmates, both at the elementary and secondary levels. Mady’s study advanced the important notion of there being an advantage to learning languages, not only for Allophone students in immersion, but for newcomer Allophones in particular. Thus, the language repertoires of Allophone students should not be viewed through a lens of deficiency in language learning programs (García, 2002); rather, such learners tend to have distinct advantages compared to their Anglophone peers, including high motivation and prior language learning experience.

Perspectives of French Language Educators

In light of Allophone families’ high motivation for attaining official language bilingualism through French immersion, and the demonstrable successes of such their children in the program, it would seem to follow that educators would embrace the growing presence of Allophone learners in French-language programs. However, several studies that have examined the perspectives of French teachers and principals have found that educators sometimes espouse exclusionary views towards Allophone students. In a survey that examined the beliefs of 1,305 teachers in different French language programs throughout Canada, participants indicated that student diversity was among the greatest challenges they faced as educators, noting specifically the increase of Allophone learners (Lapkin, MacFarlane, & Vandergrift, 2006). Furthermore, Mady (2013a) found that, in Ontario, immersion teachers were generally less inclusive of Allophone students than were core French teachers. Specifically, several French immersion teachers believed that immersion was too difficult for Allophone students and would instead recommend core French for such learners, with the rationale that the students should develop English language skills before studying French (Mady, 2011). In a more recent study that examined the perspectives of principals in Ontario, Mady and Masson (2018) found that participants expressed divergent views with respect to their roles as gatekeepers in French immersion programs. Notably, principals interviewed in their study disagreed as to whether Allophone students should attain a high level of English proficiency before beginning immersion programs, and some corroborated previous research by suggesting that core French would be more appropriate for such learners. Evidently, the diverse perspectives of teachers and principals regarding the perceived suitability of French immersion for Allophone students underscore the contentious nature of this issue. In terms of research on Allophone learners in immersion programs, it is also noteworthy that, as Mady and Turnbull (2012) indicated, “the few studies that exist have almost all been completed in Ontario or in larger urban centers where many immigrants live” (p. 134), and that many regions of Canada remain unexamined.

Mady and Arnett (2016) explored the perspectives of teacher candidates for French language programsand compared the experiences of teacher candidates in core French and French immersion programs with their university curricula. This revealed significant learning gaps about Allophones, as “the vast majority (7 out of 9 or 78%) could not access any scientific knowledge about these students and their learning needs” (p. 87). Indeed, the disconnect between the theoretical learning and practical experience of French-language teacher candidates in regards to Allophones is disconcerting and must be addressed in light of the increasing student diversity in such programs today.  

METHODOLOGY

Research Questions

In this article, I report on a subset of the data from a broader research project that explored the perspectives of diverse stakeholders concerning the perceived suitability of French immersion for Allophone learners in Saskatchewan (Davis, 2017). The juxtapositions between the beliefs and experiences of educators and Allophone parents are documented more fully in Davis, Ballinger, and Sarkar (in press). In this article, I focus specifically on educators’ beliefs with respect to the importance of English proficiency in immersion and respond to the following research questions: 

  1. What are the beliefs of educators regarding the importance of Allophone students attaining English language proficiency before beginning French immersion?
  2. How do the beliefs of educators regarding the role of English proficiency affect gatekeeping decisions for Allophone students in French immersion?

In order to respond to the selected research questions, I used the methodological framework of a convergent parallel methods design (Creswell, 2014). Specifically, I used online surveys and semi-structured interviews concurrently to generate both quantitative and qualitative data. The rationale for this mixed-methods approach was that the questionnaires would provide quantitative data from larger populations of the stakeholder groups—in this case, teachers and principals—whereas the interviews would generate qualitative data for more thorough analysis of the perspectives and experiences of smaller samples of French immersion educators.

Survey Methods

I was invited to recruit teachers and principals from five elementary schools that offer French immersion programs within the same school board in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Subsequently, I distributed the survey to educators by email. The survey was completed by 56 participants. The following definitions were included in the questionnaire to ensure a mutual understanding of terminology: “In this survey, the term ‘Anglophone’ refers to a student whose first language is English, whereas the term ‘Allophone’ refers to a student whose first language is neither English nor French.” The survey consisted of three demographic questions and 20 five-point Likert-scale statements. Each survey item included a comment box where participants could elaborate on their answers. 

Interview Methods

During the same time period that teachers and principals were completing the online questionnaire (i.e., October to December 2016), I conducted 43 semi-structured, audio-recorded interviews with educators from the same survey population. Participants were interviewed in their respective schools, with the exception of one teacher who was interviewed via Skype. I transcribed and analyzed the interviews with NVivo and assigned pseudonyms to participants. With respect to analysis, I interpreted the survey and interview data concurrently for the purposes of triangulation. I used descriptive statistics to analyze the quantitative questionnaire data, and thematic coding to interpret trends that emerged from the qualitative survey comments and interview data. Specifically, the four themes that emerged in the analysis were as follows: first, the importance of learning English and French in Saskatchewan; second, the perceived role of English language ability in Allophone language learning; third, gatekeeping practices and beliefs in French immersion; and fourth, English language support for Allophone students in immersion. 

RESULTS

Demographic Information

The survey began with demographic questions about the educators’ teaching experiences and careers. Participants were asked to select the answer that best represented their professional position, presented in Table 1 below. Participants included teachers from different grade levels, as well as six principals or vice principals. 

PositionCountPercentage
Primary Years Teacher (Kindergarten – Grade 2)1730.36%
Middle Years Teacher (Grade 3 – 5)1425.00%
Senior Years Teacher (Grade 6 – 8)1017.86%
Administrator610.71%
Resource Teacher35.36%
General/Specialist Teacher35.36%
Teacher Librarian11.79%

Table 1: Educators’ Current Position 

Respondents also specified the number of years they had been teaching in French immersion programs, as seen in Table 2 below. 

Years TeachingNumber of teachersPercentage
1 – 53053.57%
6 – 101221.43%
11 – 1535.36%
16 – 2058.93%
21 – 2511.79%
26 – 3035.36%

Table 2: Number of Years Teaching

French immersion teachers from a range of grade levels participated in the study, in addition to six principals or vice principals. Moreover, although participants had varying experience teaching in French immersion programs, the majority had been teaching for fewer than six years at the time of the study. In the next four sections, I present the interview and survey findings according to the four themes that emerged in the analysis. 

The Importance of Learning English and French in Saskatchewan

The questionnaire included two items on the beliefs of French immersion teachers and principals with respect to the importance of learning English and French (Table 3) for Allophone students in Saskatchewan. 

Table 3: Importance of Learning English and French

Evidently, the educators demonstrated that although it was beneficial for Allophone students to learn both languages, the importance of learning English was paramount. In the interviews, participants added nuance to the belief that learning English was considered to be of greater importance than learning French, as seen below:

I just think, give them a head-start in the language that they’re going to hear and use most of the time in Saskatoon, which is going to be English, and then let them get to grips with that, get ahead with that, see how well they’re succeeding in the learning.

(Andrea, Grade 2 Teacher)

I think it makes sense to first master the language that you need to get by in Saskatchewan. And French is awesome, and it’s going to be really useful in life. So, get it, but just make sure that you get that one that you need to survive first, I think.

(Jocelyne, Grade 2 Teacher)

The data from both the survey and interviews indicate that certain teachers believe that although it is worthwhile for Allophone students to learn French, there is greater urgency to learn English because of its pervasiveness throughout Saskatchewan.  

In the interviews, I asked teachers and principals why they thought Allophone families were enrolling their children in immersion. Several of them stated that Allophone families were interested in French immersion because of the official status of the language in Canada:

I think that when they come to this country, they really believe that, you know, we have two official languages and that it’s important—very important—for them to learn those two languages. I don’t know, like, people that are from this country—it’s not that they forget about the French, but they just—I don’t know. It’s almost like people coming from these other countries value it way more, coming in. They go, ‘Oh, it’s French and English! You need to do both! This is important!’.

(Britney, Grade 2 Teacher)

You know, they want to embrace the culture of Canada, and they say, ‘Well, we are a dual-language country and so we feel like it’s important for our child to learn the two official languages of this country. That’s often the statement that I get, like, ‘This country speaks French and English. We want our children speaking both of those languages’.

(Josephine, Vice Principal)

In summary, French immersion educators generally considered learning English to be of greater importance than learning French for Allophone students in Saskatchewan, but also noted the significant motivation of such families to learn both official languages. 

The Role of English Proficiency in Allophone Language Learning

The second theme that emerged in my analysis of the data was the role of English language ability in the language learning of Allophones in French immersion. Survey results indicated that the respondents were divided in their belief that Allophone students require a high level of English proficiency before learning French and that Allophone students should focus on learning English before learning French (Table 4, below). 

Table 4: Role of English Proficiency in Allophone Language Learning

Interview responses corroborated the survey results, as seen in the following excerpts:

Well, I think if they’re, if they’re increasing their fluency and doing a lot better with their reading, I think that fosters a love for reading, right? So, if they’re doing well in that, I think it’s just going to transfer over to English as well.

(Wallace, Grade 2 Teacher)

I’m not of the opinion that languages confuse each other; I think languages clarify each other, you know?

(Darius, Principal)

Furthermore, some participants stated that Allophones with limited English proficiency often made a greater effort to speak French in class than their Anglophone classmates: 

Generally, I find those students actually speak in French more at school than English-speaking students because they don’t necessarily have the English to revert to.

(Lindsey, Grade 3 Teacher)

I think, too, they know that most of us teachers are also English speakers, and so they default to that quickly, whereas I do not speak Urdu. I do not speak multiple languages other than French or English, and so to default to that doesn’t really help us converse or understand each other better. And so, I just find that they try harder in French, because it’s the one thing that we might have in common.

(Jada, Vice Principal)

Indeed, many participants affirmed the language learning aptitude of Allophones, citing the motivation of such students to speak in French and their ability to transfer their learning between languages.

Conversely, several interview participants argued that, in fact, Allophone students should focus on developing some English language proficiency before enrolling in immersion. For instance, some teachers suggested that the late French immersion program was a more prudent choice for Allophone learners than early immersion, insofar as students would acquire English abilities over several years before studying French in Grade 6:  

I think the ideal would be core French and then do late French immersion. I think that’s a perfect transition. Like, get your English, which is, like, what you need to survive in Saskatchewan, and then you can still get French immersion and catch up. 

(Jennifer, Grade 2 Teacher)

With an English language knowledge base, we’re able to relate a lot of the sentence structures and stuff like that to English, which can help them scaffold into their knowledge of French. And I think not having that common base can prove challenging.

(Jesse, Grade 6 Late French Immersion Teacher)

There is some leaning upon English that is used, and if you have no English, then, you know, you don’t have that crutch.

(Carl, Grade 7 late French immersion Teacher)

Finally, one participant even shared that his colleagues believed it was impossible to teach a student French who had no prior English language abilities:

I’ve heard some teachers in the staff room here saying, ‘How am I supposed to teach them French when they can’t speak English?’. 

(Kevin, Resource Teacher)

Indeed, there was a notable range of opinions amongst educators with respect to the necessity of prior English language proficiency for Allophones in French immersion. 

The Inclusion of Allophones in French Immersion

In this section, I share the results of teacher and principal perspectives regarding the inclusion of Allophone learners in immersion. Participants were asked whether they believed that Allophone students should be included in immersion and whether they believed that immersion was a suitable program for such learners (see Table 5, below). 

Table 5: Including Allophones in French Immersion 

The data indicate that the vast majority of educators believed that Allophone students should be included in French immersion and that this was a suitable program for such learners. In the interviews, several principals shared that French immersion was historically an elitist instructional stream that excluded Allophone learners, but that such students were included in immersion programs today: 

And the attitude of French immersion not being just an elite program—regardless of what we said it was—it was always kind of an elite, you know, upper-middle-class program. And, you know, if a kid struggles, then you just move them out of French immersion, and if you don’t speak English, well, then you can’t come into French because you don’t speak English. And I still have dealt with that here in the last few years where teachers say, ‘Oh, it would be better if they went and learned English first’.

(Darius, Principal) 

I’m seeing it being less and less of an elitist program. I’ve lived that, you know, that whole attitude for the last 15-20 years. I’m seeing it less and less, and I like that. I think that as long as we’re providing the proper supports for these children, like we would for any program, then there’s no reason why we can’t have students with special needs or Allophones coming in and learning another, like, learning French as opposed to just English.

(Josephine, Vice Principal)

In summary, most participants expressed that French immersion was a suitable program for Allophone students, and several educators indicated that the acceptance of such learners was indicative of a recent trend toward more inclusive attitudes about Allophones in immersion programs.

In the survey, I also asked participants about their beliefs regarding their roles as gatekeepers in immersion, such as whether they would discourage Allophone families from enrolling their children in French immersion and whether they would recommend immersion to a student with limited English proficiency (see Table 6, below). 

Table 6: Educators as Gatekeepers to Immersion

While responses to the first question suggest that the majority of educators affirm the inclusion of Allophones in immersion, the next question generated more negative responses.

In the interviews, some participants noted a disconnect between the school board’s inclusion of Allophones and their own beliefs, as seen in the following interview excerpt:

But then the other thing is that they, oftentimes in many divisions, push French immersion as being for everybody. ‘French immersion is for everyone! French immersion is for everyone! Anyone can take French immersion!’ I just don’t think that’s true! As I said, if you’re already struggling with your first language or your second language, we’re not doing you any favours by starting you on a third, in my opinion. You know? Like, if you’re already struggling with English, or you’re already struggling with Spanish or Urdu, or whatever language you speak, then adding a third is just making less space in your brain, you know?

(Billy, Grade 7 late French immersion Teacher)

Additionally, some educators stated that they would not recommend French immersion for Allophones facing challenges beyond the classroom, such as Syrian refugee students:  

I think a lot of the ones we’ve been getting, like, we’ve gotten lots of families from Syria at this school. I think they’re just struggling to, you know, have proper clothing and lunches. I just think they think, you know, let’s. . . I mean, it’s an old fact, I mean, obviously if they’re teaching in French, it’s just another stress at home, and I think we should just look at it as ‘Let’s learn English first’. 

(Britney, Grade 2 Teacher)

The survey results seem to indicate that participants were generally supportive of including Allophone learners in French immersion, but interview data suggest that the inclusion of Allophones in immersion should be contingent upon their English language proficiency. 

Language Support for Allophones in French Immersion

Participants’ views concerning the language learning support offered to Allophone learners in French immersion also emerged as a theme in my analysis. First, participants were asked whether they believed that Allophone students received sufficient homework support in immersion (Table 7, below). 

Table 7: Support for Allophones in Immersion

Responses varied with respect to the homework support Allophone students received. The divergent results regarding support for homework were reflected in the interview data as well. Notably, some educators affirmed the ability of Allophone families to support their children with their learning, whereas others believed that such families struggled to provide meaningful support, as seen in the following example:

I would say that there would be some difficulty for families to support them in French and in English, because most of our Canadian families have a little bit, Sesame StreetFrench, at the very least, you know? And I think that they can support a little bit differently. Even if they don’t feel bilingual or fluent, they still have knowledge of the French language, whereas some of our Allophone families may have none.

(Yolanda, Principal)

Evidently, although some participants believe that Allophone families supported their children in their language learning, others felt that such families were unable to provide adequate support due to their own lack of English and French proficiency. 

In a similar vein, the survey asked participants about their beliefs with respect to the language resources and support Allophone students received in French immersion programs (see Table 7, above). Whereas the results for this item were divergent amongst survey respondents, interview participants were united in their concern with the limited Resource teacher support provided for at-risk students in French immersion: 

You know, the struggles that some of our kids have are very real, and, you know, the teachers within the classroom, the framework of the classroom, can only do so much, and are doing their very best. But I would definitely advocate for more Resource within French immersion, for sure.

(Phoebe, Grade 2 Teacher)

I would love to be able to say to every family, ‘Absolutely, French is the right place for you,’ and the reason I think that some people can’t say that is because we don’t have as much Resource support.

(Julie, Grade 3 Teacher)

The perception that French immersion learners do not receive sufficient Resource teacher support was a central finding of the present study and was underscored by many participants as a majorshortcoming of the school board’s efforts to create more inclusive immersion programs.

Moreover, participants were demonstrably divided as to whether Allophone students received sufficient English instruction in French immersion (see Table 7, above). Specifically, some teachers agreed that students were given sufficient support, whereas others suggested that the lack of formal English instruction was mitigated by ample exposure to the language beyond the classroom. In contrast, more participants felt that that Allophones should receive greater English language support in French immersion and that this instruction should begin before Grade 3, the accepted practice of the school board. The survey comment below provides greater insight into this pervasive belief:

English is not even provided until grade 3, and at that point it is less about the mechanics of the language and more about how to analyze stories, how to present, etc. The program assumes that students are English speakers who are simply refining their English skills, as opposed to Allophone students receiving instruction for the first time, and for only 50 minutes a day.

(Jennifer, Grade 2 Teacher)

Similarly, there was a common belief that English as Additional Language (EAL) support, an educational service intended specifically for Allophone learners, should be offered to such students in French immersion programs prior to Grade 3, as seen in the following interview excerpts: 

We tried accessing it [EAL] this year for a boy in Grade 2 who does not speak English really well or French. His first language is Serbian, so he has difficulty expressing himself in English and French, which is the two languages we speak here. So, there are some communication gaps with him. We tried seeing if we could access EAL services for him, but we can’t access that until Grade 3.

(Carmen, Resource Teacher)

Support in EAL would be huge for these families. And all it really does is become a disincentive for them to go into French immersion. When a new family, when Syrian families are arriving, and they say, ‘We’d like to go into French immersion,’ and I say, ‘You’re more than welcome, but just so you know, there’s no English language support until the end of Grade 2,’ that becomes a roadblock to them, you know?

(Darius, Principal)

In summary, my study found divergent views regarding the English language support Allophone students receive in immersion, and a feeling that the lack of English instruction dissuaded Allophone families from considering French immersion. 

DISCUSSION

In this article, I explored the perspectives of teachers and principals concerning the perceived suitability of French immersion for Allophone learners with respect to the role of English language proficiency and whether these beliefs impact their beliefs about the inclusion of Allophones in immersion programs in Saskatoon. The survey and interviews began with questions measuring the perceived importance of learning English and French in Saskatchewan. Although participants indicated that it was worthwhile for Allophone students to learn both languages, there was significantly more urgency expressed for the learning of English than for French. This distinction was due to the prevalence of English in Saskatchewan and the perception that the language is essential for everyday life; in contrast, participants noted that French might afford advantages in terms of employment opportunities, but that proficiency was not necessary for survival in the province. 

There are several interpretations of participants’ prioritization of the learning of English over the learning of French for Allophone learners. First, several educators expressed that it was advantageous to learn multiple languages sequentially, rather than simultaneously. For instance, some participants suggested that learning English and French concurrently would be overwhelming for Allophone learners, as the two languages would be competing for finite cognitive resources. Additionally, for some educators, there is a specific order in which Allophones should learn the two languages, and that English should be used for scaffolding in French immersion. This belief is at the root of one teacher’s question: “How am I supposed to teach them French when they can’t speak English?” Finally, some educators stated that Allophone students should attain English fluency before beginning immersion in order to better communicate with their English-speaking classmates, citing the example of Syrian refugee children. The notion that communication barriers might preclude Allophone families from enrolling in French immersion seems particularly dubious; indeed, any challenges Allophone learners might experience communicating in English would be equally present in non-immersion programs.             

Whether participants believe that languages are better learned sequentially than simultaneously, or that English is necessary for scaffolding when learning French, such views likely stem from educators’ personal experiences with language learning (Cicurel, 2011). Insofar as all teacher interview participants were either Anglophones who had learned French as a second language or Francophones who had learned English as a second language, it follows that they would likely advocate for sequential language learning over simultaneous language learning. Additionally, some teachers might use English for scaffolding in French immersion simply because English and French are the only two languages in which they can reliably make cross-linguistic connections. Thus, educators who recommend that Allophones learn English before French may believe they are acting in the best interest of the students. However, such beliefs unfairly exclude learners from French immersion for reasons entirely unsubstantiated by research, disregarding the growing body of empirical research that demonstrates that Allophone students often experience distinct advantages learning additional languages because of their diverse linguistic repertoires (Bérubé & Marinova-Todd, 2012; Carr, 2007; Herdina & Jessner, 2002; Izquierdo & Collins, 2008; Mady, 2007, 2015). Therefore, while certain multilingual instructional strategies have been effective in French immersion programs and merit further consideration, the extent to which some pedagogical practices privilege English to the detriment of other languages could be considered inequitable and discriminatory.

As it pertains to the second research question that focuses on the inclusion and exclusion of Allophone students in French immersion, there were several findings about the gatekeeping roles that educators play. First, most participants affirmed that Allophones should be included in immersion, and that the perception of the program as suitable for such learners is a recent trend in the school board. Nevertheless, participants were conflicted about whether they would recommend French immersion for a student with limited English proficiency, which suggests that, for some educators, the perceived suitability of immersion for Allophone students is contingent upon their English abilities. This belief corroborates Roy’s(2015) findings with respect to the exclusion of Allophones on the basis of ostensiblyinsufficient English proficiency. Furthermore, there are evidently divergent beliefs amongst teachers and principals regarding the perceived suitability of the program for such learners and the gatekeeping roles that educators believe they should play. This discrepancy of views amongst educators is symptomatic of a school board and province with no discernable policy for the inclusion of Allophones in language education (Mady, 2007). Indeed, the creation and implementation of evidence-based policy for Allophone students would ensure the inclusion of such learners in language education programs and prevent the arbitrary and inequitable practices endemic to Saskatchewan today.  

This study has shown that the relationship between the resources provided for Allophones in French immersion and the gatekeeping practices of educators present an interesting dynamic. Specifically, several participants stated that they were reluctant to recommend immersion for Allophone students because of the lack of resources allocated to the program, citing minimal Resource teachersupport and EAL support in particular. It is important to note that Resource teacher support is not offered exclusively for Allophones, but rather provides support for learners of all linguistic backgrounds. Thus, the notion that insufficient Resource teachersupport in French immersion should preclude Allophone families from enrolling in the program is without merit. However, the fact that French immersion programs often provide less Resource teachersupport than non-immersion instructional streams is still deeply problematic insofar as the disparity serves to perpetuate the perception of elitism that has long characterized immersion. To the extent that participants believe that students receive less Resource teacher support in French immersion than they would receive in other programs, and to the extent that some educators perceive Allophones as at-risk learners, it follows that certain teachers consider immersion to be unsuitable for Allophone learners. Additionally, several participants stated that the school board policy that prevents Allophone students from accessing EAL support before Grade 3 deters such families from considering immersion in the first place. Thus, educators argued that EAL support should be provided for students in earlier grades to ensure their inclusion and success in the program. In summary, the data I have shared in this article suggest that many teachers and principals are theoretically supportive of the inclusion of Allophone learners in French immersion, but that the lack of resources offered for such students leads educators to consider excluding them under the assumption that Allophone learners require greater support than is offered in immersion.  

CONCLUSION

In this article, I examined the beliefs of French immersion teachers and principals in Saskatoon, vis-à-vis the perceived suitability of immersion for Allophone learners and the role of English language proficiency in the program. The findings of the study contribute to the growing body of research that examines Allophone students in French language programs throughout Canada. Although the number of survey participants in the present study is quite small compared to previous questionnaire-based research, such as Lapkin, MacFarlane, and Vandergrift (2006), this limitation is mitigated by the fact that the majority of French immersion teachers and principals in the school board participated in surveys and interviews. Furthermore, the research site was itself important, insofar as the perspectives of educators regarding Allophones in immersion had not previously been explored in Saskatchewan (Mady & Turnbull, 2012). 

In this article, I have advanced several important recommendations for the future of French immersion programs in Saskatchewan. First and foremost, it is critically important for the school division and the Government of Saskatchewan to create policies to ensure equitable access to immersion and other language education programs for Allophone learners throughout the province. Furthermore, my research found that educators believe that greater support is needed for students in French immersion programs. Thus, I strongly recommend that the school board allocate a full-time French immersion Resource teacher in all schools with immersion programs, which would provide learning support for all learners, irrespective of home languages. Furthermore, several educators advocated for Allophone students to be able to access EAL support prior to Grade 3. The extent to which the school division does not offer full-time Resource or EAL support for all French immersion learners erroneously suggests that such support systems are unnecessary in the program, further perpetuating the elitist notion that French immersion is most appropriate for academically gifted, English-speaking learners. If indeed French immersion is suitable for all students, it is high time for school boards to provide the necessary support for all learners to succeed. 

In future research, I would suggest that further attention be given to the perceived suitability of French immersion for Allophone learners, both in Saskatchewan and beyond. Whereas some studies have documented the gatekeeping practices of French immersion principals and kindergarten teachers (Mady & Masson, 2018), researchers might consider exploring this topic in late French immersion programs, given that such programs are also common entry points for immersion students. Moreover, the perspectives and practices of French immersion teachers and principals at the secondary level also warrant further attention. Additionally, research examining policy creation and implementation in French language programs is required (Mady & Turnbull, 2012). Finally, future studies must also explore the underrepresentation of different student demographics in French immersion programs, such as First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learners. Specifically, French immersion programs should be examined through the lens of LangCrit, or Critical Language and Race Theory (Crump, 2014), which would shed light on the intersection language and race in exclusionary practices or ideologies in school boards and classes. Finally, I hope that the present study might encourage researchers and educators alike to explore and implement policies and practices that would foster a more diverse and inclusive immersion in the future. 

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Reframing FSL Teacher Learning: Small Stories of (Re)Professionalization and Identity Formation

Volume 2(2): 2018

MIMI MASSON, University of Ottawa

ABSTRACT. French as a second language (FSL) teacher flight in Canada has become a serious issue, endangering the health of existing FSL programs (Masson, Larson, Desgroseilliers, Carr, & Lapkin, in press). One way to address FSL teacher retention and well-being is to develop a model for professional learning rooted in a sociocultural approach to (re)position teachers as active learners as a means to reclaim their agency. This case study describes the formation of two core French teachers’ professional identities over four years in a teacher-led Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) network. Positioning analysis of the teachers’ small story narratives reveals the strategies they used to (re)negotiate their professional selves in the CSCL network. The teachers’ success developing a strong professional identity was linked to the validation they received for their learning experiences in the network, developing deep ties to their communities and to other teacher-professionals in the CSCL network. This paper discusses how (re)imagining FSL teacher professional learning through a sociocultural lens can have a significant impact on addressing issues of retention and well-being in the profession.

RÉSUMÉ. Le taux de renoncement des enseignants de français langue seconde (FLS) met en péril la santé des programmes de FLS actuels (Masson et al., in press). Un moyen d’améliorer la rétention et le bien-être des enseignants de FLS consiste à développer un modèle de développement professionnel basé sur des théories socioculturelles qui (re)positionnent les enseignants en tant qu’apprenants actifs dotés d’agentivité. Cette étude de cas suit le développement identitaire de deux enseignantes de français cadre, qui ont participé dans un réseau d’apprentissage collaboratif en ligne (ACEL) où elles ont géré elles-mêmes leur apprentissage professionnel pendant quatre ans. L’analyse de positionnement des « petites histoires » des enseignantes montre qu’elles ont pu (re)négocier leur statut professionnel dans le réseau d’ACEL. La construction identitaire professionnelle réussie des enseignantes s’attribue à la validation et le soutien qu’elles ont reçu dans le réseau pendant leurs expériences d’apprentissage, ainsi que les liens profonds qu’elles ont su développer dans leurs communautés professionnelles scolaires et avec d’autres enseignantes dans le réseau d’ACEL. Cette recherche suggère que la (ré)invention de l’apprentissage professionnel des enseignants de FLS sous un angle socioculturel peut avoir un impact important pour remédier à leur rétention et à leur bien-être dans cette profession.

Keywords: French as a second language, teacher learning, professional identities, teacher retention and well-being, positioning analysis.

Introduction

The success of French as a second language (FSL) programs in Canada depends upon the success of its FSL teachers. And yet, FSL teachers have expressed feeling de-professionalized and disenfranchised from their practice (Karsenti, Collin, Villeneuve, Dumouchel, & Roy, 2008; Knouzi & Mady, 2014; Mollica, Philips, & Smith, 2005; Richards, 2002). Matters are exacerbated by ‘teacher flight,’ the fact that many FSL teachers consider leaving the profession or move out of French into the English-language stream (Lapkin & Barkaoui, 2008; Lapkin, MacFarlane, & Vandergrift, 2006). The situation today in many provinces across Canada, has reached a crisis point. Despite market saturation where teachers have difficulty finding work (Ontario College of Teachers, 2016), when it comes to filling French-language teaching positions, school boards lack the numbers they need to ensure thriving successful French-language programming. Amid threats from Ontario school boards in 2017 to cancel some of their FSL programs, due to insufficient numbers of FSL teachers, at a Symposium on FSL hosted by Canadian Parents for French (CPF) the Ontario Ministry of Education pledged to launch an investigation into the matter and push to increase FSL teacher recruitment (Canadian Parents for French, 2017). While this welcomed, and much-awaited effort is necessary at this stage, ensuring we patch the leaky pipeline by retaining FSL teachers and supporting newly recruited teachers to avoid FSL teacher flight are also paramount steps to take in order to ensure the continued success of FSL programs in Canada.

Situating the study

Teacher Learning: Welcoming FSL Teachers into a New Paradigm

Professional learning rooted in sociocultural approaches, such as inquiry-based learning and action research (i.e., Banegas, Pavese, Velázquez, & Vélez, 2013; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009), (re)places teachers at the centre of their practice. Shifting the paradigm on teacher learning is one approach to promote teacher well-being and (re)professionalization. This approach flourished in the fields of English as a second language (ESL) and General Education (GenEd) but has yet to make its way in the area of sustaining FSL teacher learning. Knowing that collaborative learning promotes professional well-being (Campbell, Lieberman, & Yashkina, 2013; Fullan & Hargreaves, 2016; Lieberman, Miller, & Von Frank, 2013), could this be an approach well-suited to FSL teachers as a form of support to remain in the profession? At the moment, little is known about FSL teachers’ professional learning contexts and what FSL teacher learning looks like.

This ethnographic study reports the findings of a longitudinal multiple case study following the evolution of two FSL teachers’ professional learning through small story narratives (Bamberg, 2007; Georgakopoulou, 2006). The two FSL teachers were part of a project involving 17 teachers who sought to lead their own professional learning in a Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) network which implemented a sociocultural approach. The paper addresses two issues: first, it provides information about the FSL teachers’ professional learning experiences. Second, it demonstrates the potential of having FSL teachers lead their own professional learning in a CSCL network. Specifically, the study explores how this experience affected the FSL teachers’ sense of professional identity and well-being.

Despite calls for research on in-service FSL professional learning networks to address issues of teacher well-being and socially equitable practices in teacher training (Heffernan, 2011; Mandin, 2008), such research remains scarce.

Kristmanson led a number of studies on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in French Immersion (FI) contexts (Kristmanson, Dicks, & Le Bouthillier, 2009; Kristmanson, Dicks, Le Bouthillier, & Bourgoin, 2008; Kristmanson, Lafargue, & Culligan, 2011). PLCs are collaborative learning networks with the explicit goal of improving student learning via teacher professional learning (Lieberman & Miller, 2008). Kristmanson’s studies (2008; 2009) involved action research projects in an elementary and a middle school. The research team created a PLC with FI teachers based on teachers’ identified need to develop students’ French writing practice. The PLC promoted discussion, active participation of all the PLC members, balanced reflection and action, and experiential learning as a starting point for dialogic inquiries. The teachers reported increased collaborative practice with their colleagues and valued the time they were given by their administration to consult with one another and share pedagogical practices.

Kristmanson’s most recent study using PLCs (2011) was a cross-disciplinary action research project involving 10 high school language teachers (5 of them FSL teachers) working together to integrate the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and the Electronic Language Portfolio (ELP) into their practice. The PLC met six times, for one-hour meetings, over the school year during full release days. Using a participatory approach, with researchers doing research with teachers rather than on teachers, the research team shared the analysis of their discussions with the teachers, prompting a spiralized approach to collaborative reflective practice. Findings show the teachers sought to uncover their philosophical stance before developing an action plan, suggesting PLCs can promote critical thinking skills when teachers are given the time and space to unpack assumptions about learning and the constructs they attempt to integrate into their practice. The researchers mediated the teachers’ learning if/when needed (i.e., providing insight, asking questions), but ultimately, the teachers led their own inquiries, identified personal needs and found individualized solutions based on their unique teaching contexts.

The current study extends this form of research demonstrating further potential of PLCs (in the form of a CSCL network) on teacher learning, albeit with an added focus on the long-term effect such work has on teacher professional identities. As such, the guiding questions are: How do two FSL teachers position themselves in the stories they share in the CSCL network over time? What do these small stories reveal about their professional identities?

Teacher Identity: Qui sont les French Teachers?

Developing a strong sense of professional identity is central to the process of becoming an effective teacher (Alsup, 2006; Goodnough, 2010); and yet, there remains a need for deeper understanding of teacher identity development through the knowledge-base of second language teachers (Kanno & Stuart, 2011). Identity has been conceptualized as a fixed set of attributes in psychology and behavioural sciences (Ricento, 2005). Studies addressing issues of identity in FSL are mainly rooted in critical and/or sociocultural paradigm(s) (e.g., Byrd Clark, 2008, 2010; Knouzi & Mady, 2014; Wernicke, 2017) which frames identity as a dialectic phenomenon of co-construction realized by the interaction between the individual and their social context, mediated by language.

A shift in FSL teacher identity research begins by acknowledging that a majority of FSL teachers are themselves second language speakers of French (Lapkin et al., 2006) at times in need of language support (Bayliss & Vignola, 2000, 2007). They may even be plurilingual and speak languages other than French and English (Byrd Clark, 2008; Gagné & Thomas, 2011). Identity has already been established as a dynamic composite of intersectional factors, such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, linguistic background, geographical location, among others (e.g., Gu & Benson, 2014; Huang & Varghese, 2015; Jenlink, 2014; Motha, 2006; Rodriguez & Reis, 2012; Simon-Maeda, 2004). In the field of FSL, this implies the importance of (re)negotiating who can access FSL teacher status to include all those who would like to teach French and expand the idea of what an FSL teacher is expected to look and sound like.

Byrd Clark leads the charge in questioning the implications of being a multilingual FSL teacher in Canada and working within a professional setting in which “languages are still viewed as autonomous, separate systems” (Byrd Clark, Mady, & Vanthuyne, 2014, p.134) with little or no connection to other facets of the self. Discourses that silo social, cultural and linguistic aspects of teachers’ lives deny the complexity of language learning and the heterogeneity of linguistic identities overlooking the potential that these might have on informing FSL teacher practice (Byrd Clark, 2010, 2011, 2012). Discourse, here, refers to spoken or written interactions between people and the ideologies, beliefs, social practices, and cultural knowledge bound up in their exchanges (Foucault, 1972; Gee, 2014).

For her part, Wernicke (2016, 2017) explored how hegemonic discourses around standardized (usually Parisian) French affect FSL teachers’ sense of identity. Her research followed a group of in-service FSL teachers from British Columbia in a study abroad program in France aiming to improve their French-language proficiency and pedagogical practice. During the research, the teachers negotiated sociocultural and sociolinguistic tensions when they either encountered narratives in France that de-legitimized their status as French speakers, or when they questioned their own sense of belonging in the francophone speaking community. Her research highlights how social discourse around language is tied to status and power and how that affects FSL teachers’ sense of self, their confidence levels, and their feelings towards French language and culture. It also underscores the urgency to create space and legitimacy for Canadian speakers of French who come into the language and culture through the bilingual education system we have created in Canada. Given that feelings of illegitimacy and power struggles for status can negatively affect teacher professional identity construction (Gu, 2013), Wernicke’s research suggests a need for more open discussions about French-language proficiency and non-native speaker status in the Canadian context for FSL teachers to come to terms with their professional identities as qualified, confident teachers.

Knouzi and Mady (2014) examined an additional under-investigated facet of FSL teacher identity that involves understanding how teachers make sense of themselves and their chosen profession in relation to the status that French is afforded in their local context. The case study research, commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Education, investigates this issue from three core French teachers’ perspectives using activity theory (Engeström, 2001) to explore the relationship between literacy teaching beliefs and practices. The findings reveal that tensions between the status of French in the Canadian educational context and their professional identities affect their teaching practice.

Studies explicitly on in-service FSL teacher identity remain sparse. Given the importance of identity research in other fields (such as ESL and GenEd) and the current issue with FSL teacher flight, I argue that the gap in research about core French teacher professional identities warrants further and deeper investigation.

The Study

Background

The study originated with a group of teachers working across various disciplines and grade levels in Ontario and Michigan. Some of the teachers had worked with the research team previously (Kooy, 2015; Kooy & Colarusso, 2013; Kooy & van Veen, 2012), and requested the creation of a PLC to continue developing their professional inquiries. Additional teachers joined the study through a sample of convenience. The research provided the teachers with full-release days during the school year. Two cohorts of 17 teachers (total) participated in six online video conferences each year from 2011-2015, to discuss their professional learning inquiries and their practice. The conferences were teacher-led, and participants were free to set their own learning inquiries based on their particular needs within the school context. Additionally, they supplemented these collaborative discussions throughout the year by using a private online forum. They also met face-to-face once a year for three-day Summer Institutes to debrief what they had worked on from the previous year and set learning goals for the coming year. Throughout the study, the teachers also completed open-ended surveys that provided data about their experiences in the project so far, including any changes or desired future directions.

Methodology

This qualitative research inquiry, rooted in critical sociocultural discourse analysis (Lewis, Enciso, & Moje, 2007), explores the development of the two core French teachers’ professional learning and identities who were part of our CSCL network. The aim of this study is to examine what these FSL teachers reveal about their professional learning experiences to date, and how this has affected their sense of professional identity and well-being. The study uses positioning analysis to uncover the discursive practices that teachers use in their small stories (Barkhuizen, 2009; Georgakopoulou, 2006) to locate themselves in their professional practice. Small stories are “the ephemeral narratives emerging in everyday, mundane contexts” (Watson, 2007, p. 371), as opposed to big stories which represent idealized projections of our selves.

The small stories teachers tell about themselves, their profession, and their work contexts reveal how they negotiate change. For the purpose of this study, I consider the teachers’ stories as narratives, a unit of analysis to explore constructions of their identities. I extend the definition of narratives of personal experiences to short written, or spoken stories, that help the teller make sense of their experience(s) over time (Ochs & Capps, 2009). Narratives thus serve the function of rationally and reflexively monitoring self-hood (Bamberg, 2012), which shapes and is shaped by our life experiences. Narratives, which provide meaning, also help to communicate teachers’ understandings of meaning (Bruner, 1986), leaving space to infer the sociocultural influence on the teachers’ professional selves.

Participants

The study’s participants are two core French teachers, Sophie and Christina (both pseudonyms), who are working full-time in southern Ontario public schools. The importance of focusing on these teachers’ professional narratives is to provide an in-depth, thick description (Geertz, 1973) of the cultural context of learning that these teachers find themselves in.

Sophie is a multilingual Canadian woman of Western European descent in her early 30s who speaks English fluently and learned French at school in Canada. She also has family in France and lived there for three years. Working at a large middle-class high school in an urban center in southern Ontario, she had 5-10 years of teaching experience when the research project began in 2011. At the time of the study, Sophie was Head of Department for FSL and ESL at her school. Sophie also began an MEd degree during the project. For Sophie, joining the CSCL network was an opportunity to learn more about how PLCs function and “to interact more effectively and better support the teachers in my department” (June 2011). Her goals were to “see teachers get more release time during the day to get together and build community and improve student learning” (June 2011).

Christina is a multilingual Canadian woman of South Asian descent in her late 20s who teaches at a newly-opened progressive middle school (grades 6-8) with a large population of multilingual and immigrant students in a middle-class urban centre in southern Ontario. She had 5-10 years of full-time teaching experience when she joined the study in 2012. She described herself in this way:

I have taught core French to grades seven and eight for several years now. I am a product of the core French program. I immigrated to Canada and am a culturally and linguistically diverse individual like all of my students. I have learned French, and two other European languages here in Canada and often pass as a native speaker of any language I speak when speaking to native speakers of that language. I love language and believe that all of my students can and should speak French well after studying it for six years. I still remember feeling shocked after taking a grade ten additional language class; I realized that I had learned more of that language in that one year than French in nine years of core French (French started in grade one at my grade school). I dropped core French after grade nine and returned to it in University at which point I was completely fluent in the other language after studying it for three years. I don’t want my students to drop French forever and I know they will if something isn’t done to help them. I also believe that tensions between French and English-speaking Canadians would be alleviated if we didn’t superficially pretend to be bilingual. Over the past several years, I have developed a French program my students are excited about; they love French and they can speak it better after one year in my class. I am still developing my French teaching strategy. This study will help me to be a better teacher for my students and will enable me to share this unique French program with you. (November, 2013)

The Data

The data consist of oral and written excerpts from Sophie and Christina. The oral interactions stem from discussions led by the teachers at the yearly Summer Institute meetings and the monthly online video conferences. The written data comes from online forum posts.

Data Analysis

In analyzing the data, I applied the principles of narrative analysis (Bamberg, 2012; Georgakopoulou, 2006; Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998) to Bamberg’s suggested three levels of positioning analysis (Bamberg, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2007). Positioning Analysis (PA) examines the tension between person-to-world and world-to-person directions of fit that emerge within the discursive practices of storytelling. This makes stories “the empirical ground, where identities come into existence and are interactively displayed” (Bamberg, 2004, p. 2). I use PA to explore the constitutive nature of stories and acknowledge a reciprocal direction of fit. Bamberg distinguishes between two subject-positions: In some cases, the subject is “being positioned” (Bamberg, 2004, emphasis in original) (e.g., Davies & Harré, 1990; Harré & Langenhove, 1991; Linehan & McCarthy, 2000) in already existing (and at times) contradicting and competitive discourses. The discursive choices the subject makes, the discursive repertoires and resources they use, reveal how they position themselves as they ground their identities in discourses. In other cases, the subject is “positioning self” (Bamberg, 2004, emphasis in original) through identities as performance (e.g., Butler, 1995; Butler, 1997). The performative self involves self-reflection, self-criticism, and agency; it is dynamic and in constant revision. This means that discursive resources and repertoires are constructed by the subject as needed. These two approaches to understanding the relationship of teacher agency in their identity formation opens up a site for investigating “where and how subjects come into existence. . . where positions are actively and inactively taken (and explored) for the purpose of self and world construction” (Bamberg, 2004, p. 3).

The analytic approach amounted to a three-step process in which I asked: (a) Who are the characters in the story and how is the story told?; (b) What discourses are running through the story and what do they reveal about the characters?; and, (c) How are the characters positioned in relation to the discourses they have explicitly or implicitly been previously identified? With each question, I was able to, respectively, conduct a linguistically-oriented analysis that examines the language choices made by the storyteller (i.e., being positioned), perform a sociolinguistically-oriented analysis that examines the discourses that emerge in the story (e.g., positioning self), and ultimately create a content analysis of findings which involves contextualizing all these questions and putting them in conversation. With these three levels of analysis, I shifted my focus on the data from local to global (Watson, 2007), a tactic that was particularly useful when working with the teachers’ small stories. Small stories are an effective means of understanding the details of daily life and how these shape the professional sense of self (Vásquez, 2011). Narrative analysis, then, focuses on the content of the story being told and the way the content has been organized to tell the story. In thinking of identity as narrative (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006), the “attention is on human beings in action and on the mechanisms underlying human action” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005, p. 14). In this sense, exploring teachers’ stories and what meaning they take from them “revolves around. . .the ways in which narrative and discourse shape and are shaped by identity” (Beauchamp & Thomas, 2009, p. 181) and how the narratives themselves become socioculturally situated.

Findings and Discussion

Sophie’s Narrative: Finding Community

During her discussions with colleagues in the CSCL network, Sophie describes her perspective towards the type of professional development (PD) she is experiencing in her board:

This passage reveals the crucial role that emotions play in helping Sophie make sense of her professional learning experience thus far. Indeed, emotions as an everyday part of teachers’ lives often define their professional identities (Cooper & Edmonton, 2002). Emotions are an important facet of teacher professional identities, which Clarke (2013) advocates discussing in the context of policy, politics and passion rather than being embedded in the techno-rational discourses of teaching. In this case, Sophie’s feelings towards the treatment she experiences in her board colour her attitude towards the PD being offered there.

This passage also demonstrates a chasm between “us” and “them up there” (line 1) (van Dijk, 1995). Sophie is at a standoff with her administration where she feels a hierarchy is looking down on teachers and imposing their will on them. Her interpretation suggests this is about the way the administration wants to exert “control” (line 3) over teachers, and her reference to “not about us” (line 3) implies that it has nothing to do with the quality or capabilities of the teachers. The passage suggests French teachers, in her school board, are afforded little autonomy when it comes to their own professional learning. In fact, Sophie argues she is perfectly capable of reading up on new policies, such as “Growing Success” (line 6-7) on her own. She laments this approach to PD she feels wastes money (line 5) and time (line 8). The “disgusting” (line 10) treatment Sophie faces continues to exacerbate her feelings of alienation in the profession. Sophie demonstrates critical awareness (Brookfield, 1995) by recognizing tensions in some of her professional learning experiences. She states: “It has been the same way for so long that we just endure it and it’s hard to imagine it being different” (August 2012, summer institute) which marks a critical point along her professional learning journey.

Her narrative thus far echoes reports of professional marginalization experienced by FSL teachers in previous studies investigating their working conditions (Karsenti et al., 2008; Mollica et al., 2005; Richards, 2002).

Despite reaching this crucial realization, Sophie needs time to take stock of her situation and to attempt to implement change. A wide net is cast in her reflections as she explores how she feels about board-level PD sessions and school-level policies about PD.

Sophie points out limitations in school policy around “teacher learning circles (TLC)” (line 1-2), which are a type of PLCs her board has implemented. The idea that teachers are considered experts about learning when it comes to their students, and yet are not expert enough when it comes to their own professional learning creates cognitive dissonance. Her colleagues feel this application of PD is punitive (line 2), and as a result, “they’re not taken seriously” (line 2) by teacher professionals. Again, Sophie identifies “time” (line 7) as missing in this formula for professional learning noting that time is important for building “relationships” (line 5) and “connecting” (line 5). Sophie delves deeper into the implications of the absent presences (Derrida & Caputo, 1997) in her professional learning experience: they have serious consequences for her teaching practice. For instance, not having time to discuss books being assigned to students in FSL from a feminist perspective, means teachers “kind of stick to the same old” (line 14). Here, Sophie posits that teachers who want to learn and improve themselves need to be able to move out of their comfort zone and explore new and complex ideas (i.e., feminist theory) or competencies.

Throughout her narratives around professional learning, Sophie resists the idea of teachers being positioned as passive recipients, standard automatons, or pre-determined knowledge processors. Instead, she is intent on creating a narrative which positions her as an intellectual and expert on learning, capable of grappling with new theories and ideas, and determining where to take her professional learning. Sophie also identifies building meaningful relationships and trust as a key aspect of teacher learning that she feels is missing and wants to develop in her practice. She highlights the lack of trust she faces from her administration, which seems to play an important role in the future quality of Sophie’s professional learning.

Emotion is part of the transition process for Sophie who is creating a vision within her work context of what meaningful learning looks like that she can report to her superiors. Over time, Sophie takes a more active role and advocates for the kind of PD she feels is effective:

At the start of Year 4 in the CSCL network, Sophie signals an institutional change in her board’s approach to PD. The administration has taken a critical stance towards their practices by “taking a good hard look at the TLC process we currently have” (line 1-2). Sophie shifts the way she positions herself in her board using “we” (line 13). This indicates that she feels in-groupness with the administration who are now on board with examining their own PD policies. The lines of communication have opened, and everyone can express their position “with brutal honesty” (line 3), a novel experience for Sophie and her colleagues (line 4). The administration used a critical framework for improvement, encouraging teachers and administrators to collaboratively question the TLC process (line 5) and come up with solutions (line 5-6). In this extract, Sophie finds her voice when she brings up the work she has been doing in the CSCL network as an example of successful professional learning (line 7-8). She positions herself as an experienced teacher who knows what an “ideal professional learning community” (line 7) looks like and an expert who can contribute to the administration’s goals. They respond by becoming “very interested in what [the CSCL network teachers have] been doing and would like to see how it works” (line 7-8). Sophie’s ability to share her CSCL network experience in her work context is an opportunity to validate the approach to professional learning she has been working on over the last four years.

Sophie expresses pride and happiness (line 12) towards her work and her relationship with the administration: “I feel like we’ve turned a corner” (line 18). She feels listened to and valued by her administration who now seem “serious about respecting teachers’ needs to drive their own PD” (line 19). She writes “Admin” (line 16) with a capital A signaling the increased status she affords them.

Sophie is also aware that the changes the administration is looking to implement will not be easy. It took Sophie four years to reach this point in her learning, and she is concerned about “how we can get others to buy in to “‘self-directed PD or Inquiry’ to make it meaningful and not be seen as an add-on to what they’re already doing” (line 14-15). Her aim is to avoid repeating past experiences with PD that felt like “a chore” (line 16). Interestingly, Sophie includes herself with the administration in this statement when she uses “we” (line 14); she is now collaborating with the administration to implement “a radical mind shift” (line 13) in the school board’s views and ways of implementing professional learning.

Although Sophie does much of the work on a personal level, one clear factor emerges in determining the success of Sophie’s professional learning: her interpersonal relationships with administrators and how she is positioned in their interactions.

Christina’s Narrative: Dealing with Exclusion

Christina also experiences some challenges with professional learning in her school, particularly in terms of access and being able to establish herself as a professional FSL educator. Christina describes her opportunities (or lack thereof) for professional learning and collaboration with colleagues at her school:

In her school context, teachers have “common prep time” (line 4) to “talk if they choose” (line 6), and “do planning together” (line 7). However, Christina reveals that she does not “do it” (line 19) because she is a French teacher. In her school, “French teachers are kind of left out of that” (line 19-20). Christina’s February 2013 extract provides further evidence to previous research suggesting that FSL teachers are often left out of ongoing school initiatives (Knouzi & Mady, 2014; Mollica et al., 2005). Even though her school shows innovation and consideration towards other teachers, giving them time to work and plan together, French teachers are left out of this particular professional learning opportunity. Christina does not include herself in the teacher “in-group” referring to them as “they” (line 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 20, 21, 22). She makes one reference using “we” (line 4) when describing her school’s initiative, while she affiliates herself as being a member of this particular school, despite not having her own teaching partner as a form of inclusion.

Nevertheless, Christina distances herself from the marginalization she experiences by evaluating the school initiative from an administrative standpoint. She deems the initiative successful for other teachers in her school and Christina gives advice to her CSCL colleagues about what to look into (line 12) should they want to set up a similar initiative. She makes suggestions using “would” and “could” (line 11, 13, 14). In keeping with her projected goal of becoming an administrator, Christina positions herself as a knowledgeable expert on what works in schools (line 10-14).

Christina seeks critical engagement with her practice through other means. Given that she is currently doing an MA, professional learning through higher education is important for developing her practice.

Christina is very “excited” (line 4) about engaging with new people and new learning opportunities. Her students, whom she calls “my kids” (line 7), are a great motivator for her because they are “so amazing” (line 7). However, Christina describes herself as someone who is very “scattered” (line 1), recognizing that her learning interests are dispersed, being interested “in like fifty things” (line 1) and “a whole bunch of new things” (line 6-7), ultimately stating, “I have too many interests” (line 4). For Christina, being “scattered” (line 1) is “a problem” (line 2) because she cannot focus her attention deeply on any one thing and she is “so busy doing everything else” (line 3-4). This extract raises questions about how to channel a teacher’s excitement about professional learning to avoid feeling overwhelmed and burnt out from working on too many things.

Christina identified other ways in which French teachers are excluded from professional learning in her school:

Christina includes herself in the marginalized French teacher in-group by using “we” (line 1). Because French teachers are excluded from “math and language-based professional development” (line 1), she wonders “what happens at those meetings” (line 2). Christina shows that teachers want to feel a sense of belonging and validation of their subject matter in their school (Kastelan-Sikora, 2013). But Christina deals with her exclusion by switching her stance, rejecting the opportunity for those professional learning sessions and devaluing them: “From what I’m hearing now, it appears that I haven’t missed out on much” (line 2-3). Moreover, Christina claims that the teachers who do participate in those sessions now want to do what she is doing: lead their own professional learning through higher education. Suggesting it “is exactly what everyone is saying they want to do” (line 3-4) adds value to professional learning via higher education, such as “an MA degree” (line 3), which Christina was completing at the time. When Christina represents it as the most sought-after way of moving forward in a teacher’s career, she also positions herself as already part of the in-group of teachers who is accessing this “higher” form of professional learning.

In the end, one way that Christina addresses her marginalization as a French teacher is to make herself indispensable and dependable in other areas, specifically in areas of leadership. For instance, Christina is a union representative for teachers at her school and she leads extra-curricular social justice programs to initiate students and other teachers to equitable practices. Perhaps because she is not being heard in the area of FSL, she is not shy about speaking her mind, letting her ideas be known when it comes to community and leadership. She positions herself as a solution finder and a leader.

Implications and Concluding Remarks

The findings suggest that fostering strong positive relationships with their administration, by way of open communication and negotiation, benefits FSL teacher actualization. Being in a CSCL network, the FSL teachers found support among peers. They were able to combat feelings of isolation and/or marginalization and to develop a sense of purpose through validation of their professional learning inquiries. For Sophie, the experience in the CSCL network allowed her to take ownership of her learning and assert her profession status. In the long run, this transformational process benefitted Sophie’s professional well-being. She became a leader in her school by advocating for change and spearheading new initiatives in teacher professional learning. For Christina, her experience in the CSCL network allowed her to notice the differences in treatment that FSL teachers receive in her school. It also revealed how Christina negotiates feelings of marginalization by dismissing PD experiences she is excluded from and developing creative projects (such as her MA or by starting an after-school social justice group) to (re)position herself as an essential and knowledgeable peer. Overall, it seems the dialectic reflection Sophie and Christina engaged in with their social and professional surroundings allowed them to explore e issues related to their professional status and practice in depth, and with confidence. The CSCL network provided them with a space and the support to embark on this transformative process.

The study also provides evidence of the important role that emotions play in teachers’ changing professional identities. They either work as a conduit for reflection, becoming a catalyst for action, or as a means of actualizing or resisting projected identities reified in the discourses around them/used by them. The findings also suggest extending the notion of FSL teachers as learners beyond that of language learners, as already established (e.g., Bourdages & Vignola, 2009; Christiansen & Laplante, 2004), to include their identities as lifelong learners of their craft.

Through the use of positioning analysis of the teachers’ narratives (Bamberg, 2004), the study captures a distinctive professional learning journey during which Sophie and Christina discursively construct their selfhood (Linehan & McCarthy, 2000) and navigate social relationships with their administration, their colleagues, and their CSCL network colleagues. Sophie and Christina’s professional learning narratives reveal the interwoven, long term, and active negotiation of the self that occurs outside of traditional professional learning formats. Contextual factors, such as time, access to space, emotional support, also played an important in their professional identity formation. They demonstrated multifaceted and highly adaptive identities based on their contexts. This included awareness about their own, their colleagues’ and their learners’ needs.

The analysis also reveals the complex moves these two FSL teachers make as they renegotiate their professional selves in the CSCL network. Upon entering the study, Sophie feels disempowered and dissatisfied with the way FSL teacher learning unfolds in her school context, while Christina displays professional curiosity, seeking alternative ways to engage with and develop her practice. Both of their narratives pick up on elements that are made evident in the research about FSL teachers (e.g., Karsenti, Collin, Villeneuve, Dumouchel, & Roy, 2008; Knouzi & Mady, 2014; Mollica, Philips, & Smith, 2005; Richards, 2002): for instance, Sophie feels unsupported in her practice; meanwhile, Christina touches on her professional isolation when she explains that she does not have a teacher partner in her school because she is an FSL teacher. Both express the feeling that current professional learning approaches are un-adapted to their needs, either because they are based on the one-shot workshop model (Sophie), or because they are not offered to FSL teachers (Christina). Through the professional learning inquiries, they engage in with the CSCL network, both teachers resist the ways policy and discourses shape exchanges in their boards.

It is important to point out as well that although some elements found in the literature about FSL teachers emerge in Sophie and Christina’s narrative, the evolution in Sophie’s narrative and the entrepreneurial spirit of Christina’s approach to her own professional learning calls into question the way FSL educators are portrayed as small players in their learning who are constrained by restrictive policies and practices (Ramanathan & Morgan, 2007). The analysis suggests there is room for a more textured interpretation of FSL teachers’ professional selves and that the discourse in the research community may need to evolve to reflect alternative realities for FSL teachers.

The Future of FSL Teacher Learning?

Approaching FSL teacher learning from a sociocultural perspective (Johnson, 2009; Vygotsky, 1978), the teachers involved in the CSCL project were afforded the position of experts of their own knowledge and active agents in their learning. Under this paradigm, teacher knowledge is recast as a process of co-construction (rather than purely acquired from outside sources). Privileging decontextualized outside knowledge through “one-shot workshops” and foregrounding academic research as a source of knowledge runs the risk of placing teachers in a passive position. It remains rooted in a techno-rational discourse about teachers’ skills (Clarke, 2013) that reduces matters of professional learning to meeting standards of technical efficiency and developing competencies. The techno-rational discourses usually found in traditional PD narratives position teachers as deficient in their learning and professional knowledge, affecting decision-making and exacerbating feelings of dissatisfaction. Research and PD that focuses on finding “best practices” and developing a tangible “product” of learning that teachers can then “transfer” to their contexts implies that teacher learning can be “one-size-fits-all”, when in fact, teacher learning should be highly situated to the teachers’ context and needs (Johnson, 2009).

Freeman and Johnson’s (1998) critique about language teacher education programs, which also applies to in-service teacher development programs, remains relevant today in FSL. They warn against emphasizing how to teach via research and strategies to develop teacher knowledge, rather than supporting teachers to learn to teach. Bypassing steps to support teachers on how to conduct their own professional inquiries robs them of the opportunity to develop a critical stance towards research and their practice. Putting teachers in the driver’s seat is one way for them to reclaim a sense of purpose and agency in their profession. It also privileges teacher knowledge as the source for growth. This entails adopting a view of learning in which the teacher is also a learner and fostering a culture of self-regulated learning (Johnson & Golombek, 2011).

This research suggests a sociocultural approach to professional learning, in the form of a CSCL network, offers considerable potential for FSL teachers to counter and address feelings of isolation and marginalization. Future professional learning structures for FSL teachers need to provide them with opportunities to build their own support networks, either in their schools, their boards, or across boards with colleagues across the country. This aligns with recent reports which suggest more collaboration is needed to improve professional learning experiences among FSL teachers (Arnott et al., 2015; Karsenti et al., 2008).

Current technologies are changing the landscape and realm of possibilities for CSCL networks of FSL teachers. For instance, video conferencing platforms such as Google Hangout, Adobe Connect and Skype make this approach to professional learning a very real and affordable possibility. However, to be at their most effective, teacher-led CSCL networks need school-sanctioned time and support. Collaborative work applications, such as Slack and What’s App, offer the security and privacy needed for collaborative learning and support so that teachers can create their own culture of learning and professionalism within self-directed virtual communities. These apps also offer the added benefit of documenting the teachers’ learning should they need to access or review their professional learning trajectories.

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