An AIM-azing Journey!

Wendy Maxwell

As a college student preparing for a career in teaching French, I would often hear:

“You want to be a French teacher? I took 5 years of French and I can’t speak a word!”

I’m sure this sounds familiar to you, my colleagues. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to do something different to change this generally-accepted attitude. Why are students studying language and not retaining it? Why did so many have a classroom experience where little to no French was used? Why did so many learn about the language through grammar rules and not learn to speak French?

With a formation in TPRS and communicative teaching practices, after years of teaching I was still curious about how many people used immersion techniques in beginning language classes. How do you not intimidate or completely lose the interest of your students? How can you speak only French in the classroom from day one and actually manage to get through to those young minds?

Around this time, my department was also approached by our administration. Our school was adding a 7th grade language program (we previously began language instruction in 8th grade, which is the minimum required in New York State) and our administrators wanted our language classes to be engaging, fun and approachable. I jumped on this idea as a way to gain the support to explore something new.

So I started researching AIM and asked my colleague, Richard Ernst, to attend the AIM Summer Institute with me in Barrie, Ontario. In the car on our way, we discussed our hope of finding some engaging techniques to incorporate in our classes. We were also willing to embrace something completely new. After the first day of the Institute, Richard said to me, “We really need to do this, and we need to be all in!” I was thrilled. Our training, networking and researching in Barrie led us to contact our administration immediately upon our return. We asked to order our kits and revise our curriculum. When this was approved, we knew that we had the support we needed!

Once our kits arrived in August, we unpacked them with the eagerness of children on Christmas morning and jumped in! We used the Online Teacher Training modules to get started and dove into gesturing. Once September came around, I was preparing nightly for my AIM lesson for the next morning. It was grueling. Preparing my AIM class and my upper-level courses in addition to my other professional responsibilities was difficult, but I was impassioned. After just a few short weeks, I was thoroughly impressed by the language my students were producing. They had excellent accents, could recall vocabulary with ease and were stringing together things they had learned to make their own sentences. One day in class, my students even started translating Beyoncé songs to sing during group work! My students were having fun and learning tons! I found myself wanting to gesture in upper-level classes to help students find a word and felt frustrated because my first-year students could recall words that upper-level students were struggling to use in their spontaneous speech.

This past September, I was again very impressed when I entered the school year with the intention of spending the first week reviewing vocabulary, verbs and gestures that they had learned the year before and quickly discovered I was wasting instructional time. The “summer slide” seemed non-existent. It was as if we had a one-week vacation rather than two months. It was time to move on!

The students have reaped the benefits of AIM. The evidence is clear in standardized test results: Students scored incredibly well on the National French Contest and on their final exams.

Now, after two years of AIM, our students will be transitioning seamlessly into thematic immersion courses in the high school in accordance with the New York State syllabus. I have never been so proud of their progress or confident of the success these students will achieve in these courses and beyond.