By Windle, Joel
Radical Teacher , No. 85
This paper outlines my classroom experiences with a group of secondary school students of French, and it focuses on the development of approaches for encouraging critical political engagement which can be applied to other educational settings. The context here is a government school in inner-city Melbourne, Australia, catering to a socially and ethnically diverse student population of roughly 1200 girls over the school years 7 to 12. I will be discussing a topic on youth employment conditions which I taught as part Unit 1 of the senior Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) French course (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2003).
VCE French prescribes three broad themes, further broken into topics, which are common to many other language courses. These are: 1. The individual: personal world, education and aspirations, personal opinions and values; 2. French-speaking communities: lifestyles, historical perspectives, arts and entertainment; and 3. The changing world: social issues, the world of work, scientific and technological issues (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2003, p. 13). Typically, the textbooks upon which teachers rely draw these themes apart, and present them in ways which disqualify students as political agents. Textbooks portray French "culture" as distant, static, and monolithic, with a nationalist narrative of historical development firmly separated from struggles in the contemporary world, which are not usually acknowledged. Similarly, "the changing world" consists of a series of stereotyped and distant "issues" which invite consideration only of piece-meal individual action, such as not littering. Study of "the individual" further establishes the separation of students' lives from political action, being preoccupied with the management of interpersonal relationships. In my experience as an external oral examiner, I have found that few students are able to make links between their own lives, action for effecting change, and the cultural/social content they have studied. This separation in the formal curriculum therefore eliminates the potential for use to be made of the three domains of knowledge as a platform for political analysis and action.
My goal therefore was to draw together these aspects of the curriculum in a way which would enable students to position themselves as active political agents. My intention was to end the separation of the "personal" from the distant social world of the target-language community, and the abstraction of "the changing world" from politics and political action using a radical framework. To do this I established points of direct and immediate contact across the prescribed themes using online technology. This allowed both for textual analysis and participation in online debate.
Taking this approach has implications for the relationship between "content" and language teaching. Textbooks written for VCE French provide model texts in clearly identified "types" accompanied by vocabulary, grammar exercises, and some indication of the key generic features of each text. Moving away from textbooks means that as a teacher I have to help students to develop strategies so that they themselves can identify text-type and purpose from contextual and linguistic features of online texts. Further, the focus moves from mere comprehension and reproduction to interpretation and analysis of texts as socially situated. This takes the emphasis away from performance of French to interpretation of social action and its representation using French as the medium. Because the more general integration of language and socio-cultural strategies has already gained some recognition (Harumi, 2002; Savignon & Sysoyev, 2002), I focus instead on the socio-political dimensions of language teaching here.
The Topic and Its Political Contexts
I taught this topic on youth employment conditions at a time when it connected particularly strongly with political struggles in both Australia and France in March and April 2006. …