The threads we leave untouched (by Kate Hardin)

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“I’m counting the minutes til break. How is it possible to be so bored when (a) I really want to learn French, and (b) today’s topic is literally ‘giving your opinion about current topics’?”

– Field note from my francisation binder, August 3, 2021

I’ve heard it said that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. That adage has taken on new meaning as I, a newcomer language teacher, study in francisation, Quebec’s newcomer French program. After having my back to the whiteboard for so long, becoming a student again has turned out to be interesting, at times uncomfortable, always illuminating. The sound of my pencil scratching out notes about my teachers’ pedagogical decisions probably hasn’t endeared me to them, but I think what I’m learning from those observations will end up serving me better than my still-shaky command of the passé simple.  Sometimes, these observations make me feel validated in my own pedagogical approach. Other times, I’m less excited to recognize myself in my teachers.

It’s well-established that good teaching draws on students’ experience and cultural capital as the basis for learning. In my previous workplace, a refugee resettlement agency, I often struggled to balance this with the need to make a safe environment for students recovering from trauma. I tried to leave students the space to share their stories without pressuring them, but I often wonder if I erred too far on the side of caution, leaving them feeling not respected, but silenced. This feeling has become all too familiar during my francisation

Seen on a street in Montreal (photo credit: Mela Sarkar)

My francisation teachers did not seem concerned with trauma-informed teaching (our “fun Friday” activities included a TV drama about human trafficking and the blustery and violent classic, Bon Cop, Bad Cop—neither meeting my criteria of a trauma-informed choice). Instead, it seemed that they felt that some conversations were either too risky or irrelevant to the course. The francisation curriculum emphasizes speaking proficiency, yet authentic speaking opportunities were scarce. My first teacher would do a tour de table in which each student gave a 2-3 sentence response to the topic she’d proposed, moving on once each student had spoken once. Back-and-forth exchanges were vanishingly rare. If a student tried to respond in a more unstructured way, she would redirect the conversation, making explicit reference to the MIFI’s curriculum expectations (“The MIFI [Ministère de l’immigration, de la francisation, et de l’intégration] wants you to…”). My second teacher seemed more interested in genuine conversation than the first, but was also uncomfortable facilitating discussions. She would throw a question out to the room, allow one or two students to respond (the same ones again and again), and then move on.

If I reflect on these superficial discussions as a teacher, they irritate me—so many missed opportunities for genuine interaction! But as a student, I usually didn’t mind, as I was rarely invested enough in our discussion topics to care about the loss. Most of our so-called debates addressed topics that were so uncontroversial that consensus was inevitable (“Does sexism still exist?” “Is climate change real?”), and invitations to make cross-cultural comparisons were framed in a way that suggested that we were really being asked to measure our cultures’ sophistication with a Canada-shaped yardstick. 

“The book says, “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects each person’s right to freely express his opinions, believes, and thoughts. This freedom is essential in a democratic society …In your country of origin, is the freedom of expression guaranteed? In what way?” The underlying assumption is that Canada is freer, and therefore better, than other countries… Instead of talking about the limits of free speech or the times where policy and practice diverge, it’s like “This is what Canada does, always, and therefore what is Right and Good. Is your country Right and Good, or is it different?” The Colombians did introduce …how officially there’s free speech [in Colombia] but actually the government quashes criticism….This is a really interesting thing  to discuss. Not that we did, of course.”

– Field note from my francisation binder, August 2, 2021

During one of these anemic discussions, my classmate raised her hand and suggested that she’d rather talk about the ways that we had experienced xenophobia and linguicism as newcomers to Quebec. We perked up from our conjugation-induced stupor. Finally, I thought, a question we can get fired up about! The teacher responded with a reminder that on the final exam, we would lose points if we failed to respond to the prompt we were given. The discussion ended there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I wish I could have asked the teacher why she was so eager to steer away from my classmate’s suggestion. Did she worry that the discussion would get out of control? That she would get in trouble? That students might get offended? That we’d stray too far from the curriculum?

 It made me think about the threads that I’ve failed to take up in my own classes. In particular, it brought to mind one of my old students, Victor. Victor was a puzzle. He was timid, and his thoughts always seemed to be elsewhere. I had many students like that—it was part and parcel of the trauma of displacement and resettlement. The other teachers and I agreed that the best approach was to leave students like Victor space–to be available and supportive, but otherwise not to push them to interact before they were ready. As a result, I never learned much about Victor. My efforts at friendly chatter seemed to intimidate rather than relax him.  He never volunteered information in class, and if asked to contribute, did so monosyllabically.

 One day, I asked the students to share about someone that they looked up to. I was shocked to see Victor’s eyes lock with mine.  Madiba, he said, his habitual smile of polite discomfort yielding to a grin—a bona fide grin—I didn’t recognize. Madiba, he repeated, louder, and, seeing his classmates’ puzzled looks, he went on: Nelson Mandela. A hero. I was surprised: Not only was this more language than I’d been able to pull out of Victor in the last week, but he seemed to be fully present in the class for the first time. “Can you tell us about him?” I asked, and his eyes flickered to his classmates. He seemed to deflate a little. I sensed that he didn’t have the words to say what he wanted. “Do you think you could tell us more next class?” I asked. He nodded, but the grin faded back into his polite, thin-lipped smile.

Next class, Victor wasn’t there. That was nothing new; students often missed class for appointments. When he did show up a week or so later, I didn’t know what to do. He had surely forgotten that I’d asked him to share. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t want to drop this thread that had seemed so important to him, the only thing in months to make his eyes sparkle. At the same time, I knew that as the teacher, I had power, and if he wasn’t ready to share, he may struggle to tell me so. I tried to think of a roundabout way to reintroduce the topic, but none came to mind. The class ended. The moment was lost.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I’m sure that this interaction stuck with me much longer than it stuck with Victor, but stick with me it did. As a language teacher, I see my role as helping students not only to speak, but to make themselves heard.  I don’t always know how to do that in a way that will empower rather than impose, and for me, Victor came to represent that struggle.

When I’m feeling generous, I wonder if my francisation teacher faced a similar dilemma. My classmate’s suggestion to talk about discrimination made me want to exchange opinions about current topics for the first time, so the teacher’s rejection of it felt like a personal slight. If the topic wasn’t allowed in class, I thought about suggesting that we stay late and make a zine, a Twitter thread, a video—the same kinds of projects I always wanted to encourage my students to do to make themselves heard. But would I have been as invested if the teacher had proposed them? How could she have suggested it in a way that would leave the power in our hands? Would it have required months of groundwork to create classroom relationships that made us feel free to say no? I found myself questioning how my teacher could have established such relationships, and in turn, whether I ever had.

As a student, I find my relationship with my teacher and my fellow students to be one of the most powerful (de)motivating forces. I’ll gladly do work and learn material I don’t care about if I’m doing it in an environment of mutual respect. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been my experience in francisation. I often found myself assuming the worst—that my teacher doesn’t care about our perspectives, the school only cares about our exam scores, and the government only cares about our ability to prop up the labor market and dissolve into the surrounding culture. But sometimes, I can look back on my own teaching experience to appreciate how the best-laid plans and noblest intentions can get distorted by institutional expectations, the heat of the moment, the fear of what may happen if you push a student or conversation too far.

However much our intentions may (or may not) have differed, I think my francisation teachers’ and my actions were both shaped by less-than-solid relationships with our students. If Victor and I had had a more trusting relationship, I could have left more space for him to share about his hero. If my teacher had trusted us, maybe she would have felt safer approaching a controversial discussion topic. As a student, I experienced her failure to take my classmate’s suggestion seriously as a breach of trust, and afterwards I found it harder to stay engaged in the lesson.

If you can trust your students to tell you when something’s wrong, and they trust you to tell you, and you build mutual respect for each other’s perspectives, risky conversations become less risky. Suggestions can be taken as such. Of course, the institutional forces—the curriculum, the expectations of my teacher’s bosses, and so on—are powerful. That’s what makes risky conversations risky in the first place. It may be naïve to think that strong classroom relationships can dissolve all of those forces. But surely by relinquishing our power over each other, we can diminish their power over us.

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